Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Don't take your guns to the swamp

It has only been in the last couple of years that I have begun bringing a camera with me when I go birding. Until then I was content to have only my 10x50 Nikon binoculars and use the camera in my brain to record notable images.

With digital cameras suddenly everyone became a nature photographer. That's fine if you are trying to prove you saw something unusual such as this pinkfooted goose my husband, MH, photographed early in March in a private park in Washington Township (Bergen County), NJ.

But a lot of photographers are doing it for profit, either by selling those photographs as stock images to be used in calendars and the like or to put on their personal photography pages and garner the ensuing glowing comments.

If you want to do that, fine. But what I CAN NOT STAND is when someone takes his or her gun-like lens and aims it practically in the face of a bird, creating unnecessary stress and ruining it for other birders when the bird takes off.

There have been many instances of this selfish and cruel behavior on the part of people who want a picture that badly. For instance, a few years ago the birding lists were full of angry birders screaming about a rare boreal owl in Central Park that had been there for a few weeks but finally left after a man set up a camera and used a bright flash (by day, yet) to take a picture practically in the face of the roosting owl.

I have witnessed several such instances, two of them at the Great Swamp in New Jersey.

An aside: Fifty years ago, the plan was to make this 7,500-acre gem straddling Morris and Somerset counties into an airport. Environmentalist Helen Fenske created a grassroots movement to stop that plan. Every time a plane flies over the swamp I shudder. The new visitor center is named for Helen Fenske.

Another birder and I were at the Heronry Overlook parking lot watching a mature bald eagle sitting in a tree close by. Suddenly, we saw a man with a rifle-like camera lens walking in an off-limits area closer and closer to the tree, snapping away, until the eagle flew off.

We started yelling at him and he was completely amazed and confused at our reaction. What was the big deal? He only wanted a picture of an eagle. (The eagle eventually returned after the idiot left, but to a tree much farther away and only identifiable thanks to its white head.)

The second example involved a couple of long-earred owls that decided one winter to roost in a cedar tree very close to Pleasant Plains Road, practically at eye level, not far from the Fenske office.

The swamp is not far from my home so my husband and I drove over and found the owls easily thanks to a couple of birders there. Most birders know to give owls some space during the day since they are resting for the night's hunting. Not the guy there with another gun-like lens, standing real close to the alarmed owls as he took his pictures.

This begs the question, why stand that close if you are using a telephoto lens?

I asked him that question, and told him to get the hell back across the road. MH and the man's wife were afraid we were going to get into a fight, and it was very close. But he moved back. MH and I took our own pictures from across the road. I thought I had gotten through to Mr. Photographer until I looked in the rear-view mirror as we drove off and there he was, up in the owls' faces again. I wasn't surprised to learn not long after that at least one of the two had flown off. I can only hope the second owl, when it left, hadn't been scared off by other inconsiderate birders lusting for that special photograph.

There hasn't been an extended stay by a long-earred owl along that part of Great Swamp since, as far as I know. Owls have long memories, too.

What's the worst birding transgression you've ever seen? Tell me at

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