LIVINGSTON COUNTY – The winged hunters of the high north are huge draws for birders when they come down from the tundras to cruise our farms and meadows. But as mighty as these birds are, their winter lives are spent on a knife-edge, and over-loving birders can crowd their hunting grounds and stress them, sometimes to starvation.
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A press release from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation reminds birders to take care when watching and photographing these magnificent but sensitive species. The DEC has a mantra encouraging everyone to bird in a way that is legal, safe, and does not harm wildlife.
“Bird and wildlife watching is a popular and economically important year-round activity, and we encourage all New Yorkers and visitors alike to responsibly and safely enjoy observing our state’s birds and other wildlife,” said DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos. “Winter is a great time to get out and watch birds, but it is also a crucial period of survival for birds. During the winter months songbirds flock to feeders, waterfowl and eagles congregate at waters not covered in ice, and hawks and owls from Canada are easily observed roosting in large open grasslands, and by following our tips for safely watching birds and other wildlife, everyone can ensure the health of these species.”
The DEC particularly recommends that birders avoid ‘flushing’ raptors, forcing them to fly from a roost. If done repeatedly during the winter months, the birds can lose energy reserves that can impact their ability to return to the tundra in the spring to breed and in some cases result in death. Their tips to avoid harming wildlife are:
View wildlife from a distance using binoculars or a spotting scope to observe the natural behavior of animals;
Avoid flushing or disturbing wildlife when watching or photographing them, and never purposely chase wildlife;
Keep quiet, move slowly, and be patient. Let animals come to you;
Do not feed wildlife;
Use your vehicle as a blind, since staying inside often allows for closer and longer observations without disturbing wildlife;
Leave young wild animals where you find them;
Do not collect birds, eggs, or feathers, as all migratory birds are protected by state and federal law;
Stay on existing roads, trails, or pathways to avoid trampling vegetation;
Visit wildlife refuges and other public natural areas;
Leave the area as you found it;
Tips for being safe and legal are:
Know and observe the laws, rules, and regulations governing the area you are visiting;
Respect private property, never entering private property without permission, since trespassing is illegal;
Park in designated parking areas or on the road shoulder completely out of travel lanes;
Use caution when leaving or entering your vehicle and use caution when crossing roads;
Stay well out of travel lanes and be aware of road traffic at all times;
Be considerate of others around you;
Be aware that group actions have magnified effects;
Ensure that all members of the group know and follow the above guidelines;
Monitor the behavior of group members and ensure they act responsibly;
and document and report violations to the DEC Dispatch at (1-877-457-5680).
Winter can mean that birders have better chances of seeing snowy owls, short-eared owls, rough-legged hawks, and other birds of prey considered ‘winter raptors.’ They spend much of the year in the Canadian tundra breeding, raising young, and hunting, but migrate to upstate New York in the winter. Birders are excited to view these visitors that can be easily seen roosting and soaring in or near open fields.
Still, populations of prey species are lower during the winter and harder to locate under snow. Raptors, like other wildlife, need more energy to stay warm. During the winter these birds roost for long periods to conserve energy.
“We are fortunate to have rare and beautiful birds spending time in New York during the winter, including the vulnerable snowy owl. We hope that birders and photographers will do their part to ensure the safety and success of these species,” says Jillian Liner, Director of Bird Conservation for Audubon New York. “Put the birds first and give them space. Flushing a bird from where it was perched causes them to waste critical energy which can have detrimental consequences. If you are patient, you will get the look and photo you are hoping for.”