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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Owlgasm: Snowy Owl Irruption 2013 at the Edwin B Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge

Photo by Brian Hansen Source
In 1983 I met a rich American man in an Indian jungle. One thing had brought this rich American man to the Indian jungle: salpornis spilonotus, the Indian spotted creeper.

This man had visited India and left, come back and left again, several times. He didn't come back for the Taj Mahal, or to volunteer with Mother Teresa, or to hear sitar or eat curry. He traveled halfway around the world, seven thousand miles, changing planes twice each trip, to see a small brown bird that spends its entire life staring at bark, looking for bugs.

"Oh," I said to the man, whom I remember as being slim, brunette, handsome and dressed nattily, and in his thirties or early forties. "That's just like our brown creeper."

Certhia americana, the brown creeper, is a look-alike American cousin of the Indian spotted creeper. The birds look so much alike that if I ran into an Indian spotted creeper in an American woodland I would probably mistake it for a brown creeper.

The otherwise cool and suave man was aghast at my comment.

"No!" he insisted. "No, the Indian spotted creeper is different! It is special!"

The man drifted away from me in the jungle and our conversation abruptly and permanently ended.

That's exactly NOT the kind of birdwatcher I want to be, I resolved. Someone so obsessed with numbers he'd return to India more than once just to tick off one bird on a list of "birds I saw in the Indian subcontinent."


At the time I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal. I used to vacation in India. I was in the Indian jungle – actually the Bharatpur wildlife sanctuary – to see Siberian cranes. That population of Siberian cranes has since gone extinct. In the intervening thirty years, Asia's human population has boomed, leaving less room for wildlife.


Two other memorable things happened during that trip to the Bharatpur wildlife sanctuary

First memorable thing.

I was trudging through the jungle. My "little voice" said inside my head, "You are going to meet Salim Ali." Salim Ali was one of India's greatest ornithologists. I was carrying his just published "A Pictorial Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent." At that moment, I looked up. An older Indian man was walking toward me. He was accompanied by some men speaking English. I approached. I asked him who he was. He was Salim Ali. I asked him to sign my copy of his book. He did. I have that book to this day.

The second memorable thing that happened to me during that trip to India was not so positive. Indian men harassed me endlessly. The December 16, 2012 gang rape and murder of a 23 year old Indian woman on a Delhi bus made world headlines. For me the news was disturbing but not new. I knew from firsthand experience what a hellhole for women and girls India can be. I came back from India wanting to punch New Age Americans in the nose. "Oh, it's Christianity that oppresses women," New Agers would say. "Oh, Hinduism has goddesses and that means Hinduism respects women," they'd say. Feh.

So, yes, barely an hour would pass in India when I wasn't being pestered by men. At one point as I hiked through Bharatpur, a group of men blocked a trail. I was alone in a jungle.

I made eye contact with the man who seemed to be the leader. I never broke eye contact. I reached into my pocket for the Swiss army knife my sister had given me as a Christmas present two years before. I opened it to the saw attachment. I marched right up to the group leader and rapidly pressed the previously unseen saw attachment to his throat. The men let me pass.


How did I become a bird watcher? Someone so interested in birds I'd risk the Indian jungle alone in order to see a Siberian crane?

I guess I must have been about three or four or five years old. I was sitting next to my mother. We were near the window in the front bedroom. She said something about the sparrows outside.

I was tremendously impressed that my mother used the word "sparrow." It is the first time I am conscious of someone using the word "sparrow."

I wondered what a sparrow was. Which of the birds in our yard, some of which were blue, some red, some yellow, some black, some grey and some brown, were "sparrows."

I wonder how my mother knew.

I was amazed that she knew, and could differentiate. Others knew "bird." My mother knew "sparrow."

I was determined to crack this code.

Ten years later. I was 14. My sister and I were driving along the Wanaque Reservoir. It is a beautiful road. Rolling hills surround the large, placid body of water.

On this day, there were dozens of vultures overhead. Something about their silhouettes against the sky looked prehistoric. They were not flapping their wings. They were merely spreading their wings tip to tip, soaring effortlessly, as if the sky were a ceiling and they were flat wallpaper affixed to it.

I was amazed then, and I remain amazed to this day, that birds can be so exotic, so present, and no one mentions them. It was as if my sister did not see these dozens of large birds. Again, I wanted to crack the code. I was better equipped at 14 than I had been at four or five, and, without ever saying that I was doing it, I requisitioned my oldest brother's binoculars. Somehow they stopped being his binoculars and became my binoculars. And I bought my first copy of Roger Tory Peterson.

I am still amazed by people who don't notice birds. One day I stood on a street corner in Bloomington, Indiana, as an accipiter – a hawk – chased a songbird through hedges. The songbird skulked, feinted, dodged. The hawk remained tight on its trail. This life-and-death struggle occurred even as pedestrians ate burritos, crossed the street, used the ATM. No one but me saw it at all.


The man in the Indian jungle is not my birdwatching ideal.

Margaret Morse Nice is the kind of birdwatcher I want to be.

Margaret Morse Nice studied birds from her kitchen window. She studied song sparrows, common birds in suburban gardens. She demolished the list-obsessive style of ornithology. In the list-centered approach, ornithologists did little more than count species, often counting birds they'd shot. Margaret Morse Nice didn't shoot birds. She didn't count birds. She didn't chase around after exotic birds. She looked out her kitchen window at song sparrows and got to know them intimately, and found wonder and science in common birds' day-to-day lives and interactions. She found beauty and scientific breakthroughs in everyday birds.

Margaret Morse Nice is one of my heroes.


It is winter, 2013. Snowy owls are irrupting. They are appearing far south of their normal range.

Because snowy owls live in the land of the midnight sun, they can be diurnal – active during the day. They live in a treeless tundra, so when they come south they prefer open country. Given their daylight activity, their preference for open country, and their striking plumage, when snowy owls irrupt, many see them and become excited. The news travels.

For the past couple of weeks, I kept seeing news updates about the snowy owl irruption. I itched, I ached to see a snowy owl, a bird I'd never seen before. There are many in New Jersey.

I hesitated, though. I didn't want to be the kind of birder that that man I met in Bharatpur had been. I didn't want to obsess over ticking off a number on a list. I didn't want to obsess on one species of bird.

But what a species. Snowy owls. So majestic, so beautiful.

Too, being poor for so long, I've gotten really used to denying myself. I can't do this. I can't do that. No, no, no. I've lost room for "yes" in my vocabulary. Lost room for hope or excitement or enthusiasm. There's just no room for any horizon in my life any more.

I begged friends to go with me to look for snowy owls. They told me to get lost. Bastards. I thought of all the hours I've spent doing things that strike me as torture: going to garage sales, for example.

Recently I blogged about a cousin who unfriended me on Facebook, and blocked me, because she got a sex change operation and I referred to her as "she" rather than "he."

One thing I hate about that whole drama is this: people who insist on the change in pronouns seem to be saying that there are two genders: one likes high heel shoes, lipstick, and shopping. The other likes flannel shirts, fixing things with hammers, and watching football on TV.


There are a multiplicity of genders. I am a ferociously heterosexual woman who hates garage sales, hates shopping for anything except food, never wears makeup, and yearns to spend every spare minute in the woods, tromping through mud, being bitten by mosquitoes and blackflies in summer, losing sensation in my fingers and toes in winter, standing stock still for lengthy periods of time to ascertain whether the warbler I am staring at has barring on its chest or not.

On those rare occasions when people give me presents, once every ten years or so, they give me generic feminine items. Sweet smelling soap. Hand cream. You know what I want? Outdoor gear. Never get it. Except for that one time my sister gave me a Swiss army knife. Best thing she ever did.

How many women like me are there out there? Not enough, I'll tell you that. But however many of us there are, we are our own gender. Do we demand our own specific pronoun? NO! So don't waste my time with your demand that I assign you your own pronoun.

Couldn't find a damn soul to go owl hunting with me. Bastards, and again bastards. I have no friends.


Finally, I couldn't stand it anymore. I awoke yesterday morning and saw that the apartment was dark and my radio alarm was not blaring. I checked the clock. Four thirty a.m. Time to get up. I tried to convince my body that it really ought to use the smallest room in the house; otherwise, I'd have to use a grotty, contagion-ridden, roadside gas station restroom. My body barely cooperated. I could not get it to eat, though. I popped some popcorn, shoveled that into a bag, filled a canteen with water, and headed out into the freezing, predawn darkness.

The car was covered with ice. I do not have an ice scraper. I just bought the car. It is very old. I hoped it would make it. I started the car up, knowing it would warm up and the ice on the windows would melt. It did.

I reviewed my instructions. I tried to commit them to memory. I began to drive, and I rapidly discovered that I really ought to have eyeglasses.

I haven't driven in a long time. I haven't driven hundreds of miles in a really long time. I've never driven to this area of New Jersey.

The sun rose somewhere south of where the giant beer bottle used to rise over New Jersey. I remember those trips down the shore with my father. I wondered how dad was doing, and where he was. Daddy would have driven me to see this owl. He wasn't a perfect father, but he liked to drive, and he was willing to drive us anywhere. He would have brought a newspaper, and sat in the car reading the paper while I sought out the owl. God rest his soul. I hope there are newspapers wherever he is.

I rapidly discovered, by the passing cars, that I am the slowest person on the road. No, wait. My God, there is someone slower than I! Passed. Amazed at how well I drive. You never forget.

It took me two and a half hours, non-stop. I was not concerned about how I'd find the owl. I knew there would be other birders there. There were.

A gray haired couple emerged from a Prius. They had serious equipment. A spotting scope, and the man had a harness to hold his binos on his chest. I immediately felt the kind of envy I do not feel when I see a girl in a pretty dress. I do not want the pretty dress. I want the binocular harness.

"I'm looking for the snowy owl," I said to these people who were strangers only for the moment.

"Snowy owls," the man said. "There have been so many, it's almost passé."

I felt deflated.

"Follow us," the man said.

I did. Never for a second did I question following two strangers in the early morning quiet through a wilderness area. Birdwatchers. Good people. No question. Just show me one serial killer who was also a birdwatcher.

The Edwin B Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge trail we followed was a rutted road through brackish marshes. Atlantic City's skyline is visible along most of the eight mile loop. We hadn't gone far when a very familiar form rocketed past my right window.

Birdwatchers know birds like parents know their children's faces, even if we've never seen the bird in life. I knew exactly what that bird was, even though I'd never seen one before.

My guides pulled over. I did, too. I jumped out of the car. "Holy shit!" I shouted.

"Yup, peregrine."

A peregrine falcon! The fastest animal on earth! I've wanted to see one for so long. And there it was!

We drove on. My guides pulled over again. A bald eagle!

We drove on. My guides pulled over. There was a knot of cars in front of us. They were all facing a white blob on the marsh. My heart beat fast.

I could tell by my guides' happy faces that this was what I'd driven two and a half hours to see.

I raised my binoculars.



A beautiful creature. She lives in the Arctic, and she is colored like it, and she has brought it down to us. Who wouldn't want to see this? The polar bears and the narwhals and the musk ox could not make it to Jersey this year, but the snowy owl did. How could we resist her fascinating allure?

We stood and stared.

She had some blood on her beak. Perhaps she had just killed one of the beautiful ducks we also enjoyed seeing. She gazed at us with her golden eyes. She yawned.

We looked at her for about five minutes, and then we moved on.

I chatted with my guides toward the end of the loop. He is a retired high school chemistry teacher. He leads birdwatching trips.

After driving around the eight mile loop, I parked my car and walked the eight mile loop.

The peregrine perched on a refuge sign and allowed us birdwatchers to approach within six feet. I'd normally never approach a wild bird so close, but I had to, to pass on the trail. It was tremendously exciting for me to get so close to such a celebrity of the bird world. A bald eagle posed in profile on a nest platform as if for a calendar. The national anthem began singing itself in my head.

The pintails, green winged teal, shoveler ducks and hooded mergansers were every bit as gorgeous as the snowy owl, though less exotic.

When I returned, I asked at headquarters how the owl news had affected the refuge. The volunteer at the desk said that last year on that date they'd had 45 visitors. He said that this year, in just a few hours, they'd had over a hundred. The day was nowhere near finished.

In the parking lot, I saw license plates from Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, Ohio, and Massachusetts, as well as New Jersey.

I don't know how to say this without sounding ponderous, but my day spent in nature yesterday looking at birds in a marsh where the loudest thing I heard was the wind through the marsh grasses, the honking of geese and the quacking of wild ducks was the most healing day I've spent in a very long time. 


  1. Lovely post. Just lovely.

  2. Great! So happy you got to see so many great birds and to top off the year with a Snowy Owl is such a wonderful thing.
    Great post.


  3. Liron sent in this cool article:

  4. Wow! Each story was powerful. Your remark on birders and serial killers had me laughing aloud - so true... but anyone who isn't a birder would be incredulous. What a remarkably nice couple to ensure you saw the snowy owl.

    I will travel for birds not because of some highfalutin idea that travel broadens the mind or for a series of checkmarks. (Though I do OCD about organization and thus appreciate listing and a form of order and progress.) But I travel because each new bird is a new piece of knowledge and wonder. There are only so many birds here, thus only so much knowledge in this one place. Traveling somewhere new means new knowledge, means more knowledge. I love the birdfeeder I set up. I completed more lists of birds at the feeder than I did anywhere else in 2013. But I just want to see birds.

  5. How wonderful! What a very special day. I also love doing something different and taking myself out of the normal rounds and routines of my life. Nature is a true healer. I can picture you on your quest and feel the joy that the day must of brought you. I would've gone birdwatching with you if I lived closer....
    Hey, you have a car now! When are you going to come and visit us? I have woods and trails right out the back door waiting for us :-)!

  6. Thank you for sharing your experiences. Your comments about "sparrow" reminds me of my daughter knowing "cardinal" at an early age. I totally understand your journey to see the snowy owls.

    I enjoy spotting various birds on my walks around my neighborhood. I found your blog searching for "snowy owl silhouette overhead". I'm pretty sure we saw one high and soaring today. Definitely saw a turkey vulture sunning on a post, a sharp-shinned hawk lose out on robin for lunch (robin lost some downy feathers but flew off), and a Carolina wren singing high in my dawn redwood tree.

    I like to go through life noticing the world around me and knowing more about its inhabitants.

    1. Beth, thank you so much for commenting. May I ask where you are? I clicked on your profile but there isn't much info there.