Original story published by the Albany Times Union
January 24, 2018 | By Brian Nearing
Fort Edward-- Bird-watchers overeager to get pictures of hauntingly beautiful Arctic owls and other exotic northern birds in Washington County are being warned by state wildlife officials to keep their distance or risk a ticket.
Several iconic snowy owls — striking mostly-white birds with yellow eyes — have been spending the winter hunting around grassy fields outside of Fort Edward, and are drawing a lot of attention from area birding enthusiasts.
Some of that attention has gone overboard, with some people trying to walk up far too close to owls perched in trees or atop utility poles, and flushing birds from one roost to another. Such harassment can interfere with the birds' hunting, deplete their energy and endanger their health.
DEC issued a statement this week that "strongly encourages all visitors to the Washington County Grasslands Wildlife Management Area to safely observe birds and other wildlife from a distance and to not approach roosting raptors."
It also warned that "trespassing and harassing wildlife is illegal, is harmful to the birds and DEC environmental conservation police officers and forest rangers will be patrolling the area and enforcing these laws."
So far, no tickets — which could carry a fine of up to $250 — have been issued, said DEC spokesman Dave Winchell. Last year, two overly-aggressive photographers were given written warnings by DEC officers, he added.
The owls, along with other birds of prey that live in the far north during the summers, are star attractions of the 13,000-acre Fort Edward Important Bird Area, which is near the the village of Argyle and Fort Edward.
Running about eight miles long and three miles across at its widest, the area includes the towns of Fort Edward, Argyle and Kingsbury. The land is dominated by open farm fields and grasslands, some from active farms, and others long abandoned. These fields contain large numbers of rodents including meadow voles, the owl's favorite food.
Made up mainly of open fields, which owls prefer in order to hunt small rodents, this area is part of the largest stretch of open grassland in the eastern part of the state. Open vistas make it easier for raptors like the low-flying owls to spot and swoop down upon prey.
Designated as a critical bird habitat in 2005 by the Audubon Society of New York, the area also is home to ten of the state's most most imperiled grassland birds, including short-eared owls, northern harriers, American kestrels, eastern meadowlarks, upland sandpipers, grasshopper sparrows and bobolinks.
"We have had a problem with a handful of overenthusiastic people approaching the owls," said Laurie LaFond, executive director of the not-for-profit Friends of the Washington County Grasslands IBA. "We want people to know that is is harmful to the birds to get too close."
Owls tend to fly low to the ground, and can sometimes fly across roadways after leaving a roost to avoid approaching people, where the bird can be struck by a vehicle.
LaFond said people also need to remember that most of the grasslands is privately owned, and owners do not want trespassing. People looking for a view of the birds ought to go to a public viewing area owned by LaFond's group off County Route 42, she said.
LaFond's group owns 14 acres there, and manages another 60 acres of private property as bird habitat. The group is raising money to buy another 64 adjoining acres, and currently has about $70,000 toward its $125,000 goal, she said.
Donations to the group's campaign, called Acres for Owls, can be made online at https://www.ibafriends.org/
"Sometimes, people may not recognize the consequences of their actions," said Jillian Liner, director of bird conservation for Audubon New York. "The more pressure that people put on these birds, it could cause them to leave the area."
She said other issues like trespassing can also dampen local enthusiasm for protecting more of the grasslands in the future.
Snowy owl facts:
Owls can weigh from 4 to 9 pound,stand between 20 and 28 inches, and have a wingspan of up to 57 inches.. Birds are mostly white, with some black markings, and have vivid yellow eyes. While hunting for rodents, the owls can perch for hours perch atop a fencepost, hay bale, building, telephone pole, grain elevator—anywhere with a good view. They spend summers far north of the Arctic Circle hunting lemmings, ptarmigan, and other prey in 24-hour daylightSource: Cornell University ornithology lab