Snowy Owl Season: Reflections on Winter 2017-18

Please enjoy owls responsibly

Bubo scandiacus is a highly evocative species. As one of the largest, most striking members of the ever popular owl family, Snowies have a special magic that drives people wild. Wherever these Arctic predators go, excitement bordering on chaos usually follows. I’ve been hooked on Snowy Owls my entire life. I spent my early childhood dragging around a beloved plush Snowy, and my quest to see the real deal in the flesh drove my development into a proper birder. Growing up on Long Island, a popular wintering site for visiting owls, afforded me the opportunity to observe them with more consistency than most admirers who live south of the Canadian border. This most recent season was special. The scale of the irruption and the magnitude of the response in the birding community felt quite different from the historic invasion 4 years ago. Now that the birds are once again retreating to the northernmost reaches of the continent, I can’t help thinking back on my experiences and encounters from the past several months.

The First Flurries

As usual, the fun began in November. An article from Audubon was my first indication that anything special was going to happen. It’s a rare winter that Snowy Owls don’t appear in coastal New York, so one can easily lose track of time between the major irruptions. The update from the Arctic predicting a strong flight was thus a welcome surprise. I was excited by the prospect of another big event. Since the timing of the vacation lines up nicely with expected arrival dates, I traditionally start Snowy searching in earnest during Thanksgiving break. I made a trek along Jones Beach and was rewarded with nice views of an owl roosting in the dunes near the inlet. My efforts during an impromptu “rarity round-up” the following weekend turned up at least 5 distinct individuals in one day exploring the barrier beaches. I ended up observing the birds on no less than a dozen separate occasions throughout the winter, often with multiple owls present at the same site. Snowy Owls were back in force, just as advertised!

I tuned in once again to the blog for Project SNOWstorm, eager to see the impact of the influx. The research team tagged a number of new birds throughout the season, and regular website updates provided an inside look at the inner workings of the movement. Detailed accounts of returning birds’ journeys and assessments of unfortunate deaths all served to flesh out our collective awareness of the challenges Snowy Owls face in their nomadic existences. Tracking the invasion on eBird revealed a pattern broadly similar to the last population boom 4 years ago. Most of the action was east of the Rocky Mountains, concentrated on favored haunts along the Atlantic Coast and the Great Lakes. To my knowledge, no Snowies made it to Bermuda or Hawaii this year, but multiple sightings as far south as Texas gave residents of the central states a chance to join the party. There were plenty of opportunities to get acquainted with this captivating species all across North America.

Winter Storm Warning

The darker side of Snowy Owl fever reared its ugly head early in the season. Many people have strong feelings about owls, and heightened emotions lead to heightened tensions. Unlike their retiring, woodland-dwelling brethren, Snowies are open country predators that perch conspicuously during the daylight hours. If you go looking in the right type of habitat during a big irruption, it’s sometimes hard to miss these large white birds. A regrettably significant portion of observers show a tendency to approach the resting raptors too closely. Owls who are uncomfortable with the proximity of a human will flush, flying a short distance away to reset their personal space boundary. Individual birds are often pushed to flight repeatedly as their careless admirers pursue them without taking the hint. Those who care about the well-being of Snowy Owls (i.e. the vast majority of birders, photographers, casual nature enthusiasts, and people who’ve ever heard of them) don’t want to see unnecessary stress placed on the birds. Fiery disagreements about where to draw the lines and what to do about those who cross them are an annual fixture in areas the birds frequent. Irruption years turn the heat up to 11.

We’re no strangers to nature-based drama here in New York. With so many humans living in close proximity to a surprisingly diverse community of wildlife, friction at times seems inevitable. In addition to an active and closely connected birding community, Long Island and NYC have a large population of nature photographers. The battle lines in the Snowy Owl wars are usually drawn up along the boundaries of this overly simplified dichotomy. Taking a photo of a bird involves a great deal more effort than simply seeing it, so individuals toting fancy cameras are singled out for approaching too closely to obtain their dream shot. As social media overtakes listservs as the preferred method of communication, the polarization seems to be worsening. Photographers are stereotyped as ignorant and irresponsible, while birders are labeled elitist and condescending. In the hopes of mitigating the madness by eliminating the incentive of “likes,” The New York Birders Facebook group officially banned photographs of Snowy Owls this winter. The thread announcing this decision remained active for months, filled to the brim with name calling and squabbling over whether the moratorium was really necessary. Those who prefer binoculars and those who prefer cameras were at each other’s throats despite their shared interest in the same birds. Multiple birders ended up leaving the group altogether due to disagreements about owl etiquette.

Blizzard Conditions 

What is it about Snowy Owls that provokes such impassioned insanity? Quite simply, they’re majestic. Owls in general tend to attract attention, with their expressive, vaguely human-like faces and fascinating behavior and ecology. Snowies are especially adored, inhabiting the upper tier of popularity long before Harry Potter‘s Hedwig appeared on the pop culture scene. The stark contrast of those fierce golden eyes set against coal-flecked ivory plumage is a sight to behold. Recent high-profile irruptions have only enhanced the public’s obsession with these mysterious visitors from the north. Spotting one of the winter wanderers at the local airport or farm is the closest many will ever get to the Arctic itself. Such an encounter makes the world seem just a little bit more extraordinary.

In addition to being equal parts beautiful and adorable, Snowy Owls are certified badasses. Although the breeding season revolves around the cyclic abundance of lemmings, we now know that adults have more varied tastes. They are accomplished predators on par with their cousins the eagle-owls, capable of tackling mammals as large as hares. Birds ranging in size from buntings to herons are chased down in midair and plucked out of the sky. Some individuals have been seen snatching fish out of the water, and Project SNOWstorm reported a Snowy that opportunistically monopolized a dolphin carcass in Delaware. Recent research has also revealed the true importance of ice to this species. Older individuals may spend entire winters hunting eiders and gulls on the frozen seas north of the Arctic Circle. Owls that come south often gravitate towards lakes and rivers, where they can use icebergs and buoys as floating perches to ambush sleeping seabirds at night. The only Snowy hunts I’ve personally witnessed have involved small, hidden rodents, but I once discovered a bloody-taloned individual dozing near the remains of a half-eaten Brant. Imagine watching that kill in progress!

Some cool kids on the internet like to pretend that these awe-inspiring birds aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. They lump the species with Bald Eagles and backyard hummingbirds as being too mainstream, claiming they are “trash birds” that sit around all day, not doing anything. Despite bearing more than a passing resemblance to a stray plastic bag when seen from a distance, Snowy Owls are anything but garbage. A sleepy Snowy still looks a lot more impressive than the average drowsy human, and any complaints about boring behavior evaporate at the sight of a dramatic aerial hunt or a scuffle with a territorial Peregrine. These birds have captured the imagination of civilizations throughout the Northern Hemisphere since prehistoric times, and it’s easy to see the allure. Even in the modern digital age, this is an animal capable of making headlines anywhere it turns up. That nearly universal appeal can be a powerful tool for explaining the importance of conservation and ecological research, at a time when support for science is more crucial than ever.

The Turn of the Seasons

With winter now behind us, Snowy Owls have begun winging their way homeward to the tundra. Many birders are likely breathing a sigh of relief that the vitriolic arguments associated with owl protection are temporarily paused, preparing instead to field questions about “orphaned” fledglings and concerns that migration seems weird this year. Just because the owls have gone for now, however, doesn’t mean they should be forgotten. In the wake of this very snowy season, I feel that it is important to keep in mind some of the lessons learned during the past months.

Respect for nature is a critical component of ethical birding and photography. All who explore the outdoors will at some point approach an animal too closely and accidentally startle them, but it is necessary to learn from this experience. I have seen Snowies flushed countless times over the years, and the birds always give clear indications of their discomfort before taking off. Take notice of behavioral cues like a suddenly alert posture, shuffling feet, and active scanning for a new perch. These are signals to back off. If you inadvertently surprise an owl while walking or it tires of your presence and relocates, advance no further. Repeated daytime flights disturb the bird’s much needed rest and expose it to dangers like territorial raptors. Opposing viewpoints of the owl ethics issue paint this species as either completely defenseless or too tough to be bothered by mere humans, but the truth lies somewhere in between. Although the myth that irrupting Snowies are all starving and desperate has been debunked by new studies, forcing an individual to burn energy unnecessarily is inconsiderate at best. Responsible awareness seems to be on the rise, as eBird’s Sensitive Species initiative and the #ethicalowlphoto movement both launched in 2017. I wouldn’t dream of telling people not to go looking for these incredible birds. Doing so responsibly, and gently educating others about why and how they should behave respectfully, is vastly preferable to personal accusations and attacks on perceived miscreants.

Although it was formerly considered a species of Least Concern, the most recent edition of the IUCN Red List published this winter upgraded the Snowy Owl to Vulnerable status based on more accurate estimates of its global population. Under the specter of global climate change, with fossil fuel companies setting their sights on protected tundra preserves, the future is uncertain for organisms that inhabit the high northern latitudes of Earth. Snowy Owls are fantastic ambassadors for the plight of the Arctic ecosystem. Charismatic, famous species help get people invested in protecting habitat to the benefit of lower-profile animals and plants. The Snowy has an advantage over even the widely adored Polar Bear or Arctic Fox: accessibility. Every once in a while, when the conditions are right, the owls journey south to our own neighborhoods. The general populace has a spectacular opportunity to connect with these birds on a personal level. Furthermore, recent research efforts tied to the past few irruptions have revealed more about Snowy Owls than ever before. The full scope of their unique ecology, including their hunting behaviors and seasonal movements, is gradually coming to light. We have a much better understanding of the threats posed by vehicular collisions, accidental poisoning, and the forces of nature as they wander in search of suitable food sources. Even so, there are still many unanswered questions about the lives of these magnificent creatures.

What Comes Next?

Now more than ever, it’s imperative that we work to learn more about Snowies so we can better protect them and their Arctic home. Project SNOWstorm is responsible for incredible advancements in our knowledge of these birds, and the citizen science results provided by public databases like eBird and iNaturalist are invaluable. Showing support for these initiatives and other conservation efforts is a great way to contribute to scientific endeavors. Stay alert and keep an eye out for proposals and programs that would threaten tundra habitat in Alaska and Canada. Don’t hesitate to let your voice be heard by the right people when it really counts.

On the homefront, the easiest way to help Snowy Owls is to spread the word about why they matter. I’m a big believer in education. I’ve seen firsthand what a difference it makes when people know and and care about a cause. Take someone out on a bitterly cold winter morning and show them that big, fluffy lump napping on a frosty dune. Let them experience the electrifying feeling when that formidable gaze is cast in their direction. Explain to them (kindly) why it’s best to admire from afar, and use that topic to start a conversation about why owls, the Arctic tundra, and environmentalism really matter.

Most importantly of all: enjoy your time spent in the company of Snowy Owls! Whenever you happen to cross paths with one of these northern nomads, allow yourself to indulge in the magic of the moment. There’s nothing else quite like it.

Snowy skyline