By Donald Attwood
PHOTO COURTESY SHUTTERSTOCK
Snowy owls are large and photogenic winter visitors from the Arctic.
Birdwatching gets me out of the house, a considerable benefit. Many birders are, like me, retired, and we need to go walking for our physical and mental health. It’s good to connect with nature, to notice what we still have left before humans destroy it all. And birding prompts me to go out despite the weather. I want to learn how birds cope with harsh conditions, so that means fewer excuses to postpone my outings. Like the many dog walkers I meet, I do it because I enjoy it and because it needs doing.
There are many birding hotspots within an hour’s drive, but I’m reluctant to drive much in winter; I also prefer not to pump more carbon into the atmosphere for my sole amusement. Most days, then, I walk on trails near our house. The exceptions this winter were three trips to the farmland near Saint-Clet, looking for Snowy owls and Rough-legged hawks – big winter visitors from the high arctic. This has been a good season for viewing these hawks; several have been spotted hunting around the open fields. Judging by reports on eBird, everyone has seen Rough-legged hawks this year except me.
At least on my last visit, I saw a Snowy owl – a beautiful and impressive bird, slightly larger than a big hawk, perched on a telephone pole and watching for rodents in the fields. Most winters there are a couple of these owls in this area. (In some years, due to scarcity of prey animals in the arctic, large numbers come here to the sunny south.) Along a side road near Saint-Clet, scientists at McGill University have set up a feeding and banding station to monitor Snow buntings, another winter visitor from the high arctic. Snowy owls sometimes perch nearby, viewing the buntings as potential lunch.
Most owls hunt at night and should be left alone during the day. It’s vital not to disturb owls; noise and human proximity can impair their rest and thus their ability to hunt and eat. Snowy owls are a bit different: they hunt in daylight (after all, during high summer in the arctic, where they breed, there is no night), and they perch in the open, overlooking the fields. These attributes make them more visible than other owls, but it’s still important not to disturb them.
As mentioned, I saw this Snowy owl perched on a telephone pole along a quiet side road. I stopped first at a distance and then thought about driving just a bit closer. When I did so, the owl seemed unperturbed. After a good look, what then? I could have turned around and gone back the way I came but decided to drive forward, passing the owl’s post and pretending to be a local resident going about his business.
Having checked another site for birds, I came back along that road and stopped for a second look. In retrospect, I think a casual drive-by might have been okay but not another prolonged stop. I should have considered that maybe the owl was waiting for a chance to fly down and grab a Snow bunting. (About 50 buntings were flying in, now and then, to eat grain put out for them near the edge of the road.) Not until later did I think that the owl wouldn’t care to fly down with my car nearby, so maybe he was getting hungry and frazzled.
The situation became even less excusable when two more cars arrived containing birders who got out to photograph the owl up close. (Snowy Owls are, to be sure, highly photogenic.) I did not recognize these people, so I felt too shy to ask them whether we should be more cautious about distracting the owl. When one camera-wielding observer got close to the owl’s pole, it flew down the road to another pole. Then those people drove off and began stalking him again. That was not good, and I kicked myself for being there. Had my presence suggested to the others that it was okay to approach the owl? I hoped not.
People certainly need to get out and see what other species are doing. People want to see owls (and other big raptors) and to take photos, and that has its positive side. Awareness of owls encourages awareness of nature and of the many threats to other species. But there’s a limit, a point at which observation becomes too intrusive.