3:30am, Friday December 30th, 2016
My phone started shaking next to my bed, playing its delightful little tune to let Karin and I know that it was time to get our asses up. We both groaned a little bit, but if we were going to make it to the coast by sunrise, we had to get moving. The objective of the day was to find a Snowy Owl that had been hanging around Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) during the course of the week. Naturally, this couldn't just be easy. The night before we were set to leave, there were no reports of the owl being seen on Chincoteague, but rather, a "different" Snowy seen during the late afternoon at Assateague. Realizing how close these two areas are to each other, it seemed like no small coincidence that the Chincoteague owl wasn't seen at the same time one was at Assateague. Fearing maybe the owl had moved, I made the decision as we were packing up to leave Friday morning to start our adventure with a trip to Assateauge State Park.
We got out the door a little later than I wanted to, but we were on the road by about 4:25am...not too bad! This would put us in the parking lot at Assateague right around 7:30, only a few minutes after sunrise.
Arriving at Assateague, one thing became quickly apparent; we were just about the only ones crazy enough to be out on the beach at sunrise on a day when it was close to freezing with wind chills absolutely below freezing. That wasn't going to stop us however, we were looking for a Snowy Owl after all. I knew from doing a little research the night before that the Assateague owl had been seen North of the parking area...so North we went...and went...and went. At about a mile into our journey, we came upon another fellow who was crazy enough to not only beat us to the beach that morning, but beat us by probably at least an hour. He was already on his return trip from 2 or 3 miles up the beach, and assured us that there was no owl in our future. As he continued on his way, he mentioned that we might find some of Assateagues famous horses if we made it another mile and a half or so. We trekked onward. I have to hand it to Karin...she always seems to find a way to keep herself entertained during my obsessive excursions looking for birds, bobcats or bears.
You may notice the "grainyness" of this photo, especially around the shells near Karin's knees. Remember those winds I was talking about? This is what 30MPH gusts on the beach look like, in a photo! SAND EVERYWHERE. For anyone looking into doing beach photography, it's a smart idea to always have a cover on your camera/lens, especially when blowing sand is a risk. Unfortunately I only have one such cover which was in use on my 5DMKIII and didn't think to try and DIY a second one for the 60D. It paid the price, a price which I'll now be paying Canon for cleaning services. :-(
Finally, WAY up the beach, we found our first "wildlife"...the HORSES. They're really pretty fantastic to see in person and they even have names! Seriously! But that's not even the best part! What really makes these magnificent creatures great is that they don't take shit from tourists. Get too close, and while they may let you get a selfie or two, you could very well find yourself being bitten. I wasn't going to take that chance, so I kept my distance, but just the fact that the State Park has warning signs about horses biting (and kicking) you if you approach them, gave me quite the chuckle. Anyway, as you can see, they're beautiful. These two love birds are known as Patricia Irene (front) and Chestnut (rear). According to Assateague Island Alliance, they're often found together on the north end of the Island, which is exactly where they were. I managed to snap a few shots from some distant but different angles. We waved goodbye, as it was time to make the trek back to the parking lot, Snowyless. The day was only halfway through, but after walking in those conditions for close to 7 miles round trip, I already felt like I wanted to die.
As the day continued on, Karin and I made our way off Assateague and down to Chincoteague where we'd be saying that evening. We checked in at our hotel and had a quick bite to eat at a pretty delicious sandwich shop in town (Poseidons Pantry). I was starting to become a bit discouraged. As I scanned the various birding reports and Facebook posts, I wasn't seeing any mention of the owl being in the vicinity. Then, a beacon of hope. A Facebook search turned up a picture of the owl from earlier that morning that was tagged on Chincoteague. Despite being incredibly tired and ready for a nap, we had to press on! There were limited hours of daylight left and who knew if we'd have the chance to see it on Saturday. We were off to Chincoteague Island!
When we arrived, I started asking passersby whether they had seen the Snowy. It was pretty quickly evident that it was nearby; everyone returning up the beach had bright smiles on their faces. The first fellow owl-addict I ran into was quick to let me know that it was only a short mile walk down the beach! "It was well worth the walk", she said. She was absolutely right. I want to be sure to play up the wind in this situation as much as possible...because it really was some of the most extreme conditions I've dealt with doing wildlife photography thus far. So, without further adieu, here's a video!
See, super extreme. I mean, sure, it was a clear blue sky and mostly sunny...but you can't discount the wind. Once I had gotten all setup and had taken a few sample shots, I started to chat with a few fellow photographers who had also made the journey. It's always fun to meet new people and I'm appreciative of those who are willing to chat and share stories...it helps pass the time in some of the more dull "wait and see" type moments in photography. I ended up spending about an hour watching the Snowy Owl, during which time I fired off something like 500 photos. I started out initially shooting with my 500mm + 1.4x teleconverter on my 5DMKIII. This worked for the most part, but we were all trying to keep a respectful distance from the owl so as to not scare it off. Wanting to get as close as possible, without actually getting physically close, I decided to switch to my 2x teleconverter, which allowed me to shoot at an astonishing 1000mm. The tricky part in doing this is that you have to keep the camera VERY stable, OR get your shutter speeds really high. With the lighting conditions, I was lucky in that I was able to mostly stay above 1/1000s shutter speed. Even at that, with the amount of wind, there's no way I would have been able to get usable shots without a tripod. Thankfully I ended the day with a number of keepers, which I've displayed below.
Despite the success of Friday's "hunt", I once again got Karin and myself up at around 6am Saturday morning with the hope that maybe we could find the Snowy at the same spot, this time at sunrise. Unfortunately, seeing it for a second day in a row was not in the cards. That didn't stop us from having an awesome morning on the beach and finding a few cute Sanderlings (a type of shore bird) to entertain us. Karin also made it a point to find and photograph as many Conch shells as she could. She found some really beautiful ones, including the one seen to the below. All in all it was a wonderful albeit short little trip. We both came to the conclusion that we LOVE Assateague and Chincoteague and hope to return in the near future. As a send off, here's a cute shot we took of ourselves right before checking out of our hotel (Comfort Suites).
Thanks for reading!