Of Snowflakes & Snow Owls

A Day of Inspiration
Wed, 01/08/2014 - 3:00pm

The 13th annual Community Bird Census held, by Elizabeth Dickens-inspired tradition, on Dec. 26 was again a day of delight, surprises and inspiration. Although not a stellar year by species count, only 46 species (the 13-year average is 50), but the day did not disappoint. We were delighted to observe three individual Snow owls. In the old days “snow” owl was more often used than “snowy.” Surprises — by definition — occurred when we were looking for something else. One expects to find Sanderling and Black-bellied plovers at Andy’s Way in the winter, but the three Semipalmated plovers — the first of this species seen during the 13 years of this census — would surely rather have been in warmer climes along the shores of southeastern United States.

Inspiration came throughout the day in the form of keen, serendipitous, and humble observations. First came the report from Susan Matheke, as she joined our gathering at Settlers Rock, of a small flock of unidentified sparrow-like birds lifting and swirling from the road verge at Sachem Pond. “Hmmm, did they flash white?” And then, as if on cue, we all heard a small yet clarion bell-like call — crisp and clear — above us.

Raised binoculars soon held the bird in sight as it flitted back towards the land from the ocean, ringing like a diminutive bell buoy: a Snow Bunting. Snow buntings are often seen flashing and darting in little flocks along sandy road edges. Returning to the part of the road where Susan first saw the unknown flock, we searched for, but could not find, the little birds. As we turned and retreated to cars — now bound to search out a Snow owl — there they were synchronized airy sprites flirting in the air; at one moment a flock-flash of tawny, the next moment a minute choreographed dip of wing revealed flashing white undersides and broad wing bars. Little wonder that these Snow buntings were once more regularly hailed as Snowflakes. These Snow buntings — another first of this species for this census — with beautiful ringing voices and swirling air dances set a tone for the day: be ready for unexpected observations, for they bring beauty, awe and delight.

Upon leaving the Sachem Pond area we divided up. The Gray family proceeded to Andy’s Way and other Great Salt Pond haunts. A small group of us walked the east beach from the Fred Benson Beach House to north of Scotch Beach in search of an unseen Snow owl. From there we divided up further to search various parts of the island throughout the rest of the day.

Luck and chance and serendipity are among the greatest forces of nature. Jon Peterson, a fine and practiced birder, reported two important sightings. While Jon and I studied the Hog Pen and saw a Pied-billed grebe and Common goldeneyes, Jon’s daughter Sarah and son Andy, while running and biking, came upon a woman with a camera on Snake Hole Road photographing a Snow owl. While not intending to add to the day’s bird list, Sarah and Andy ended up adding the first of the day’s Snow owls.

Jon’s second report of observation also occurred while we were looking at Red-breasted mergansers and Buffleheads in the Hog Pen. Jane Peterson (Jon’s wife) — as described by Jon — an excellent observer but not a confident birder, described for him a bird that she had seen while walking along a neighborhood road lined with winter grasses still bedecked with seeds. The description of the bird, the habitat and the behavior, was that of a Lapland longspur. Snow buntings and Lapland longspurs were once common winter birds when Block Island’s landscape was more open farm and morainal grassland than today’s predominance of thicket and shrubland. Did Jane observe a Lapland longspur? It is likely, but not certain, and thus it is not officially counted in the day’s sightings.

A unique feature of the Community Bird Census is that everyone is encouraged to participate in any way that suits them. Susan Matheke reported the second Snow owl of the day from Graces’ Cove, which was seen during the squall of wind and rain and dropping temperature that divided the day’s weather between relatively warm with southwest wind in the morning and cold with northwest wind by late afternoon. The third Snow owl was reported, after casual observance over several hours, by both David Lewis and Keith Lewis as the bird moved from field to garden post to stonewall at Lewis Farm.

All in all it was a delightful day. Reports of birds came from hard-core birders, traipsing observers, casual participants arriving on the ferry, unenthusiastic teenagers (one of which identified a plastic snow owl decoy from the backseat of a moving car) and devoted bird feeder watchers. The following verbatim telephone report of one person’s day of observation says more about the importance of the act of bird watching than any that I could describe while trying to tout the value of connecting people and nature.

“I do feed — out of dishes — my birds on the porch. I do have some regulars. I have two regular bluebirds, a family of cardinals, many doves, a lot of little birds that all fly together, chickadees, and I have seen two hawks lately. That’s about all I have but they are pretty regular. And there’s one crow with a bad foot; she’s been coming around for three years now; she brings her family but a lot of times she comes alone.

“That’s pretty much what I have, they are pretty steady. The doves love to flap their wings to keep other doves away – none of them will eat with each other — the bluebirds they take their turns. It’s pretty much fun watching and I just wanted to let you know about my family.” — Vicky Murphy


2013’s Community Bird Census (CBC) was below average this year, with 46 species sited. New this year (in the 13-year history of OVF-organized census) were the Semipalmated plover and Snow buntings, and the thrill of three individual Snowy owls.

Weather: Temp. 35 to 45  degrees Fahrenheit; cloudy and light showers in the morning and early afternoon. The temperature dropped during mid-afternoon, and a 15 to 20 mph wind switched from south southwest in the morning to northwest by day’s end.

Participants: OVF group: Jon Peterson, Susan Matheke, Rob and Aaron Beguelin, Susanna Jones, Judy, Sarah & Manih Gray, and KG; Individual Reports: Scott Comings, Nancy Greenaway, David Lewis, Keith Lewis, Bruce and Brett Ann Montgomery, Vicky Murphy, Jane, Andy and Sarah Peterson, John Spier.

Common Loon — 16

Pied-billed grebe — 1

Great Cormorant — 21

Double-cr. Cormorant — 8

Great-blue heron — 2

Canada Goose — 76

Mallard — 103

American Black Duck — 52

Gadwall — 20

Green-winged teal — 2

Ring-necked duck — 26

Common Goldeneye — 27

Bufflehead — 91

C. Eider — 3

White-wg Scouter — 1

Black Scoter — 300-plus

Ruddy duck — 10

Hooded Merganser — 54

Red-breasted Merg. — 75

Coopers Hawk — 1

Northern Harrier — 4

Merlin — 1

Pheasant — 3

Black-bellied plover — 7

Semipalmated plover — 3

Sanderling — 8

Gr. B-b Gull — 79-plus

Herring gull — 308-plus

Mourning Dove — 70

Snowy Owl — 3

Downy Woodpecker — 1

Red-bellied woodpecker — 1

Blue Jay — 8

American Crow — 147-plus

B-c chickadee — 32

Carolina Wren — 8

American Robin — 39

Hermit Thrush — 1

E. Starling — 242

House Sparrow — 20

N. Cardinal — 4

House finch — 9

A. Goldfinch — 11

White-throated sparrow — 1

Song Sparrow — 36

Snow Bunting — 40

Lapland Longspur – 1?

Total species — 46

Individuals — 1,975