by Annette Hinkle
There’s a spectacular display going on right now around the beaches of the East End courtesy of some winged seasonal visitors who have ventured down to our neck of the woods from the frigid Arctic.
It’s the wondrously white snowy owl — and by all accounts, this has been a banner season for sightings locally.
“This is a record year for snowy owls,” attests Frank Quevedo, executive director of the South Fork Natural History Museum. “Usually you’ll see one to three on the East End each year.”
But Quevedo notes that the annual Audubon Montauk Christmas Bird Count, held this year on December 19, yielded 11 snowy owl sightings from Accabonac to Montauk Point. There were 15 seen as part of the Brooklyn bird count and a number of snowy owls have been hanging out around JFK Airport this winter. Several reportedly collided with aircraft in December, prompting the Port Authority to shoot at least three birds. After public outcry over the shootings, the Port Authority backed down and has since vowed to attempt relocation of the birds instead.
Snowy owls are attracted to the scrubby habitat of Long Island’s barrier beaches and sandy stretches, which resemble their home on the tundra up north. Quevedo, who has seen primarily juvenile snowy owls here, chalks up the number of birds in residence to either a decline in the Arctic lemming population, the snowy’s preferred rodent food item, or a good recruitment year for the number of young hatchlings making the trip south for the first time.
“This is a tremendous incursion. I’ve never seen numbers like this and neither have birders who have been doing this for 40 years,” says Quevedo. “They’re pretty much at every area that’s like tundra — the Walking Dunes, Hicks Island, Shinnecock Dune Road. Walk or drive in these areas, and if you see something that looks like a bag on duck blind, it might be them.”
“They’re beautiful and the second largest owl in North America, after the Great Gray Owl,” says Quevedo who adds that, unlike most owls which hunt by night, snowy owls are diurnal.
“They can hunt during the day and you can see them being active,” says Quevedo. “They are primarily here to feed on mice, rats, rodents and perhaps other birds. This is an act of survival we’re looking at right now.”
While the East End is quite a distance from the Arctic tundra, Quevedo notes that snowys will venture even further south in the quest for food.
“I heard one went as far south as Florida,” he says.
One man who’s come to know the East End snowy owls well is East Hampton’s Dell Cullum, a naturalist and photographer who dedicates a great deal of time seeking out wildlife in its natural environment. He has taken the opportunity in recent weeks to get out and document snowy owls to spectacular effect.
The key, he notes, is patience and keen senses.
“I really spend a lot of time in the field — I don’t end up falling into all these shots I take,” explains Cullum. “Once I find something I’m interested in, I spend even more time trying to gain the animal’s trust so I can approach to a point.”
In his photography, Cullum uses just two standard lenses and works on getting close to his subjects. Fortunately, the snowy owl is one species of bird that will allow people to approach.
“They’re not threatened as quickly as other birds, which allows you to get spectacular pictures,” says Cullum, who has been making daily visits to one particular snowy owl currently in residence at an ocean beach in East Hampton.
Though he won’t reveal exactly where the beach in question is, Cullum does happily share tips for searching out wildlife on the East End.
“You sit and wait and observe. Chances are, it won’t be there the first time, but you’ll see something else that leads you to something else,” says Cullum. “In this case, I knew the habitat where it would be. I’ve taken pictures of the sunrise every morning for the last three and a half years. I knew it was the right habitat for snowy owls. I went to a remote location and just looked and it happened immediately.”
Cullum explains that over the next few days, he returned to the location in order to gain the owl’s trust and get it accustomed to his presence.
“On day five, I drove up the beach, saw something in the distance in the same place where I had been,” he says. “The bird flew to me and sat on a fence and allowed me to take pictures. I spent two hours with that bird and took over 600 photos. That was a good example of how it works when things go my way.”
Cullum admits that owls are his favorite bird and he is highly impressed with the fact that snowy owls have the ability to survive in the punishing conditions of the Arctic.
“I’ve lived everywhere in the United States, climate wise. I’ve seen animals in Arizona the size of a small shoe that lived in a hole in the ground and could stand temperatures above 120 degrees,” he says. “Then you have the snowys that can live in the tundra in open space and thrive. That’s absolutely amazing. How can you not be impressed?”
For those hoping to see (and perhaps photograph) local wildlife themselves, Cullum offers some well considered words of wisdom.
“Become part of the scene and act non-threatening,” he advises. “All these animals are used to people, but how they react depends on the threat level you pose. When a person who has that shine walks into that place, you’d be surprise the difference with the reaction in animals. You might be surprised how an animal can distinguish that. I believe there’s an intelligence level in animals.”
“Go ahead and pick a beach, and drive down it,” he adds. “If you’re as lucky as I am, you’ll find one — that applies to the Walking Dunes in Montauk and the jetty at the entrance to lake Montauk.”
But be forewarned. Once you know where, and how, to look at nature, you’ll start noticing all sorts of species you many not have noticed before. And pretty soon, you’ll be hooked — just like Dell Cullum.
“I never run out of interests having to do with wildlife,” says Cullum. “I’m never at a dead end or face redundancy. It’s always unique to me and I’m doing the most awesome things and capturing it on film.”
For those hoping to get a glimpse of snowy owls and other bird species visiting this winter, including short-eared owls, American Bitterns, Snow Bunting or Clapper Rails, the South Fork Natural History Museum is offering “Shinnecock Bird Specialties” a walk led by Frank Quevedo along the barrier beach area along Shinnecock Bay in Southampton. The outing is on Saturday, February 1, 2014 at 10 a.m. and is for adults, although children over the age of 10 may attend. Bring binoculars and spotting scopes. To make a reservation, call SoFo at 537-9735.