The winter of 2013-14 will be remembered as a very snowy winter in the Northeast, no matter how many storms we get and how many inches fall. It's been one of the greatest Snowy Owl irruption years in decades for the region. It's hard to determine just how many owls are here, but the numbers are unprecedented for the 20+ years that I've been birding.
THE GOOD - In Connecticut alone there have likely been at least a dozen different owls this year, mostly along the shoreline, although it's difficult to pin down because they may be moving around. There have been sightings from Groton to Greenwich with as many as four seen at one location in Stratford. In Rhode Island, it's a similar story and I've seen owls (in some cases multiple owls) in Westerly, Charlestown, South Kingstown, Jamestown and Middletown. In New York, there were five different Snowies on a single stretch of Long Island beach. And in Massachusetts birders have reported seeing eight different owls at one time on the North Shore. The most amazing report I've heard is from NewFoundland, where a researcher counted 75 in one location and more than 200 in a single day. Snowy Owls have been reported all the way down the eastern seaboard, as far south as Florida and Bermuda and into the midwest. The invasion is so impressive that EBird has a special section just for Snowy Owl information. http://ebird.org/content/ebird/news/gotsnowies2013/
Having so many Snowy Owls around has made this an interesting and exciting winter for birders and photographers, myself included. With so many people getting out to see and photograph the Snowies there have been some other great finds, including some other cool owls. Here are my observations from this "snowy" winter.
The first Snowy Owls started showing up in southern New England a little before Thanksgiving. My first sighting of the season was a darkly barred immature female in Charlestown, RI on November 26th, and one was found in Connecticut the same day.
A few days later I went back to Charlestown and saw three Snowies at the end of East Beach, at times getting pushed around by fisherman and off-roaders who frequent the area. It seemed like more owls were showing up every day.
Later that afternoon I went to Sachuest Point NWR in Middletown, Rhode Island where at least two more Snowy Owls were seen. There were dozens of people constantly stopping to look at one of the owls perched on the rocky shoreline. The word was out and there were lot's of birders and photographers, but also many hikers who were just out for a walk who were excited to see a white owl. Most were happy to watch from a distance, but with so many people eager to see and photograph them, the pressure on the owls mounted. Around the Northeast the rift between birders and photographers ignited almost immediately.
THE BAD -The birder vs. photographer battle has gone on for a long time, and owl sightings are almost always a fuse that ignites an explosion. Initial reaction by some birders that all the Snowy Owls here are starving, near death and unable to withstand any disturbance are often overblown, in my opinion. Surely, some of them are in desperate shape, and may not survive, but this is likely to be the case even without human disturbance. In nature, a large percentage of young birds, especially birds of prey, do not survive their first year. Human disturbance of any kind might compound this. Unfortunately, though, some of the criticism of photographers in particular (I use the term to include anyone with a camera) is justified.
The picture above, from Long Island, is not intended to imply improper behavior. The photographer is farther a way from the owls than it appears as the distance is compressed by using a telephoto lens. As a photographer, I have felt the disapproval of some birders for getting too close to birds for a picture. With 20 years of experience and a telephoto lens, I think I can judge how close to approach birds and other wildlife for the best results, both mine and theirs, although I can't say that I've never flushed an owl. This year I've seen a lot of photographers' actions with the Snowy Owls, some deliberate and some due to inexperience, that hurt our cause. These are only my opinions.
With the explosion of digital photography, there are now many more people interested in photographing birds and wildlife, and therefore a lot more chances for disturbance. Some are new to birding and/or photography, and may lack the experience and judgement to act appropriately. Others are experienced birders or photographers who may feel their knowledge justifies "aggressive" photography. Whatever the circumstances, here are a few examples of "bad" behavior by photographers I've seen this winter.
The most annoying example was on the trip I made with a friend to Long Island last month. There were five Snowy Owls (two pictured above) on one stretch of beach, and many photographers with big and small lenses were there to photograph them. The owls were a bit skittish, likely because there were a lot of people around. Competing for subjects can be frustrating for photographers, especially when some are inconsiderate of the others. One photographer with a shorter telephoto (300mm) repeatedly approached the owls too closely, causing them to fly off. I got a bunch of flight shots of owls that this photographer flushed from their perches and towards me. And when the owls landed near other photographers, he would immediately walk directly towards them, almost racing to get there first, cutting in front the others in the process. At first I thought he just didn't know what he was doing, but the more I watched, I believe he was doing it deliberately to get flight shots. Walking quickly toward the owls, raising his camera as he got close, ready to get them flying as he chased them away. Besides the obvious, that he had no concern for the birds, he also had no regard for the many other photographers there, either.
Another instance was in Stratford at Long Beach, where an unhealthy owl drew a crowd of spectators near the parking lot. This was the owl that I wrote about in my previous post that was all muddy. Although this owl did not fly off when several people approached it very closely, it was clearly disturbed when people began to walk all around it to photograph it from different angles. I'm not sure of the circumstances, but I believe someone in the group had contacted a rehabilitator (more than likely saving it's life) and were waiting for him to arrive. I'm sure their hearts were in the right place, and the picture is not intended to embarrass anyone, but surrounding an owl, or any wild bird or animal is likely to scare it.
Another example of this was at Beavertail State Park in Rhode Island where a group surrounded an owl on a utility pole, photographing it from all different directions. It flew off to a lower perch closer to me, and some in the group hurried past me towards it, one exclaiming that boreal birds had no fear of people, sending it flying off again, of course. With so many people hoping to see and photograph the owls there are some common sense guidelines (that I try to follow) that will work better for the owls and photographers, and invite less criticism from those with the scopes and binoculars.
1. Move slowly and quietly, and if possible, stay low.
2. In a group, stay and move together, don't spread out or surround the bird
3. Don't get "too close"- Individual birds may react differently, but start shooting from a safe distance and gradually move closer as it allows. Don't be afraid to crop your photos and be realistic, you're not likely to get a tight portrait with your IPhone, although I've seen people try.
4. If an owls is perched or lands in front of another photographer, let them at least get a few pictures before you start to approach. Ask to move in if possible, and approach slowly and quietly from directly behind the other photographer. Don't cut in front without asking. Trust me, you won't miss a mortgage payment because you didn't get that killer owl shot.
5. Don't deliberately flush an owl to get flight shots. Don't try to alarm or startle it to get it to move or open it's eyes. Be patient and let sleeping owls lie, they'll wake up when the light gets nice.
Okay, enough about the bad. It really shouldn't that long because it's been a really good time.
THE UGLY - With so many Snowies around, I've hoped to get that great close up picture of a perfect specimen in a spectacular natural setting and beautiful light, but so far it hasn't all come together. I see a lot of incredible pictures other photographers have taken, and keep hoping I'll get my chance. Ugly doesn't describe the owls I've photographed, except maybe the dirty owl at Long Beach in Stratford. It has more to do with the places some of them choose to perch. Most of the owls I've seen in ugly places I have not bothered to photograph. These include buildings, rooftops, light poles and messy beaches.
The only real pretty spot I've photographed a Snowy is on the dunes in Long Island. The Rhode Island beaches are nice, Connecticut less so and I have not even been to Massachusetts or beyond to see them. Many of the owls I've found, though, have unfortunately chosen some of the ugliest spots available to hang out. In Westerly, Rhode Island a Snowy spent a whole afternoon perched on a makeshift drive-in movie screen in a dirt lot across the street from Misquamicut Beach, only moving when the wind caused it to lose balance and almost fall off. The owls blood stained feathers only added to the ugly scene, although I guess that meant it had eaten recently.
As the sun lowered in the sky and the bird woke up, I was hoping it would fly across the road to the beach or dunes, but instead it dropped down to the adjacent lot and perched on ....... yes, a beautiful water slide. Hard to get a nice shot in this setting.
As I mentioned earlier, an owl was perched in the open at Beavertail State Park atop a utility pole near the bathrooms. It eventually flew to a perch right next to the lighthouse. Unfortunately, it chose a utility pole with a big, ugly transformer.
Although I have taken more pictures of the owls this year than in any other year, I'm still looking for that truly spectacular shot. Despite not having the photographic success I'd hoped for, it's been nice to have so many chances just to watch Snowy Owls in action. Since they are sticking around for the long haul, it's great that so many people have had a chance to watch the owl show, as well. Please check back soon for Part Two of this Snowy Winter.