Snowy Owl at Nisqually – 05 February 2012

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It was a good day for a kayak trip this Sunday afternoon in February. The sun was shining and the weather was warm. The water at Nisqually was glassy smooth. It was ideal conditions. Plus, it was Super Bowl Sunday so no one else was out on the water…even better.

For the past couple weeks I have heard about the Snowy Owls at Damon Point State Park near Ocean Shores, WA and have planned a trip there to see and photograph the owls myself. I had also heard there was a snowy owl sighting at Nisqually recently. So those were my two options, owl watching at Ocean Shores with hundreds of other photographers or go kayaking and searching for the snowy owl at Nisqually with no one else to get in the way. Easy choice…

I launched at the boat ramp at the Nisqually Nature Center along with my friend John (who uses a Gig-Bob instead of a kayak as his water platform). A couple who were just getting off the water told us they spotted 17 bald eagles up the Nisqually River and suggested we check it out. They did not see a snowy owl. Based on their report, it was looking like good potential for wildlife photography.

We paddled across to the refuge area and immediately encountered a large flock of Dunlins which were not concerned with our presence at all. DunlinsDunlins Hoping we could coax then into flying for good photo shot we hung nearby (within 20 feet) and waited, but they had no interest in taking off. After waiting for an appreciable time we decided to cut across the delta and head up the Nisqually River in search of the bald eagles and hopefully a snowy owl. Lots of birds in the area including a kingfisher which was hanging out in the snags, but never flew close enough for any good photos. A Harrier flew by a few times, again too far off for really good shots. I don’t need to mention the hundreds of gulls hanging around.

As we headed up one of the sloughs toward the Nisqually River, I saw a white birdSnowy Owl peaking over snag Snowy Owl peaking over snag perched on a large snag. Thinking initially that it was a gull, I paddled closer and finally got a good enough look at it through the binoculars. It was too large for a gull and had the outline of a snowy owl. The question now was could we get close enough for a positive identification and hopefully some good photos.

We paddled across a small sand bar into a slough which headed in the direction of the owl. Although the time was close to slack water, there was still a good current through the slough coming from the Nisqually River.
Snowy Owl on Stump in Nisqually NWR

The current would mean we would have good water and not get stranded in the shallows, but it would also mean getting a photo would be more of a challenge because we won’t be able to remain stationary in one place.

As we approached the snag with the white bird, I was able to get a good look at it through the binoculars and confirmed it was a snowy owl. As we paddled closer, the owl stood still watching us. We slowed our approach so not to spook the bird and cautiously we were able to get within probably 50 feet. We sat on the water and watched for a while.Eventually the owl hopped to a different stump allowing an even better view and photos and we never had to get out of our boats. I stayed in the area for about 30 minutes watching and hoping he would fly or do something but just stand there. He did do a slight dance where he moved his whole body in a sort of circular motion, then tilting to one side then the other. I grabbed some photos but didn’t think about using the video function on my camera to capture this dance. But then, I’m not a video photographer and prefer to stay with still images.

As the day got later and the sun lower, we left the owl and headed back. A good day on the water and I was rewarded with several good shots of a snowy owl, a bird I’ve seen before have not been fortunate enough to photography, until now.

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