Open Mic: Owls and bringing new birders into the fold

Open Mic: Owls and bringing new birders into the fold

At the Mic: Nathan Martineau

Nathan Martineau is a seventeen-year-old birder from Lansing, Michigan. He started birding at the age of eleven. In the summer of 2012, Nathan did a conservation project to compete in the Young Birder of the Year contest. He spent over 200 hours monitoring migrating birds, monitoring nesting birds, removing invasive plants, leading bird walks for summer campers and more. Last summer, he spent more than 150 hours volunteering at a nearby banding station. His birding adventures have included sinking to his hips in the mud (while looking for Nelson’s Sparrows), counting over 18,000 crows at the local crow roost, finding himself awash in boreal birds in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and holding a Pileated Woodpecker at the local banding station. His other interests include butterflies, moths, plants, dragonflies, herps, native plant gardening…well, anything that has to do with nature! You can read more of Nathan’s writing on his blog, The Crow’s Roost.

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A few years ago, I was watching my lifer Snowy Owl near Muskegon, Michigan, when a big van approached. A photographer, hefty lens and tripod in hand, got out.  After setting up and snapping a few shots, he crept closer to the owl. After taking a few more shots, he crept even closer. This happened over and over until the photographer was so close to the owl that it flushed and moved to a nearby post. Rather than stopping, the photographer picked up his gear and repeated the entire process, flushing the bird a second and then a third time. I was horrified, not to mention angry.

Snowy Owl in flight (Photo via Erin Kohlenberg/Flickr Creative Commons)

Snowy Owl in flight (Photo via Erin Kohlenberg/Flickr Creative Commons)


This kind of scene is all too common anywhere there are owls to be found. Whether it’s a photographer getting too close to a Snowy Owl or a group of people talking loudly underneath a Long-eared Owl’s roosting tree, seeing an owl treated disrespectfully will bring many a birder’s blood to a boil. Often, birders will have a curse or two up their sleeve for just this sort of occasion. After all, anyone who displays such a disregard for these beautiful creatures surely deserves to be rebuked. However, chastisement may not be the answer to the problem. In the long run, in fact, it may even be harmful to the general birding community. Why? Because a person who gets too close to an owl is more than likely to be new to the birding scene and probably doesn’t know any better. Hurling that curse may only serve to give a beginner a bad impression of birders and the birding community.
Photo via Robert Cooke Imaging/Flickr Creative Commons

Photo via Robert Cooke Imaging/Flickr Creative Commons


There is a better way to do it. Instead of unleashing your anger, be gentler with such people.  Perhaps you can comment on how beautiful the owls are. Next, maybe teach them a little bit about the owls. Perhaps you can tell them how important that tree is to those Long-eared Owls. Share how you learned that when people come too close, it makes the owls feel uncomfortable. Once they have experienced too much disturbance, they leave their tree in search of a new one, hoping for more privacy. Or maybe you can tell the photographer how important that nest burrow is for the Burrowing Owls. If people get too close, the owls may be forced to abandon their nest. Next, you can politely suggest that they back away to a safe distance to watch or photograph them.
Photo via The Knowles Gallery/Flickr Creative Commons

Photo via The Knowles Gallery/Flickr Creative Commons


Now that they know, they will hopefully spread the word to others who they might see doing the same kind of thing. Instead of angrily telling them off, you have now not only shared something about owls, but have also given them a good impression of birders and, hopefully, made them more interested in their emerging hobby. By gently imparting these good birding ethics, you may often avoid alienating a beginning birder and, instead of discouraging them, you have encouraged them to pursue their emerging passion. Along the way, you have also taught them how to be respectful to the birds both you and they admire.
Finally, there are ways to help prevent this kind circumstance before it even happens. The precaution of ambiguously reporting location, however, is not one of them. When you do not report a precise location, people may end up trundling around the area, winding up underneath the owl’s roosting tree. When you do report the owl best thing to do is to report the exact tree that you found it in. Tell people where they can view it from and advise that no one gets closer than closer than, perhaps, thirty feet, and that those viewing the owl don’t make too much noise. By doing this, you can ensure that the owl stays safe, but that at the same time, birders can enjoy seeing such a captivating creature.

2014-03-11T09:36:42+00:00