A week ago on Saturday, a Snowy Owl showed up in Jacksonville at Little Talbot Island State Park. Snowy Owls are large, beautiful white owls, popularized in the Harry Potter movies. I never dreamed I’d get to see one in the wild. You see, Snowy Owls live in the Arctic Circle, making their nests in the far northern latitudes and wintering in Canada and the northern United States. During “irruption years,” they will fly farther south. Very few have been reported as far south as Florida. My dad had been saying for weeks that if a Snowy Owl appeared anywhere in drivable distance, we’d have to go see it. I don’t think he expected a wakeup call on Sunday morning saying, “Dyeyo! Snowy Owl in Florida! Let’s go!!”
When we first arrived at Little Talbot Island, we found a group of birders leaving the park. “We hope the bird comes back for you,” they said. Our hearts sank as we realized we may have just driven four hours for nothing. Apparently the bird had been sitting on the sandbar between Little Talbot and Huguenot Park, and then a group of gulls chased it away.
Not knowing the area well, my dad and I decided to walk the beach and hope that the Snowy Owl would come back. We joined a few other birders who were doing the same thing. Then someone spotted a white speck far off, on a beach across the water. I took a quick snapshot, disappointed that this was the only picture I would get of this beautiful bird. I was pretty sure it was the bird. After all, the white speck seemed to have feathers blowing in the breeze.
Well, with an hour and a half left of daylight, we decided to see if we could get closer. Maybe I could get twelve pixels on the bird instead of six! I’d been wanting to scout out nearby Huguenot Park anyway, so we headed there. You can drive on the beach at Huguenot, which was strange for me. But we were a little afraid to take Preeby too far out, so we parked and started a long hike. It felt like looking for a needle in a haystack, and we walked very briskly, hoping to at least catch a glimpse of the bird before sunset.
And then we rounded a corner and found a few people with binoculars and lenses pointed into the dunes. It was the Snowy Owl, right in front of us! I never imagined that we could get so close. She was simply beautiful!
The owl’s white feathers blend in as well on Florida’s beaches as they do in her native snow-covered tundra. She sat silently on the beach in front of us, her head turning back and forth as she hunted. You could tell this was a bird used to cold weather – her nose and her feet were covered in feathers. Yet she didn’t seem bothered by the heat, or by her small and respectful group of admirers. I wonder what brought her here?
I hand-held the Beast while making a few video clips for my mom, who loves to see my “pictures in motion.” You can see the Snowy Owl turn her head back and forth as she listens and looks for food. I used iMovie to reduce the camera shake, and that helped a lot, but even so, excuse the jitter!
Male Snowy Owls are almost completely white. Females have bits of brown on them, which helps them to blend in to their Arctic nesting grounds on the tundra. Juveniles are more heavily streaked. I’m pretty sure our bird was a juvenile female. I’ve read that it’s the juvenile owls that are most likely to fly farthest during an irruption year. Snowy Owls migrate to where they can find food, and maybe the juvies don’t know the good spots yet, or maybe they are more willing to take a chance and try someplace new. Like a beach in Florida!
It rained for the majority of my Christmas vacation, and this day was no exception. There was no light when we first spotted the bird. Then the most amazing thing happened. The setting sun peeked out from behind a bank of clouds, casting a gorgeous golden glow on the beach. It was the most beautiful afternoon light I’ve seen in several years. On the most beautiful Snowy Owl in Florida! The photographers gasped and clicked away.
Although I’m sure she was used to the glare of the sun on her native Arctic snow, our owl didn’t seem totally thrilled by the light of the setting sun. She kept her beautiful eyes closed for a good part of the time.
It was incredible watching this bird, and sharing the moment with a few other birders who had also driven long distances hoping to catch a glimpse of a Snowy Owl in Florida. Birding really brings out the best in people. A total stranger saw me hand-holding my Beast and let me borrow his tripod for a minute. Other people were giving strangers car rides right to the dune where the Snowy was sitting. And as we all walked back to our cars, other birders told me exactly where to go to find several more rare birds in the area. How nice!
Huguenot Park closes promptly at 6pm, and by 5:30 or so, the rangers started making the rounds, asking people to leave. It was so hard to drag myself away! As the sun set, bathing the dunes in golden light, the Snowy Owl opened her orange eyes and looked out at us. What a way to end an unforgettable day!
Want to learn more about nature photography at Huguenot Memorial Park?
Check out my Huguenot Memorial Park page with more information about the location, map, website, photography tips, etc. It is archived by date so you can see my images from previous visits. Maybe you'll be inspired for your own trip!
Planning a trip to Florida? Don't miss my Central Florida Bird Photography Locations reference guide!