There was an interesting article about the politics of posting owl locations recently. Each winter I find myself more irritated when large numbers of owls show up and people go bonkers on the Internet arguing about whether or not the locations should be posted, if people are getting too close and whether or not they should be baited. When it comes to snowy owls, I figure this is a bird that nests on the ground and can live where there are polar bears, foxes and wolves. It's learned to live with bigger threats than a photographer. Also I shake my fist and wish all the snowy owls would just go back home.
And my attitude is a shame because...owls are cool. When you get started in birding, finding your first owl is a triumph of the human spirit! And with some practice you can find them more often than not.
One of the things that I love about where I live now is my birding patch. We have a wetland that is an easy 2 mile loop from my back door. I've eBirded the spot so much that it's now a hot spot. It's not the most exciting spot in winter, but I'm always hopeful that one winter I will get a northern saw-whet owl back there and I always watch for them. Last winter when we were having a balmy February, I biked past some cedars and saw the telltale small owl sign: copious amounts of owl poop and pellets.
I pulled to a stop and carefully looked over the pellets under the pine tree. I could see some sporadic poop under the cedars but the most accumulation appeared to be under a nearby pine. I tried looking up high in the pine for more poop or even an owl but didn't see anything. Not seeing an owl I thought I would go in and collect the pellets. As I hunched over to avoid bumping into the lowest branches...BAM... perched in an old robin's nest on the lowest branch was an eastern screech-owl. The bird had stretched upward, looking quite skinny and branch-like. I know this is a defense and camouflage posture but the owl's faced almost looked accusatory, "How DARE you come in here!!"
Before I could help myself I said, "Oops, sorry," and hightailed out of there, feeling bad I disturbed it. The owl didn't fly away and I was grateful for that.
I biked by the next day and could make out it's shape in the thick tangles of the branches. This went along for a few more days and I decided to take Non Birding Bill with me and try and get a photo. There was no easy way to get a picture, the bird seemed to have found the perfect spot to communicate, "I don't care to be observed."
I found the one hole among the branches where you could make out the face of the owl about twenty feet away...where trucks typically park to unload packages for the local businesses. The bird stared at me the entire time I was there (about three minutes). Since the owl didn't seem to relax around me, I kept it brief with a documentation shot.
The next day I biked past and didn't see the screech shape on the usual low branch. I looked around some more and noticed that the bird moved to one of the cedars and was much higher up in the tree. Noted, screech, you don't like the paparazzi, I will leave you alone and keep your location on the down low.
As winter transitioned to the breeding season, the owl disappeared. Late in summer I found a screech in a mulberry bush right over the trail. I was excited that my neighbor was still around and then realized that the tufts on the bird were downy--screech-owl offspring!
Later in the fall while biking I saw the telltale poop in the pine with the cedars and sure enough, there was the low-roosting screech. I took a moment to welcome it back and noted that once again it chose the roost that was surrounded by the most branches.
All of this bird's behavior has made me reluctant to tell anyone about the screech location. I was reluctant to even enter it in eBird. When screeches have been reported near me, they can attract a lot of photographers. Some don't seem to mind: roosting next to busy tennis courts or streets, but this bird keeps choosing impossible to photograph perches and on the days I bring a scope or a friend, it chooses a much higher roost the next day makes me think that it is not in the mood for disturbance.
But then there's my neighborhood barred owl. This bird is a bit more...chill. I first noticed it late last summer. NBB has taken to showing movies on our sun roof at night when the weather is warm enough. One night two barred owls flew right over the roof above our heads while we were watching Airplane. Later in the fall I was walking home from the patch and a barred owl was trying to take a grey squirrel off the trunk of a tree. And in early January, I was walking home from the grocery store on the bike trail behind our home and a barred owl flew out of the trees and cruised along the trail towards me. I was excited that it was going to pass by me until the split second I saw the talons start to lower and realized it was going for my grocery bag. I shouted and it veered off to my left. Nothing like an owl about to fly into you to get your adrenaline pumping.
I'd been trying to suss out where the barred owl has been roosting and I found some pine trees near some railroad tracks that gave me a clue. I found an accumulation of chalky-textured poop and old pellets. It wasn't in any of the places where I'd seen the screech-owl and it matched up to all the places where I've seen hunting, including the time it tried to kill my grocery bag. The interesting thing is that the roost was right over a social trail people had made in order to get access to the bike trail. I made a mental note of the spot and decided to include it on my walks. And sure enough on a single digit temperature day, I found it in the roost.
The owl took note of me and then went about roosting in the sun. There was a fat tire bike rider slowly moving along the bike trail behind me. They started coughing and that got the owl's attention. The situation reminded me of a quote I saw last year from Andrew Baksh about viewing and photographing owls: "I have had some lucky encounters and in each case the Owls were chill, I was chill."
This owl is very different from my neighborhood screech, it is quite chill. It hunts along a heavily used trail, it roosts over places people walk with their dogs and it doesn't seem to mind the occasional train.
So for me, when it comes to reporting owls I'll take it on a case by case basis. Some can handle people and some can't.