The day after Christmas, reports of a Snowy Owl on the beach at a state park near Jacksonville, Florida started coming in. Snowy Owls are commonly found in the Arctic where they feed on the lemming population. Every 5 or so years, they experience an irruption where they migrate farther south when the lemming population declines. This winter, they are quite common along the northeast US and along the Atlantic coast. While common farther north, they are extremely rare in Florida. There had only been 2 prior recorded sightings of a Snowy Owl in Florida.
When I started doing avian photography in earnest, the Snowy Owl was one of those lifetime shots that I dreamed about. I always thought I’d have to go to the northern reaches of Canada or Alaska in order to see one. Doing that can be quite expensive, so while I always wanted the opportunity, common sense told me that it may never happen. Jacksonville is a 2 1/2 hour drive from Orlando, so I was quite excited to realize that I could get my Snowy Owl photo without a trip to the Arctic. Purists will say that a photo of a Snowy Owl on a beach isn’t as good as one in the snow. That may be true, but I didn’t care. I had a chance to get my photo and I was going to take advantage of it.
Faith and I had planned to drive up to Jacksonville Sunday for our chance. The weather here in Florida has been quite lousy for wildlife photography with day after day of cloudy, dreary, wet days. On Sunday, the skies were supposed to clear mid-afternoon in Jacksonville and provide some sunshine for photographing the Snowy Owl. Our backup plan was to go early Tuesday morning if we didn’t make it on Sunday.
Our plans to go Sunday fell through that morning, so we set a departure time of 6:00am on Tuesday to chase the Snowy Owl. Some of my photography friends went up on Sunday and had mixed results. All got photos, but only a few stayed long enough to take advantage of the small window of sunlight that opened up just prior to sunset. I was worried that the Snowy Owl would move on overnight on Sunday or Monday and not be around for me on Tuesday. After all, he had been initially spotted on Thursday, and could have been there for a few days prior to that.
On Monday, my worst fears were confirmed. Dozens of people made the drive up to Jacksonville to see the Snowy Owl, only to find out it was gone. They looked all over the beaches and in the neighboring state parks all day long and came up with no sightings whatsoever. The Snowy Owl had flown the coop. I was despondent. Not only had most every day of my Christmas vacation been cloudy, dreary and wet, now my dream species was gone. Maybe he would show up again, possibly closer, but the odds were that he was gone.
On Tuesday, I resigned myself to just relaxing and catching up on some things. I checked the birding listserve at 8:30 (the park opens at 8:00) to see if any reports of the Snowy Owl had come in. There were none. I took care of a few things, and on a whim, checked again at 9:30. Boy am I glad that I did because there was a sighting of the Snowy Owl in the same place he was found previously. He was back!!! I was so pumped and excited that I quickly changed clothes, grabbed something to eat and headed out the door. I didn’t waste another second as I didn’t want to waste another opportunity. I didn’t even ask Faith if she wanted to go. She turned around and POOF, I was driving down the street.
I arrived at the state park around 12:30, found the correct parking lot, got my gear ready and hiked out to the dunes. Surprisingly there were only 6 other people there and 2 park rangers. It was easy to find the Snowy Owl. Just look to see where the camera lenses and binoculars were pointed. I did that and there he was!!! He hadn’t moved an inch since he was first spotted again in the morning. I got my gear ready and spent the next 90 minutes taking photographs. Here’s one of him resting comfortably on the beach. Click the image to view larger.
Due to a New Year’s Eve commitment, I had to leave by 2:30 in order to get home in time. As I was leaving, Ursula, Lana and Susan pulled up to join the fun. As luck would have it, the owl took flight later in the afternoon and gave all three of them excellent opportunities for flight shots. But that’s OK. I still fulfilled a photographic dream. The beach that he’s visiting isn’t the best for beautiful compositions, but perhaps he will move around a bit and give us some better photographic opportunities. For now, I’ll just enjoy the beautiful memory and experience. What a grand way to close out 2013 for me!!