Give them space

We should all observe good raptor viewing etiquette, not only during the nesting season, but also during migration and the winter months when many raptors will gather together in good hunting areas.

SOAR is hearing reports of snowy owls visiting Iowa again this winter. Rough-legged hawks and saw-whet owls have returned to Iowa as well. Even though we do have pockets of northern harriers, short-eared owls, and long-eared owls in Iowa, many northern birds of these species spend the winter in Iowa.

A snowy owl’s breeding territory is tundra. On the tundra, snowy owls will perch on “high” spots in the landscape (remember that landscape is very different from the lower 48) and sit motionless for hours. When snowy owls have migrated to the Midwest, the Great Lakes Region, or the coast of New England, these owls must conserve energy while here. Energy conservation is THE most important survival technique migrating birds’ use.

During a snowy owl’s winter in Iowa, you can see them on fence posts, rock outcroppings, round bales, and even the ground. This behavior is normal.

snowy owl

Our mere presence can alter an animal’s natural behavior. Always keep the mantra “do no harm” in mind whenever you unintentionally come upon wild animals doing their thing or when intentionally wanting to photograph an animal in their habitat. Do no harm. Prolonged exposure to humans at close range prevents all owls from relaxing and resting and gaining the much needed energy for hunting.

These photos were taken from a vehicle with a telephoto lens to minimize disturbance. These photos have been cropped to focus on the owl.

snowy owl

What can happen:

If your presence causes that raptor (or any wild animal) to move and / or act in a way that animal would not if you weren’t there, you are too close.

Birds will communicate with body language, including showing signs of stress! Here are a couple you might see in a wild bird:

  • Raised hackles (feathers on the top of head and back of the neck)
  • Droopy or outstretched wings, almost like they want to take off
  • Change in posture (i.e. was comfortably resting with one foot tucked, then suddenly puts that foot down and looks around)

Remember that raptors are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and bald and golden eagles have additional protections under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

  • Respect landowners and do not trespass.
  • If you see raptors on the ground, do not approach or feed.
  • USFWS mandates safe viewing of bald eagle nests of at least 330 ft away.

Read up on viewing and photography ethics: