Since Gus has the day off we decided to go searching for snow at Salisbury Beach in Massachusetts. No, not the cold, wet, white stuff, but the feathered, warm white of a Snowy Owl. I had noticed on eBird that snowies were being seen all along the Atlantic coast. I figure we can start at Salisbury Beach, then make our way to Plum Island if needed. Though we want to go, we are lazy birders and it is just after noon when we get started. We drive the 45 minutes to Salisbury Beach State Reservation and as soon as we enter the road Gus slows down and we both start scanning the roadsides. Gus spots a white cap on a metal pipe at the corner of one of the parking lots, but that is not the snowy. A small bird flies in front of our car and Gus stops so I can identify a Northern Mockingbird. It has just flown into a cedar bush and is eating the blue berries that are growing in abundance in the foliage. This is the first bird we see. We continue on our way and turn right alongside the campground on the road towards the boat launch when we see a car pulled over near the line of pine trees on the right and a man standing there with a scope. Even with my bare eyes I can see the white speck out on the dead tree trunk. I am jumping out of the car before Gus even has a chance to park. We have been here less than 10 minutes and I already have my Snowy Owl! It is Life Bird Number 420 for me and my Massachusetts Life Bird number 160!
Gus and I talk to the guy with the scope and he lets us look through it as much as we like. His name is Joe and he tells us he has been here for over an hour watching the bird. The owls sits quietly on the log looking left and right, his neck on a swivel as he searches for prey. I say, “He” because Joe informs us that unlike other birds of prey you can tell the difference between male and female snowies because the females are darker with more baring while the males get whiter the older they get. I know little to nothing about snowy owls, so I am an eager listener. While we are standing under the canopy of pine trees talking and watching another man pulls over and informs us there is a merlin perched in a tree in the middle of the campground area eating some prey. Since we have now been standing here in the shade for almost 45 minutes we get in the car and drive to the area where the merlin is.
Merlin’s are small but swift hawks which hunt other small birds. Formally called Pigeon Hawks, they strike rapidly with deadly force. It is a rare treat to see one this close. though it may have been eating earlier, by the time we get there it is perched quietly at the top of the tree, presumably digesting dinner.
From the campground Gus and I drive over to the boat launch area to see what we can see. We find yet another birder there with a scope trained on the snowy owl which is still perched on his log. I start to scan the river and nearby creek for birds soon spotting a red-throated loon and then a common loon. Across the river the sound of gun shot rings out sporadically in muffled blasts. Other than that the water is calm like glass and shining like silver. The tide appears to be coming in as the water is flowing up river and the shoreline is gradually disappearing. As I walk towards the boat launch a small black and white duck frantically flies by and dives into the little cove. It is a female Bufflehead. While the males have handsome white heads that contrast sharply with their black backs and white bellies, the female is more subtly colored with a dark gray head and back that fades to pale gray and then white on the belly. Still, she has a bright white cheek patch and dark eyes. The only other bird she could be confused with would be a male goldeneye, which also has a black face with a white patch but the patch is in front of the eye and the eye is very golden. The goldeneye also has a much steeper forehead and a triangular shaped bill.
A Horned grebe surfaces in the cove as well. Its red eye is easily seen. Before I leave the boat launch I scan the marsh once more where the snowy owl still waits on his log. but now I see something alarming. In the distance behind the owl a dog is working the area coursing back and forth. Behind the dog a hunter stands with his gun relaxed on his arm. I cannot help but wonder if the dog will flush the owl or even worse, if the hunter will shoot the owl! I would hope that he could tell the difference between an owl and a duck! I ask the man with the scope, but he seems unconcerned. I have been hearing gunshots all around us from across the river and into the other marshes. I am surprised they can hunt here at the State Reservation, yet here they are.
A little farther down the beach I spot some seals in the current. The land and houses beyond are the north end of Plum Island. The Merrimack River is all that separates us. As we come up from the beach we met another photographer with a big lens on a tripod. He, too, is looking for the snowy. We are across the campground by now but I can see a white speck through a break in the trees. I point it out to the man and he goes in hunt of a great shot. I can see the bird has moved off his fallen tree trunk, but he is still out in the marsh. However, when we drive past the man and his camera, he is tromping through the marsh and I can no longer see the bird. Who knows where it has flown to now.
We continue our drive around to the parking lot where the river meets the ocean. Here I finally get a shot of a red-throated loon bobbing in the water. It dives before I can get my first shot off, but surfaces a bit farther out and I snap away. In the winter they do not have their handsome gray tuxedos and with their lovely red throats. Instead they are a smaller, paler version of their cousins, the common loons but their heads are not so blocky and their bill is thin and held at a different angle. I always recognize them by the way the white on their faces comes up above their eyes and blends into their white throats.
I am starting to feel the chill now and pour myself another cup of lemon ginger tea from the thermos. The steaming hot liquid feels good on my throat and in my belly. The warm cup feels good nestled in my cupped hands. We take the turn that starts our long drive done the entrance road back towards route 1A.
As we are driving out of the reservation I still have my window open, I am still scanning the roadsides and marshes. Suddenly I hear a faint twittering and soft “zeet, zeet” from the scrub on the side of the road. I ask Gus to stop and I scan the brush. While I can see movement and I hear the twitters, none of the birds are coming into the open, so I try “pishing.” No luck. I get out of the car and start to walk along the edge of the road while Gus pulls ahead to park. Suddenly over one of the low bushes I finally see a little rusty-capped sparrow with a gray face, a clean, un-streaked breast and a central breast spot. American Tree Sparrows! What a nice find! I estimate there are about 6 of them in the brush, but none are coming out in the open for me to photograph.
So, I cross the street and photograph the sunset instead. We have been here for 2 hours and 20 minutes by now. I have seen 16 species of birds. It has been wonderful afternoon filled with my favorite kind of snow! I can only hope he survives the winter and the hunters!
Birds Seen at Salisbury State Reservation 12-2-11
- Common Eider
- American Black Duck
- Black Scoter
- Red-throated Loon
- Common Loon
- Horned Grebe
- Double-crested Cormorant
- Great Blue Heron
- Ring-billed Gull
- Herring Gull
- Great black-backed Gull
- Snowy Owl
- Northern Mockingbird
- American Tree Sparrow