SNOWY OWL INVASION: Ghosts from the Arctic Circle

Snowy Owl and the rising January full moon, known as the Wolf Moon

As twilight descended, a Snowy Owl gazed at us from a driftwood stump, alert with the promise of hunting in the coming hours. Just then, a reddish-orange moon rose above the horizon, over Grays Harbor along Washington State’s Pacific Ocean coast. Realizing the opportunity, I moved quickly into position, hoping to photograph the rising moon directly behind the sitting owl. The opportunity lasted about 30 seconds, then the moon distorted as clouds ate away at its edges. This brief experience capped a perfect day of watching and photographing Snowy Owls.

The owls use their wings to help lift themselves up to a higher point on a log

Since we have lived in Washington State, this was the third coming of the normally arctic Snowy Owls. There was one in 2006, and prior to that in the mid-1990s. I photographed the owls both times at Damon Point State Park–the place we returned to on January 8, 2012. This year there are a whole host of Hedwigs–Harry Potter’s pet Snowy Owl–at Damon Point, lending a wonderful opportunity to see this charismatic visitor from the arctic.

Damon Point sticks out into Grays Harbor, and is a spit of land constantly renewed and reshaped by harbor currents.  In fact, the landscape had changed so much since our last visit that we didn’t even recognize it.  There is a short asphalt road that leads directly into the ocean–a road to nowhere that used to lead far out on Damon Point.  It was washed away in winter storms, and now visitors have to hike out along the beach to Damon Point.

An alert Snowy Owl, with its bright yellow eyes staring at the photographer

This was the second time this winter we have seen Snowy Owls. The first time was in Michigan, during Christmas, when we were visiting family. We could have seen up to six Snowies at Tawas Point, a spur of land sticking out into Lake Huron that is probably a lot like the Damon Point landscape (minus the spectacular view of Mount Rainier and the Olympic Mountains over saltwater). But that was too far to drive with family, so we instead spent a couple of pleasant hours at the Muskegon sewage treatment facilities–located right next to the Muskegon dump–where we saw two Snowy Owls and enjoyed an aromatic picnic lunch.

The first time we ever saw Snowy Owls was during the mid-1980s, when we were living in Upstate New York. That year, the owls gathered along the lonely shoreline of Lake Ontario and were undoubtedly also visiting Michigan, Washington State, and the entire tier of far northern states.

The photographers we observed kept a respectful distance from the owls, and used long lenses to get close views

So, the Snowy Owls come down from their normal arctic home about once every decade, in a winter-long invasion that is known as an irruption. Birders long thought that the owls came south because they were hungry. But this year, a new theory has emerged. There was an excellent crop of arctic lemmings during the summer of 2011, which led to the survival and maturing of an excellent crop of Snowy Owls. This high concentration of owls wasn’t sustainable over the bleak midwinter, so many of the owls dispersed southward to the areas we are seeing them now. According to the new theory, they are not starving and are not under a lot of stress. In fact, their lives don’t look too bad; they seem to be enjoying a coastal winter of sleeping and eating–much like the human snowbirds who head to the Gulf Coast for the winter.

Damon Point State Park is a spit of land that is constantly changing, as ocean currents add to it or nibble away at its features

Snowy Owls prefer to winter in places that remind them of home: flat and mostly treeless expanses that are reminiscent of arctic tundra. That’s why some of the best places to see them are airports and wild lands along shores of the Pacific Ocean and Great Lakes. One Snowy Owl took the winter vacation concept a bit too seriously, and ended up at the Honolulu airport in late 2011. It was the first Snowy ever recorded in Hawaii, and it was promptly shot by overzealous airport officials (something about an illegal foreign national threatening an airport …).

At sunset, warm light bathed the owls; after a day of lounging, they were getting ready for the evening hunt

Back to Damon Point. Visiting this lonely stretch of land is always a wonderful experience. On our 2006 visit, we saw the remains of a lost shipwreck that was melting out of the sands. The S.S. Catala had an interesting history, according to a June 2, 2006 article in the Seattle Times:

“Built in Scotland in 1925, the steamer carried woodsmen and miners from British Columbia to Alaska before serving as a floating hotel in Seattle for the 1962 World’s Fair. It ended up being towed to Ocean Shores to be a hotel for charter fishermen — complete with poker games and prostitutes — until it tipped over in a storm in 1965.”

In 2006, the S.S. Catala was determined to be leaking oil and was completely scrapped by the State of Washington.

On our 2012 visit, there were surfers and birders and beachcombers and photographers … perhaps 30 serious photographers. This was a huge change from my previous visits. In the mid-1990s, I don’t remember any other photographers out there. I was using film, and exposures of the white owls were tricky (it didn’t help that my lab made a mistake and processed my three days of owl slides at the wrong setting). Now, wildlife photography, even of white owls, is amazingly easy. We can check our exposures and focus immediately and adjust accordingly. This winter will produce an incredible number of great Snowy Owl photographs from hundreds upon hundreds of photographers.

So, what do the owls eat in a landscape lacking lemmings?  Ducks and rats and mice and voles and yappy little dogs. Okay, I made up the last prey item; on the other hand, I wouldn’t put it past them … so if you love little Pooky, keep her on a leash!

We observed about ten Snowy Owls at Damon Point on January 8. There were almost certainly more, as there is a whole area of the peninsula that we did not visit. The hike out to see the owls near the point is about 1.5 miles each way. The owls generally sit on driftwood logs and stumps that are low to the ground. I learned that as the winter progresses, these flat-and-barren-land owls get used to the idea of vertical space–as in trees–and start using higher vantage points. We noticed some doing this already, though most perched low to the ground.

Snowy Owl in flight over Damon Point. Ideally, there would be few owl flights during the day, but with so many visitors coming to see the owls, occasionally one will get disturbed and take flight for a hundred yards or so.

During the day, the owls are mostly napping. When a birder or photographer or dog walker gets within a bird’s comfort zone, it may snap open its yellow eyes and check out the intruder. If it feels threatened, it will take flight and head off a hundred yards or so to a more isolated perch. So, if you go, keep this comfort zone in mind and act responsibly so that others can view the owls.

Alpenglow on Mount Rainier, viewed over Grays Harbor from Damon Point

After photographing the Snowy Owl against the Wolf Moon (one traditional name for the January full moon), we watched the intense pink alpenglow fade on Mount Rainier and saw the last sunset glow fade from the clouds over the Pacific Ocean. The long walk back along beach was accompanied by the cadence of crashing waves and the crunch of cockle shells underfoot.

The January “Wolf Moon” rose over Grays Harbor at sunset, capping off a wonderful day on the coast

Birds ruffle their feathers to rearrange them, fluff them, and presumably make them a more comfortable covering; owls are no exception. It amazes me that this chaos of feathers ends up perfectly arranged.

Humans, dogs, and owls like a nice muscle stretch after staying in the same position for a long period

Sunset glow on an owl getting ready to hunt

The owls liked to perch on or near one of the numerous driftwood logs and stumps washed in by winter storms

A wildlife photographer in beautiful light, just waiting for the perfect composition

Immature and female Snowy Owls tend to be darker, with more patterning, than the nearly pure white adult males; although rules like this are made to be broken

Using its wings to help hop higher on a beach log; wouldn’t it be great if we had wings to help us hop up mountains?

These owls are graceful flyers, with strong and rhythmic wingbeats

In flight over the grassy beach at Damon Point, with a few short conifers in the distance

A sleepy Snowy Owl yawning (I am so prone to yawning that I yawned as I looked at this picture and typed this caption)

Flying to a quieter location farther out on the point

Waves lapping in along the beach of Damon Point, where we observed the shells of delicious Razor Clams and Heart Cockles

We absolutely loved this day of birding along the outer coast!

For further information about Damon Point State Park, go to Damon Point State Park; there was no sign for the park on our January 2012 visit, but it sits directly adjacent to a private campground, and there are usually cars parked neatly off the road at the entrance.  Birders tend to like Subarus, so just look for the Subarus. The owls will probably be at Damon Point until March 2012.  Then it will be years before they return.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

Explore posts in the same categories: behavior, bird, birding, lee rentz, ornithology, photography, state parks, washington, wildlife

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32 Comments on “SNOWY OWL INVASION: Ghosts from the Arctic Circle”

  1. Geoff Says:

    These are beautiful images of a beautiful bird.

  2. keyindiagraphics Says:

    awesome pics of an Owl, loved it !!!

    Loved to see more pics.


  3. Great shots! Such beautiful birds! 🙂


  4. Your images of this magnificent bird are stunning. I especially like the first image. The composition is unique.

  5. chandih Says:

    Beautiful. Thank you for sharing. The first one with the sun setting looks surreal.

  6. Christopher Says:

    Thank you! Great composition (especially on stumps!).


  7. Amazing photographs. The moon and the landing are award winning.

  8. Clare Says:

    Stunning, you must be thrilled to have such great shots. They are among the best I’ve seen.

  9. Viola Biltz Says:

    WONDERFUL Pictures!!! What settings did you use camera, etc?

    • leerentz Says:

      Thank you to everyone for your kind comments.

      The camera I used was a Canon 5D MK II, with a Canon 500mm lens and Canon 1.4x extender. The exposure was ISO 1600, f5.6, 1/125 sec. The photograph was hand-held because that was the only way I could get the picture in the brief time the sun allowed; of the three frames I took, this was the sharp one. Thank goodness for image stabilization. The exposure was done in camera raw.

  10. Ryan Merrill Says:

    Wow – hard to beat your first photo with the rising moon!

  11. ingrid Says:

    Lee, I saw a few of these on Flickr and was blown away! I have yet to visit the owls at Damon Point, but this post surely provides my final inspiration. Of course, I wouldn’t hope to match this series of images, and I won’t even try. But, what a gorgeous, visual story this is, unfolding in perfect light and in front of your talented eye. Thanks for posting about the Snowies … and their little dogs, too. 🙂

  12. Beverly Hartt Says:

    Wonderful photos. I had the opportunity to go up to Boundary Bay in BC, saw at least 30 0wls close in. But you had the gorgeous background of sand and sky and used it beautifully. These are some of the best I’ve seen.

  13. heather sherman Says:

    awesome! thanks for sharing the images and info!

  14. HeatherS Says:

    What absolutely stunning photos. We have some visiting Snowies at Boundary Bay in BC, and I had a chance to visit them. I’ve got some photos posted too, but nothing compared to yours – the light and composition are breathtaking. Thanks for sharing!


  15. For the faint of heart or just not able to walk in the sand on Damon Point State Park at Ocean Shores WA, there is a Nature Interpretive Center on the corner of Discovery Avenue and Catala Ave which has two mounted Snowy Owls. One is a fairly old taxidermied version and the other is a young Snowy Owl that was obtained and taxidermied. Plus a plethora of other mounted animals and birds of the area. The Center is run by a non-profit organization, Ocean Shores Interpretive Center Association. Admission is free to all but donations are accepted with thanks as that is the primary source of income to run the Center. The asked entrance fee at the Center is to sign a register indicating the City and State visitors are from and the number of people in the party and if they have ever been in the Center before. The Center is just a few blocks away from the entrance to the area the owls are basically in and the Docent and volunteers are happy to provide directions. Locals can also show many pictures of the Snowy Owls in their back yards, in a tree, on a log and other places.

  16. Sandra Says:

    Beautiful photographs!!! 🙂


  17. […] https://leerentz.wordpress.com/2012/01/12/snowy-owl-invasion-ghosts-from-the-arctic-circle/ Share this:FacebookDiggEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in Owls, Photography. Bookmark the permalink. ← Busy! […]


  18. Thank you so much for sharing these amazing photos and great info!

  19. Dawn K. Says:

    thank you so much for sharing this. My daughter and I live not far from Ocean Shores but weren’t ab;e to take the walk at the right time to see these beauties. I love your photos and the stories.

  20. firesky01 Says:

    Amazing pictures I have linked your blog to facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/groups/owl.rising/

  21. intuitive nyc Says:

    These are some of the most beautiful photos I have seen in my life. In a meditation a couple of years ago, I saw a snow owl, and the species has now endeared itself to me. Thank you for these images.


  22. WOW! Incredible Pics. I’m wondering if you would allow me to use your images as references to draw from?
    You can see my pencil work at http://www.kacweb.com/pencil.html

    including this Owl portrait I just completed:

    My Art page: http://www.kacweb.com/art/index.html

    Thank you!
    and thank you for sharing your wonderful work!

    • leerentz Says:

      Hi Kenny,

      Thank you for your compliments about my work. You may use the photographs as reference for your work, but I do require a license if you intent to sell your work based upon my photography. I have done similar licenses in the past, through my Photoshelter web site, and it is not very expensive.

      I looked at your owl drawing, and really enjoyed seeing your skill and technique.

      Lee Rentz
      lee@leerentz.com


      • Thank you Lee, I appreciate your consideration. At this point and for this subject I prefer not to have licensing or restrictions, but do keep up the wonderful work and thank you again for sharing it and for your consideration.


  23. […] in January I was very much impressed by a Lee Rentz photo of a perched Snowy Owl backed by a round red moon. Of many Snowy Owl images from this irruption […]

  24. oceanshoresonline Says:

    Reblogged this on Ocean Shores Online.


  25. […] in January I was very much impressed by a Lee Rentz photo of a perched Snowy Owl backed by a round red moon. Of many Snowy Owl images from this irruption […]


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