A few weeks ago, just on the outskirts of Brainerd, I photographed the snowy owl pictured on this page.

The big white raptor was perched on a storage tank for fuel oil — not exactly the classic wildlife image. Then again, I knew snowy owls rarely hunt from natural perches anymore. Instead, they look for prey from atop man-made objects such as power poles, fence posts and rooftops.

I first spotted the creature in the same spot about a week earlier. I called a friend that very day to share the exciting news. And then my friend posted some information about the bird’s whereabouts on a popular birding site.

Reports of rare bird sightings travel quickly nowadays, aided mostly by social media and online birding forums. I have no idea how many people came to see the owl since I originally found it. But each day I went to look for the bird, I was met with another birder or two. We all wanted a glimpse.

Finally I found myself sitting in my warm vehicle on a brisk winter evening, watching the snowy owl from the comfortable distance of about 40 yards. As the bird scanned the area with those striking yellow eyes, its large head swiveling left and right, I couldn’t help but wonder about its welfare. How many times had it been frightened by humans during the past week?

Was the stately bird able to hunt freely without interference from people who simply wanted to see and photograph it? The owl seemed completely unconcerned by my presence. I still wondered whether I might be compromising its ability to survive. Perhaps I was keeping its prey (primarily mice and voles) from showing themselves.

Eventually I slipped from the vehicle, mounted my camera and 600mm telephoto lens to a tripod and snapped a few images — including the one seen here. The large white bird occasionally glanced in my direction, but it seemed completely at ease.

It didn’t take long for another photographer to arrive. He, too, respected the owl’s “safe zone” and photographed the bird from a generous distance. The snowy owl was still perched on the fuel oil tank when I left. The bird appeared unconcerned as ever.

Rare bird sightings are posted online everyday. The birds can be quickly surrounded by curious onlookers, sometimes within minutes. Does today’s technology affect a bird’s ability to survive?

That’s a difficult question. Perhaps the best advice to birders and photographers is to err on the side of caution.

If you frighten the bird, you’ve probably approached too close.


Bill Marchel, an outdoors writer and photographer, lives near Brainerd.