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A Snowy Owl at Cape Hatteras

posted Dec 2, 2013, 11:23 AM by Justin P   [ updated Jan 7, 2014, 11:12 AM ]

Saturday, I headed out to eastern North Carolina for some wildlife photography.  Chris was going out there and invited me to join him and Mel.  It’s a three-hour drive from Raleigh and we wanted to make it there by sunrise, so that meant a very early morning.  We left Raleigh at about 330 and headed east on US-64 and US-264 towards the coastal region, driving the entire way under darkness.  Our first stop was Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge.  After passing through Swan Quarter on US-264, we turned onto NC-94 and headed towards the overlook in the middle of the lake.  It was just starting to get light out and the sun would be up soon.  But it was extremely cold, especially with the wind blowing off the lake.  We bundled up as we set up our cameras and got a few pictures of geese on the water and a beautiful sunrise over the lake.

From here, we turned around and parked along NC-94 across from Headquarters Road facing the west side of the lake.  In the water were many tundra swans, Canada geese, and ducks.  Many of the tundra swans appeared to be sleeping with their heads resting under their wings.  As early morning light began moving westward and started illuminating the lake, the birds began to wake.  However, it was still too early for the sunlight to provide much warmth.  After this stop, we headed down Headquarters Road.  Almost immediately, we made a quick stop (without even getting out of the warm car) to get a couple shots of an egret and a great blue heron wading in the canal.  Then we drove a little further, parking about halfway down at another overlook facing south towards the wetland impoundment.  The lake was to the north, but hidden from view by dense trees and brush on the other side of the canal, but to the south, the impoundment was filled a tremendous number of birds.  It’s still early in the season and most of the migratory waterfowl that overwinter in the lake have not yet arrived.  But still, the number of birds in the lake was amazing.  There were countless ducks, geese, and swans in the lake as well as a few other birds.  I even saw a beautiful bald eagle soaring across the sky, but he was a little too quick for me to get a good picture.  Far across the wetland, we could see some juvenile bald eagles perched in a tree.  We spent quite some time here getting photos of the birds, despite the bitter cold. 

When we were done, we continued on Headquarters Road to the refuge office.  Even here, there were great birding opportunities.  We same some black-crowned night herons hiding in the trees above our heads and there was a tree right at the parking lot covered with turkey vultures, extending their wings to dry them off in the sun.

After getting some pictures, we headed into the refuge office.  We talked to Allie, one of the refuge staff, for quite some time about the wildlife and photography opportunities.  She had taken a fabulous picture of a baby bobcat during one of her patrols around the refuge.  Allie also told us about a once-in-a-lifetime birding opportunity – there was a snowy owl in Cape Hatteras.  That was something we just couldn’t pass up.  But before we headed for the beach, we had one more stop here.  Back on US-264, we pulled off at Lake Landing and parked for a few more pictures.  There were quite a few ibises in the area and I got a good shot of two of them on a railing.  Then, it was time to head to the beach and try to see the snowy owl.

From here, we took US-264 to US-64 and crossed over to the Outer Banks.  Heading south on NC-12 we crossed Pea Island and on to Hatteras Island.  Allie had told us that the snowy owl was last spotted in the Buxton Woods area in Cape Hatteras National Seashore near the Lighthouse so that’s where we headed.  Finding the owl would be a bit like finding a needle in a haystack.  A single bird among the thousands of sea gulls and other birds across miles of sandy beaches and dunes would be very tough to find.  Almost immediately, we saw a deer in the Cape Point Campground here, but she was not our target.  We felt a bit hopeless.  How would we ever manage to find it?  But soon, we saw a group of people heading back from the beach with lots of camera gear.  Talking to these folks, we learned that we were in the right area.  The owl was along the beach near the dunes in between the 44 and 45 beach access ramps.  We headed to the beach and started looking.  We weren’t having any luck and saw someone walking their dogs towards the shore and suspected the dogs spooked the owl.  We met several other people on the beach who were also looking for the owl, but none of us were having luck.  Walking up and down and all around the beach for well over an hour, finally we caught a glimpse of the owl.  She was resting on the beach with her eyes closed, but not totally asleep.  We got some pictures before some sea gulls started harassing her and she flew to another spot on the beach.  I think a few of these gulls may have made a recent meal for her.  She is a mighty hunter, but quite outnumbered by the gulls.  With the Cape Hatteras lighthouse in the background, this made for the perfect photo opportunity.  We got many pictures of her at different angles and then headed back to the car.  As we were heading back, I jokingly said that I don’t think I could be more surprised if a tiger jumped out from behind the dunes.  This beautiful owl was much further south than they normally migrate and being able to see her was a wonderful surprise.  I later learned that this season is looking to have a significant irruption of snowy owls traveling much further south than usual.  Three have been spotted in North Carolina, as well as many other places in the United States where they are not normally seen.  One was even spotted in Bermuda! 

We had spent quite a bit of time looking for her and taking pictures and were getting rather hungry.  So as we made our way back to the mainland, we stopped at Subway in Avon for a sandwich and then crossed the bridge back to the mainland.  But we had one more stop to make in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge before making the drive home.  Despite my numerous trips to the Smokies and elsewhere in the mountains, I have never seen a black bear in the wild.  Fortunately, a bear sighting during a visit to Alligator River is almost guaranteed.  And sure enough, after only a couple of minutes in the refuge and we spotted a very large bear rummaging around for food, just off Long Curve Road.  He was at last a quarter-mile away so I couldn’t get a great picture from that distance, but I finally saw my first wild bear.  The sun was starting to go down, so we left the refuge and made our way back to Raleigh.  Stopping for gas in Columbia, we told the lady at the gas station about our exciting day.  She wasn’t too impressed with the bear – she sees bears three times a week on her street – but was really excited about the owl.  Definitely not a common sight.  We made the drive back to Raleigh, getting home at about 830.  Having been up for almost 20 hours, I was exhausted and went to bed almost immediately.