A seasonal lift

Fri, 12/24/2021 - 9:07am

On 6 December it was blowing pretty hard and the ferry schedule was questionable because of increasing winds. After the first ferry left at 0630 I grabbed some coffee at home and went to the Sand Hill Cove beach parking lot to look at the ocean. A half hour later at first light, while leaving the parking lot I saw what appeared to be a seagull sitting stoically and motionless in the middle of the parking lot looking south. While driving by and sipping my coffee I noticed that it was a rather large gull. I figured he was resting or waiting for some grub to appear; I’d check on him later to see if he was injured. After the second ferry left, we put up the Purple Flag and I went back to the beach to watch the Block Island head out of
the West Gap; by now the wind had increased and she took a few head seas while she was heading to the island. It was a good call to cancel
the afternoon trip.
Around noon, when leaving the beach parking lot after getting off duty early and reading for an hour, I saw the same stoic animal still looking south. While driving 30 meters from said bird it dawned on me it looked more like a bag of trash someone had tossed out the window than it looked like a seagull. When getting out of the car to go pick up the bag, I immediately noticed it wasn’t trash at all. It was a huge snowy owl.
I froze and the hawk took flight. It then landed about 50 meters from my car. Something rare and unique was happening and then some old-
brain thing kicked in and I began tracking this prodigious loner for a closer look and maybe a picture. I slowly got back into my Jeep as the owl clocked me. As a result, I rolled in the opposite direction and looped away and around to take an iPhone snap. I gave the owl a wide berth so
as to not rattle him. I fiddled with the iPhone and snapped some long shots. Then, I rolled very slowly, and a got bit closer. While leaning out of the window and steering with my knees, the owl stared at me, then took off—snap, snap, snap—and headed west to the marshes or perhaps further down the coast.

I scored a good get with the timing of my pictures. More than likely it was time to leave, and the owl was probably hanging and resting in the
safety of the parking lot for several hours. The snowy owl is a nocturnal hunter and more than likely the hawk was hunting during the dark of night. Moreover, this parking lot is a big seagull hangout, and there is car traffic and dog walkers traversing the parking lot. It made sense that the owl instinctively knew the hunting and resting drill of this area was over and it was time to leave.
Snowy owls are nomadic and as a result they’re very hard to study; they have erratic roaming behaviors. A full-grown snowy or polar owl must eat seven to eight rodents a day to survive. (That’s a lot of tracking and hunting.) Voles, mice, squirrels and chipmunks are probably staples of their diet. The snowy owl I saw was a female; she had dark marking slits on her wings and body.

Although the marshland in Galilee proper is a good hunting ground, the owl had to be wary of coyotes and foxes in this marsh because they reside there year-round. Even though this owl has a four-foot wing span and is a fast mover, the aforementioned predators can make short work of an owl who likes to hunt for very low-level prey. Moreover, like the osprey, while hunting for fish the snowy owl can hover over its prey and then dive on it.
The last time I saw a snowy owl was in 1972 at Camp Cronin. While walking along the coast toward the Point Judith Lighthouse there was one perched on a rock while resting. I was maybe 20 meters away from the hawk and just sat down and watched him as he watched me. The owl was a formidable size. These were rare sightings.
Galilee and Point Judith is a flush hunting ground for various hawks. For example, at our kitchen table while writing one day this fall, I saw an osprey fledgling take its first flight after watching the adults feed and train it to hunt all summer. It was a first for the fledgling, and a first for me. Ospreys have adapted well in Galilee. Furthermore, there is a new guy in town called a Cooper’s hawk. While opening up the standby shack one day this October, I saw a hawk grab a pigeon right out of the air. As I approached the shack the bird of prey dropped the hapless pigeon as I interrupted its flight path. The pigeon scrambled under a little ottoman I have for my standby guests outside the shack and hid from the predator. I really didn’t want to watch this poor injured guy suffer while working all day, and was relieved when he mustered the moxie and strength to take off on a low level flight plan and hide under a car. Incidentally, the day before this foiled attack, I had seen a Cooper’s hawk sitting on a picnic
table while I was walking Sailor at Tuckertown Park in Wakefield. I thought this was a very nervy hawk who didn’t see me nor my dog as a threat. These audacious hawks have adapted well, and are very quick on the wing.
A few years ago while I was again doing my morning winter drill at Sand Hill Cove I saw a former student named Kerri Handrigan standing outside of her car and looking up in the sky. I thought this was rather strange until a huge hawk buzzed over my car and landed on the beach. It had an enormous wingspan. “Hey Houlihan, follow me,” said Kerri as we slowly walked on the beach toward the largest hawk we’d ever seen. It was a rare bald eagle. We were both gobsmacked at the size of this thing as it took off and headed south. Finally, what I’ve learned from observing these neighborhood hawks is that maybe just nodding to the small things around us is all that is needed for a seasonal lift. Just sayin’.
Happy Holidays From The Ferry Dock Scribbler!