Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A Snowy Storm

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.

Litttle Owl

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.

Barn Owl

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


David Gascoigne said...

It's a problem that we grapple with all the time, Phil. Some photographers will go to any extent to get the perfect shot and disturbance to the owl is very real. I have tried to explain to people pursuing owls that the bird needs time to rest and any disturbance causing it to fly uses up precious energy and interrupts the owl's cycle. There is also the problem of people trespassing on private property and local farmers who have traditionally been very friendly towards, and cooperative with, birders are now starting to withdraw access to their land. More and more birders will not even share an owl sighting with even close friends for fear they will in turn invite their friends, who invite their friends......and so it goes. I have never had a shouting match with photographers but I have all too frequently had them simply ignore any advice that would interfere with their goal to get what they believe will be the perfect picture. I am not sure how these conflicting desires can ever get totally resolved.

Stewart M said...

Interesting post. I do think some photographers push too hard - and I think baiting is not really ethical.

Cheers - Stewart M - New Delhi, India

Patrycja P. said...

I did not know that this is happening. When you photographing or watching the birds, you must also respect of other people, I think. And do not disturb the birds, of course...

Linda said...

I had no idea that this is happening, Phil. I think people need to respect the birds and animals that they photograph, taking care not to disturb them, and they need to respect other people as well. I agree with Patrycja.

Derek Faulkner said...

A very good article Phil and I'll be very surprised if the example that you give towards the end isn't referring to a site near me.

Sallie (FullTime-Life) said...

Of course as an amateur (at birding, at photography, at life) I hadn't read about this. Good grief. What a shame it could come to that. It seems to me that baiting is at the very least unethical. I am surprised that a professional wildlife photographer would not only do it but also cheerfully admit to it as if it is a normal thing. Seems like it would as unethical (and more dangerous for the birds) as taking a picture in a zoo or aviary and saying it was a wildlife photo.

The cup of tea sounds good. I could use calm these days.

Jeanna said...

Love the funny mug and the gorgeous owl photos. That's interesting as my cousin just proposed I do set bait to photograph eagles. He was half kidding though and there are plenty of eagles so completely unnecessary. II didn't want to argue with him but I never would. Maybe because I don't shoot many birds but am delighted when to see them and don't have the right equipment anyway.

Fun60 said...

A very interesting debate Phil.

carol l mckenna said...

Wonderfully informative post and gorgeous owl photography and love Carry On... mug

Wishing you a Happy Week ~ ^_^

Lowcarb team member said...

It seems no matter what interest or hobby you have these days there are always those who argue or disagree.
Harmony would be nice ...

I love your pictures and that mug says it all.
I'll put the kettle on ...

All the best Jan

Kay L. Davies said...

Wow, Jim. There goes Canada's reputation for civilized behaviour.
Seriously, though, I agree with the photographer who said "I think they would be that way no matter what hobby they took up." I can't imagine you, for instance, yelling at other birders or even at wildlife photographers (the amateur variety).
There are incorrigibles everywhere, I see.
I just had a thought: I pictured Donald Trump going out birding, with his Secret Service detail following at a judicious distance, and Trump meeting up with a serious birder. Made me giggle at the thought of that poor serious birder getting a full-volume lecture, as well as a scare when the bodyguards' guns were drawn.
All best to you and Sue, and may you never meet up with a loud American (or even a loud Canadian) while you're birding.
An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travels

Neesie said...

Very interesting post Phil, with beautiful photographs too.
I adore the wild birds visiting my garden and have three separate areas around my house to have feeders. I am always watching and photographing them so I'm not sure which side of the fence I'm on.
Thanks for sharing :D

Mary Cromer said...

Thank you so much for this Phil. I just posted similar things about baiting on my Facebook wall last week as well as used a similar quote to the one pictured on the mug just Saturday ;) Anyway, I absolutely HATE the thought of baiting birds just for the sport of getting a great photograph. It is truly cruel behavior and it also causes them to not hunt as they normally would and should and then what happens on a bad day when the photographers don't show up. The younger birds really have an even tougher time. I have seen films where they are mean to the birds also making them beg for the bait and harass the birds. Horrible!!! Have a wonderful week. I will be sharing more of my Florida vacation in coming weeks, beginning this Thursday once again~

Les Fous du Cap said...

Une très chouette série !!!
Céline & Philippe

eileeninmd said...

Hello, I love all the owls. Great post, Phil! I try not to disturb any of the birds while on my outings. I especially not bait any bird for a photo. That could be a difference between being a birder and a photographer. Happy Wednesday, enjoy your day!

Sallie (FullTime-Life) said...

Back to say that your little owl does look so much like our burrowing owl! You had so many wonderful owls n this post that I hadn't really noticed how familiar looking that one was (I have hardly ever seen any other owls so I am in awe of all your sightings).

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