Snowy Owl Flocks to Southern States in Search of Food
The birding community in Washington, D.C., is abuzz over a rare, iconic avian visitor. The Snowy Owl, which has always been a “must-see” bird for the birding community, has been spotted at Arlington’s Reagan National Airport in recent days; other owls were spotted earlier at Dulles International Airport and later at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
“You could say this species is the ‘rock star’ of the birding community," said Jason Berry, who holds the D.C. record for bird sightings in a 12-month period and serves as a conservation officer at the American Bird Conservancy. "Although it achieved celebrity status as Hedwig the Owl in the Harry Potter movie series, this spectacular bird is rarely seen in most parts of the U.S. This bird would probably be on just about every birder’s top-five list of birds to see in a lifetime.”
Berry said that the presence of the bird in the D.C. area is part of what may be a record-setting “irruption” by the species in the lower 48 states. He said the bird is visiting many states farther south than usual as a result of a bumper crop of young Snowy Owls in their Arctic breeding grounds last spring. That bumper crop of baby owls was made possible by an unusual abundance of lemmings—small, mole-like rodents that are a staple of the bird’s diet.
“Those owl babies are now adolescents who have to find feeding grounds," explained Berry. "Since Snowy Owls are very territorial, the youngsters can’t stake out a territory near home in the Arctic because those grounds are already claimed by the adults.”
Berry said it is hard to know how long a Snowy Owl will stay in one place, “Sometimes it’s hours, sometimes it’s days or even weeks. Usually it is a function of food supply. They tend to keep moving until they find needed food,” he said.
Snowy Owls are the largest—by weight—of North America’s owls. About two feet tall, they have a wingspan of up to five feet. Their eyes are a mesmerizing yellow. Snowy Owls are white birds with varying amounts of black or brown markings on the body and wings. On females these markings can be quite dense, giving the bird a salt-and-pepper look. Males tend to be paler and become whiter as they age.
Snowy Owls often perch on rises such as the crests of dunes or on fence posts, telephone poles and hay bales. When they fly, they usually stay close to the ground. Because Snowy Owls breed in treeless arctic tundra, they seek out similar terrain when visiting the lower 48 states. That proclivity has led the bird to show up in at least one venue that has posed some concerns: airports. When that has happened, some airports such as Logan International in Boston and BWI in Baltimore, Md., have chosen to send out professional trappers to capture the birds and then release them elsewhere.
“Since Snowy Owls encounter people so rarely in the wild, they have relatively little instinctive fear of them and can be approached without bolting at surprisingly close distances. So capturing them and releasing them elsewhere is typically not much of a challenge for professionals,” Berry said. “It is, however, not a job for an average person. These are fierce birds that, in addition, deserve our respect. It’s important to view birds from a distance to avoid agitating birds that are doubtless already stressed.”
New York’s Kennedy International Airport recently dealt with visiting owls in a less-than wildlife-friendly fashion, shooting and killing three Snowy Owls before an outcry from across the country led them to adopt a capture-and-release approach. American Bird Conservancy was one of the groups raising objections to the deadly remedy by New York Airport officials. The Conservancy has contacted the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to advise them of nonlethal options for Snowy Owl removal should such an action become warranted.
“Every airport in the northeast should know that there is always the possibility of Snowy Owls showing up at their facilities in the winter," said Berry. "All it takes is a little planning by officials to have trapping contingencies in place if needed. Dispatching trapping professionals with nets provides just as effective and simple a remedy as dispatching them with guns.”
Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.
Typhoon Molave is expected to make landfall in Vietnam on Wednesday with 90 mph winds and heavy rainfall that could lead to flooding and landslides, according to the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. To prepare for the powerful storm that already tore through the Philippines, Vietnam is making plans to evacuate nearly 1.3 million people along the central coast, as Reuters reported.
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A stretch of coastline in the Philippine capital, Manila has received backlash from environmentalists. The heavily polluted Manila Bay area, which had been slated for cleanup, has become the site of a controversial 500-meter (1,600-foot) stretch of white sand beach.
Sand Makeup Crucial for Ecosystems<p>While UNEP/GRID-Geneva generally supports finding <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/not-enough-sand-for-construction-industry-despite-abundance/a-49342942" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">alternative sources of sand</a> so as not to disrupt ecosystems in rivers and oceans when extracting them, Vander Velpen stressed it was vital to use sand which closely matches the makeup of the native sand to protect beach fauna.</p><p>"If you change the core characteristics of the native sand, the original sand, you need to do an environmental impact assessment (EIA) to find out how it's going to impact the ecosystem and nearby ecosystems," he told DW.</p><p>But according to Torres, such an assessment was not done in Manila.</p>
Beautification Stunt Instead of Proper Cleanup?<p>Manila Bay's waters are heavily polluted by oil and trash from nearby residential areas and ports. A huge "No swimming" sign warns visitors to stay away from the ocean.</p><p>Philippines' <a href="https://denr.gov.ph/index.php/priority-programs/manila-bay-clean-up/25-priority-programs/1825-frequently-ask-questions-faqs-on-the-dolomite-and-the-beach-nourishment-project" target="_blank">Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR)</a> has denied dolomite sand poses any risk to human health and the ecosystem.</p><p>However, scientists of the University of the Philippines have come forward disputing the DENR's claims. A <a href="https://biology.science.upd.edu.ph/index.php/ib-statement-regarding-dolomite-in-manila-bay/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">statement by the Institute of Biology</a> said that using crushed dolomite did not address any of the rehabilitation phases and instead was "even more detrimental to the existing biodiversity as well as the communities in the area," pointing to the case of water birds. "The dumping of dolomite in Manila Bay has effectively covered part of the intertidal area used by the birds thereby reducing their habitat."</p><p>At peak migration season, Manila Bay is home to 90 aquatic bird species, including species of international conservation concern that are facing a very high extinction risk in the wild. </p><p>Authorities should focus on protecting and conserving biodiversity, the Institute of Biology added. "Rehabilitating mangroves is an example of a nature-based solution that is cheaper and more cost-effective than the dolomite dumping project," the scientists said.</p><p>Moreover, <a href="http://www.msi.upd.edu.ph/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the Marine Science Institute</a> has warned that prolonged inhalation of finer dust particles of dolomite could "cause chronic health effects," leading to discomfort in the chest, shortness of breath and coughing.</p><p>They also warned dolomite sand grains would erode during storms and be carried out to sea, essentially being washed away.</p>
Rehabilitation vs. Reclamation<p>Environmentalists say covering up the beach doesn't address the real issues of the bay. Torres and others believe the best way to clean up Manila Bay is not to add anything, but rather remove trash and pollution.</p><p>"There have been studies saying much of the waste comes from already collected waste — so these are open dump sites along the coast that get washed up because of the rain," Torres said.</p><p>She criticized the authorities for continuing to push reclamation projects she says are at odds with each other. These projects will affect large areas of mangrove forests, she said, and experts warn that this, in turn, exacerbates coastal erosion.</p><p>"If you've removed the areas that helped trap the sand, like mangrove forests, then the likelihood increases that you will have to nourish a beach. Same as building right up to the waterfront," said Vander Velpen of UNEP/GRID-Geneva.</p>
Plenty of Sand in the Sea?<p>The question of Manila's contentious white beach echoes larger questions about sand mining worldwide. <a href="https://unepgrid.ch/storage/app/media/documents/Sand_and_sustainability_UNEP_2019.pdf" target="_blank">Global sand consumption has tripled</a> over the past two decades, UNEP/GRID-Geneva has found. A huge chunk of it is now taken up by construction.</p><p>"Many operate on the assumption that natural sand is endless in its supply," said Vander Velpen.</p><p>Sand scarcity is a concern shared by Stefan Schimmels of <a href="https://www.fzk.uni-hannover.de/fzk_start.html?&L=1" target="_blank">Forschungszentrum Küste</a> who's done extensive research on shore nourishment to stop coastal erosion. And as climate change and rising sea levels are threatening coasts, demand for sand will grow even more.</p><p>A large study, the <a href="http://www.stencil-project.de/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/STENCIL_SWOT_Analyse_191026.pdf" target="_blank">Strategies and Tools for Environment-Friendly Shore Nourishments as Climate Change Impact Low-Regret Measures (STENCIL project)</a>, focused on the German island of Sylt, a popular vacation spot.</p><p>About 1 million cubic meter of sand per year is used to maintain the coastal area of Sylt, STENCIL project head Schimmels said. That's about 100 million 10-liter buckets of sand.</p><p>When sand was extracted off the coast of Sylt, underwater craters were formed. "You can still detect these craters even decades later," Schimmels told DW.</p><p>"Also when you add a couple of meters sand onto the beach — you essentially bury all things that do creep and fly," he said. "How quickly will they recover?" Schimmels said more research was needed as there was still too little known about long-term effects on the environment. </p>
Criticism Piling Up<p>As for Manila's artificial white sand, it looks like some might have already been blown away by a recent storm. DENR claims it wasn't washed away, but said that grayish sand, stones and other material had simply piled up over the dolomite sand. People in Manila have tweeted photos showing how the storm has ravaged the beach. </p>
<div id="adc0b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="98f9390db6bb81cb421aaf0bb9d9a6fb"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1318816633280851969" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Exactly one month after giving excited netizen a glimpse of Manila Bay white sands, look what happened now after ju… https://t.co/X0Z9i0bPB0</div> — M*A*S*H (@M*A*S*H)<a href="https://twitter.com/Magtira_Matibay/statuses/1318816633280851969">1603265362.0</a></blockquote></div><p>Authorities have been called tone-deaf for spending around 389 million pesos ($8 million) on a beach nourishment project in the middle of a raging pandemic.</p><p>An image of cake iced with the words "It really hurts - that's [worth] 389 million pesos?" has since gone viral.</p>
<div class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4387aad52ea316e4db7330052318ca2f"><div class="fb-post" data-href="https://www.facebook.com/theweekendpatisserie/posts/144564207350008"></div></div><p>"It's just a waste of precious resources," Torres said. </p><p>The environmental activist now also worries that she might be labeled a terrorist for speaking out under the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/philippine-anti-terrorism-law-triggers-fear-of-massive-rights-abuses/a-53732140" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Philippines' controversial new anti-terrorism law</a>. She says she could be arrested for inciting fear when talking about environmental dangers.</p>
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