Hedwig at Breezy Point: A Family Adventure in Queens
The message arrived a few days before a certain nationally televised football game. “We invite you once again to view wild owls with us in recognition of Superb Owl Sunday. Do not forward this message to anyone, and do not post anywhere. We are sensitive to concerns that winter owls can be disturbed by too many visitors. Invitation is restricted to those we feel we can trust to be discreet. These are wild animals. There are no guarantees.”
All raptor sightings quicken the pulse, but none of them quite so much as an owl, seldom seen in daylight, entangled in so many layers of lore. Just after her eleventh birthday last year, my daughter spotted a barred owl sitting calmly in a tree in the Litchfield Hills in the middle of the afternoon, and yelped—surely it carried the Hogwarts acceptance letter she had been praying for?
We had to pass on that first invitation—great horned owls in the Bronx, for which I would gladly have traded the nachos and Madonna—but a week later the summons came again. Snowy owls in Queens. This time we were ready. By 8:15 Sunday morning we were skimming along the Belt Parkway, my husband, our eight-year-old son and I, squinting into the sun on the coldest morning of a weirdly warm winter.
Past the approach to the Verrazano Bridge, past the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island, down the last stretch of Flatbush Avenue to a small deserted parking lot next to Floyd Bennett Field, our rendezvous point. The street lamps were shuddering in the wind. We waited, our breath fogging the inside of the car. And eventually three more cars pulled up, their passengers bundled to the eyes. Nature ninjas.
We pulled out again in single file, following our leader, a local naturalist whose infectious enthusiasm is impervious to extremes of temperature. Over the Gil Hodges Bridge and through the Rockaways to Breezy Point. Out of the car at last, staggering through sand instead of snow, following a single lane through a landscape of tall dried grasses and poison ivy, looking innocent in winter without its oily triple leaves.
A crow slanted above us, tailed by a crowd of starlings. House finches and myrtle warblers perched in the bare bayberries. The road sliced through the scrub like a part in short hair, and where it met the sky we could see the blinding flash of water. Puffy white clouds crowded the horizon. Our shadows stretched out straight behind us.
No guarantees. We crested the dunes and the broad flat beach spread before us, strewn with broken shells and crisscrossed with tire tracks. Gannets were diving, their flight more sinuous than the gulls’, their sudden plunges throwing up more spray than the whitecaps. Massive container ships stood like buildings behind them. A cormorant pumped its wings low over the water; a black-bellied plover hugged a ridge of sand, avoiding the worst of the wind.
Someone whooped and pointed: another birder far ahead, with a spotting scope planted on the lip of the dune, focused inland. Following its line, we could see a single white dot.
If I had been alone my eye would have skipped over it—a plastic grocery bag caught in the stubble of grasses. But it had a certain solidity, and it sat still in the gusts. We planted our own tripod about a hundred yards away, and took turns kneeling to look, hardly believing our good luck.
Snowy owls are active during the day as well as at night, and this one was awake, swiveling its head to scan for small furry movements that might mean a meal. No lemmings in the metropolitan area, but plenty of mice and rats. One glance through the scope revealed the back of the owl’s head, the next its yellow eyes and the vertical black dash of its beak. It was almost pure white: a mature male. Females and juvenile males are flecked with small black vees.
We kept our distance. For a snowy owl, home is the tundra—any owl staking out a stretch of dune in Queens has come a long and weary way in search of food. The New York Birding List, an online forum where area birders post sightings, had lit up the previous week with invective against trophy-hunting photographers who harassed owls for the sake of the perfect shot—one, it was rumored, had even brought a bag of live white mice to Breezy Point to release as bait. Then there was more invective against prissy birders who do their own share of harassing, even if they don’t carry cameras. “Photographers are clearly muggles, but the birding community has its share of death eaters,” someone posted. Though there was no evidence that this particular owl was an emissary from the wizarding world, we would not risk insulting it.
We watched the owl until our smiles stiffened in the cold and the juvenile males in our group began to whine for home. Our quest had its happy ending, and without a singular purpose now we straggled back along the beach, picking up souvenirs: a battered whelk, a slate-blue scallop shell, a cockle, a well-traveled piece of coral. A horseshoe crab a foot across. A small sand-scoured coconut.
Back in the car we blasted the heat and uncurled our toes and fingers. Traffic was sluggish as usual on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The exaltation of wind and waves began to fade. At home in Yorkville, the spill of sand from our beachcombings looked out of place on the kitchen counter. But out of the wind at last, we could hear the coconut slosh when we shook it. A few taps with a hammer and it cracked around its equator, snowy white inside. And my son giggled with pure delight, just as he had when the owl came into focus on the dunes.
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