Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, February 10, 2012

Snowy Owls in the Big Apple

(Transcript of today's For the Birds)

NYC Snowy Owl

Two weeks ago, I was bewailing the fact that despite this being a national-news-making Snowy Owl invasion year, I hadn’t seen a single one. Then, on February 5, when Russ and I were in New York City, we took our daughter and her boyfriend birding along the beach at Breezy Point Tip in Queens. I wanted to see Brants—saltwater geese that I’ve seen a couple of times and don’t have any good photos of. Instead, we found two Snowy Owls. The first was a gorgeous adult male—pure white—and the other was either a female or young male, speckled with brown.

I hadn’t been keeping track of sightings on eBird, but other birders had, and several were at Breezy Point Tip specifically to see these Snowy Owls. The white one had been seen in another place until the day before, when some photographers got too close and scared him off. When he made it to this beach, he got into a territorial spat with the Snowy Owl already here, and chased it further along the beach. Birders were thrilled to see two of them in the same area, but the owls were in an uneasy truce, and probably found the situation more stressful than people appreciate. It was a bright, sunny day, and my photos of the adult male show his eyes almost entirely closed. Birders tend to think this shows the owl is relaxed, but owls usually keep their eyes mostly closed during daylight. Unlike us, owls see perfectly well when their eyelids are opened a crack. Holding their eyes partly closed blocks a lot of sunlight and reduces the chances of crows, hawks, and other birds noticing their distinctive yellow eyes and harassing them.

While we were watching from a distance, two photographers approached the male.

Photographers who approached too close to the Breezy Point Tip Snowy Owl.

This was not just unethical from a bird protection standpoint, it was out-and-out illegal, because they were trampling posted breeding habitat for endangered birds. There were signs all over the place specifically prohibiting walking onto the sensitive dunes. It’s frustrating enough in a large wild habitat such as the Sax-Zim Bog, where birds have a lot of suitable habitat nearby if they do get scared off a particular tract. In largely wild areas there’s still a danger of shooing them off right when a passing car or truck can hit them, but in New York City, it’s hard for them to find appropriate habitat, and the surrounding dangers are far greater.

A lot of people have expressed surprise that Snowy Owls would ever turn up in the Big Apple in the first place. For me, it wasn’t all that bizarre seeing these magnificent birds of the frozen wilderness against a backdrop of the Brooklyn and Manhattan skylines

NYC Snowy Owl

or a Coney Island Ferris wheel,

Snowy Owl in the Big Apple

because I saw my own first Snowy Owl along Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, I’ve seen several along the Milwaukee lakeshore, I used to hop off my bus at a stop near downtown Madison, Wisconsin, to see a Snowy Owl that wintered along Lake Monona, and up here I see the vast majority of them right in the Duluth and Superior harbor areas. Indeed, when Russ and I drove home from New York, the first bird I saw as we crossed into Duluth was a Snowy Owl perched atop a light pole on the Blatnik Bridge. Snowy Owls would prefer wilder terrain, I’m sure, but there just isn’t much left anymore. We build our biggest cities on the best shorelines and coasts, and the biggest areas of windswept fields and marshes have been claimed for agriculture. Minimizing the pressures these magnificent creatures face when they grace us with their presence is the very least we can do.