Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Keeping Our Distance from Wildlife
February 11, 2022
By Steve Grinley

     Almost every winter, the Newburyport area is blessed with the appearance of snowy owls and short-eared owls on Plum Island and Salisbury Beach State Reservation. It is also the time of year when more roosting owls of other species are discovered, including screech, saw-whet, long-eared, great horned and barred owls. It is, therefore, appropriate to repeat this advisement concerning keeping our distance from owls and all wildlife:

     Owls are always a draw for birders and photographers, as well as for the general public. So every winter, we need to be reminded to be respectful of these wild birds and to keep our distance. Such disturbance in years past prompted statements from the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Facebook, and an incident last year in Salisbury resulted in the Environmental Police stepping in.

     With reports of so many close encounters with owls, Barbara Volkle, moderator of the Massbird listserve and Leslie Kramer, President of the Brookline Bird Club, sent out the following message concerning birding ethics.

     “It is NEVER okay to approach roosting owls closely.

     “The Brookline Bird Club’s code of Ethics says this: “Today’s birdwatchers are a powerful force for nature conservation. The number of those of us interested in birds rises continually, and it is vital that we take seriously our responsibility to avoid any harm to birds or the environment on which they depend.”

     “Birds lead stressful lives. It’s wise for us to strive to minimize disturbance as we go out in the field regardless of season, whether or not the birds we seek to see are rare or not. From making noise to creating a visual disturbance to flushing birds or to harming habitat, our birding has impacts. We need to hold ourselves to high standards.

     “Winter is a time of often treacherous weather and limited food resources. So, keep your distance. Keep the visual disturbance down. Keep the conversation down. Photograph without disturbance. Give our birds a wide berth!

     “Roosting birds in particular, like Long-eared Owls, need to preserve their energy for when it is needed. Give them some extra space and respect their sensitivity to disturbance. This issue became clear several years ago when a roost site in Eastern Massachusetts was heavily visited.

     The American Birding Association has a code of ethics you can view – ABA Code of Birding Ethics – American Birding Association of-birding-ethics. Likewise, many local birding clubs and organizations have codes of ethics as well.

     A resource for photographers is Audubon’s Guide to Ethical Photography:


The North American Nature Photography Association provides this:


     With the advent of digital photography, more and more people are carrying cameras and approaching owls and other wildlife to get “better shots”. Even folks with phones are seen approaching subjects too closely for a photograph.

     With today’s technology of high optical and digital zoom, and high-resolution cameras, we should let cameras do the work and eliminate the need to approach wildlife too closely. Binoculars and spotting scopes also bring birds closer without the need for physical approach. We can also now “phonescope” through binoculars and scopes with our phones to document our sightings.

     So please, let’s all enjoy the birds and other wildlife that this area provides, but from a distance.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Port Plaza West Shops
45 Storey Ave, Suite 7B
Newburyport, MA 01950

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