Winter is an exciting time for a naturalist on Long Island.
For me, it brings one of my favorite animals: the snowy owl. They fly down from the Arctic Circle to hang out for the winter.
The snowy owls can be spotted on the South Shore beaches.
However, the privilege of seeing an owl comes with a couple warnings.
I clearly remember my first year on the job as a park ranger in Colorado when I was still in college, eager to do my job and educate the public about wildlife.
The park had an impressive bird list, so all day every day there were birders in and out.
While on patrol I spotted a great-horned owl nest with three owlets inside. It was an impressive nest in a massive cottonwood tree, giving shade to about five picnic tables. I rearranged the tables to give the owls a wider berth, and started telling birders about the location with the warning that read, “Please don’t go any closer than the picnic tables.”
After only a few days, hundreds of birders were coming over to see this magnificent owl. They clogged the road with parked cars and pedestrians. The situation spiraled out of control as people were trying to get ever closer and even climbing the tree!
Despite issuing warnings, then tickets, then closing the picnic area, people kept coming, and their combined presence forced the owls to abandon the nest and all three owlets died.
As a biologist and a naturalist and a birder, we are bound by an ethical guideline of observation without disturbance.
Obviously, not everyone has this same sensitivity to our fellow wildlife friends, so here’s my advice in two very simple steps:
1. Do not approach the owls to the point that they must fly away from you.
2. Never give the location of an owl or an owl nest, as it usually ends badly for the owls.
So enjoy the owl magic that nature gives us each winter, and appreciate them from a respectable distance so that everyone has a good experience — wildlife included.
Eric Powers is a biologist and outdoor educator. He offers educational services, from live animal shows to foreign excursions, through his company Your Connection To Nature.
Photo: A snowy owl on Fire Island last winter. (Barbara LaGois)