5 Ways to Safely Observe a Snowy Owl

The regal-looking owls have been spotted in various places around Rhode Island, including East Greenwich, Middletown, Narragansett and Block Island.

Snowy Owl. Photo by Ed Hughes.

You’ll get a hoot out of this.

This winter’s forecast is predicting cloudy with a chance of snowy owls. The state has seen a recent influx of the owl species, according to wildlife officials.

The regal-looking owls have been spotted in various places around Rhode Island, including East Greenwich, Middletown, Narragansett and Block Island. A recent sighting even had a snowy owl perched on a chimney in Providence.

The raptors live in the Arctic tundra, but every four years or so, the birds travel more southward than usual, in what wildlife conservationists call “irruptions.” The Audubon Society of Rhode Island, a wildlife preservation group, is predicting another irruption year as more than a dozen sightings have been reported since Thanksgiving. According to Lauren Parmelee, Director of Education Programs at ASRI, Canadian scientists found an increase in snowy owl births this past mating season due to more food availability, which led to younger birds traveling long distances as competition for food amped up in the winter.

“Last year, there were maybe one or two sightings in Rhode Island,” Parmelee says. “I saw two snowy owls myself this weekend.”

With their piercing yellow eyes and feathery talons that appear like fluffy slippers, it’s not hard to see why people are flocking to the shores in hopes of getting a glimpse of these birds. If you’re lucky enough to see them in flight, you’ll witness their five-foot wingspan.

Photo by Ed Hughes.

“Snowies” are not your average owls. They typically can be found during the day, unlike other owls that are nocturnal, and are usually out in the open (not up in trees) along the coast, on the ground or on a low bush or rock. Parmelee says they will likely stick around the state until towards the end of February.

But ASRI warns the public to respect our visitors from the Arctic tundra and to admire them from a safe distance.

“It’s a stressful situation for them as it is considering their long journey, and you don’t want to put more undue stress on them. My advice is to simply enjoy them briefly from a distance, and then move on,” Parmelee says.

What to do if you spot a snowy owl:

  1. Give them a space of about 200 to 300 feet or more. Use binoculars or spotting scopes if you have them.
  2. If there is more than one observer, try to stay as a group, but don’t encircle the owl.
  3. Do not try to feed them. The snowy owl is a tireless hunter and powerful enough to capture its own prey.
  4. The birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (MBTA), a U.S. federal law. If you see any violations of harassment against the owls or endangerment, it should be reported to the RI Department of Environmental Management Law Enforcement at 401-222-3070.
  5. Try not to overstay your welcome. Your presence may cause stress, and it’s best to observe the owls for a shorter period of time. Make sure to take in its beauty, though, because a snowy owl is a rare sight and majestic to behold.

ASRI encourages people to connect with nature and to explore the outdoors, even in the colder weather.

“Winters in Rhode Island are a great time to go outside because there’s a lot of wildlife during the cold season that isn’t here in the spring and summer months, like harlequin ducks, common loons and, of course, snowy owls,” Parmelee says.

To learn more about Audubon wildlife refuges and to see the events calendar that includes programs like “owl prowls,” visit asri.org.



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