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Don’t crowd the snowy owls

Plum Island wildlife refuge asks that birds be left alone

Visitors are urged to keep at least 150 feet away from snowy owls at the refuge. Visitors are urged to keep at least 150 feet away from snowy owls at the refuge. (Reuters)
By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / February 19, 2012
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Please give the “snowies’’ their space.

That’s the message from the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island, where large crowds have been turning out to see the bumper crop of snowy owls wintering there.

Some people get too close or even flush the owls into flight, to get a better look or a better picture. That’s not good, says Jean Adams, outdoor recreation planner at the refuge.

“We’re trying to provide undisturbed habitat,’’ said Adams. “Look at them, enjoy them, and then move on.’’

She has written up a flier on “Winter Wildlife Observation Etiquette’’ that has been passed out to at least 200 refuge visitors in the last couple of weeks.

“Refuges are meant to be resting areas for all wildlife,’’ the flier says. “This time of year, the snowy owl is a prime example of wildlife in transition and in need of undisturbed resting areas. You may be tempted to get closer to this stunning bird, but remember that they are stressed and wanting to conserve their energy for hunting.’’

Snowy owls spend much of the year in the tundras of far northern Canada and come south for the winter. An apparent good breeding season had brought five of them to Plum Island by last week, and crowds of 40 to 50 people at a time have gathered to see them, Adams said.

“The issue is, a lot of these birds are hunting or resting, and if you keep disturbing them, they have to fly away, which means they use up more energy, which means they have to hunt more often,’’ said sanctuary director Bill Gette of Mass Audubon’s nearby Joppa Flats Education Center. “We advise all birders to keep a respectful distance. . . . We think we’ve failed if we make them fly.’’

Mass Audubon snowy owls specialist Norman Smith, director of the Blue Hills Trailside Museum, added one more to the Plum Island population on Sunday, releasing one of many owls he had trapped and removed from Logan Airport. About 60 people turned out for the release, he said. The owls he has handled have generally been young and healthy, he said, but “certainly chasing them around on a regular basis can be a problem.’’

In the refuge, the owls are stationary most of the time, resting and watching for prey.

“People get impatient because they want to see it fly,’’ Adams said, although many birders behave appropriately. “More than half the time it’s a visitor who calls us and says there’s a huge crowd and there’s people flushing the snowies.’’

“Refuge regulations prohibit harassing or disturbing wildlife in any way,’’ the flier notes. Adams said she is not aware of any serious incidents or law enforcement action, but wildlife officers have “spoken to’’ visitors on more than one occasion. She hopes the message will reach bird-watchers in other local owl hotspots, including Salisbury Beach State Reservation.

She recommends keeping at least 150 feet away from the owls.

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.

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