By Keith Michael

“You still go out for birds in this weather?”

That’s the most frequent question I get asked in the winter. It’s a combination of disbelief that there are birds to be seen during sub-freezing temperatures, and a quizzical eyebrow that might imply, “Are you daft to intentionally go out in the cold?” Or beyond daft, “And you enjoy it?” If I could, I would go out every day during the winter on extended birding excursions, and, yes indeed, I revel in it.

The hands-down avian celebrities at this time of year are Snowy Owls. Visiting our balmy clime from the Arctic Circle, they have everything: beauty, glamour, cunning, resilience, rarity, and that stalwart of fame, elusiveness. Driven south during the winter from their northern home, they arrive here out of necessity rather than desire or migratory instinct. They are hungry. Our barrier beaches are most similar to their tundra homeland, and the distinct lack of people on those winter beaches adds to the allure. With only a few owls appearing each year, it does mean that one has to look for them.

Reports start to trickle in through the birding grapevines that an owl has arrived on the southern coast of Connecticut, or on the north shore, then the south shore of Long Island. Most of the references are indirect. It’s contrary to birding ethics to reveal the exact location of where any owl might be found. The reports and photos one sees are frequently posted days after the owl might still be at that location so that it’s less likely that if you went there, you would see it. Their celebrity status means that paparazzi track them down and harass them for that too close “killer shot.” One hears of a Snowy Owl at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens surveying the terrain from atop the orange mesh barriers of the new salt marsh restoration, or then, perhaps the same owl was seen the next week far across Jamaica Bay, or even later, perched on a picnic table at the pinnacle of a mound at Shirley Chisholm State Park in Brooklyn.

One photo appeared at the end of December betraying an alert white owl on top of the unmistakable Thunderbolt rollercoaster at Coney Island! Then the friends’ emails and texts start pinging, “I spent all afternoon walking around Point Lookout looking for the owl that was reported, and when I got back to my car, I turned around and there it was on the roof of a building right by the parking lot.” Last February there was the famous Central Park Snowy Owl at the reservoir that for a few weeks gave Barry the Barred Owl competition for her star status, and several years ago, a handsome owl lingered on the railing of Hudson River Park in Chelsea. Ooh, I wish I had been there for that one. Beaches and grasslands near and far, or a park next door, are all potential destinations.

NYC Icons: A Snowy Owl at Breezy Point against the backdrop of the Empire State Building (2013). Photo by Keith Michael.

My recent schedule has been unconducive to the extended beachcombing required for the pursuit of my first Snowy Owl(s) for the winter. Nevertheless, Breezy Point in Queens called my name on a free day and I was, again, smitten. There are definite challenges involved in traveling to the Gateway National Recreation Area at the western tip of Breezy Point—the very breezy point of the barrier island that extends east through Far Rockaway. (I can tell you the full rigmarole of getting there sometime when we meet on the street.) Naturally, a fierce winter storm was approaching so the surf was high and the wind chill was low. But I was heavily layered from head to toe, and frankly, leaning in to the occasional sting of sand on my face felt good. In my bundled and aerobic state, it seemed even more incongruous that bands of gulls can just be loafing on the beach or that miniature Sanderlings chasing then fleeing the frothing waves can be unfazed by the weather with their toothpick legs and scant millimeter of down to keep them warm. Similarly, those black and white winter harlequins, Buffleheads and Long-tailed Ducks, seem content alternatively surfing then diving through the crashing breakers. I am NOT inspired to go for a polar bear swim. I’ll just keep walking and looking for a Snowy Owl, thank you.

In the dunes, a bounding flock of Snow Buntings, another winter-only species, touches down in the beach grass then wheels off and up out of sight like confetti. Foraging through the seaweed and muscles clinging to the rocky jetty, a cluster of orange-legged Purple Sandpipers surprise me as they burst away from the explosion of a pummeling wave. Out swaying on a bright red navigation buoy are a trio of Double-crested Cormorants and a sulking Black-backed Gull. A Red-throated Loon snorkels at its base then hiccoughs and dives under the water for a seafood lunch. The resilience of all these feisty birds is humbling.

Traipsing back through the deep sand of the access road while continuing to scan the dunes for a white bump that could morph into an owl, I finally resign myself that this has been one more outing without seeing “the bird.”

On my way home, a birding friend who had gone to Breezy Point as well (I must have just missed him) texted me that a local had flushed a Snowy Owl out of the dune and he’d gotten a photo.

Oh well, there’s always next weekend.

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