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Enjoy snowy owls but keep your distance

Published on

Cathy Dobson

Local photographers and birdwatchers are flocking to area shorelines and open fields this winter and finding a substantial number of snowy owls.

Snowy Owl photo by Ronny D’Haene.

The big birds with their fluffy feathered feet are one of the most captivating to photograph but – be warned – you aren’t doing them any favours if you get too close.

“The majority who are out looking for snowy owls are respectful but some just don’t understand,” says Sharon Nethercott, a birder and member of Lambton Wildlife.

“Just because a snowy owl doesn’t fly away doesn’t mean it’s not terrified,” she said.

Snowy owls are one of the few in the owl family that are diurnal, meaning they hunt in the day. They spend their summers in the Arctic where the sun shines 24/7 and migrate to southern Canada and the northern U.S. in winter.

Sarnia-Lambton has been a favourite place for the snowy owl for a number of winters and this one’s no different, said Nethercott.

The issue is that, coming out of the pandemic, there are more photographers and birders than ever and they need to be well-informed in order to protect snowy owls.

“It’s fine to get photos, but try to be quiet about it,” said Nethercott.

Social media posts of snowy owls that indicate where a photo was taken, will draw a lot of people to those locations – and that’s not a good idea.

Deb Lumley took up nature photography when she retired and goes out equipped with her Nikon Z 9 and a long lens most days. She recently spotted a snowy owl and watched for seven hours from a respectful distance to get the shots she wanted.

Snowy owl photo by Deborah Lumley.

“It’s amazing to see a snowy owl,” she said. “They are so captivating, especially when they take flight or preen their feathers.”

Snowy owls are one of the biggest of their species, weighing in between three and five pounds. Snowies tend to hunt at dawn and dusk and eat a variety of small critters including lemmings, hares, mice, ducks and seabirds.

Snowy Owl photo by Ronny D’Haene.

If they feel threatened by close human contact, they may be too afraid to hunt, which is why people should enjoy them briefly and at a long distance, according to The Cornell Lab’s All About Birds website.

The National Audubon Society notes that snowy owls spend most of the year in the arctic tundra and aren’t accustomed to humans, unleashed dogs or the urban landscape.

The Audubon Society’s Great Lakes division has these tips for viewing snowy owls to keep them stress-free and safe:

Tip #1: Give snowy owls space. A good rule of thumb is to view snowy owls from a distance, using binoculars or a scope, rather than approaching the owl. If you “flush” the owl, or cause it to move to a new area, you have gotten too close and need to back away or leave.

Tip #2: Don’t lure owls with audio recordings. While it might be tempting to use audio recordings to attract snowy owls closer to you, hearing another owl’s call — even a recorded one — can be stressful to snowy owls.

Tip #3: Leave “live baiting” to the pros. Scientists and rehabbers use live bait like mice to entice owls for banding, relocation and rehabilitation. However, this practice can be dangerous for owls when it’s done by photographers and birders looking to get a glimpse. Owls routinely lured by live bait learn to associate people with food, and can be drawn to dangerous places – like roads, or airports – where people can be found.


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