FORT EDWARD — The annual winter migration of owls and hawks to the former farm fields of Fort Edward has led to more complaints of photographers and bird-watchers illegally pursuing endangered birds and trespassing on private property.
The arrival of owls and hawks brings thousands of nature buffs, bird-watchers and photographers to the grasslands “Important Bird Area” in central Washington County each winter. But the increasing popularity of the area has led to a surge in complaints in recent weeks about people roaming into fields to follow owls, potentially harming them as they try to make it through winter.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation issued a statement about the complaints Wednesday, saying that trespassing on private property and traffic issues caused by bird-watchers were potentially harming birds and the experiences of others who want to watch them.
“DEC 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. 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,” the statement issued by spokesman David Winchell read.
Laurie LaFond, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of the IBA, said there have been complaints about people going onto posted property to try to get pictures. It appears just a “handful of people” are causing problems, but the Friends of the IBA and DEC are concerned about the impact they are having.
“We appreciate their enthusiasm, but they need to realize their behavior is harmful to the birds,” she said.
The DEC said:
Harassing winter raptors is detrimental to health of the birds. Winter is a difficult time for raptors and other species as prey are less common in winter and much harder to catch when moving under the snow. Hawks and owls spend much of their time roosting and conserving energy at this time of year.
Approaching the birds and causing them to fly results in them expending unnecessary energy. This depletes their energy reserves and can result in them starving to death. Last year, a snowy owl was found starved to death. A snowy owl that frequented the area had been previously observed on a number of occasions flying away from people who had approached too close.
Reports have been received of people stopping along busy roads in an unsafe manner to observe snowy owls. Cars do not pull completely off the road and people stand close to, on, or on the wrong side of the white line marking the road shoulder.
A surge in owls migrating to the region last winter resulted in some parts of the IBA being “depleted” of the mice and voles they eat, so more have been forced to hunt closer to roads this winter, LaFond said.
She said the observation area and shelter on County Route 42 has been a good place to see birds of prey this winter, and it keeps people separated from them to lessen the chance of having an impact.
“They need to know they don’t have to be on top of the owls to enjoy them,” LaFond said.
Forest rangers also dealt with similar problems last year in an area off Fitzpatrick Drive in Fort Edward, where dozens of short-eared owls spent last winter, and forest rangers increased patrols in the area and had more signs posted to keep people out of sensitive grasslands. Officials said some of the same photographers that prompted that action were to blame for this year’s problems as well.
This year, the short-ear owls haven’t come back in the same numbers, but bird-watchers have been attracted by snowy owls, rough-legged hawks and redtail hawks that have been feeding in fields around Route 197, County Route 42, Plum Road and Swamp Road.