I Won’t Find Success until I Find a Snowy Owl

As I mentioned in my previous blog, I really wanted to see a Snowy Owl. My parents technically worked and couldn’t go galloping off into the snow every time I wanted to search for Snowies, and it wasn’t as much fun to search on my own. That’s where Grandma Kathy came in.

Yes, I have not one, not two, but three family members who are willing to tromp into the cold to look for birds with me. Grandma Kathy has a pair of nice binoculars, and, more importantly, a natural curiosity about birds and the natural world that mirrors mine. I try to ignore the fact that she is probably more in shape than I am.

Grandma Kathy picked me up one morning, getting an early start because we had three spots to hit to look for owls. She drove, which I preferred since I am always terrified she would think I was a bad driver (my one and only car accident in Maine had been backing up into her car). Like me, she was decked out in winter gear, including a heavy hat with earflaps and large boots to keep her from sinking into the foot of snow that had fallen since my earlier attempt at an owl. It was December 16th.

snowy owls, nature, maine

Grandma Kathy scanning for Snowy Owls.

The first place we tried was Scarborough Marsh once more. One birder had consistently reported a Snowy there, and perhaps with snowy covering the marsh in a blanket of white we would have more luck.

Well, we didn’t, and in the thick snow we barely made it 100 yards from the car before turning around. We had a good view of the marsh, with Buffleheads, a Common Loon, and a small flock of Common Goldeneyes, but no owl. There was no way we were going to wade any farther, so we headed back to the car and on to spot number two.

In addition to large, snowy expanses, owls had been known to frequent the beaches, perhaps taking advantage of the open terrain and the plethora of seabirds and gulls. At Pine Point Beach the ocean was wet and rocky, the shore full of shells and pounding surf. No doubt this beach was plenty crowded in the summer, full of multi-colored beach towels and umbrellas, swimmers in bathing suits of all shapes and sizes sunning themselves on the sand or taking a chilly dip in the Atlantic Ocean. Now the beach – and the houses that looked out onto the beach – was deserted.

We made our own path through the snow and onto the sand, marveling at the giant oyster shells and the general magnificence of the coast. Maine beaches are powerful in all seasons, but something about the ocean view against the cold of December added an extra element of majesty to the already dramatic scene.

snowy owl, portland, maine, nature, birding

Snowy Owl at Back Cove, Portland.

Still, there were no owls. Using our binoculars and squinting fiercely we managed to make out the shape of a Black Scoter in the distance, seeking safety in the swells and avoiding the surf. The orange-red knob on the bill and lack of any wing markings whatsoever made identification simple, and though it was not a Snowy Owl it was a Life Bird for me. The day was a success.

The stiff breeze soon chilled us, and we departed the deserted waterfront in favor of the heat of the car. Never have I been more thankful for heated seats, which quickly warmed us through our many layers. We had one more stop to try, but I was tired and had lost the hope of seeing an owl. People claimed sightings came easy, but clearly not for me. Oh well, at least I had seen the scoter.

Our last effort was a quick one, stopping in the parking area at Back Cove in Portland, the same place my mother and I had birded earlier in the month. We were not planning on traversing the path, but instead staying put and sweeping our binoculars over the water. A layer of ice had frozen over the shallows near the rocky parking lot, creating what really did look like a frozen tundra, minus all the buildings everywhere.

Nothing. I looked, Grandma Kathy looked, but all we saw was white. I shrugged, about to head back in the car, when a shadow suddenly darkened the ice. Like a dream, a pair of giant white wings flew directly over our heads, neatly landing on the frozen bay. A Snowy Owl, right there, right in front of us, staring calmly with its distinctive yellow eyes!

We whooped! A victory cry for two birders who thought they had been seeking a mythic creature. All the while the bird continued to nonchalantly stare back at us, occasionally turning its great head to take in the rest of the scene. The owl was not completely white, its chest and stomach speckled black, indicating that it was a juvenile or a female. Not that it mattered, I was 100% sure this very owl was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen.  We gazed at her (or him), I snapped photo after photo, and we gazed some more. Suddenly, it didn’t feel cold; I was warm from the inside out.


Erika Zambello

About Erika Zambello

Erika Zambello is a writer, birder, and photographer, born and raised in Maine. She has a bachelor’s degree in Government and Anthropology from Cornell University, and a master’s degree in Environmental Management from Duke University, specializing in ecosystem science and conservation. Her love of the outdoors was inspired by her childhood in Maine, and she returned for her National Geographic Young Explorer grant in 2015-2016.