Lawrence has had some beautiful visitors from the North this brown winter.
Though not unheard of, visits from snowy owls are definitely an exception to the rule in Kansas. These majestic birds range from the upper 48 states into Canada, the Northwest Territories and Alaska. If seen south of this normal range, they are assuredly starving.
Biologists have conjectured that a spike in last year’s population of lemmings — the owl’s favorite food — may have led to an associated spike in snowy owl breeding. This year, the tables have turned for both lemmings and owls. The crash in the lemming population has driven snowies far south of their normal range in search of alternative food sources.
Seeing so many people in Lawrence with snowy owl fever has warmed my heart. Witnessing biophilia, a phrase coined by biologist E.O. Wilson which means the love of living things, is always cause for celebration. It evidences our species awareness of the very real biological connection we share with other beings. The more we can learn about others, the larger and richer our own lives become.
Though seeing such magnificent birds as snowy owls can be an unforgettable experience, we need to be careful not to add to the stress they are already under by getting too close. Wildlife watching remains one of the most rewarding and least expensive of activities. If you want to see an animal behaving in natural ways though, here are a couple of important things to remember:
l Keep your distance. I read a deceptively simple piece of advice in the park guide for Glacier National Park: “If the animal moves away, you’re too close.” Though we may not be aware of it, other beings watch us, and, except in rare cases, they’re afraid, and wisely so since we’re one of the biggest and loudest things on the planet. Just as you would a shy person at a party, give animals plenty of space, and you’ve given them the ability to carry on their lives in dignity and privacy. A good set of binoculars or a scope will allow you to bridge the distance from an animal that has piqued your curiosity.
l Become part of your surroundings. Sitting quietly at a safe distance for an extended period does require patience, but you’ll be rewarded with the opportunity to glimpse the secret lives of animals. Wearing camouflage gear, like a hunter, can help as well. Wildlife and bird photographers even go so far as to construct blinds in a habitat and capture rare glimpses of their subjects. As a landscape painter, my partner Lisa Grossman can attest to the power of extended periods of stillness. She’s had up-close sightings of many animals. Painting near Creede, Colo., she once even had a bluebird land on her head, possibly mistaking her for just another fencepost.
So the next time you’re out for a walk or hike and see an animal, give them the gift of a wide berth. They’ll thank you by giving you a glimpse of their lives.
Speaking of wildlife watching, the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, sponsored by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is open to citizen scientists of all abilities and ages. Between Feb. 17–20, write down all the bird species you see and report them online at birdsource.org/gbbc.
Another great event you won’t want to miss out on is the Kaw Valley Seed Project Fair on Feb. 11, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the Douglas County Fairgrounds.