Updated: Jan 27
When snowy owls come to town, they draw everyone's attention, but our obsession with these massive white raptors can harm them.
About Snowy Owls
'Snowies' are at the top of the food chain, moving like ghosts on the frozen dunes. During summer breeding months, these huge owls live far above the Arctic Circle in 24-hours of daylight, hunting small mammals such as lemmings. Snowy owls are an 'irruptive' species, meaning that they react to changes in their Arctic habitat by traveling vast distances in search of food. From November to April, snowies can be seen in the Northern US and Canada, occupying open fields and coastlines, with higher densities of animals seen during irruptive years. Like other owl species, these huge white birds spend their winter days asleep, and nights hunting.
Crowds of all ages, races, and socio-economic backgrounds venture from far and wide to capture a shot of their wild, yellow eyes. These animals have an ability to captivate people like no other bird. However, when these same crowds disturb and harass snowy owls during the day, forcing them to take flight and relocate to a different area constantly, the animal's survival becomes compromised.
Here are a few tips to help you respectfully experience snowies this Winter:
Give snowy owls space
Keep at least 50 yards, or 150 feet away from snowy owls.
Keep the location of snowy owls a secret!
Never geo-tag any of your snowy owl photos on social media! This can alert other birders as to where these animals are spending their time, and attract crowds.
Educate your friends, family, and fellow birdwatchers to respect the space of wildlife
Share educational resources (like this article!) on social media, and talk about respectful wildlife viewing with your friends and family. You can help prevent harmful interactions with snowy owls before they ever occur by educating the people around you, and leading by example.
If you ever witness someone wildlife harassment taking place, politely approach the individual if you feel comfortable, and share these tips about proper etiquette with them.
Report illegal activities
What do you do when someone is blatantly harassing or disturbing a snowy owl?
In these tough situations, the best thing you can do is to document the harassment of wildlife, and report the violation to your local environmental law enforcement. Ex: Massachusetts Environmental Police
A Story About Snowy Owls
On a recent trip to visit my family, we decided to go on an adventure looking for snowy owls at a local beach.
As soon as we pulled up to the beach, there were signs everywhere clearly explaining to:
Stay off the dunes.
Keep a safe distance away from wildlife.
Simple enough, right? We began walking along a path to the beach, and I almost immediately spotted a snowy owl sitting on the dunes a long way out (about 200 yards). It was tough to see clearly, but with my zoom lens (300mm) and our binoculars, we were able to get a decent look! I counted that as a mission accomplished in my book, it's easy to appreciate these animals from afar.
We continued walking the trail loop, encountering other birders along the way. As we made our way towards the beach, we saw more and more people walking all over the dune-grass, clearly in search of the snowy owl. Walking in the dunes can destroy these sensitive coastal habitats, and lead to serious erosion.
Once we made it down to the beach, it wasn't difficult to figure out exactly where the owl was hiding. At least 30 photographers could be seen less than 50 feet from the animal, crowding it on all sides. The owl took flight further down the beach to escape the crowd, but the persistent onlookers followed in pursuit.
Now with the crowd at least 300 yards away from us, we decided to continue on our loop back to the car. No more than 15 minutes had passed before we saw a huge white figure soar over the dunes, away from the hoard of people once again, and right past us. We stood, frozen on the beach as we watched this amazing bird glide inches from the sand, before landing on another dune 75 yards away from us. Slowly backing away from the animal, we were in awe.
I turned around and saw the relentless crowd hustling towards us. I tried to warn the first few individuals, but they blatantly ignored my warnings and selfishly moved within 50 feet of the bird once again. With so many people refusing to listen, and motivated by the need to take a good picture at the expense of their subject, there was nothing we could do besides leave. As we turned around to head out, I heard another woman echo my concerns to her fellow birders.