The writing on the wall came on November 27, 2017. Literally. That was the day an admin of the New York Birders Facebook group posted on their wall, “No posting of snowy owl photographs …” That was the day the moderators of that particular Facebook group decided an intervention was needed. And on that same day, the moderators of the Birds of the Eastern United States Facebook group mandated that camera, lens and distance from bird information would be required with any snowy owl photograph posted. “Otherwise the post will be deleted.”
As the snowy owls descended from the Arctic in the snowy owl irruption of 2017/18 issues between humans and owls, humans and other humans and/or humans and the environment began in the north, spreading southward as the owls arrived. Not problems caused by many, but rather a select few – these problems have included getting too close to the birds, trampling dunes and (possibly) trespassing on private property. The Delaware snowy owl enthusiasts (full disclosure – I am one) have now been put on notice. And not by the moderators of a Facebook group, but by the staff of a national wildlife refuge. How did we get here and why is this happening?
This snowy owl irruption of 2017/18 is likely the largest snowy owl irruption in recorded history – at least until the next one. Recorded history because we have the tools to record it and more people with these tools. First, we have a bird that I’ve referred to as the holy grail of the bird world. And because it is that, because it is beautiful, because it is rare outside of the Arctic, a lot of people, including me, want to see them. We also have more birders and photographers than ever before – all levels of each, from novice to professional. We have more ways to document sightings of snowy owls and with each of these, word spreads quickly of owl locations. We have Facebook pages and groups, many of which are state / geographic specific. We also have internet-based listservs and forums, many of which preceded social media and are still active today – again, geographic specific. We also have eBird by Cornell University, which contains an enormous amount of information on birds, including searchable databases of confirmed (and not) sightings of birds. If you’re interested in a specific species (such as snowy owls), you can search for all the sightings in a given time period with exact geographic location. You can also get customized emails sent from eBird with this information. There are also plenty of bird clubs. In other words, news of snowy owl sightings spreads fast. So, we have a lot of snowy owls visiting, a lot of people wanting to see and photograph them and armed with the knowledge of where they’re located.
Snowy owls fly a tremendously long distance from the Arctic and must do the same in reverse once they decide it’s time to go home. Do large or even small crowds have the potential to bother a snowy owl? And if they are bothered, why wouldn’t the snowy owl (that has wings) just fly to another location? Snowy owls that stay for a while in the same location have likely found bountiful prey (sustenance) or they’re possibly sick and can’t fly. Take a healthy owl that needs to sleep and eat – that’s all they need to do. Add in the presence of people that aren’t allowing the owl to rest, hunt or are scaring its prey away and you have problems. An owl that can’t sleep or hunt can and will become unhealthy, regardless of whether they’re diurnal. There are also reported (and photographed) instances of people going very close to the owls – too close. Why do they do this? Maybe because they don’t know any better, maybe because all of this fandom is still relatively new and the rules of the road haven’t always been clear or maybe because of the desire of what they think will be a better or closer photograph. Do you know what BIF means? BIF is an acronym for bird in flight, specifically used for a photograph of a bird in flight. For some photographers, this is what they’re after. They want the action. Getting close to a bird will flush it – make it fly. There are also stories of photographers baiting birds – giving it food, in order to get a photograph – in order to get that BIF. It’s unethical. And for photographers and everyone else, these birds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act – it’s unlawful to harass them.
What we now see playing out on social media (and beyond) is a lot of ugliness, name calling and blaming. And in the bird enthusiast world, there is often a division between two groups. Whether it’s truly a real or just perceived division is another question. In this context, a birder is someone who solely wants to see and admire birds. A photographer is someone who wants to photograph them. To my knowledge, there is no term for someone who is both. I’m not even sure it’s allowed (kidding). Back to the ugliness – there is a bird on a beach in Delaware that has drawn flocks to see it (some say there are two snowy owls there, but not sure of that). There are now countless comments on the Delaware Birding Facebook group of blame, shame and name calling – it’s ugly. The good news is it finally forced some dialogue and a stand taken by a federal agency. Yesterday, Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge posted twice on their Facebook page addressing this issue.
The first post reads, “Due to the concern of the reports to the Refuge of inappropriate behavior occurring by visitors while attempting to view the Snowy Owl at Fowler’s Beach, Refuge staff is imploring all visitors to adhere to ethical standards of maintaining their distance while attempting to view all wildlife. If the Snowy Owl is overly disturbed or chased (by those wishing to get a closer look) his ability to hunt and rest will be diminished. This could compromise the health and safety of the owl. If this disturbance does not cease, the Refuge will be forced to close the Beach to all access during the remainder of the Owl’s stay. If you have any questions please feel free to contact the Refuge directly. Refuge staff will be at the Beach to answer any questions this morning, from 10:30 am til 12:00 pm.”
The second post reads, “We understand that the snowy owl is an exciting sight, but please be respectful of the bird as well as fellow visitors and the cleanliness of refuge property. In addition, we discourage the use of playback devices for the purpose of getting a better look, since it can be disturbing to the bird and other visitors and would be difficult to avoid violating Refuge regulations against disturbance and harassment in doing so. Adherence to these common sense rules will ensure a good visit for you and a restful stay for the owl.” They also posted this picture below.
Further addressing this issue, Project SNOWstorm has published snowy owl etiquette here – https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/snowy-owl-etiquette/
In my interview with Dave Brinker, one of the founders of Project SNOWstorm, we discuss snowy owl etiquette and much more. Dave offers a wealth of knowledge on snowy owls. That interview is below.