by Debbie Beer, Engagement Manager
Snow-covered marshlands sparkled under the low winter sun as our group gathered for a special “Quest for Snowy Owls” at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Atlantic County, NJ, on the last Sunday in January. More than 30 people attended, braving frigid temperatures for the chance to see this elusive species along with other winter avian specialties. Magical and majestic, Snowy Owls have flocked to Eastern PA and coastal New Jersey in unprecedented numbers this winter, providing a historic opportunity for thousands of people to observe, study, and enjoy this arctic inhabitant.
Formerly known as Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge, Forsythe was established in 1939 for the protection of breeding American Black Ducks and Brant. It currently encompasses more than 47,000 acres along the Jersey coast, and protects important marshland habitat for myriad bird species and other wildlife.
With bird checklists in hand, we organized ourselves into caravan, and embarked upon the eight-mile auto loop with high hopes for an exciting experience. Refuge volunteer Ann Marie Morrison advised that freshwater impoundments and brackish saltmarsh were mostly frozen solid. We were pleased to find scattered open patches sustaining a variety of interesting waterfowl, including Hooded and Red-breasted Mergansers, American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, and several dozen Gadwall. Just one pair of Northern Pintails were seen and a handful of American Black Ducks, though thousands of these two species overwinter at Forsythe.
A collective “wow” arose from the group when a flock of 1,000+ Snow Geese lifted from the ice and flew south in an inspiring display of flight and sound. Nearby Tundra Swans raised their heads in curiosity, but were content to stay put, surrounded by hundreds of Canada Geese. Farther down the road, we stopped to scope the Peregrine hack box and were thrilled to see two birds on their nesting site—one peeked its head out from the box, while its mate perched on the corner of the tower. As people took turns peering at the falcons through the scope, an Eastern Meadowlark jumped up from the grass in front of us, flashing its bright yellow bib. It posed for a few minutes, giving great looks, and earning it a “trip favorite” bird for some. A half-dozen Northern Harriers [photo below] soared low over the marshland around us, dipping and turning in search of rodents in the grasses. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge is one of the best places to find these “marsh hawks” and we were delighted with the show.
At each stop, co-leader Becky Laboy and I scanned the marshlands, searching keenly for Snowy Owls. It wouldn’t be easy to find a white-feathered bird in the snow, but we were determined to try! Long-range scopes revealed a flock of Brant paddling in open channels along the edge of the bay, and numerous Ring-billed, Herring, and Great Black-backed Gulls standing on ice or hunting for shellfish.
Along the far side of the auto drive, we spent a long time admiring a pair of Peregrine Falcons circling and soaring overhead. These two adults—the same pair seen previously on their hack box—were focused on a duck carcass frozen in an icy channel, providing great close-range photo opportunities of their acrobatic maneuvers.
The last leg of the loop took us through the woods, where we logged the usual winter suspects: Northern Cardinal, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, and a hardy Hermit Thrush. As we pulled back into the parking lot to say goodbye, the leaders received word that a Snowy Owl had been seen about an hour ago by another group visiting the Refuge. Unfortunately, many in our group had to leave after a long morning, but 10 people had the time to try a second drive around the auto loop, in search of the coveted targeted.
We set out quickly, and tried not to become discouraged after our first, fruitless scan. We’d had a wonderful morning, seeing 39 species with some spectacular sightings. Would we actually achieve our quest for a Snowy Owl? When we saw a cluster of cars and pointing birders, our hearts raced with anticipation.
The Snowy Owl was sitting on a grassy ridge! It looked calm and unconcerned, turning its head occasionally to scan the wind-swept saltmarsh. Frozen fingers were forgotten as we took turns observing and photographing the majestic bird through the spotting scope, admiring its ability to thrive in arctic conditions and an ever-challenging world.
Fortunately, there are habitats like Forsythe Refuge: protected for the wildlife, cherished by people. And such places provide public access for research like the Project SNOWstorm initiative launched recently to study Snowy Owls.
Though it wasn’t a “life bird” for me, my quest for a Snowy Owl at Forsythe NWR is one of the best species experiences ever, and will be remembered for a long time to come!
Photographs by Rob Yohannan, Greg Gard, Debbie Beer and Mark Bohn.
Snowy Owl photo by Mark Bohn was taken at Edwin B. Forsythe NWR on January 17, 2014.