Here in the UK there are two separate and quite distinct species - birder and bird photographer. And they don’t always co-exist in perfect harmony.
Birders often use the disparaging epithet of “togger” to describe someone who simply takes bird photographs but has no real interest in birds as animals and their place in the Tree of Life. In return I am sure that photographers use a similarly unflattering word to describe the many birders who simply want to look at birds but who have no desire to photograph them. I must admit I don’t know what the latter word is, but perhaps after today I might find out? However, and as far as I am aware the two points of view haven’t come to physical violence just yet, unlike in Canada.
The National Post of Canada of 9th February 2017 - “In Ontario shouting matches and crude language have invaded a world of bucolic harmony”.
“The bird world has rival human factions: purists who admire birds from a distance, and some photographers who put out bait - live mice from a pet store to get the dramatic shot of a bird of prey swooping in. The two sides don’t play nicely. And conflict has grown since digital cameras opened up nature photography to amateurs, while cell phones, Facebook and GPS help crowds converge on rare birds.
“It almost comes to blows sometimes if birders are going to see an owl and there are photographers there,” said Mike Runtz, a naturalist who teaches biology at Carleton University. “There’s a real amount of verbal abuse that goes on between the two groups. They don’t like each other. Photographers don’t like being told what they can and cannot do and birders don’t like seeing birds harassed.”
At the heart of the fractious dispute are owls, especially Arctic species like the Great Grey and the Snowy Owl that often arrive in the more populated parts of Canada in winter. There are Great Greys and Snowys around Ottawa in early 2017.
Snowy Owl - courtesy USFWS
The Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club posts sightings of birds on its website, but has stopped telling where to see owls “due to increasing and widespread concerns of disturbance of wildlife and property.” The Ontario Field Ornithologists, a provincial organization of birders, also omits owl sightings. Snowy Owls are fairly tolerant of humans, especially the big, photogenic Arctic species, Runtz said. “And since these owls tend to stay in one area once they turn up that makes them very prone to being harassed by photographers.”
Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry says it’s legal to use mice from a lab or pet store because they aren’t wildlife. But if you trap or catch a wild mouse to use as bait, you need a small game licence. As for the owl, the ministry says baiting is legal as long as the birds is not “killed, injured, captured or harassed as a result.”
But Runtz argues it is wrong to train wild animals to approach humans for food. He said Facebook and Flickr sites “have become trophy rooms for photographs,” replacing the old trophy rooms full of animals with antlers and horns. And photographing owls is a big-money sport. A number of expert guides will take well-to-do amateur photographers on week-long “Snowy Owl workshops” in Ontario and Quebec for $3,000 or more. This raises the pressure to deliver the best shot.
Snowy Owl - courtesy USFWS
Runtz once saw a group with lawn chairs in the snow, and they had put out sticks where an owl could perch about five metres away. “They would throw mice down, hoping the Hawk Owl would land on the perch. Runtz told them they should not do this “and they were very vocally rude to me about sticking my nose in other people’s business. “It really is remarkable.”
Runtz also said there’s a place near Kingston where owls are known to gather in winter in the forest, and photographers will find a sleeping owl and throw things at the bird to get a shot with its eyes open. An owl flushed out in daytime may be attacked by other birds.
Local birder Bruce Di Labio said he sees some grey area in putting out bait, because he isn’t sure owls are being harmed. “The argument goes back and forth: We feed (other) birds, so what’s the difference? … I never found an owl that died of being overweight, and I have found numerous owls that starved to death.” But he was surprised by the behaviour of a Snowy Owl a few years ago. It watched him stop nearby and “the next thing I knew it was down on a fencepost, begging for a handout." He agrees friction is growing, including shouting matches.
"When Great Greys came south in large numbers a few years back, people would show up with a cooler full of live mice and be constantly feeding them, and there would be a shouting match going on. Not grabbing each other but definitely a heated argument. Baiting has become more popular since the invention of the digital camera and everybody wants to get the greatest shot,” Di Labio said. “Before digital the old guys would spend a week in the woods to get one good shot. Now you just throw down a live mouse.”
Great Grey Owl- Photo by jok2000 CC-BY-SA-3.0 Wiki Commons
Life is tricky for those caught in the middle. If one photographer puts out a mouse, are other photographers who do not use bait supposed to stop shooting? One local photographer who asked not to be identified because of the bad feelings blames “a vocal minority,” and tells this story: “Two springs ago, I was up on the ridge at Mud Lake minding my own business photographing a bird. Suddenly a birder walks up to me saying in a loud voice, ‘You should know, you should know,’ over and over again. “He had taken objection to another person playing a (recorded) call for another bird maybe 40 feet from me. I told the birder I have nothing to do with it and he said, ‘Well, you should tell him not to do it.’ These are the types that will yell at people. I think they would be that way no matter what hobby they took up.”
Some photographers are quite open about the practice. Ethan Meleg, a professional nature photographer from Midland, Ontario describes which shots on his website are the results of baiting.
The National Audubon Society, on the other hand, opposes it and bans photos that use baiting from its contests. It says owls can become too comfortable around people and may be drawn to cars that stop on roadsides, where traffic is a danger.”
Maybe there’s a lesson or two to be learnt here in the UK from this story. While it is against the law in the UK to use live bait to capture or photograph birds or wild animals we do have a similar problem with the uncontrolled dissemination of information that places unnecessary attention onto sometimes vulnerable and often protected birds. And here too in Britain, owls are a particular attraction.
This was especially true a few years ago when a local influx of both Short-eared Owls and Barn Owls led to whole tribes of birders and toggers targeting one particular location on an almost 24/7 basis for weeks on end. This eventually led to a local farmer whose land the owls hunted becoming especially irate after being told to “F..k Off”. This followed his advice to one individual about hazardous parking on a single track road vital to the local farming community, a band of people normally very helpful to the cause of conservation.
Let’s be honest. It is no longer unusual to read in the press of both birders and toggers invading private locations where they upset local residents by their careless parking on roadside verges and narrow lanes at often ungodly hours. Unfortunately such selfish behaviour tars all birders and photographers with the same brush, and everyone gets a bad name whether they deserve it or not.
What's to do then?
Just stay calm folks. Brew a cup of tea, sit down and have a think. After all, it's just a bird.
Linking today to World Bird Wednesday.