Snowy owl sightings stir excitement, controversy


Bob and Annette Jeffers from Frederick, Md., use their binoculars to spot a snowy owl at Fowler Beach. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

MILFORD — For the past few weeks, birders, wildlife enthusiasts and photographers have been flocking to the downstate wildlife refuges to catch a glimpse of a rare visitor — the snowy owl. According to various reports, several have been spotted in the region. Karl Krueger, a wildlife photographer hobbyist, said bird-watching groups have been buzzing about owl sightings since mid-December.

“There was a snowy owl spotted on Slaughter Beach and I heard there was one at Port Mahon — there were some sightings at Assateague State Park too,” he said. “We also had two in Harford County and one in Howard County, Maryland.”

Mr. Krueger often makes the two and a half hour drive from his home in Gaithersburg, Maryland, to Delaware’s wildlife refuges for the photographic opportunities. On Friday, despite well below freezing temperatures at Fowler Beach in Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, he joined the almost two dozen other owl-watchers.

Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control wildlife biologist Kate Fleming says the owls’ popularity has to do with it being uncommon in the region.

“Snowy owls in general are pretty rare in Delaware, but we do tend to get a few and that’s really exciting for people because of that rarity,” she said. “Their distribution is prey driven, so the number of snowy owls we have this year is probably in proportion to the number of prey they have in the northern part of their range. Delaware is very far south of their breeding range, but they can overwinter here.”

A Snowy Owl rests on a rooftop in Broadkill Beach in 2014. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

According to the Audubon Society’s field guide, snowy owls feed almost exclusively on lemmings in the Arctic — its home territory. However, they’ve been known to eat a number of other small mammals and birds. Mammals the owls feed on include rabbits, hares, voles and ground squirrels. In coastal areas snowy owls may feed heavily on ducks, geese, grebes, murrelets and, sometimes, songbirds. Being part of the Atlantic Flyway, Delaware’s coast this time of year is a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet if snow geese and ducks are on the menu.

Mr. Krueger noted that on an earlier visit to Fowler Beach, a fellow photographer said they saw the snowy owl eating a duck.

“I’m pretty sure that is a major part of their diet here,” said Mr. Krueger. “It’s not like they need to be with all these ducks here, but they are very sharp hunters. The fact that the owls have hung around for a few weeks also tells us that they’ve found a satisfactory food supply here on the coast.”

Birders believe the recent sightings play into something called an “irruption” or a sudden spike in the snowy owl’s population further north.

“The owls live up on the Arctic tundra normally, but when they have a burst of new mature owls come of age every once in awhile, we get this irruption,” said John Hoyt, the vice president of the Coastal Camera Club. “They basically start flooding south looking for new territory and food. It’s rare and unexpected when they show up, but it’s always a welcomed surprise.”

Because DNREC doesn’t track snowy owl populations in the state, they couldn’t confirm an “irruption.”

Earlier this month, the snowy owl’s conservation status took a hit as it was moved to “vulnerable” — a step away from endangered — by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. According to the agency, previous population estimates of about 200,000 owls are now thought to be greatly overestimated, and a total population size of around 30,000 is more realistic. Snowy owls are protected in the U.S. under the Migratory Bird Act.

Mr. Krueger noted that the recent work the state has done to rehabilitate some of the coastal beaches have made the long day trip well worth it for him lately.

“With the way they’ve regenerated Fowler Beach, it’s totally transformed what you can find up here,” he said. “Its really helped the wildlife here a lot. I don’t think the snowy owl wouldn’t have even shown up if they didn’t do this work to the beach. At dusk, we’ll be watching for short-eared owls to come out, that’s another rare bird in the region that has been spotted here recently. In the springtime, I’ve even heard that Fowler’s Beach was a nesting ground for a few endangered birds like the piping plover.”

In response to Superstorm Sandy washing away much of the coastal Fowler Beach sand a multi-faceted restoration project involving state and federal resources was enacted. The state completed the over $38 million project in October 2016.

The project closed four large shoreline breaches, restoring 8,900 linear feet of beach with 1.41 million cubic yards of sand used. Officials at the time claimed it was the largest restoration project of its kind on the East Coast.

Observe responsibly

While the owl sightings drive excited viewers to the coast, there are those among them concerned about what effect continuous observation may have on the birds’ wellbeing.

“Three local clubs; the Coastal Camera Club, Friends of Prime Hook and the Sussex Bird Club are combining efforts and working on signs about observing responsibly that the refuge staff can put up at Fowler Beach,” said Mr. Hoyt. “We’re trying to educate people on the proper etiquette on viewing the owls. If the owl is acting alert, agitated and especially if it flies, you’re too close. You need to back off immediately.”

DNREC suggests maintaining a distance from the bird to the point where they’re unaware of you.

Spectators leave Fowler Beach after getting a glimpse of a snowy owl. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“A good rule of thumb for watching any bird, is if when you are watching it, the bird should not be aware of your presence,” said Ms. Fleming. “It’s not just an issue of not trying to flush it out (intentionally spooking the bird to make it fly). If the bird makes signals that it knows you’re there by chirping or looking at you, or changing its posture, you’re too close.”

Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge has received several complaints about observers pestering or stalking the snowy owl sighted on Fowler’s Beach. On Friday, the refuge threatened, via its Facebook account, to close the beach.

“Due to the concern of the reports to the refuge of inappropriate behavior occurring by visitors while attempting to view the snowy owl at Fowler’s Beach, refuge staff is imploring all visitors to adhere to proper standards of maintaining their distance while attempting to view all wildlife,” read the post. “If the snowy owl is overly disturbed or chased (by those wishing to get a closer look) its ability to hunt and rest will be diminished. This could compromise the health and safety of the owl. If this disturbance does not cease, the refuge will be forced to close the beach to all access during the remainder of the owl’s stay.”

Geoffrey Baker, a professional photographer from Baltimore, was among the owl-watchers at Fowler Beach on Friday. He said that for the most part, everyone gathered at the beach were keeping a respectful distance, but on occasion, he’d seen some viewers follow the owl after it’d taken flight.

“At one point, the owl seemed to decide for itself that it wanted to take off and fly down the beach,” he said. “At that point, about half of the people sort of packed up and followed it. That disappointed me a bit and I decided to leave. I don’t want to have any part in harassing the bird. It’s an unbelievable animal — truly a thrill of nature. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen one and I was glad to have had the opportunity.”

Some photographers and birders feel that these claims are overblown. Mr. Krueger said that over the two trips he’s made to Fowler’s Beach in the last few weeks, he hasn’t seen the owl being pestered.

“From what I’ve seen, people were giving it space and the owl didn’t seem stressed at all — whenever he flew off, it seemed like he was just doing it for a change of scene,” said Mr. Krueger. “That’s not to say that there aren’t people out there who are irresponsible, but I think that concern about this has been a bit blown out of proportion. People are going a bit overboard.”

For Mr. Krueger, he says he just carefully observes the bird’s behavior, and if it appears anxious, he’ll back off.

“With this snowy owl, he appears to be entirely comfortable where he’s at — he’s looked right at us and didn’t seemed concerned,” he said. “Sometimes on birding trips, people will stop and give you a hard time because in their mind they think you’re getting too close. I know I’m not. If you’re a photographer, you like to try to get in as close as you can without disturbing the bird.”

However, other birders persist, in this instance, a surplus of caution is a virtue.

“What’s happening is these owls, being from the tundra, don’t act skittish,” said Mr. Hoyt. “When people, especially photographers, approach them, they don’t always fly away. But if you get in closer to take a picture, it might, and if it’s flying away or just trying to keep an eye on you while you’re photographing it when it should be sleeping, it may stress it out and compromise its health. It’s quite a striking bird and they do make for beautiful photographs, but it’s an issue that we need to try very hard to educating ourselves on.”

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