This winter is breaking all the records as we experience an “irruption” of Snowy Owls that is unprecedented and historic. For birders and photographers, Snowy Owls are a dream bird: they are big, stay out in wide-open areas (making them very visible), and, unlike most owls, are active in the daytime. Because they nest “in the land of the midnight sun” - an expression that describes life in the Arctic during the summer months, when the sun literally does not set for almost 3 months - they must be able to hunt by day.
While exciting, an invasion like this does bring out the dark side in some birders and photographers. For all going out to look for these birds, there is a delicate balance between trying to observe them and being excited about them, and then trying to let them do what they need to do. There are a whole set of birding ethics that people are supposed to follow. People get excited in the heat of the moment and forget about what they should be doing. There have been some well documented cases of bad behavior from many areas. The Snowy Owls at West Dennis have had far too many disrespectful visitors and several horror stories have been told to me. Most troubling was a story related to me about a woman who kept chasing and flushing a Snowy Owl to get a better picture with her iPhone.
Birds burn energy unnecessarily when they are forced to fly, or when they're interrupted while searching for food. Snowy Owls are not used to humans and do not seem to be particularly disturbed by human activity, but they should not be approached. Basically it comes down to common sense. Sadly, this is not equally distributed in the human population, and there are always a few people not doing what they are supposed to be doing. This is to the detriment of the birds, birders, photographers and the general public.
It's one thing to take a lot of pleasure in watching them, but we have a responsibility to be stewards of the birds while they are visiting, as well as of the resources that they need to survive the winter.
This is an excerpt of the Weekly Bird Report. The full essay can be heard in the audio post below - give it a listen.