“It’s literally like the paparazzi”


STRATFORD – Perched on a low dune of pink and beige seashells, the arctic snowy owl camouflage was remarkable on Wednesday with a crowd of bird watchers and photographers hovering nearby, clicking quickly with their cameras.

After a few moments, the stillness of the beach was disturbed by a woman who approached a few meters from the owl, prompting it to leave with a few flaps of its wings towards a nearby jetty. The crowd of onlookers quickly followed, a few raising their voices in frustration and apparent concern for the bird.

The woman, who then identified herself as Lisa Dickal, a state-licensed wildlife rehabilitator, said she intentionally flushed out the bird to determine if it was healthy enough to fly or he had to be potentially saved.

A nearby Department of Energy and Environmental Protection police officer quickly intervened, supporting Dickal and warning some of the photographers to stop crowding around the bird. Dickal identified the owl as a juvenile that had likely wandered south of its birthplace, thousands of miles away in the High Arctic.

Once tensions eased – with the help of DEEP and Stratford Police who were on hand to monitor the crowds – Dickal expressed his frustration with some of the bird watchers, ultimately attributing their reaction to a misunderstanding.

“This goal wasn’t to spoil people’s day, it was to assess the bird,” she said. “The overall experience was overwhelming as maybe three people were listening, the rest were extremely combative.”

The commotion around the rare snowy owl that has appeared in Stratford this week is indicative of what Connecticut conservationists have described as a growing conflict between public enthusiasm for nature and the need to protect vulnerable species and their disturbing crowds habitats.

Interest in outdoor activities such as Birdwatching increased during COVID-19 pandemic, prompting some seasoned amateurs and scientists to call for closer ranks around information sharing which can attract large crowds when a particularly rare species is spotted.

Another snowy owl, for example, was at the center of a similar controversy last year when it walked down to Central Park in New York, attracting hundreds of curious people.

“This bird has really discovered huge problems on both sides of the problem,” said Patrick Comins, executive director of the Connecticut Audubon Society.

“Obviously we are a conservation organization and we care about the welfare of every snowy owl that is here. But people sort of come up with their own guidelines on what people should and shouldn’t do, and then they don’t hesitate to take those views and that causes conflict, ”Comins said.

The popularity of birding applications such as e-Bird, where users can report sightings, receive alerts of rare birds, and track their own “life lists” of the species they have seen. adds to the concern of some.

“It’s like literally the paparazzi alert system,” Dickal said.

To address concerns, e-Bird keeps a list of susceptible bird species which prevents the sharing of specific location data on these sightings with the general public. The snowy owl is not on this list, but the e-Bird website states that large crowds following owls in winter can disrupt their eating habits, and it encourages users to adopt “ethical behavior with all children.” owls “.

Experts said a few snowy owls can typically be seen along the Connecticut coast each winter; their stark white and black plumage makes them particularly attractive to bird watchers.

“My obsession is owls, but the snowy owl is my favorite,” said Elizabeth Tsimbidaros, who drove from her home in Southbury to observe the bird through her telescopic lens. “It’s very early this year; I usually only hear about it in December.

Most of Connecticut’s snowy owls are juveniles in search of new hunting grounds, and they are exhausted after the long flight from the arctic tundra. Crowds can scare the owls’ favorite food away from small rodents and prevent them from resting during the day, draining their remaining energy.

Globally, owls are considered “vulnerable””, With around 28,000 mature individuals in the wild.

Christine Cummings, President of A place called hope, a bird of prey rescue in Killingworth, said the attention likely contributed to the death of a snowy owl his team rescued in Connecticut several years ago.

“He came in, he was so exhausted he couldn’t hunt and he died in our care,” Cummings said.

Earlier this year, the Audubon Society also blamed the death of an American oystercatcher chick at the Milford Point nonprofit reserve on four wildlife photographers who attempted to capture images of the nest from close range. Two chicks in the nest were too young to fly, the Audubon Society said, and the parents seemed reluctant to leave the nest unattended to find food.

Even after a ranger asked the photographers to back up, they remained in place for almost four hours, according to an article on the association’s website. After they left, one of the oystercatching chicks was found starving.

Still, Audubon Society Comins said it sees the growing popularity of birding as a positive and hopes it will guide conservation efforts further.

“We don’t want to love nature to death, and there are many ways that even experienced naturalists can inadvertently cause damage to the environment,” Comins said. “But I think the more people are aware of, engaged and in awe of the wonders of nature, it will only benefit nature itself.”

Comins also highlighted individual actions, such as following a ornithological code of ethics or wait until after the migration season to post sightings of rare birds, which he says could help mitigate potential damage to wildlife.

In Stratford on Wednesday, Barbara Garbarino said she shared the concerns of conservationists after driving from her home in Putnam County, NY, to spend two days photographing the snowy owl.

At around 8 a.m., she said she stood among a crowd of other bird watchers and photographers, anxious to keep a respectful distance.

“I would be heartbroken if anything happened to this owl,” Garbarino said. “I look at him, and he is such a beautiful bird.”

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