West is Best

Scott WeidensaulUpdates4 Comments

Jim Verhagen calls this shot “the stingray” — an example of the extraordinary control a snowy owl exerts when on the hunt. (©Jim Verhagen)

Just a quick follow-up on my post about the huge Eastern storm and its potential impact on snowy owls. I heard from our friend, photographer and self-described beach bum “Northside Jim” Verhagen, who blogs about the birdlife along the Holgate unit of Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge on the New Jersey coast — and who corrected me about the way the storm slammed that particular region.

I referred to it as a nor’easter — and it was, by the time it reached New England. But when the storm was still well out to sea off the mid-Atlantic, the high winds and heavy snow that hit New Jersey (18 inches in Cape May, according to some of the SNOWstorm team yesterday) were westerly. And that, Jim said, makes all the difference to the snowy owls he observes there all winter.

“Nor’easters destroy and confuse everything on the coast,” Jim wrote. “West wind, though, is the life force, and the wind that the beach and its wildlife is probably best adapted for. I like to say ‘West is the best!’ I never miss a good west/northwest day! Northeast is the worst, and the owls struggle in it.”

“We have had a few gale-force west wind events already this winter, and the Holgate crew thrived in it. I’ve been out with them in 40+ [mph] west wind. They fly a bit funny, but hunt well and expertly. They actually gain an extreme advantage over the ducks. The deep freeze crowds the ducks in the bay, and just before the storm in the deep cold I was finding ducks ‘in shock’ washed up on the shore recovering. It was a bonanza for the owls. Strong west winds also make the ducks more likely to ‘trip’ when they try to escape a gliding owl at the last second.”

“The chaos plus heavy precipitation can still cause the drowning and navigation risks you mention generally. But my overall sense, having watched them on the beach in all kinds of weather, is that they are probably much more safe in this one, and may even be getting extra duck or two. If this were a nor’easter I’d be saying the opposite.”

In the wake of the storm, both Lenape and Island Beach were in the same small area, among the islands at the southern end of Little Egg Harbor, next to Jim’s stomping grounds at Holgate. Higbee skipped a transmission Friday evening, which is unusual but not especially worrisome. The evening of Jan. 3, he was in his usual spot near Stone Harbor, in southern New Jersey.

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  • Pat

    Well, those are reassuring news!!

  • Marianne Herrmann

    Great news that it was not an actual nor’easter after all…

    • Scott Weidensaul

      It was a classic nor’easter in New England, which explains so much of the tidal flooding and damage there. But in New Jersey, as Jim pointed out, it was a westerly blow. All three of the “Jersey boys” have checked in and appear to be doing fine.

  • Patricia Hilliard

    I’m wondering if you know about the Snowy Owls in Hudson County, especially Bayonne NJ. Two have been seen at the Bayonne Scottish Links Golf Course. We’ve also seen two owls at Liberty State Park, usually on the jetty near the park boat launch or on the Liberty National Golf Course. Sure would be nice to have a monitor on one of these birds.