In search of the snowy owl

And treating our Island visitors with the utmost respect.


There’s no shortage of birdlife on the Vineyard — the Island is a photographer’s dream. But the Holy Grail is likely to be the spectacular snowy owl. That’s why when I received not one or two, but many separate submissions for our “Photos of the Week” slideshow of snowy owls, as well as short-eared owls, over the holidays, I was, admittedly, quite jealous.

Martha’s Vineyard Times “Wild Side” columnist and nature conservationist Matt Pelikan said the Vineyard “ranks among the premier birding locations in the East, and is among the top two or three in Massachusetts by nearly anyone’s estimation. Being an Island, the Vineyard really isn’t on the most direct route for most birds, and consequently a lot pass us by, but our location just off the mainland means that we are the last possible stop for wind-driven or disoriented migrants coming from both the west and the east. As a result, the Vineyard has an outstanding record of producing extremely rare birds that are a long way from their normal ranges or migration routes.”

Taylor Achin of Chilmark put the new Nikon camera she got for her birthday to use on New Year’s Day when she captured a photo of a short-eared owl on Norton Point. “I’m new to the photography world,” Ms. Achin wrote in an email. “No secrets here.”

Mr. Pelikan said short-eared owls are a rare winter visitor, and occasional migrant. “I was driving on the beach thinking I might see a snowy owl,” Ms. Achin said, “and it wasn’t until the way back from Wasque that I spotted the short-eared owl in the sand. I later learned that short-eared owls are pretty rare, especially on the Island — so I’m glad I had my camera with me!”

While snowy owls are rare to uncommon in most habitats, they’re actually quite usual on the Vineyard, Mr. Pelikan explained. “We get at least one nearly every winter, and for as long as it hangs around, it’s pretty easy to find. They hang in the same area for awhile.”

Oak Bluffs local Brian Packish has been lucky enough to capture snowy owls on multiple occasions, and submitted a slew of stunning photos. For Mr. Packish, bird photography has gone from an occasional hobby to a consuming passion, including taking trips to places like Seattle to photograph bald eagles.

“[Owls] have an energy that’s very powerful,” Mr. Packish said. “Sometimes a bird gives you one shot, and it’s blurry. So it’s really upped the ante on the challenge factor. I’m hooked.”

Mr. Packish said he has been slowly building up his camera gear in order to fulfill his passion in an ethical way. “My photos are taken with a 560 mm lens from a significant distance, and are heavily cropped,” Mr. Packish said. “[Snowy owls] are very patient and very tolerant — you can pretty clearly tell when they’re becoming uncomfortable, and it’s important to do the right thing and back off, because they’re here to rest.”

Matt Pelikan echoes Mr. Packish’s position. “With any kind of wildlife photography, there is the ethical question of how the efforts of photographers affect the subjects,” Mr. Pelikan said. “If one person per day tries to get a close shot of a snowy owl, and makes the owl fly, it’s not a problem. If 20 people do, or if one person persists for an hour trying to get a good shot, it puts undue demands on the bird. Birds in winter are living on a very, very tight budget.”

Birdwatching enthusiasts and photographers on the Island share photos and sightings on the Facebook group “MV Bird Alert,” created by Lanny McDowell. The group has around 1,500 members, and Mr. McDowell also created the Facebook group “Vineyard Rare Bird Alert,” for more serious bird watchers and more outstanding rare bird sightings. Mr. McDowell, who has lived on the Island since 1995, and on and off for years before that, is a painter and photographer, making his birdwatching a little more than a hobby; but he’s been interested in rare birds since he was a kid.

Being a more experienced birdwatcher, Mr. McDowell is more conscious now than he used to be about how he gets his photos of birds such as snowy owls. “A lot of people who are determined to get a close picture can’t read the signs of discomfort or nervousness of the bird,” Mr. McDowell said, but he tries to educate by example when people post photos on the Facebook group; he notes, “A lot of sites aren’t even allowing any snowy owl pictures in order to discourage interaction with them.” His hope is that the group will encourage the next generation of birders, and that it will encourage respect for the animals and the environment: “There’s a high chance it will nurture responsibility.”