Nature Connection: Keep Your Distance, Please

By: Mary Richmond

Here it is December and some of the superstars of the bird world have returned to their favorite winter roosting and hunting spots. This means snowy owls may now be seen at some area beaches and dune areas.

Because of the undisciplined and often downright disturbing responses to this annual event, most reputable birding sites online no longer publish information about where and when to find these beautiful birds.

The truth is snowy owls aren’t hard to find if you know where to look. They have a tendency to hang out in the same spot for weeks, maybe months, and they don’t appear too afraid of people. Here’s the thing. Most of the snowy owls we have here in the winter are first-year birds, meaning they only fledged this past summer. They come from the arctic tundra which means they have no experience with people. 

Animals and birds with limited or no experience with humans display a disarming, often charming, tolerance for onlookers to get up close and personal with them. They don’t know better. If we get too close, however, they will flee, for they do have an innate sense of danger. In the natural world, too much proximity is often translated as, “Get yourself out of there now!”

Flight uses a lot of energy. In the wild, birds store as much energy as they can but cold and wet weather demands a lot from their light and feathery bodies. They must eat and rest, eat and rest, eat and rest if they are to survive. Our causing them to fly, even short distances, interrupts this natural rhythm, causing them to use up energy reserves much too quickly.

Young birds are often not great hunters. They are still learning. The number of young birds that die of starvation and exposure is unknown but dead snowy owls are found every winter. When examined after death most are emaciated. 

Snowy owls are mostly nocturnal, so when we see them, they are often sleepy, if not sleeping. Keeping them awake and wary is not in their best interest.

It is very exciting to see a beautiful bird or animal, whether it is a large mammal such as a deer or coyote or an owl. Naturalists call these “charismatic fauna,” animals with charm and beauty that people like to relate to in a personal way. An unexpected meeting with one of these can actually take our breath away.

The best thing to do when you spot an animal or bird that you want to get a better look at is to stop. Stand still. Take a breath. Often the animal or bird will also stop, perhaps even look right back at you. If you’re a regular nature watcher you may have binoculars or a camera with you. Go ahead, take a better look or snap a picture but from where you are, not a few feet away.

Snowy owls tend to gather crowds. They also gather people who often are so excited to see such a beautiful bird they do foolish things like try to get super close to take a picture with their phone. Some may even attempt selfies with their subject.

If you see someone doing this, it’s easy to get upset but that may also upset the bird or animal so keep your suggestions quiet and kind. Educating people is far better than criticizing or castigating them. And to be fair, I’ve seen people who do know better doing it anyway, including those with huge camera lenses that far outweigh their common sense.

As fall makes way for winter there are many wonderful birds to find at local beaches. There are the usual visitors, assorted scoters, common eiders, a few species of loons and mergansers. If you are patient and in the right places you may also see various alcids, such as murres, razorbills, even a puffin or two, flying by. Harlequin ducks are incredibly beautiful ducks that can be seen here in the winter. They aren’t common but they can be found in several locations on what seems like a regular basis. Look, too, for the occasionally Pacific loon that shows up, Iceland gulls, and other unusual visitors.

It's hunting season right now so be cognizant of that if you are out and about looking for birds or animals in the woods, marshes, or dunes. Wear your orange when out walking and be sure your dogs do, too.

Although we are heading into winter and our summer bird friends are long gone, there’s still plenty to enjoy outdoors. 

If you do go looking for owls, whether our year-round great horned owls or our winter visiting snowy owls resting during the day, please be kind and give them plenty of space. This is a tough time of year to be a bird. As tempting as it may be to try to get up close, please remember you will not be doing them any favors. No social media post is worth the health and well-being of any bird or animal. Just enjoy the view and remember that every view of a magnificent bird or animal is a gift to savor and enjoy.