August 18, 2019

Respecting Snowy Owls - Visitors from the Arctic Tundra

Audubon Society of Rhode Island


A few Snowy Owls are typically spotted in Rhode Island each year, but over the past few weeks sightings have been on the rise. A number have been spotted at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge in Middletown.

As nature enthusiasts flock to the shore in hopes of glimpsing these birds, Audubon experts worry about the stress these owls are facing - caused by their long journey, shortage of food and human interference. As USFW staff is not currently on duty at Sachuest Point due to the government shutdown, there is additional concern for these birds without the usual protective measures and monitoring for these owls.

Audubon urges visitors to respect these birds from the arctic tundra, providing the guidelines below for viewing the owls.

These birds are tired and stressed from their long journey. Please follow these guidelines when viewing Snowy Owls this winter.

  • Don’t try to creep close. Be content to view at a distance. Give Snowy Owls a space of 200 to 300 feet or more. This is not a bird you should be sneaking up on with your camera phone. Use binoculars and spotting scopes if you have them.
  • Try to stay as a group if there is more than one observer. Never encircle the owl. All viewers should stay on one side of the bird.
  • Snowy owls are powerful hunters and very capable of capturing prey – please do not try to feed them.
  • Don’t observe these owls for an overly long period of time. Your presence causes stress.
  • Refrain from geotagging the photos of these birds shared on social media platforms. This will ensure that less people (including those who are unaware of proper birding etiquette) will visit the sighting location.
  • Spread the word about respectful birding etiquette and keeping a safe distance. You can help to ensure that these Snowy Owls have a better chance of making it home to the arctic region this spring.

These birds are protected by The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (MBTA), a United States federal law.

About the Snowy Owl
To see an owl is a gift in itself, but to see a large, white Snowy Owl is magical. They can be found during the day, out in the open along the shore, on the ground or on a low bush, rock or fence post. On rare occasions, they will head inland and then these large white birds might be observed in urban areas, often on rooftop perches.

Their beautiful yellow eyes are striking and their feathery talons make it appear as if they are wearing snowshoes. And if you glimpse them in flight, you will witness a five-foot wingspan. Snowy Owls are simply majestic to behold.

Many wonder why Snowy Owls travel south to begin with, and why their numbers are so much higher in certain years. “It's all about food!” explains Audubon Senior Director of Education and expert birder Lauren Parmelee. “Snowy Owl numbers are closely connected to the populations of rodents in the Arctic region called lemmings. In years when there are plenty of lemmings, these owls lay more eggs and successfully raise more young to adulthood. But when winter comes to the tundra, competition for food increases dramatically and many of the younger birds disperse beyond the boundaries of their arctic habitat.” These hungry birds will then travel a great distance looking for food and will appear on the beaches and rocky shorelines in Rhode Island and other coastal states.

The Audubon Society of Rhode Island, independent and unaffiliated with the National Audubon Society, was founded in 1897. Today, with 17,000 members and supporters, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island is dedicated to education, land conservation, and advocacy. Audubon independently protects or owns almost 9,500 acres of woodlands and coastal property embracing diverse natural habitats. More than 20,000 people participate annually in our education programming. A voice in statewide ecological issues, the Society actively fulfills its environmental stewardship through preservation and protection of Rhode Island's natural heritage.


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