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I Saw Her Standing There
Fifty years ago this week, the Beatles landed at JFK and toured the East Coast, sending Americans into a frenzy. Now another photogenic group—with its own fan club—has arrived.

As you have no doubt heard by now, the Arctic Invasion is here.

Owlmania has swept the east coast, where one of the most beautiful, stunning, and startling of birds—the snowy owl, rarely sighted in the lower 48—has descended on us in numbers at once thrilling and puzzling. In response to this unprecedented influx of owls, an equally unprecedented number of humans have been out looking for, and at, the birds.

For me, personally, the high point came a few weeks ago when I was standing alone on Coastguard Beach on Cape Cod, on almost the exact same spot where the naturalist-writer Henry Beston lived for a year in his outermost cabin, and a young snowy rose off the tundra-like marsh with a black duck in its talons. The duck’s lifeless body hung limp, its feet dangling down like damaged landing gear. The snowy flew over the dunes, clearly wanting to be left alone with its prey. I felt something of the irritation it must have felt toward me when I saw a couple climb over from the beach and attempt to follow it. We both—owl and man—were no doubt experiencing some variant of the same thought: What are they doing on my beach, on my territory?

It stared at me with black slits for eyes, the ocean wind blowing its white feathers back like a boa.

My irritation with the couple faded when I caught up to them. Bundled up like refugees against the cold, the man and woman were considerate, giving the owl plenty of space. They weren’t birders, didn’t even have binoculars, but they were so delighted by what they had seen that I had a hard time being grumpy. The woman’s face was radiant. (“Radiant” was a word I had found myself using a lot over the last few days, though mostly to describe the unworldly white shine of the snowy’s feathers.)

“It’s only the second time I’ve seen an owl in the wild,” she said.

She acted as if she had just witnessed a visitation, which she certainly had. I thought back to the first time I ever saw a snowy owl. Unlike this time, I hadn’t gone out in search of it. Back when I lived on Cape Cod, more than 15 years ago, I would go for daily off-season walks along the beach, and that was all I had been doing that morning. I got to the end of the sandy path that led to the open beach, and there it was. It had stared at me with black slits for eyes, the ocean wind blowing its white feathers back like a boa. It was less than ten yards away, and it apparently didn’t feel like moving, so it just sat there—looking both spectacular and perfectly at home on a beach that, on that frigid day, must have reminded it of the tundra where it summered. I stared back at it for a while, and then I walked away. For the owl it was no big deal, but for me it stands out as one of the great days of my birding life.

“They’re amazing birds,” the woman said to me.

I told her I couldn’t agree more.

We kept our eyes open for another flight up from the dunes, but eventually we all decided to give the owl a wide berth as it continued its repast of uncooked duck.

* * *

“We have the fever,” Jill Peleuses, an avid birder, told the local paper in my hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina. She was explaining why she and a friend had driven eight hours up to the Outer Banks to catch a glimpse of a snowy. Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Maine: the birds seem to be everywhere this winter, and are especially thick here on Cape Cod, where—thanks to a sabbatical from the university where I teach, and a generous wife—I’m spending a solitary month on a writing retreat. At West Dennis beach, one of the most popular owl-watching spots on the Cape, you don’t even have to hunt for the owl once you get to the parking lot; you just look for the line of cars. There are times when the crush is too much: when the owl lands in a nearby tree, for instance, and the hordes of photographers armed with thousand-dollar telephoto lenses start muscling each other out. While their photogenic subject—which can be remarkably tolerant of photographers when it’s not chewing on a piece of duck or other prey—may allow them to get as close as fifteen feet, it flies away when they insist on five.

David Gessner takes to a beach on Cape Cod in search of snowy owls.

But most of the people I’ve encountered have been as delighted, and as respectful, as the woman back on Coastguard Beach. And while the birds are fairly easy to find, watching them for any amount of time is something that—during these mid-winter days, at least—must be earned. That’s because the owls aren’t the only thing that has travelled down from the Arctic of late, the recent cold and snow conspiring to thin out the ranks of owl-watchers.

On my second day out on West Dennis Beach, as the first flakes fell at the start of what would soon turn into a major storm, I watched with a couple of other people as the bird alighted on a nest that an osprey had built on one of the blue boxes (used for trapping greenhead horse flies) you frequently see on the marshes here. The huge nest was decorated in the usual osprey junkyard fashion, complete with a hundred sticks, boat line, thick yarn, and a child’s fishing net jammed into its side, and it stood six feet off the ground. Up on that pedestal the owl appeared to be wearing a shining white robe, flecked with markings the color of chips on a cinnamon scone that identified it (most likely) as a female. As it swiveled its great disc of a face, it transformed: one moment it resembled a white lion, the dashes of black on its face mere cartoon outlines of eyes and a bill; the next moment it looked decidedly more hawk-like as it lifted a hand-like talon to scratch itself; lastly, when the eyes turned entirely away, it was a featureless white dome. Mostly it just squinted there in the wind, but whenever those eyes opened they shone yellow. Amid the sere colors of the marsh, the bird’s whiteness jumped out—although the next day, with the blizzard’s help, its camouflage worked as well as it does in Arctic summers.

With its tail feathers blowing behind it like streamers in the heavy wind, this snowy seemed made for spectacle. It had presence. While not our tallest owls, snowys are our heaviest; their thick feathers are required for insulation. Unlike most owls, they’re diurnal, which means that in the Arctic summers they have 24 hours a day for hunting—and which also means that patient humans can watch them hunt during the winter. Fascinatingly, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology reports that images of snowy owls have been found in ancient cave paintings in Europe. This didn’t surprise me: after several days out on the tundra-marsh, my own journal pages were filling up with sketches.

* * *

For me the story of the snowy’s invasion is a story of wonder and wildness. But this story, of course, takes place in our modern, troubled world, and so it doesn’t quite have the innocence and simplicity of fairy tale. Beatlemania metaphors apply, but only up to a point. When the Fab Four landed at JFK to launch their first U.S. tour—50 years ago this Friday, as it happens—they were rushed by thousands of teenage girls. When the snowy owls landed at the same airport, they were greeted by men with guns: Port Authority personnel who actually shot and killed three of the birds. The Port Authority was worried that the owls would interfere with air traffic. (Airports, like beaches and marshes, have that low, flat, treeless look that to the snowy mind says: tundra.)

Many are wondering why, exactly, the owls have arrived in these numbers in this particular year. There are plenty of theories, though no one really knows for sure at this point. During the first days of my own owl quest I made a point to not read up on the subject. This was partly an attempt to ensure a less premeditated experience, to recreate some of the spontaneity and wildness of my first unexpected owl encounter all those years ago. I wanted to see owl, experience owl, maybe (if I was feeling particularly imaginative) even pretend to be owl for a second or two, before I sat down to read owl. But of course I couldn’t help the fact that I was with other people as I was out there watching, and among these other people, this question of “why” naturally came up. I heard the word “irruption,” and also heard that there had been a recent boom in the Arctic’s lemming population, leading, in turn, to a boom in the owl population. The younger birds, it was speculated, were coming south in search of new territory.

But another reason I didn’t feel like boning up on the birds may be that I’ve read and written enough environmental stories over the years to know how so many of them end. I’ll confess to feeling a little sag in my chest once I started doing the research for this article and learned that our old friend climate change was being dragged out as one possible culprit. It makes sense of course: warmer Arctic temperatures lead to an explosion of rodents that leads to the explosion of owls.  As the popular eBird site puts it: “These owls are surely telling us something, but we still don’t know understand exactly what.”

It shouldn’t be terribly surprising if the answer to that mystery turns out to be an ugly one. John Schwartz, writing in the New York Times, quotes Cornell ornithologist Kevin J. McGowan regarding the disturbance of the snowy’s Arctic environment: “That has to be one of the most vulnerable ecosystems on the planet. That’s going to be one of the first places that falls apart when there is warming in the atmosphere.”

It may eventually be revealed that the arrival of these radiant creatures is yet another dark augur of the end of the world. But for this morning, at least, I’ll choose to think otherwise. This morning I will again bundle up and go out into the cold with them. I’ll keep my respectful distance while watching—and living—for just a moment in a world other than the human one. For one more day I’ll choose to interpret their arrival here not as another tolling of the bells of doom but as a generous visitation, an unexpected joy, an undeserved but well-appreciated gift.

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image of David Gessner
David Gessner is the author of eight books, including My Green Manifesto and The Tarball Chronicles, both of which grew out of reporting for OnEarth. He has won the John Burroughs award for best natural history essay, taught environmental writing at Harvard, and founded the literary journal Ecotone. He currently teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. MORE STORIES ➔