Snowy Owls are iconic birds. You rarely find a person – birder or non – who doesn’t want to take a good long look at a bright white owl. And, of course, you rarely meet a photographer who doesn’t want to take a good close picture of a bright white owl. On Saturday, as has already been mentioned on this blog, a couple of us went out to Breezy Point, the southwestern extremity of Queens, and were pleased to see a Snowy Owl in the dunes there. The three of us, Seth, Pat, and I, were the only ones there looking for birds except for one photographer, and the owl seemed content to sit in the dunes and we left it where we found it, undisturbed and unmoving.
That night, a birder posted on the New York State birding listserv that not just this one Snowy Owl, but a second bird, almost completely white, was also present at Breezy Point. Now, my plan had been to bring my folks out to see a Snowy Owl on Sunday regardless. And, figuring that a spot with two owls was better than a spot with one, we made another visit to Breezy Point. But, let me tell you, the atmosphere between the two days couldn’t have been much more different.
photographers illegally in the dunes at left stalking the Snowy Owl at right
Where on Saturday there was only dunes, beach, ocean, and owl there was, on Sunday, dunes, birders, beach, birders, ocean, birders, owls, and photographers. Not only that but two photographers were out in the dunes where folks are not supposed to go trying to get that perfect owl picture. Rob Jett, better known as The City Birder, was not at all happy about them being in the dunes, especially considering that he had previously witnessed one of them trampling through protected habitat in Brooklyn. So he shot video of them and posted it to the New York State listserv.
The ensuing string of emails on both the city and state listservs was amazing. The birder / photographer, “elite birder” / “average” birder, responsible people / irresponsible people, owl reporter / owl suppressor, and indignant / lulz divides were all explored ad nauseum. The amount of text put onto the listservs is likely longer than most Russian novels. And all of this because of two owls and two photographers. Feelings were hurt, reputations were damaged, and laughs were had but, in the end, nothing has been resolved. If you want to see some of the posts before they all slide off the back end of the archive you can check them out on Birdingonthe.net.
All of this brings me to my point. I will not report owls to listservs ever again (not that I have any time in the recent past anyway). I will, however, let birders I know and trust know about owls that I have found or heard about. What is your policy on reporting owl sightings?
Sure, I would’ve liked a better shot of this bird. But I wasn’t going to chasing through the dunes after it.
….and so say all of us.
My issues with all of the “I’m not gonna tell…..only other birders” is that only THE ELITE BIRDERS will be told. I’m a rank amateur. My husband and I are “nobodies” (in the birding world). We’re responsible adults who enjoy taking a quiet look with our good optics from a good distance, and then we go quietly on our way. There’s a lot of “me’s” out there. And since none of the “me’s” know the Secret Handshake, we will be tossed out with the “idiots.” While I understand the concern, and I’ve chewed out photographers at Jones Beach myself, the exclusionary response will damage amateur birding. And birders will go back to the reputation of elitist snobs.
I travel frequently and have found the resources on sites like birdingonthe.net to be invaluable to me in order to figure out where to go birding often when I only have a short window of opportunity. Without the NYSB listserv (and it being reposted online) and this blog I would not know of many of the great areas in NYC to go birding. By being able to get out and bird at places like Jamaica Bay, Breezy Point and the other area parks we all establish a connection with these places. A connection that makes us willing to support their preservation and protection. A few years ago if there had been an effort to close/develop Jamaica Bay my reaction would not have been “Oh no! That’s terrible! We have to make people understand how important it is.” Instead it would have been “There’s a wildlife refuge in New York City? Huh.” But without the knowledge of recent and interesting sightings I am very unlikely to get out birding in NY. I spend about 40% of my days in NYC, but from upper Manhattan with no car it is very hard and time consuming to get to many of these locations. And some like Jones Beach and other sites farther out on Long Island are basically off limits all together. I have gone out to Breezy Point 1 time since I have been living in NY to see the Piping Plovers. It involves over 1.5 hours on the subway and 1 or 2 busses. Then walking FIVE miles each way from where the Q35 drops off underneath the bridge. 11 miles of walking round trip just to get where I’m going is an awful lot to ask of someone. Without express knowledge of a species of interest (Piping Plovers, Snowy Owls, Alcids off shore) I am not going to make that hike. Also as a part time resident of the area I’ll never get to the point of being “plugged in” enough to get information through the birding grapevine. Without the knowledge of sightings and rarities I’ll likely have to give up birding the New York City area altogether, other than perhaps a stroll through central park in the spring.
What this points to, at least, is that the NYC-area population of birders is sizable and healthy. That’s a good thing, I think, even if it means some people who don’t know good birding rules (or don’t care about them) are in the bunch.
The problem we had here in Chicago with the Snowies is that the sightings flew off of the listservs and onto the front pages of the daily papers, driving some members of the public who haven’t a clue about keeping respectful distances or not tromping through protected areas in search of the birds. I look at these as “teachable moments,” but on the other hand it’s hard not to get frustrated when crowds of people stalk the bird up close and upset it. (And the theory is that the Snowies we have here are young ones who flew south because they couldn’t compete for food with stronger birds up north, so they’re already stressed to begin with.)
For what it’s worth, every one of us at one point was an inexperienced birder and probably wasn’t aware of the etiquette until a veteran birder explained it to us; raising awareness of the do’s and don’ts goes a long way toward building better birders. (That said, there are certainly some jerks out there who scoff at the rules, whether well-defined or unspoken. Those people shouldn’t be let off lightly.)
I’m always a bit baffled that people act as if they’re being wronged because other people have decided not to post a sensitive species to a mailing list. I’m a “rank amateur” myself and have never seen a snowy owl, but I’m perfectly fine with not being informed about an owl sighting if it means that the owl will have a better chance of survival. I feel sorry for those whose primary idea of birding seems to be waiting for a rare species to be reported on a mailing list and then driving out to see it with a crush of other people. Some day (probably in the far future) I’ll stumble upon my own Snowy Owl, and the experience will be infinitely better than if I drove out to see a stakeout bird. And if that Snowy Owl never shows up, I’ll still have the joy of exploring my corner of the world on my own and seeing what surprises show up (as they inevitably do with a bit of patience).
My policy on reporting owls is to consider each situation then decide how much information to give to which other people. Some owls are more likely to be disturbed or harassed than others. When I find Long-eared Owls roosting locally, I don’t usually post exact location information for all to see because people too often flush the roosting owls, intentionally or unintentionally.
When I was in California last month I saw a tree full of Long-ears that was right next to a building with people coming and going. The owls just sat in the tree while people wandered around underneath it and while I took photographs. I was told that over twenty of them had been counted in that tree and that they’d been roosting there for years. It seems obvious to me that having their location posted is not harming those particular owls.
Hear, hear, Nancy.
@Nancy and Beth: I’m not sure where the whole “elite” birder thing came from to begin with but from what I have seen, if people show up and bird they are accepted by other birders. I’ve only been birding for 6 years now but quickly learned that the birding community is largely made up of people who are willing to share what they know and help new birders along. If you want to be included just show up, introduce yourself, and bird.
Corey, that’s great to hear! However, the situation is something of a conundrum. If I don’t know there’s a rare bird/owl out there, I won’t have the chance to gather with the others to say hello. Most of my birding is in Central Park so I generally see the same people when I’m out. They don’t seem to know much about happenings outside the park so it’s difficult to learn about rarities without a source like the internet.
I don’t get it! where is the problem with owls/birders/photographers in North America!?
Why so emotional?
Two owls were reported. Good.
Lots of people went to see them. Good.
Two guys trespassed. Bad.
Why not just report them / forward the video to authorities so they are pulled from the reserve and fined? Good, end of story.
Why post the video on a birding listserv?
Why start a discussion about photography versus birding versus elite and so on.
Why, why why?
They trespassed, people collected evidence, and they should be prosecuted. Where’s the problem?
@Jochen: The info has been forwarded to the police. They will fail to prosecute (though they have been friendly about gathering evidence). Heck, when the guy in Indiana (I think it was Indiana) straight up shot a Whooping Crane he ended up having to pay $1.
@Beth: In winter, you will find New York birders on barrier beaches, wherever there is open fresh water, and out on the east end of Long Island.
In spring, you will find New York birders at Forest Park, Prospect Park, Alley Pond Park, Central Park, Hempstead Lake State Park, and anywhere warblers can be spotted.
In summer you should look for New York birders at Cupsogue and on the east pond of Jamaica Bay.
In fall, a return to the barrier beaches is a good bet, as well as hawk-watching sites, and parks with lots of brushy areas (Kissena Park in Queens is a great example).
If you spend one year doing the above you will likely meet the vast majority of birders from southern New York.
@Corey: The comment you made that if you show up and bird, you will be accepted, I completely agree with you on that. That’s how it should be. Most of the “elite” birders that I know, are more than willing to exchange information, tips, etc. with other birders with any level of experience.
Why is it always owls that cause this problem? We’ve had similar issues in Michigan the last couple years with Snowies, Saw-whets, and Long-eareds. In some cases there was serious harm done to the owls (roosts destroyed, owls flushed into traffic.) Is it because it’s a unique type of bird that transcends birding. Most non-birders and non-birding photographers aren’t going to come in droves to surround a LBJ.
Anyway, as a rule I no longer report owls to the servs. I do report them, as I do everything, to eBird. In that case I usually delay the report a couple days and neglect to enter exact location data. (It was on this half-mile of trail, but I’m not saying exactly which oak tree.) I don’t think many non-birding photographers pay attention to eBird, as it’s more difficult to extract information there and impossible to get up-to-the-minute updates.
With that said, I will go out of my way to make time to personally take any “rank amateurs” to see an owl I know about. (I feel odd using that term since it often applies to myself as well!) Is it a flawed system that only those connected to me in the grapevine get to go? Sure. Am I arrogant for thinking I should decide who goes and who doesn’t? Maybe. But given the heartbreaking things I’ve seen from the alternatives, it’s a sad necessity in my opinion.
And finally, if you think this is bad, get into botany. Ask an orchid enthusiast about where he found a particular plant and you’ll likely get an indignant and lengthy lecture that makes you want to flog yourself for even bringing it up. And as horrible as that is, I absolutely see the reason for that as well. Wild orchids in Michigan disappear within a day or two of their location becoming known. Sometimes the information age is a sad time in which to live.
An interesting thing happened out at Lookout Point on January 1st, the day the Grace’s Warbler was found. There was whispering going on. At one point, I was chatting with some birders and another birder I didn’t know ran up to the group, opened his mouth, looked at me, shut it and walked away, saying to the other birders, “I’ll talk to you later.” I overheard two other birders ticking off names, “Seth knows the location, this birder, that birder…” It was clear to me that another rarity had been found and that a decision had been made to only tell selected birders. And, the next morning when I saw photos of an all-white Snowy Owl on the web, I realized what that bird was.
I can understand that. Iwouldn’t want that crowd of people stampeding to the beach and surrounding the owl either.
And, then there was last year’s Lewis’s Woodpecker in upstate New York, whose location was whispered from birder to birder because the home owner wanted to limit the number of people viewing it. I was fortunate to hear about it from a couple of birder friends, but I’m sure there were many birders who didn’t. It was not the sort of info that was passed on to new birders in the field.
So, yes, birders are a friendly tribe and will pass on info in the field. Sometimes you have to ask. Like any group, there is a certain amount of gate keeping of information. Most owl locations are not posted, and are passed around with discretion. And, as in any group, respect and value are accorded to those who are seen to be putting in the work. Birders who are seen in the field every weekend are more apt to be called immediately when a rarity is found than birders who are “out there” once a month. I’m not saying that this is good or bad. I’m not criticizing birders who make the choice to spend weekend mornings with their families or working or any number of activities. This is the way it is any group. It is far from a perfect system. Birders do it better than most.
I think we do need to be mindful when publishing the location of those rare visitors. I realize everyone wants to get that “great” shot and proximity to the subject will produce a better one, but not at the expense of said subject. I actually heard someone say one time while viewing an eagle “it’s just sitting there, someone throw something to make it fly.” OMG! REALLY?! There was another instance while photographing a Snowy Owl where a couple of us ventured out onto the ice (very very cautiously I might add not only for the owls sake but ours as well) and someone else drove up and saw us out there and clodded their way out too…noisy, carelessly, etc. The only thing I could thing of at the time was “Oh great I’m going to miss my shot because I have to pull his a___ out of the water when he falls through.” That didn’t happen and I think we all were more than please with what our cameras captured.
I’m all for the appreciation of wildlife and the more attention they get maybe the more protection and preservation as well…but it has it draw backs as with everything else. On that note I have to agree with Jochen as well regarding the “trespassing” photographers…gather the evidence, report them, and hopefully the authorities will fine/prosecute…but don’t be afraid to call out those rule breakers and inform/educate them on why what they’re doing is wrong…maybe they don’t know.
Owls certainly stir things up! I thought the whole point of those crazy fancy cameras is that you don’t have to get so close to the bird…
This winter there have been some issues in Maine with landowners upset over tons of people showing up over a Northern Hawk Owl and not respecting private property, blocking driveways, rutting roads, etc. Also some listserv sassing over a Snowy at the Portland airport and whether airport owl sightings should be posted at all. All the negative hoopla makes me completely avoid those particular sightings.
I totally agree the health of the bird should come first. Maine had one Snowy that was found on a beach this winter that died in rehab because it was emaciated. I’m not sure that the mortality can be blamed on a dune-damaging trespasser, but who knows…
On a more positive note, we’ve also had a Snowy hanging out for over a month on a little island about 300 feet off the mainland that has a lighthouse on it. This situation is clearly optimal: the owl has set up shop in a really scenic, public area and there is a water barrier preventing people from getting too close! I admit to trying for this particular owl because of the ideal setup…but I was skunked and continue to look for the listserv updates for this bird, which have all been friendly and positive.
Location and situation are everything! Although I would like to see that tree full of Long-eared’s in CA that Katrina described…
For me, the joy of discovering birds myself trumps all other — I haven’t seen a snowy yet — and following the e-postings of rarities has less and less appeal. Weeks later I may mosey over on public transportation (which precludes Breezy Point) to look for the bird that has burned up the wires, so to speak, for so long, but only when I think/hope the scrum has moved on. It’s just so much more meaningful to me to do it myself.
@Matthew: I’m starting to feel the same way. When I was in NY, I wasn’t on any of the digital lists, and did most birding on my own or in the company of longtime sages who were plugged in and also knew what to look for when, historically speaking. Out here in Chicago, I’m on a digest that is great about sharing information — I’d never have heard about and therefore seen the Sage Thrasher or Rufous Hummingbird otherwise. But on the other hand, I kind of miss the days when it was less about chasing and more about stumbling upon something cool and unexpected.
Corey, thanks for your spot-on post. I was naive to think my note to the NYS list wouldn’t create a firestorm. Many commenters seemed to have missed the point. Whether one is a birder, photographer, both or none of the above, “No Trespassing” & “Sensitive Habitat” signage needs to be respected. It behooves everybody to recognize that environmental degradation and the loss of certain types of habitat will ultimately impact all life forms. Also, I didn’t just post the video online, I called the NPS police and emailed information to the park service.
Finally, to address some of the birding newbie complaints that I’ve read, the best way to see desired bird species is to learn your sport. Read books and online birding sites, go on group trips, attend bird-related presentations, keep a list, keep a journal, etc. Over time you’ll find that, in fact, it will become much easier to observe your area’s seasonal specialties because you will have developed some great skills.
I walked around the beach recently and frankly dont see what all the fuss is about. If you walk onto the dunes from the beach there is nothing to indicate it is unlawful at least where I was. I saw a photographer out on the dunes and watched. The owl wasnt being chased and she was certainly close being about 30 feet from the owl. Later I saw a big group about 150 ft away and when they stopped the bird flew. So who causes harm one person close or a big group staying further away? And how do those that attack the photographers know they are causing harm? birds fly-thats what they do. Is that harm? Just saying………..
I also get concerned about teh behavior of some but it is not all photographers that cause concern. I watched a large group of birders harass a Boreal Owl last winter that was perched in an evergreen–they all mobbed the tree and went under and inside its branch cover so they could get a closer look and add to their life list. The leader of teh group had the gall to stand there and berate three of us photographers standing back waiting for a chance to photograph the bird. The leader announced that bird would not be listed on a list serve to make sure no more photos showed up. The elitism is aggravating and also annoying as it makes me wonder how genuine the lists are. Some organizations use the lists as data to make conclusions about bird populations and habits. That is pure BS non-science as the participants are selectively posting so teh “data” is not real. i recently found a barn owl in a part of Pa that supposedly does not have Barn Owls–was told by an Audobon elite that I did not see what I saw–then he wanted to know where I saw it as he was going to “protect” the info if it was real. I diode not reportage it on a list–why should I? The elite will not believe it and then teh elite will censor it.
What makes you think the photographers were trust passing. It not a bird nesting time. Like the dunes of Jones beach they are open to explore outside the nesting season. I consider the whole crowd luckyto witness the sighting at all. Getting close to the bird is okay just like a fall warbler or a pigeon, if the bird ddoesn’t like it will fly away. Stop whinning
The people you are describing that destroy roosts and place birds in great danger,sound like sociopaths not birders and photographers. Don’t mix up the two