Birding & Wheaton's Law

I usually avoid "stake out" birds (rare birds reported in someone's yard or park and you show up and BOOM it's there). I don't think they bring out the best behavior in anyone--myself included. This is especially true when it comes to owls. Everyone has such a STRONG opinion as to whether or not you should report owls. It leads to a lot of debate on listservs and forums.  Some say to never report a roosting owl ever. Others say that you shouldn't keep bird reports to yourself. Some won't report them publicly, but collect them and then will privately communicate them when asked, but this leads to accusations that the person collecting the sightings won't give out the right directions if they don't like the person who asked. There's also the poor new birder who gets lambasted for reporting an owl and had no idea so many people think it's "poor form" to report them. And then you have owls that break convention and roost in heavily trafficked parks. But when I saw that a northern saw-whet owl was reported in a yard in the Twin Cities with the homeowner saying, "Come on over," I couldn't resist the siren song of a 40 degree, sunny day and a quick and easy owl fix.

Even Non Birding Bill couldn't resist coming along. Above is a photo he took of the owl with his iPhone through my Swarovski Spotting Scope. I cocked an eyebrow when he took it as an Instagram (Really, with my fancy scope and its incredible light gathering ability, you make it look like and old and faded photo?Sigh.).

When I arrived, there were six people with large camera lenses on the bird.  There were stationed in a quarter circle around the owl. It was easy to spot--follow all the lenses.  As I set up my digiscoping equipment, I realized I forgot to put an SD card in my SLR.  Fortunately, we had NBB's iPhone and I brought along an HD video camera and took video (that's a still from the video camera above).  It was a quiet and hushed affair.  All of us positioned at the best sun angle we could find and a comfortable distance from the owl...but that changed and I was reminded of Wheaton's Law and one of the reason's I don't like stake out birds.


If you can't see the video, one of the photographers walked in front of us, didn't bother to ask, "hey can I come past," (or walk behind).  It was obvious that my camera was not a still motion camera so it wasn't like he assumed I wasn't taking a photo since my camera wasn't clicking. Bu I instantly thought of Wheaton's Law (originally meant for gaming, but can be applied elsewhere) it's, "Don't be a Dick!"

The dickish behavior didn't stop there.  The photographer then went down the hill we were on and got within 10 feet of the tree it was roosting in...with his big ass camera lens.

The saw-whet owl is in the red circle. You do not need to be that close to a saw-whet owl with that size of a camera lens. If the bird flies towards you, then go for it.  But this sort of action could make the bird leave this roosting and hunting area which is stressful for the bird and ruins the opportunity for other birders to see it.

The owl tried to watch the photographer with closed eyes.  This what they do for camouflage. Keep the eyes as closed as possible to help blend in with the bark. I think the bird is used to human activity--this is a busy urban yard on a busy street, it's used to people being around and making noise. What it probably is not used to is suddenly having 6 - 12 people staring at it all day long and lurking closer and closer.  In the wild, if you are stared at, you're about to be challenged or pursued as prey, generally, wild animals don't like it.

There's a time and a place for confronting this behavior--and I decided that given the silence of everyone else and how close this person was to the owl, starting argument was not going to help the bird. So, we left. I thought I would come by later that day and bring my neighbor Zoe who is not a birder but loves owls.

When I returned with Zoe, I walked through the gate as I had before, only to find no birders.  Some movement caught my attention in my peripheral vision and found that all the birders had moved to the home owner's balcony, as the saw-whet had moved towards the house--if we kept walking, we could have flushed the owl(accidental dickish behavior on my part).  Zoe and I hightailed it out of there and luckily did not flush the bird.

The saw-whet owl had flown over a woodpile up against the house--I bet there's some good mousing there!  I wondered if the bird flew there of it's own accord or if it flushed to there because of the photographer from earlier?  Zoe and I jockeyed for position on the tiny balcony, I tried to maneuver my scope between deck rails and birder legs to digiscope a shot of the owl:

As Zoe and I were giddily chatting about Minnesota's smallest and arguably cutest owl, one of the birders kept shushing us. At one point he angrily hissed at me, "You're making it turn its head, be quiet!"

I started to mumble, "Dude, this is an urban yard and this bird has hearing beyond our comprehension, I think it's knows we're here."

And then I realized--I was violating Wheaton's Law.  I was being the total dick for this birder and I needed to cut it out. See, stake about birds don't bring out the best in anyone (apart from the poor saint who is willing to allow hundreds of strangers into his home with muddy shoes to look at the bird).

Eventually, the man who wanted silence left and more birders arrived and chatting resumed.  I tried to atone for my dickish behavior by sharing my scope with those who didn't have one. As more birders arrived, Zoe and I abandoned our perch on the small balcony and headed home.

Ah, look at that tiny talon. It's always hard to remember that saw-whets, though wee are in actuality, Nature's Perfect Killing Machine.