Look for snowy owls perched on top of silos or power poles in open areas. These birds are residents of wide open spaces, seeking out agricultural fields, grasslands, airports and beaches, similar to their tundra home. / Rob Zimmer/For Wisconsinoutdoorfun.com
WHEN DOES OWL-WATCHING CROSS THE LINE?
In response to multiple instances over the past few winter seasons where birds of prey, notably owls, have become the center of tense controversy and opposition in online birding forums in the state, the Wisconsin Society of Ornithology announced it will re-examine its code of ethics that provides guidance and suggestions for the best methods to see and photograph wild birds without harming or disturbing the animals.
According to the WSO, “The Wisconsin Society for Ornithology’s mission is threefold: to promote the enjoyment, study and conservation of birds in Wisconsin. Sometimes conflicts arise among those three pursuits, as has become particularly evident over the last two winters. A year ago, it was our collection fascination with great gray owls and northern hawk-owls that not only brought hours of enjoyment for many state residents, but also a fierce debate over the posting of locations, baiting and the general question of harassment. This year’s eruption of snowy owls has captured an even greater attention among both the birding community and the general public. The recent appearance of several Gryfalcons in the state has stirred more limited, but equally intense, interest and debate.”
According to the WSO, these sightings have also stirred a series of debates and even arguments about the ethics and etiquette involved in dealing with these rare winter visitors.
Questions the review hopes to address include: When does our study, photography or even pure observation and enjoyment cross the line into disturbance? When does posting a location online for a rare bird invite unwanted consequences? When do Facebook or bird discussion forum postings cross the line between discussion and argument? How do we best give priority to the welfare of birds while preserving harmony among the birding community?
If you have thoughts on these issues, the WSO is looking for your input. Email Kim Kreitinger, WSO vice president at firstname.lastname@example.org
Against a crisp, blue winter sky, a pair of snowy owls danced in the February sun. Buoyed in flight by long, thin wings stretching nearly 6 feet across in the largest females, snowy owls have a distinct, moth-like motion.
I watched as two of the large birds, gleaming pure white from below, fluttered through the morning sky, matched in flight.
The temperature was 18 degrees below zero, with a biting wind chill, yet these Arctic dwellers seemed as carefree, wild and full of spirit as ever. Unlike many owls, snowy owls are active during the day.
One of the owls swept low over a snow-covered field of corn, while the other rose and fell in roller coaster flight above its companion. Trading places, both birds rose high into the clear blue skies and drifted off to the south.
Land of the snowy owl
While many area residents have been lamenting this long, cold winter, to me it has been one of the most spectacular years in memory in terms of wildlife and watching the wonders of the natural world. The coldest days of December, January and February have often been spent alongside those snow-white nomads from the far north.
Large numbers of these graceful, iconic birds have swept south and east across the North American continent, from late last fall through winter.
In Wisconsin, more than 270 snowy owls have been documented by DNR researcher Ryan Brady of Ashland, who has compiled data and observations from birders across the state.
This includes two separate owls, one near Freedom, that were captured and banded by owl researchers with Project SNOWstorm. Fitted with tracking devices, the movements of these birds are now being recorded for the first time. This will provide researchers with data on the movements and habits of snowy owls. Follow the birds at www.projectsnowstorm.org.
Locally, up to two dozen individual snowy owls have been documented, from the Greenville and Oshkosh areas north and east through Appleton, Freedom, Seymour, Oneida, Wrightstown, Greenleaf to Kewaunee and Algoma. Additional snowy owls have been reported in and near Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, Stevens Point and into Calumet and Manitowoc counties.
These beautiful birds, often distinguished from one another only by their subtle plumage differences, are among the most enigmatic birds found in our area at any time of year.
Standing watch over open lands, generally avoiding tree lines and forests, snowy owls seek out flat landscapes with prominent perches from which they can survey the surrounding fields for prey.
Snowy owls feed upon rodents, such as rats, rabbits, moles and squirrels, as well as birds, such as pigeons, starlings, mourning doves and sparrows.
Along the Lake Michigan shoreline, snowy owls have been reported taking ducks from the edge of the ice, much like bald eagles.
Watch for these birds among agricultural fields, often perched atop silos, power poles and outbuildings.
What's a hawk-owl?
For two winter seasons in a row, an even more unexpected visitor from the north, a northern hawk-owl, has wintered in northern Door County.
These unusual birds of prey, like snowy owls, are diurnal, meaning they hunt during daylight hours. The northern hawk-owl resembles both a hawk and an owl, with its striking patterning, coloration and behavior.
The bird has been spotted reliably in the northern sections of Door County since late last year.
Treasures of the nest
While the invasion of Arctic owls from the north continues, those owls that call our area home year-round, such as the barred owl and great horned owl, have been vocalizing madly during the night, all in preparation for the beginning of breeding season.
Great horned owls have been inspecting and sitting upon nest sites since late December. Egg laying has already begun for many great horned owl pairs.
One of the most popular in our area, nicknamed Ms. Harvey, even has her own web show. A live wildlife cam aimed at the popular New London nest can be viewed 24 hours a day at www.livewildlifecams.com.
Patricia Fisher, owner of the Feather Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education in New London, operates the cam and keeps watch over this beautiful nesting owl.
— Rob Zimmer, Post-Crescent staff writer, writes about nature every Tuesday in his Nature Calling column. He is reachable at 920-419-3734 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @YardMD.