OK, well, maybe we didn’t really need to do any stalking, but we had a neat trip last weekend to go see some visiting snowy owls. Some of you might remember last year when we had a record number of snowy owls visiting the lower 48. Last year was an irruption year, when conditions are good in the north for snowy owl breeding, and when fall and winter arrive in the tundra, the extra population of owls has to spread out farther south to find enough food and habitat. They end up spending the winter in the northern US, where birders go crazy finding them and photographing them. Many of my online hiking and photography buddies went up to Canada, to Boundary Bay, to see the large numbers of owls that congregated there. I knew owls could be seen in some Washington locations, but couldn’t figure out where those places were, and I didn’t have a passport, so I couldn’t get up to Canada to see the lovely birds.
Well, at the end of the winter I heard there were owls near Ocean Shores, WA. It’s a long drive and I wasn’t able to make it before they flew back north, so I dreamt all summer about the possibility in the future of making a road trip some winter day when there was another irruption. I guess I got lucky, because this year appears to be an echo year, when there are smaller numbers of owls making their way south. A gal from a hiking forum I frequent went down and had good luck finding the birds, so I knew we had to try to get there ourselves.
The kids were game for our little adventure, and Aaron actually wanted to join us, too. I did let him sleep in (it gave me the chance to make cookies for the trip) and so we got a late start. The temps had been into the 20s overnight, and frost was heavy along some of the highways. But the day was brilliant and clear. Temps stayed in the the mid-30s, but the sun was wonderful to bask in (as long as the heater was going full blast in the car.)
Our drive was uneventful, and we arrived at Damon Point in the mid-afternoon. There is no sign for this park; just a parking area on either side of the road, and a blocked-off paved road that is marked Protection Island.
You will find very clean porta-potties at the trailhead. It’s just west of the Quinault Marina and RV Park. Head down the blocked-off road, onto the beach, and turn left or southeast, to walk over the spit to Protection Island.
The kids noticed that it was harder to walk in the sand than on a normal trail. Gabe and Aaron quickly went ahead of me and Annika.
We took our time, admiring rocks and shells and watching the seagulls.
The wind was brisk in our faces, chilling if we didn’t have our skin covered. But soon we made it to the island, and began looking for signs of the owls.
Gabe and Aaron saw one first and waved at us to join them. I could see photographers with their tripods and giant lenses pointed in the direction of a bleached log in the middle of the tawny grasses. On this log sat an owl, just calmly perched, lazily turning its greyish head and keeping a watchful, if relaxed, eye on everything. We observed it for a bit, took a few photos, and then saw another owl fly in and land on a nearby tree.
That was impressive! That owl didn’t stay as long; it seemed nervous with us (and other birders) close by, though we stayed quiet and calm and tried to avoid sudden movements.
After it left, we continued on the path through the grasses. At first I thought we shouldn’t go through there, but many other folks were walking that path, and owls weren’t flying out in alarm, so we took it further south on the island, and kept our eyes peeled for more grey or white blobs hiding among the grasses, driftwood, and low trees.
Soon we noticed another owl in a far tree; it was far enough away that we didn’t go tromping through the bushes to get to it.
When we were about ready to be done owl watching, we thought we’d head out to the west, out of the grasses and toward the ocean side of the island to make our way back to the car. We wound along on a path, over a low rise and around a bend, and suddenly we could see photographers lined up on the path. We cautiously continued forward, and there was a beautiful white owl perched on a log.
What a perfect portrait! We stayed back as far as we could while still being able to see the bird.
We observed it and took several photos.
It just sat there, looking around, occasionally fluffing its feathers and turning its head.
We turned back around and came out the way we came in. The sun was getting closer to the horizon and the light was turning golden.
We had a nice relaxed walk back to the car, enjoying the scenery, the sound of the waves sighing on the pebbles, the crazy surfers in the frigid water.
We knocked the sand off our feet and ensconced ourselves back in the car. As I was sitting on the trunk changing out of my boots, I got a wonderful surprise when a northern harrier flew about 10 feet above my head, soared across the street, hovered a bit, and then took off. Everyone else was already in the car and didn’t see it, but I treasure these kinds of moments.
We were concerned with the heavy frost on some of the curvy parts of the road between Hoquium and Ocean Shores, so we wanted to drive through that part before the light totally left the sky. Aaron and the kids had dinner in a sketchy fast food place in Aberdeen. We made it home in time for the kids to go to bed.
It was so neat to have Aaron along on this trip. It’s just nice to be together as a family (and to have someone to share the driving!). I wasn’t sure how the kids would like it, since it is a large amount of driving for a short amount of time on the beach, but I guess I’ve brainwashed them enough that they think that’s fine. They both enjoyed the trip, and asked when we could go back, and when our next adventure will be.
If You Go: Check out the WTA entry for good directions. Plan on a solid 3 hour drive from Seattle. Though this is listed as a state park, it is not on the parks.wa.gov website. There are no signs for it and no parking pass required. For more information about the snowy owl irruptions, read or listen to this NPR interview from last year. If you have time, check out the Coastal Interpretive Center in Ocean Shores, just up the road from the park. We would have gone there, but since we got a late start, it was closed by the time we were done with the owls. (So I can’t give a review of the place, but I am curious if any of you have been there.)
Most importantly, stay well back from the owls and don’t harass them. Stay calm and quiet, looking and observing without sneaking up on them. Consider keeping pets at home, and teach your children respectful behavior. Unless you have a large lens or super duper zoom, you won’t be able to get close enough for magazine quality photos. These owls have traveled a long distance, and they need all their energy for feeding and surviving the winter. It’s nice just to sit in the grass and take in their unique beauty. Just seeing these birds in the wild can fill you with wonder and that hard-to-quantify feeling of being expanded and awakened.