By Douglas Scott
Each year, hundreds of birders descend on Damon Point in Ocean Shores, hoping to catch a glimpse of a semi-visitor to the region. As bird watchers flock from all directions to the remote spit of sand jutting out from Ocean Shores, avian visitors venturing south end up at the northern end of Grays Harbor. Traveling hundreds of miles away from their normal winter range in the chilly arctic snowy owls grace the Washington Coast, occasionally calling it home every.
At Damon Point, a 61-acre peninsula in Ocean Shores, Washington, winter birders have a chance to spot magnificent snowy owls perched on driftwood logs. In the winter of 2012-13, the snowy owl irruption, also known as a flight year, saw Damon Point experiencing a virtual invasion of these silent raptors. Up to a dozen snowy owls were observed resting and gliding over the windswept dunes. While historically not common, seeing snowy owls at Damon Point has occurred nearly every year over the past decade.
Seeing a snowy owl can depend on many factors, but there are five rules and tips to observing them safely, for both you and the owl. It is important to reiterate keeping your distance from the birds, as snowy owl experts agree that too much interaction with humans and our pets can cause them to flee from the region.
When and How to Spot Them
Snowy owls, like most owls, rest during the day and become more active at night. Although, daytime sightings aren’t unusual. When a snowy owl is pushed off of its resting perch it will wake up for a bit to search for a place to rest until dusk.
Snowy owls are easy to spot due to their unmistakable white and black markings. Besides their unique markings, snowy owls also have large catlike yellow eyes, knifelike talons, a 5-foot wingspan and are around two-feet-tall. The owls, when at Damon Point, tend to linger in the tall beach grass where driftwood logs are easy to come by.
Keep Your Distance and Remain Quiet
Too much interaction with people, especially those who are loud, can scare owls away for future generations of birders. Snowy owls, like most raptors, do not like to stay in area where they feel threatened. Hoards of people encroaching on their space and talking loudly causes them extra stress. The owls have already traveled far from their homes, and the journey has likely left them stressed and hungry. Please know that you should stay at least 50 yards away from a snowy owl at all times to limit your impact on the owls life. Also be aware that if they move because of you, you are too close and too loud. Stay quiet and back away slowly.
Keep Your Dog on a Leash
Dogs on leash, that are not barking at wildlife, or getting close to nesting areas are key. Nothing will put the future of snowy owls returning to our region in jeopardy as fast as interactions with dogs. Snowy owls search out calm, quiet areas with lots of food, making Damon Point a great spot for them. However, Damon Point is also dog friendly, and numerous visitors will allow their dogs to run off leash along the 61 acres of coastal awesomeness. The running of dogs not only scares some of the owl’s food away, it also stresses them out to the point they may fly away for good. Keep your dog extremely far away from the owl area and be respectful of their space. If they move because of you, you and your pet are too close.
Bring Binoculars and a Telephoto Lens
In order to keep your distance, yet see the owls with any detail, birding experts recommend bringing a pair of binoculars, as well as a telephoto lens if you want pictures of the amazing owls. During the day, the owls can be incredibly active, flying in all directions. By bringing binoculars, you can watch them with ease from a distance, instead of having to venture over the dunes in search of a new vantage point. Once you have found a safe distance from the owls, sit back and enjoy.
Don’t Pass Up Seeing Them
Snowy owls are NOT a yearly event, though they can frequent the same area for decades at a time. In 2012-13, many people I knew around Grays Harbor decided not to see the snowy owls that winter, instead saying that they would wait until next year to see them. In the winter of 2013-14, zero snowy owls returned to Damon Point, with only a handful returning to the entire state of Washington.
When snowy owls do return, make sure you bundle up, grab a pair of binoculars and head out to Damon Point to see the owls. The viewing of snowy owls in their natural habitat is an incredibly unique experience, and while we have gotten spoiled with the mostly regular attendance over the last decade, they could stop coming to the region at any time.
Every 4-5 years snowy owls will come in flocks to Ocean Shores, with the occasional spotting in the years between, drawing in visitors from around the region to Grays Harbor, all hoping for a glimpse of these unique and beautiful owls. On and off for about half a decade, it appeared as if the birds had found a winter home on the Washington Coast, a place where they could enjoy plenty of food and protection, while still being visible to the thousands of professional and amateur birders hoping for a glimpse of these gorgeous creatures. Sadly, with two straight warm winters, the owls have missed the beaches of Ocean Shores, skipping out on Grays Harbor County altogether. So where are the owls you ask?
In the winter of 2014, the east coast experienced a snowy owl eruption, which had the entire eastern seaboard seeing snowy owls. From Northern Florida up to Maine, snowy owls were spotted by the dozens, while the west coast had very few sightings. Following the cool air, it appears as if the winter of 2015 is following the same pattern, with hundreds of sightings reported around the Great Lakes, and only three sightings occurring in Washington State.
Since the West Coast is experiencing a warmer winter again, the snowy owls are avoiding the region, following the cool, snowy weather patterns heading to the midwest and east coast. Thanks to our warmer, drier weather, the snowy owls will more than likely skip the region yet again. While this may stop many from heading out to Damon Point, remember that the region is still home to hundreds of thousands of migratory birds, as well as bald eagles, peregrine falcons and great blue herons. Though you more than likely won’t see a snowy owl this winter, going birding at our region’s refuges and protected lands will give you a fantastic glimpse of the birds of the region and an excuse to walk the beaches of Grays Harbor.
If you are interested in keeping up with the locations of snowy owls in Grays Harbor and around the country, the good people at ebird.org have created a website where birders can update those interested with real time locations and monitoring of the majestic owls. This is, by far, the best tool to follow migration of hundreds of species of birds and will ensure your trip to find them is successful.