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Documenting Bad Behavior Of Birders & Photographers

There’s an interesting and odd trend this winter. Owls generally do not bring out the warm cozy camaraderie in the birding community. If anything it brings out the soapboxes and the worst behavior. You have people on both ends of the spectrum: some people say to not report owl sitings ever because the owls will be disturbed. Then you have people who are excited about seeing an owl and want to share it with everybody and then you have the people who know there’s an owl, what to get an awesome photo no matter the cost to the fellow observers or the birds themselves.

This winter there have been a whole host of arguments on various listservs but what is different is that people are now filming it and putting it on YouTube. Here’s one from Boundary Bay, British Columbia, Canada:

Here’s another at Breezy Point, NY:

Non Birding Bill and I even took a video and photos of a jerk last winter with a huge lens who was among several people watching a saw-whet owl and decided he needed to be all up in that, not only walking in front of everyone but getting to the point of almost flushing the owl.

I don’t want to pin this behavior to just photographers, there are jerk birders too.  But is this how we are going to deal with the behavior? Is this the best way?

15 comments to Documenting Bad Behavior Of Birders & Photographers

  • Reading “The Big Year” is as close to birding as I’ve gotten, but I grit my teeth just thinking about this.

  • Phil Jeffrey

    :: Is this the best way?

    It’s one of many ways. Of course there’s direct conversation in the field – sometimes it’s the result of ignorance, but sometimes bird/photographers are inherently inconsiderate or pushy. Sometimes you can correct the behavior just by educating them. Sometimes not. Particularly with owls, which tend to be the recipient of a lot of “push” from inconsiderate people, I’m of the opinion that documenting the transgressions is one part of a larger attempt to reduce the impact on these birds. The larger attempt has to try education first, but assuming that everyone is suddenly going to see the light over not harassing owls is being falsely optimistic.

    On the birding list that I run, specific locations to owl roosts are forbidden for precisely that reason. It’s an increasingly common restriction on bird reporting spawned by behaviors like the ones you highlighted.

    The dunes at Breezy Point are signed as protected along the 4WD roadway as you walk out from the small NPS parking lot. Walking around in them to get better shots of owls is illegal but it’s not like the area is actively patrolled. When I was there (before that video was shot) another photographer was tramping over the dunes and flushed one Snowy. That photographer had used a birder report of the owl locations to track them down.

    However that does pale in comparison to that photographer in BC. I hope his name was publicized. You’d never want to give him the location of a sensitive species.

  • The Northern Saw-whet Owl here in Calgary, AB was nearly flushed as well by photographers at a location that’s relatively easy to find and get to. The birding group I lead on Sundays got there at about 9 AM, and while there was a large group of us, all we wanted to do was sneak by, grab a peek of the her, and maybe snap a photo or two. The ridiculous thing was that was almost too much to ask of the 10+ photographers who had already set up camp within 5 feet of her.

    Not surprisingly, that was the last day she was spotted there, and has moved on to a quieter neighborhood. I also don’t think anyone’s reported her current location, but I do know a few folks have seen her.

    For a habitual bird like that, who tends to roost in a regular spot, any signs, fences, or the like would simply be ignored, so there’s not really a lot you can do. I DO like the idea of getting video of the photogs behaving badly though. Seems like a good way to make them realize they’re being jerks. Funny thing is, I’ve been a photographer a lot longer than a serious birder, and this behaviour has always annoyed the hell out of me.

  • Horrible behavior. We should follow them home, wait until they’re asleep and then surround them with invasive cameras while everyone tries to get the best shot. We’ll see how they like it!

  • Joe

    You’re correct Sharon, this type of activity is just plain thoughtless and rude.

    I was thinking that aren’t there laws in place concerning the harassment of wildlife?

    I think if these restrictions were tighter and the known areas patrolled some it could help get the message out. But until people are hit in their wallets, I’m afraid it won’t stop.

    Best wishes and just a comment on how much I enjoy both your blog and podcasts as well.


  • Brian

    Man, I still bad about getting too close to a Snowy Owl at the airport and causing it to fly away. I hate when I cause any stress to a wild animal and really try hard not to do so. Some people just don’t care.

  • Hundreds and hundreds of people have gone to Boundary Bay to see the owls this year. 99.9% do it just fine. But it only takes a few …

    (How about that mountain backdrop? One of the few beautiful winter days we have had like that here in the Pac. NW this year!)

  • I wouldn’t put the rate of ethical folks at Boundary Bay anywhere near 99.9%. This area is set aside for wildlife, and it is dead easy to get close-up views of the Snowies from the public walking areas on the dykes. However, you can go there any time, any day, and phtogs have left the dykes, and tromped all over the foreshore trying to get photos in “better light”, thus trampling habitat and making the area unusable for all of the other avian species that need to use the protected habitat. Not only should photos and videos of unacceptable photography/birding practices be shared over the internet, it should also be forwarded to law enforcement and government wildlife area managers.

  • I agree with Linda. This is why I report my owl sightings in a vague manner, as I have seen this behavior up close with a Snowy 2 years ago at Plum Island, MA

  • Personally, I don’t have any problem with calling someone out on bad behavior.

  • I wonder why these photographers buy these long lenses anyway. Am I right in thinking the long lenses do not work well up close. I think they are giving most birders a bad name and ruining it for others who really just want to see the bird. It is sad that it will keep birders from posting their sightings.

  • Ed

    Wildlife paparazzi. Adrenaline can make humans do crazy things. And the human mind is well adapted to justifying boorish behavior. And this is obviously not just limited to birders and photographers. Generally speaking – I find a good portion of the population to be generally clueless. Just try waiting patiently at an airline gate podium – or restaurant hostess station – for service and within five minutes you will encounter a half dozen patrons to whom which you are totally invisible.

  • Katrina

    I think that the best way to deal with problems of this sort depends on the situation. I can think of three ways to deal with it – education, shaming, and getting the law involved. If someone gets to close or otherwise disturbs an owl out of ignorance, education is the obvious answer. Some people, particularly non-birders and beginning birders, may be so excited that they don’t think clearly about the possible results of their actions. The examples you show are really striking, but sometimes the situation is a lot less clear-cut. Sometimes an individual bird is more or less sensitive than typical. I’ve seen Long-eared Owls flushed by people who didn’t know they were there, or who thought they were a safe distance away. I’ve also seen other Long-ears that roosted in a tree next to a regularly used door and didn’t care about people going in and out and wandering around under their roost site.

    If someone knows better, a bit of shaming may work if they’re active members of the birding community. Peer pressure will push some people into better behavior. You have to be careful not to alienate them to the point where they stop being willing to listen to the community at all though.

    Some people know better and don’t care what others think of their behavior. Getting the law involved when they trespass or otherwise break the rules may be the only way to change their behavior.

    Sometimes it seems to me that having a long lens causes some people to lose the ability to think.

  • I agree with all of the responses above — field interaction and then bringing awareness through blogging, photos, etc. I would be careful about libelous situations with respect to photos and writings. And I admit to lapses of sarcasm in response to some of these situations. But, some of the interlopers I’ve run into, including at Boundary Bay, are shameless and simply don’t respond to civil discourse. Incidentially, I write on these issues occasionally and although I my photographer friends are in concert with me on these issues, I get hate mail, too. This issue in particular seems to bring out a sense of angry entitlement.

  • Birder and photographer harassment are two of the reasons I don’t post the location of ANY owl or other vulnerable bird. Also listserv posts are available to anyone, not just members, via the archives (which include a post within a few minutes of it’s uploading). In fact, I’ve seen posts on nature photographer sites lamenting that some birders aren’t listing owl locations so they can find them. There are goofy people out there, like the person who shot and wounded the Snowy Owl in Kansas, ( ) leaving it to die a slow death.