David Smith and his father Steve Smith, who was visiting from Cape Elizabeth, Me., emailed a note which stated that they had seen and photographed a snowy owl next to the Aquinnah Shop in Gay Head on Nov. 21! That beats the Nov. 29 record and adds to the question: Just how many snowy owls are there on Martha’s Vineyard and Chappaquiddick? Actually, I guess I should ask how many snowy owls there are in Dukes County?
Lisa Wright, in her own words: “Reporting from Cuttyhunk my hunting friends had a snowy owl sighting on Monday, Dec. 2 on the west end of the island so I grabbed a blaze orange sweatshirt and hiked out there. No owl sighting for me but I did see seven whale spouts heading south not far off the island, again thanks to the hunters. I hiked out again on Wednesday (Dec. 4) and had two snowy owl sightings; I don’t believe they were the same bird. The first owl I left was sitting on a rock heading due west. I was walking back and about 12 minutes later I looked south and saw a snowy owl flying west, quietly hooting as it landed on a big rock off the shoreline. If the second owl had been flying east I would have thought they were one and the same. I can’t wait to see what happens tomorrow; Island living, never a dull moment!”
Jump ahead to Dec. 7 and Constance Alexander spotted two whale blows off Squibnocket while observing northern gannets and a horned grebe. Knowing that Lisa Wright had seen blows off Cuttyhunk three days earlier, I checked with her to ask if she had any idea what species of whales she had seen. Lisa guessed fin whales. I contacted the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies to find out what whale species might be passing by this area. The answer was fins, humpbacks or right whales. If people are interested in determining exactly what species they are seeing offshore, go online and check out the shape and angle of the blows, each whale species has a specific blow. The right whale has a V-shaped blow that angles slightly forward. The humpback whale blows straight up quite high, and the fin whale blow is straight up but lower than the humpback. Check the library or online for photographs and better descriptions of shapes and angles of whale blows.
Now back to the question about how many snowy owls there are in Dukes County. We presume there are two on Cuttyhunk.
Two were definitely seen at Norton Point at the same time on Nov. 29 and one earlier on Nov. 21 at Gay Head. Single snowy owl sightings and photos were taken on Norton Point by Sue Carroll on Dec. 7 and by Tim Johnson and Jeff Bernier on Dec. 8. But at about the same time on Dec. 8, Ken Magnuson photographed a snowy owl to the west. His photo was taken on the beach between the parking lot down the right fork to Katama and Herring Creek Farm. Do these sightings equal the two originally seen on Nov. 29? I am guessing yes.
A single snowy owl was spotted by both Sharon Pearson and Olsen Houghton on the breakwater by the Big Bridge on State Beach in Oak Bluffs on Dec. 3. A single snowy owl was seen again at State Beach by Nelson Smith on Dec. 9. Is this number four for the Vineyard and six for Dukes County?
John Kurr spotted a snowy owl at Mink Meadows on Dec. 6. Is this number five and seven?
Now on Chappaquiddick, a single snowy owl was spotted by Terry Shaffer halfway between the Dike Bridge and the Cape Pogue Light on Dec. 4. Six and eight? So that up-Island isn’t left out, Danguste Budris spotted a snowy owl to the west as you come off the path at Lucy Vincent Beach in Chilmark on Dec. 5. Michelle Tynan saw a very pale snowy owl at Windy Gates in Chilmark on Dec. 8. Michael Stutz found a snowy owl on Moshup Trail in Aquinnah on Dec. 9. If you figure the snowy owl Michael Stutz spotted was the same as the one seen back on Nov. 21 by the Aquinnah Shop but add the Chilmark, Lucy Vincent/Windy Gates bird for a total of seven and nine, the Mink Meadow bird addition would make a grand total of eight and 10.
However, there is no way to prove any of this. I would bet the farm that the two snowy owls on Cuttyhunk, the two on Norton Point and the one in Aquinnah are probably different birds for a total of five. Snowy owls have powerful wings and if they can fly from the tundra to the Vineyard they certainly can move around the Island in short order. A flight from Norton Point to State Beach or Cape Pogue is just a hop, skip and jump. As it is from Aquinnah to Lucy Vincent, Mink Meadows or for that matter to Cuttyhunk! Eek, I have no idea how many snowy owls there are in Dukes County.
If we all take photos and mark the time and location of the sighting, then we can come up with a better guesstimate of the number of these handsome snowy owls on the Island. We have to ensure that snowy owls are photographed in different locations on the same day or it doesn’t count!
The Vineyard Conservation Society scheduled a walk on Dec. 9 from our Quenames home in Chilmark down to Black Point Pond and across to Tisbury Great Pond and back, discussing sea level rise and, of course, birds. We counted seven mute swans, 15 black ducks, six bufflehead and several Canada geese in Black Point Pond. Two great blue herons were spotted flying over the pond. Offshore we counted two horned grebes, two common and one red-throated loon as well as ten white-winged scoters. A savannah sparrow was perched on a beach rose bush behind the dunes. The best was saved for last — as we returned to the house a barn owl flew out of the pines and into the woods. We did learn a good deal about sea level rising, climate change and storm systems along the way, thanks to Jeremy Hauser and Brendon O’Neil.
Gus Ben David and his nephew Eddie watched an immature bald eagle fly over his Edgartown farm on Dec. 8.
Whit Griswold spotted two ospreys hunting over James Pond on Dec. 4. Whit and his wife Laura Wainright watched one hovering over James Pond on Dec. 9 and Whit saw a single osprey again over the pond on Dec. 10. This is late for ospreys to be on the Vineyard although there is a record of an osprey seen at Oyster Watcha on Dec. 18 of 2004.
On Dec. 3 Lynn Silva, Prescott Walsh and Will Whiting spotted a northern harrier, a barn owl and a Cooper’s hawk in the Quansoo area.
On Dec. 4 Bert Fischer photographed a flock of a dozen harlequin ducks off Squibnocket. The same day Nancy Weaver and Margaret Curtin went to Long Point Preserve in West Tisbury in search of a snowy owl. They didn’t spot an owl, but did see a northern harrier and a tree sparrow. Still on a search for an owl, Nancy and Margaret went to the breakwater by the Big Bridge, and again no owl but they did count 130 red-breasted mergansers and four common loons.
On Dec. 8 Jeff Bernier sent a superb photograph of an eastern meadowlark that he took at Norton Point. The same day Michael Ditchfield reported seeing a ruby-crowned kinglet and a golden-crowned kinglet having a spat outside his Edgartown living room window.
Ken Magnuson sent photos of both golden-crowned kinglets and red-breasted nuthatches that he took at the Edgartown Golf Club on Dec. 10.