Christmas came early this year for many on Hatteras Island as a snowy owl took refuge along the seashore. The stunning bird, renowned for its white feathers and piercing orange eyes, was first spotted on Nov. 26 and spent over a week in the Cape Point area.
The owl’s appearance in North Carolina ruffled a few ornithologists’ feathers because the species lives predominantly in the Arctic. And, although some migrate to the northern regions of the United States during incursions into territory that is not their own, the range and number of owls involved in these incursions, known as irruptions, has spiked.
It has been 12 years since the last snowy owl sighting on Cape Hatteras and islanders seized the rare opportunity to glimpse such a beautiful and elusive creature.
“I’m never going to the Arctic to see birds like that,” said Gee Gee Rosell, owner of Buxton Village Books. “And I was never going to forgive myself if I didn’t get out to see this bird.”
After discovering the owl at the northern end of the Point, Rosell watched from a respectful distance and even snapped a photo with her cellphone.
“It was a spectacular thing to see,” reflected Rosell. “It was truly a once in a lifetime experience.”
News of the Cape Point snowy owl quickly spread and many folks — avid birdwatchers, nature enthusiasts, and even non-birders — began their own migration across the state. Neither bad weather nor the Bonner Bridge closure seemed to deter those hoping to witness the extraordinary event.
Mike Dunn, a self-ascribed “bird-nerd” and naturalist blogger, travelled from Pittsboro to photograph and observe the snowy owl. While driving on Bonner Bridge, Dunn learned of its closure and, rather than abandon his pursuit, decided to make the most of the trip.
The decision was well made as it allowed Dunn to spend nearly two hours alone with the immature bird. Dunn maneuvered himself within 35 yards of the owl and watched as it preened, dozed off, and even did a few hunting forays.
“I had not seen a snowy owl before so it was quite a thrill,” said Dunn. “It was an awesome experience, especially getting to spend some time alone with it.”
During this time, Dunn used a long-range lens to take breathtaking photos that captured the various moods of the bird.
“It was great,” recalled Dunn. “The light was beautiful and I just watched him do his thing.”
Despite poor weather the following day, Dunn spent time observing the bird, talking with other admirers, and was, overall, stunned by his experience with the snowy owl.
Although the bird has not been spotted on Hatteras Island since December 4, its phenomenal appearance spotlighted the snowy owl’s beauty and drew attention to a potential ecological threat toward the species – signaled by the fact that more owls are moving out of their traditional range.
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(You can see more photos and a video of the snowy owl and read Mike Dunn’s blog about his encounter with the owl at http://roadsendnaturalist.wordpress.com/. Scroll down past the newest post until you get to his Dec. 7 post about his trip to Hatteras, entitled “The Many Faces of Hedwig.)