Last week The Great Outdoors looked in on a big, beautiful bird: the snowy owl. There is a bit more that I would like to pass on to you about this visitor from the far north. My excitement about these birds is always high when they show up in this area.
Maybe it’s that white color, or the bird’s rarity. Another possibility is my prior acquaintance with different owls as well as a licensed bandier.
I had gotten to know Dave when he was helping folks from the state Department of Environmental Conservation catch a short-eared owl to band and place a transmitter on. I became involved with the monitoring of short-eared owls near my home, and the DEC folks were have trouble catching an owl, so they called on Dave — who set up his net trap and had one within minutes. This guy was good and I stayed in contact with him. In 2014, the snowy owls moved south en masse, into New York, and Dave volunteered to band them in Western New York. I got to tag along with him occasionally and watch him in action.
Dave used a large loop-type trap that opened like a clam and could be sprung closed remotely when a bird landed in it to capture the live pigeon used as bait. He usually notified me when he had a bird in my area and that’s when I tagged along. This not only got me some nice images of these big white birds, I also learned a lot about them.
The snowy owl is pretty much a docile bird when handled and banded. The procedure doesn’t seem to bother these birds; on one occasion, shortly after it was banded and released, the owl caught a mouse out in the field.
If you are lucky enough to spot a snowy owl, use your head and don’t push him and scare him off. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen folks drive right up to a hawk or an owl perched on a pole near the road and jump out of their vehicle to take a picture. They get a nice picture of the south end of the bird going north and have added to that bird’s fear of humans. That behavior also forces the bird to expend energy he cannot afford to lose during the winter.
My policy, when I spot wildlife near the road, is to continue on, turn around farther down the road and make a very slow approach back, stopping periodically to allow the subject to get used to my presence. Once the bird seems comfortable I will move a bit closer and stop again.
If the subject seems nervous about you reaching his “comfort zone,” curtail your movement forward until it has started to ignore you. If it continues to be nervous, you have reached the point where it may take flight and you get just another lousy, and often blurry, flight shot. This irresponsible behavior on your part makes a more leery bird and could cause him harm.
Snowy owls are not too fearful of people, at least not at first. Most of these birds are juveniles that have no experience with humans and thus are calm. However, they draw crowds of birders and photographers, many of whom overstep boundaries and disturb them.
I remember one instance in which Dave was having a lot of difficulty trapping a bird on Ham Road in the town of Alabama. He was getting pretty upset with this owl, which he named “Hambone” because he had put so much time into trying to catch it. Then one day we set up not too far from where Hambone was perched on a telephone pole on Ham Road. Hambone seemed very interested in the live pigeon that Dave was using for bait and our hopes were high that this would be the day. Then out of nowhere, some jerk came down the road, slammed on his brakes right next to the pole and jumped out with his camera. Of course Hambone took right off and that ended our attempt at him for the day. The sad thing about that incident was it spooked Hambone into taking refuge in an unfamiliar area down the road, and he was later hit by a car.
It is not uncommon to see folks scaring or crowding these birds, causing them to flee. This ruins the opportunity for others to see rare and beautiful birds. Making them fly not only makes them expend needed energy, it puts them at risk of being harassed by hawks, eagles and crows, which in turn causes them to waste more energy. Sending them into the air can also force them into dangerous situations ... such as getting too close to moving vehicles.
If you spot one of these magnificent birds, call or email me so I can get the location to a bandier and we can all learn more about this owl from tundra country.
Doug Domedion, outdoorsman and nature photographer, resides in Medina. Contact him at (585) 798-4022 or email@example.com .