For the Birds: The birder’s journey

Photo by Chris Bosak A snow bunting eats seeds on a beach in Connecticut, fall 2021.

A snowy owl at a Connecticut beach caused a big rift among birdwatchers last month.

Many people were posting its location, and others felt it was inappropriate and dangerous to the bird to post its whereabouts. On top of that, many people took exception to some photographers who were getting too close and being too aggressive with their craft.

I wasn’t there to see the bird or the behavior of the spectators, but I have certainly seen aggressive photographers before and most definitely do not condone their behavior. However, I have also seen non-photographers get annoyed at photographers for no legitimate reason. Like most situations, the truth is likely somewhere in the middle and dependent upon where you fall in the “how close is too close” spectrum.

I found myself in the vicinity of the beach last week and couldn’t resist trying to find the owl. It had been seen and photographed reliably for about two weeks before my visit. In fact, I met a birder in the parking lot that morning who had seen the owl the previous day.

As I’m sure you can guess by now, the owl was not there the day I went to look for it. At least it wasn’t where I could see it, nor any of the other birdwatchers looking for it.

I walked the length of the beach and came up empty. But all was not lost. As I wrote a few weeks ago, sometimes the greatest enjoyment of a bird walk, or any walk for that matter, is in the search.

Such was the case on this occasion as I did come across a sizable flock of snow buntings and a few large mixed flocks of sanderlings and dunlin.

The buntings were my favorite part of the trip. They took off as a flock and landed as a flock wherever they went. Usually, it was to a patch of weeds where the birds teetered precariously on the tops and picked out the dried seeds.

As is almost always the case with bird photography, patience paid off for me. I had planted myself near a patch of grasses in the hopes that the flock would land in it. Sure enough, about 10 minutes later, around 20 snow buntings landed about 10 yards away from me and started hunting for seeds.

It was interesting to watch their behavior. Some looked on the ground and some perched on the stalks to look for their meal.

Snow buntings are winter birds for New England. They breed in the Arctic and move south each winter. They are most commonly found on or near beaches, but they may be seen in other habitats on occasion as well. They are not feeder birds, but I have had reports of people seeing them in their yards in New Hampshire.

If you live on the coast, sanderlings are probably not that big of a deal to you. But if you make only occasional trips to the shore, like me, sanderlings are cause for excitement. Throw in some dunlin and the scene gets that much better.

The snowy owl eluded me, which is fine as I have seen and photographed snowy owls before. I am thankful for the other birds that were there, however, as that made the trip to the beach well worth it. I thoroughly enjoyed the journey, even if I never got to the destination.

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