Bird etiquette for viewing snowy owls
Block Island’s arctic visitors, the snowy owls, are back this winter. They are carnivores that eat lemmings, seabirds, deer mice, voles, and other rodents. They are crucial to controlling the number of rodents in the Arctic tundra, where they come from. Unlike other owls, snowy owls are active during the day and hunt mostly during dawn and dusk. Snowy owls have thick feathers that keep them warm in cold temperatures. Some snowy owls stay where they are native, while others migrate in winter. According to Kim Gaffett, The Nature Conservancy’s OVF naturalist, young snowy owls tend to travel to northern-tier states for food. “They’re an Arctic species. They’re not supposed to be here,” Gaffett said. “It makes you wonder what is happening in the Arctic.”
Gaffett said that the snowy owls do not come every year and the number that do come depends on the year. According to Gaffett, there was one year with 25 owls while in other years there have only been a few. “It’s a mixed bag. You’re happy to see these majestic birds but wondering why they’re here,” Gaffett said. The owls are found anywhere on the island that is tundra-like, including places like open fields and dunes.
Local photographer Aleksandar Baba-Vulic has also found an interest in the island’s snowy visitors. “The first time I ever had a close encounter with snowy owls was [during the] winter of 2016 and 2017 on Block Island. It was beyond amazing to experience seeing them in real life. It was at the [Fred Benson Town] beach on top of the dunes,” Baba-Vulic said. He discovered his love for nature as a young boy, “I heard about these magnificent birds a long time ago. At a very young age I felt very connected to nature and the outdoors. I remember watching many shows and series about wildlife on the television as a kid. I showed interest in a variety of wildlife. Later on in life I ended up studying biology with the faculty of natural science in my hometown of Novi Sad, Serbia.”
So how can islanders view these majestic creatures respectfully? Gaffett and Baba-Vulic shared some of their tips on bird etiquette.
“Do not get too close or visit too often. If they are spending time looking at you, that is the time that they are not spending hunting, feeding, or resting,” Gaffett said. According to Gaffett, this year there has been a lot of “daily traffic” at Sandy Point, where two snowy owls tend to spend time.
Baba-Vulic shared his process of taking pictures of the birds while using bird etiquette. “I always bring my binoculars. That’s the safest way of finding birds from a distance. I always take my time and walk really slow even if I see them a mile away. If a bird takes off, it means you are too close. They need to be comfortable and not feel any stress,” Baba-Vulic said. “I use professional equipment to capture and document these special moments. Usually that has to be a long focal range lens with extenders, which gives me extra reach.”
Baba-Vulic also shared what to do when a snowy owl is seen. His tips include: to keep a safe distance, to observe quietly, to not play bird calls from your phone or other device, to not feed the owls, to avoid flashes when taking photos, and to keep noises to a minimum.
“These little tips helped me develop instinctual feelings about [getting the] right timing around the time when they are ready to fly. That is the right and best way to enjoy the beauty of these magnificent birds in their natural habitat without disturbing them,” Baba-Vulic said.