Donal C. O'Brien, Jr. Sanctuary and Audubon Center in Corolla

SNOW Day on the Outer Banks, part 1

Please welcome guest blogger Katharine Frazier. Katharine is a high school senior in Wilmington, NC. She served as a Wrightsville Beach bird steward for the 2013 nesting season and has a strong interest in birding and bird conservation.

The Snowy Owls came without warning. They began to cross the border from Canada and descend upon the United States in late fall, traveling further south with every day. They were spotted sitting on beaches, fields, and by airports far from their usual range in the arctic. From our home in Wilmington, my mother and I watched the reports coming in and wondered if one would eventually make its way to North Carolina.  Finally, one settled down at Cape Hatteras National Seashore on the Outer Banks.

Snowy Owl sightings on the Outer Banks as reported to eBird.

The initial reports of the Hatteras owl came in around Thanksgiving, while I was on break from classes. The week afterwards was my last week of classes before final exams, and I immediately started scheming and planning a way to make it out to the Outer Banks to see the owl before my finals. My mother was sure that it could be accomplished in an overnight trip to Buxton, which would leave me with plenty of time to study and prepare for tests. Our friend Jill was on board with the plan, so we decided to head up to see the owl the day after my classes ended. We figured that it would only be a five-hour drive to the Outer Banks from Wilmington, which was well worth the opportunity to see a Snowy Owl.

As the last day of classes and our trip to find the owl drew closer, our plans came crashing down. The Bonner Bridge, our pathway to Hatteras, was shut down for repairs just three days before our trip. With the bridge closed, there was no way to get to Hatteras by road: our only options were either to cancel our plans or take ferries to the island.

Our plans oscillated back and forth up until my very last day of class. I went to sleep on Wednesday night not knowing whether I'd be headed to the Outer Banks on Thursday morning. One thing was certain, though: regardless of our plans, I'd have to swing by my school on Thursday morning to take my senior portrait for the yearbook. I didn't get much sleep that night, thanks to a combination of dread about the picture and excitement about the owl possibility.

I awoke on Thursday to the news that yes, we would be attempting to take the ferries to see the Snowy Owl. Reports from Hatteras birders said that the owl was still being spotted reliably on a section of the beach, hunting and roosting. We had to at least try to see the owl - otherwise, we'd always regret it. I was thrilled: if all went well, this would be both my first Snowy Owl sighting and my first trip to the Outer Banks.

Still, we had considerable odds stacked against us. First, there was the school portrait; as I posed for picture after picture, all I really wanted to do was get on the road. Then, there was the whole issue with taking ferries rather than using the closed bridge. The biggest obstacle we faced, however, was the Snowy Owl itself. After all, like every other owl, this Snowy Owl had wings and could fly away at any second.

En route to Ocracoke, pursued by birds that weren't Snowy Owls. By Michelle Frazier.

After a long day of driving and catching ferries, we arrived on Hatteras after dark. We were exhausted; the ferries’ schedules had fit together like puzzle pieces, leaving us no time in between ferries to take a break. As we drove across the island to our motel, it felt good to finally be on the same island as the owl – if it was still there, that is.

We started the next day early, determined to have as much time searching for the owl as possible before we needed to catch our first ferry back to the mainland. After a quick breakfast and spot of seabird-watching from our motel's porch we hopped into the car and drove a few minutes down the road to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The helpful locals who'd been monitoring the owl had given us directions to where we were most likely to find it, so we had an inkling of where we needed to go.

Of course, that means we somehow managed to get lost. We drove around the area and made countless U-turns before admitting to ourselves that we had no idea where to go. According to the locals and recent visitors, the owl could usually be found near a particular beach access. We'd driven past several beach accesses but couldn't find THE one. Suddenly, the possibility of not seeing the owl seemed very real and very depressing.

As we drove we passed a ranger who was walking along the side of the road. We stopped the car, rolled down the window, and asked her if she knew where our mysterious beach access was. The ranger said that she didn't know. In our desperation, we had managed to meet the one ranger who was new to the park and couldn't help us.

Finally, my mother caved and called a local birder who had been kind enough to supply us with information on the owl's whereabouts. Even though it was early on a Friday morning, he answered - and thankfully, he was able to tell us where the access was. I have never been so happy to see a small, sandy parking lot in my entire life!

As my mother and Jill were unloading everything, they told me to run ahead and check out the area. I slung my binoculars around my neck, hefted the spotting scope over my shoulder, and set off down the trail through the dunes. My heart pounded. Was I just a few minutes away from seeing a Snowy Owl?

I’m on the beach. Where’s the owl?! By Michelle Frazier.

Check back again soon for part 2 of this story and find out if Katharine found the Snowy Owl.

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