For the second consecutive year, a debatable flap continues to arise among dedicated birders flocking to Damon Point to observe and photograph the wintering snowy owls.
How much harm are the hundreds of people — and their pets — causing for the ever-popular snowys and what will be the consequences for bad bird-watching behavior?
There are those seeking close-up photos of the comely creatures with cell-phone cameras who flush them from their resting perches. There are even folks who are there for things that have nothing to do with snowy owls, like agate hunters, surfers, fishermen and lots of dog lovers.
But the bird community is starting to wonder if it all is too much for the dozen or so owls that have taken residence there.
The debate has taken shape on what is known as The Tweeters List, an online discussion for Washington state birders.
“You have printed articles and photos in the last couple of years that highlighted snowy owls. Perhaps it would help these owls if you could include articles about the hazards this endangered species faces from thoughtless human and dog behavior,” wrote Karen Adair in a plea to publicize the issue last month.
Adair included one exchange between a concerned birder and Dianna Moore, a member of the Grays Harbor Audubon Society Board.
“Last year it was so discouraging to see the owls being harassed by photographers and unleashed dogs running through shorebird flocks, that we decided not to return this year,” wrote Penny Koyama of Bothell.
She noted funds were collected from fellow “Tweeters and that Guy McWethy took the time and trouble to purchase and install an informational sign re. the Snowies. But that depended on citizens passing that particular sign and caring more about the owls than they do their particular viewing goal.”
“And even leashed dogs are little comfort to wildlife, though leashing would be an improvement,” she wrote to Moore.
Moore, an Ocean Shores resident and as much of a local expert on the owls as anyone, tried to take a pragmatic approach, noting that Damon Point used to be a state park but is now in the process of becoming state Department of Natural Resources property. The city, she noted in her reply, has a leashed dog policy on all the beaches from the jetty at the south end up to Damon Road (the Best Western access road) on the north end, except for one small stretch between Butter Clam and Taurus, where dogs are allowed off-leash.
“As for those who overstep the bounds on the owls (or eagles and peregrines), I introduce myself as a board member of Grays Harbor Audubon and make an attempt to educate first; if that fails I use the ‘fine’ word and get out my point-and-shoot to document the behavior for filing a complaint against the offender,” Moore said. “While this ups the offensive language directed at me, I simply state I am protecting an endangered species from boorish behavior. I cannot NOT say anything.”
Better yet, Moore advises to take the initiative.
“Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake,” she said.
Moore said there are up to 10 of the owls reported in the area, but often only 2-5 are seen out at Damon Point at any one time. “I am of two minds with the story on the owls,” Moore said. “One side of me hates to see any bird harassed, but I also recognize if they were truly bothered, they would leave.”
She speculates that some might already have been driven off to Sand Island or elsewhere in the Harbor with similar habitat. “Off-leash dogs are always a problem out here because they often chase birds. Shorebird-chasing dogs are my pet peeve,” she said. “That’s just what they do, and most owners don’t seem to care. I was told there is a class of youngsters who made a bunch of signs and stuck them around a park in the Snohomish area, with a photo of a dead deer and under it the question, ‘Is your dog killing wildlife?’”
She wonders if something similar might work with the snowy owls, noting “these birds need to rest during the day in order to be able to efficiently hunt for food at night … to survive.”
As for the debate about how best to approach taking photos of the owls, Moore offers this advice from birding expert Dennis Paulson of Seattle, from the Tweeters site:
“I read the reports about the unethical behavior of some photographers, and I couldn’t agree more that this should be discouraged. As others have said, most of the ones pushing the Snowy Owls are not birders or wildlife photographers but visitors who think the birds are cool and want to get photos of or better looks at them. Many of them have cameras with short lenses not suited for bird photography, so they need/want to get as close as they can for good pictures. We all have seen the consequences of that. And do one would say this is a good thing, but I’m sure a lot of it is ignorance rather than intended harm, so education is the best response to it.
“But, as I wrote last winter, I would like to clarify one aspect of this. The birds are not exhausted, they are not stressed. They are at Damon Point because they want to be there, because it is a great place for them, because they can forage very successfully there and have no problem getting enough to eat. If they were too stressed, including by the transgressions of people and dogs, they would go somewhere else. They are obviously surviving just fine after months of those transgressions. Painting a picture that they are poor suffering displaced waifs that deserve to have a better life is scientifically incorrect and, I think, morally wrong, as it immediately creates negative thoughts about all of us who go out looking for Snowy Owls.
“And all other wild birds, if you think about it. Our presence in the world has an effect on everything around us, especially wildlife. Should we not go out in our backyard because there is a chickadee relaxing (if chickadees ever relax) in the tree near the door? Should we not drive because we scare birds up that are feeding by the roadside? Should we not put up bird feeders because we are inviting Pine Siskins to death by salmonellosis or Sharp-shinned Hawk?
“Let’s please continue to object to and educate about rude behavior but not, by our language, make wildlife viewing an unsavory activity. Let’s not impugn the basic intelligence and survivor abilities of Snowy Owls and the other birds that we encounter unendingly and seem to do fine in spite of it. Habitat destruction, pollution, overharvesting of game species, introduction and subsidizing of predators, human-caused climate change, those are the real enemies of wildlife. Not people walking around and disturbing them.”