Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Flipping the Bird

When I’m out in the field birding, I run into a lot of nice people. They ask what I’m looking at. Sometimes they point out things I don’t see. We may talk shop, we may not.

If they have a spotting scope, they offer to let me look through it. One couple - at an industrial area in Salisbury, Md., that was drawing a lot of grassland birds one recent September - not only let us look through the scope but identified the birds we were seeing (I’m as bad identifying grassland birds as I am shorebirds).

When we are standing and looking at birds - whether at Sandy Hook’s Spermacetti Cove or Scherman Hoffman’s hawk platform - there are people who are friendly and who enhance the birdwatching experience.

But as in real life, there are also jerks.

These are the stupid people out there in the field who do a lot of stupid things.

*They will leave the trail, like the lady in this photo taken a few years ago in Massachusetts.

I was on the trail when I photographed her. She was walking alongside some deep water, likely the Concord River or a tributary. She was walking over a lot of downed tree limbs. We watched her to see how far she’d go, and whether she’d fall into the water. Luckily, she didn’t fall in and ran into enough brush that she was forced back to the trail.

Recently, at Sandy Hook’s Plum Island, my husband and I saw two guys with cameras - huge, gunlike lenses - walking ahead of us. One of them left the trail and was walking in the long marsh grass, in the mud, looking for something to photograph.

I don’t know what he was looking for when he was trampling the marsh but he spooked two black ducks out of hiding into the water. That didn’t interest them enough to use their cameras. Maybe they didn't even see them.

I’m sure the ducks were relieved the peregrine falcon that had been flying over the area most of the afternoon wasn‘t around at the time.

*They use recorded devices.

If you play a recording of a singing male bird, there is a great likelihood a real bird of the same species will fly in to defend his territory. It will get stressed. It may even attack you. That’s bad enough when it’s something small, like a Bicknell’s thrush.

But if it’s an owl, watch out. In bird etiquette, you do not stress out a roosting owl during the day. In my book, you don’t use tapes to draw owls even at night.

*They will do anything for a picture.

Some people use their big lenses to stay in the background and get the picture, blowing it up in the editing. Some, however, will trample the ground like elephants, rush the bird, push you out of the way for that picture.

I’ve written before about the people who put their lenses practically in the faces of the roosting long-earred owls found by others a few years ago. When a rare boreal owl was found roosting near Tavern on the Green in New York City's Central Park during the 2004 Christmas Bird Count, many people came to photograph it. They stood a respectful distance from the base of the tree, used their long lenses and took their pictures.

But when a guy showed up early in 2005 with his camera, he wanted a perfect shot. Boreal owls are hard to see sometimes. So this guy used a bright flash for his pictures, despite the birders yelling at him to stop.

The next day, the owl was gone, either to another part of the park or another part of the state. Maybe it was coincidence. I hope it survived the trip. It left behind a lot of angry birders.

A lot of owls have been found in Central Park since then, but not boreal owls.

These jerks will also trespass. There are many stories. If you look on the birding lists you’ll frequently see the complaints from other birders as well as exhortations not to block roads, to respect private property, not to cross fences, etc.

There’s a reason for these exhortations. A lot of birders simply don’t respect private property. Maybe it’s because they consider themselves photographers rather than birders. With smartphone cameras and mini-SLR cameras, everyone think they're a world-class photographer, a paparazzi of birds.

The town of Piermont, NY, was overwhelmed by people coming from hundreds of miles around one winter when a juvenile snowy owl took up residence on a post in the town harbor. Same for the town of Montgomery, NY, when the grasses in a particular park field were trampled after a sedge wren was found.

If I was a homeowner and I had something extraordinary at my feeders, I would tell no one. My little lawn and my little street in my little town would be overwhelmed.

*They won’t tell you what they are seeing.

You see people with their binoculars focused on something. Birding etiquette says you walk up, focus your binoculars on the general area, try to see what they’re seeing, then ask.

Sometimes you see what they see, and you mention it for confirmation. Sometimes you can’t see what they see and when you ask they answer, even if they are thinking “I had to work for this. So should you.”

The jerks put down their binoculars and walk away.

That’s ok. It only makes me work harder to find what they saw, and more.

So when we meet in the field, let's be friendly. Let us bird in fellowship. Let us share stories and information and, most important, respect the birds and each other.

Otherwise, I'll be flipping you the bird and notifying the authorities.

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