It’s happening again! No, not another government shutdown. That’s next month. What we have here is another invasion of Snowy Owls.
In January of 2012, we told you right here about one of the biggest irruptions of Snowy Owls many birders could ever remember. Looking back on that, I said irruptions were a natural event that could predictably occur every four or five years in relation to the population of lemmings in the Arctic. So, why is it happening again two years later? No one knows for sure and it’s caught most of us by surprise.
2008 was a flight year for Snowy Owls. (Flight year is another term for the phenomenon of typically non-migratory birds moving out of their range in significant numbers. Irruption is another term for a sudden increase in numbers of a particular animal in an area. In casual conversation owl irruptions are often labeled invasions.) The late fall of 2008 saw significant numbers of Snowies showing up down the Eastern Seaboard. Cape Cod National Seashore and Gateway National Recreation Area hosted several owls, as they often do during irruptions.
Following that, 2009-10 and 2010-11 were very sparse winters for owls south of the sub-Arctic. Then, in the fall of 2011, the floodgates opened and the Snowy Owls invaded. By March of 2012 they had been sighted as far south as Dallas and South Carolina. It was the mother-of-all-irruptions and not something anyone expected to see again right away.
Last winter brought higher than usual numbers of owls, but nothing indicative of a significant flight year. It was more of an “echo irruption” with leftover birds from the population explosion the previous year straggling back for another winter, searching for food well south of their range. Going into this fall I predicted a very weak winter for Snowy Owls. This proves that either I’m a horrible prognosticator or that birds are often difficult to predict. It’s likely both of those are true.
A week ago, I awoke to a report of a Snowy Owl lounging on the beach of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, not somewhere you’d expect one in anything but a strong flight year. I went to the eBird maps and quickly posted (on my blog) maps of Snowy sightings from Novembers of the previous seven years. It looked like it was going to be a good year for owls, and it seemed like it was shaping up to be an East Coast irruption similar to 2008 and less like the 2011 invasion of the Great Lakes and Plains.
On Saturday I got to see my first Snowy of the season, a nice young male, in Michigan. A Peregrine Falcon flew by and dive-bombed the owl, only to be rebuffed by the owl spreading its wings and essentially snarling in the falcon’s face.
That interaction is the stuff of legends and I’d only seen it in pictures before. It was one of those moments when you put down your binoculars and ask yourself out loud, “Did I just see that?”
That night, I told some of my casual birding friends that they’d likely get to see a Snowy Owl easily this winter as my predictions were obviously quite flawed. The following morning I realized that may have been an understatement when I received two emails. The first said there was a Snowy Owl chilling in Bermuda. I paused to digest how incredible that was, only to then read that there were seven owls on a Lake Michigan breakwall I’d visited the day before. Right about then, the birding Internet blew up. An impromptu Snowy Owl tour was launched in and around Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. There were eight owls prowling the Cleveland lakefront. Others had almost made it to the Ohio Valley in southern Illinois and Indiana. It’s an invasion.
I’m not sure why this is happening. Two winters ago it was believed the Snowy Owl population irrupted because of an exceptionally abundant crop of lemmings during the previous summer on their nesting grounds. With more food available, many more hatchlings survived to become full-sized owls in need of food once winter arrived. Older males drove juveniles out of their territory and we benefitted with an influx of white owls. Are they showing up this year for the opposite reason – the lemming population has crashed and the owls are starving? That seems more likely than another bumper crop of lemmings happening so soon, but it may be a little while before we figure it out.
In the meantime, we’ve got Snowy Owls. Unfortunately we also have what’s come to be known infamously as owl wars. This isn’t owl-on-owl aggression or falcons and owls getting testy like the situation I witnessed. It’s humans getting aggressive with humans about the owls, and it can be pretty ugly.
Arctic owls, like Snowies and Great Gray Owls, tend to not be very afraid of humans as they don’t typically encounter us and our bumbling ways where they live. A Snowy Owl in a field or on a beach will often sit very still and allow a person to approach closely. This makes for a sometimes irresistible temptation for birders and photographers looking to get the view or shot of a lifetime. Since the owls are out of their element and often stressed and hungry to start with, people adding stress by creeping up very close to them is certainly no good for the owls.
When more cautious observers witness irresponsible behavior, drama often ensues. Everything from public shaming to physical confrontation has been reported. It’s an ugly scene and is often the result someone simply not realizing they’re getting too close to the owl. Here’s a quote from American Birding Association President Jeff Gordon on Sunday about heading off owl wars:
It's apparent that a MAJOR push of Snowy Owls into areas of dense human population is underway. It could peter out but it could build, too. Every time Snowies (or other owls) move into areas with lots of people, there are certain predictable conflicts, often involving trespassing and/or birds being pursued and flushed, sometimes repeatedly. I ask that all birders, most especially ABA members, do what they can to help head off, moderate, and mediate these conflicts.
The ABA Code of Ethics offers a lot of good advice for these situations and I suggest reading it and distributing it widely.
I also would suggest that though the Code clearly says that the welfare of birds and their habitats should come first, it doesn't say that the welfare of birds is the SOLE consideration, trumping or obliterating all else. Projecting a positive image of the birding community is very important, too.
As I see it, the goal of the ABA community around this natural event should be the maximal good for birds, for birding, and for habitat protection. Because of this, I personally do not advocate harsh confrontations or internet "shaming" in any but the most egregious cases. And if you encounter egregious violations, you are certainly welcome to contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or other ABA staffers, if you think an email or phone call from us may help.
It's true, flushing Snowy Owls to get photographs is bad. It's even worse if someone does it when other folks are trying to enjoy the bird from a respectful distance. It's bad manners, poor form, and it could have an actual negative impact on the owl's welfare, so it's to be carefully avoided. It's also, let's remember, not the absolute worst thing in the world that can and does happen to owls, either.
And the birding community sending the message that we are a strident and vindictive mob COULD actually be a worse outcome than an owl getting flushed, in some instances. Snowy Owls are black and white. Life isn't.
I am not advocating saying or doing nothing, not at all. But I am strongly in favor of keeping things as civil as possible, while trying to instill a sense of respect, awe, and even empathy for the serious, often desperate situation in which these magnificent birds find themselves.
All I ask is that birders conduct themselves as thoughtfully and respectfully as possible, even if other people sometimes don't rise to that standard. Think about the welfare of the bird and the habitat first. But don't neglect thinking about the welfare of birding and the birding community, too. It is possible to lose an individual battle or two and still resoundingly win the war.
Most of all, enjoy this amazing opportunity, and do what you can to inspire all people to enjoy and protect wild birds. Thank you.
American Birding Association
With that in mind, everyone should head out to their favorite national park (especially if it’s on the Atlantic Coast) and look for Snowy Owls. It’s happened two of the last three winters, but you never know when this opportunity will come by again. If you find one, tell us about it in the comments!