Cold day out

Today Sandra and I went out and about birding. It was cold, -23°C and with a bit of wind chill too. We wrapped up warm though and so only suffered minor frostbite, mostly through slogging around Bois Papineau looking for owls.

We started on the west end of Laval where we didn’t see Bohemian Waxwing, but four Cedars were year ticks. Moving on up highway 15 we went to Mirabel where we didn’t see Grey Partridge either. There were, however, plenty of Snow Buntings and two Snowy Owls. One of the owls was using a highway lamp standard to hunt from while three idiots threw mice for it. I stopped and told them I disapproved of baiting and that they were behaving foolishly, although my actual word selection I’d prefer not to publish here, think clucking bankers. I don’t know whether it was my comments that discombobulated them, but they left the area ten minutes or so after my last volley.

After a short stop at an A & W for lunch, where I destroyed two full coffee cups, accidentally I must add, we went to the previously mentioned Bois Papineau. Normally the site produces at least a Great Horned Owl when I visit but not this time. I had been told that there had been an Eastern Screech Owl too. I checked the regular hole but nothing, looks like I’ll be asking my friend Alain to lead me to one of his soon.

We tried to warm up in the car and, realising that we were just up the road from a Harlequin, we went over for a quick look. It was distant but new for the year. By then we were cold again so called it a day and headed home for hot chocolate.

I only took a couple of snaps of Snow Buntings today but they are always so delightful to see that I thought I’d share anyway.

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Tricky Trio

Time was when you had to work for three particular species in Quebec; Carolina Wren, Red-bellied Woodpecker and Tufted Titmouse. That changed when Red-bellied Woodpecker colonised, in a small way, part of Chateauguay about eight years ago or so. The birds have persisted, increasing in number and extending their tenure into the nearby reserve on Ile St-Bernard. eBird still flags the woodpeckers as rare because they are, but the excellent feeders on Rue Higgins are a must visit place for most Quebec birders, at least once a year.

The same site hosts Tufted Titmouse occasionally and has at least one pair of resident Carolina Wrens. The titmice are now common on Ile St-Bernard and easy to find around the feeders and on the first part of the main trail. The wrens are also spreading but slowly. Thankfully they are hard to miss once they start singing, very distinctive.

So today I went to try for the trio and was successful on all fronts. I did Rue Higgins first and it was quiet, I soon found out why. This Sharp-shinned Hawk was attending the feeder fodder, it didn’t manage to snaffle anything while I was there though, and the first of two Red-bellied Woodpeckers soon showed up after the hawk had cleared off.

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A little while later, the Carolina Wrens appeared. They were against the light at first and then later, one posed with a cellphone dish as a backdrop.

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Moving on to Ile St-Bernard the feeding stations were active and I took advantage to photograph a few common things like this Mourning Dove.

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The Black-capped Chickadees were landing on my hat.

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White-breasted Nuthatches were very busy.

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American Tree Sparrows also shared the free food.

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Downy Woodpecker.

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I did get few views and shots of Tufted Titmouse.

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And finally I got some shots of Red-bellied Woodpecker, very nice.

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On the way home I looked at Beauharnois. A female Hooded Merganser was unexpected. In the reduced number of gulls, compared to recent visits that is, I picked up a couple of Glaucous and four Iceland Gulls, all a bit too far to immortalise in pixels.

If anyone wants directions to the Rue Higgins site or info on Ile St-Bernard let me know.

Crawling

It’s been a bit of a stuttering start to the year with just 52 species seen, and that despite connecting with great birds recently. Looking at the Quebec listings on eBird, I’m way back with the wheezy boys, with a note from Matron excusing them sports. I suppose only getting my first Song Sparrow of the year today is symptomatic of the slower start but then it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Common Redpolls have started to pop up, a small group have a Hoary with them at the sand pits and so I thought I’d post my Hoary ID sheet for new readers, click on the bird to view only the page. The redpolls occasionally use the seed I put down, I use a stone block opposite the site entrance if you’re passing and want a peek.

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Today was mostly DIY shopping, but luckily the fields around St-Clet are on the way to the store if I go the long way, and so I was able to have a whizz around. The Song Sparrow I mentioned earlier was on Montee Chenier where the Snow Bunts get banded if anyone wants it. Out in the wastes I could only find three Snowy Owls, although one was the male I saw get whacked by a young female a few weeks ago. She was nowhere to be seen and he was basking in the sun while he had the chance. I grabbed a shot from the road and left him in peace.

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Next week I’ll get the chance to look for the Aylmer woodpeckers again. Fingers crossed that I’ll finally catch the three-toed in the viewfinder, it would be a photography tick, just short of 500 in N. America (ABA area) at the moment. Incidentally, now would seem to be a good time to push Listers’ Corner. Take a look at http://www.neilyworld.com/neilyworld/listerscorner/listers-corner.htm

You don’t have to be a big lister to take part and the totals and write ups are always a good read. You can download the pdfs of previous years to see how it works, I urge all active Canadian birders who keep a list to participate.

Myth Buster

After last Friday’s three pronged dip, my friend Graham might have thought twice about forsaking the comfort of the air crew hotel prior to his return flight to the UK but for us Brits a chance to see what is a myth for us, Northern Hawk Owl, proved too tempting, even though the weather dealt us another slippery hand.

The normal deal is that, when Graham gets a Montreal route, he has a free day, well part of, and he jumps on the Vaudreuil train – I pick him up – and we have a good time out birding. Usually we stay pretty local but if you want to crack those myths, then you have to go for it when the opportunity presents itself. Today we went out to the Thetford Mines area and this time fortune favoured the brave (or insane, if you like).

The roads got steadily worse, although you wouldn’t know it by the way the truckers drove, and we very cautiously negotiated Route 165 to the owls spot. Snow fell in copious amounts and the lack of site knowledge left us wondering whether we’d actually be able to see far enough to see the bird. We needn’t have worried and it was sat Hawk Owl-like atop a tree about 150m from the road.

We hugged the shoulder and hoped not to die as truck after truck hurtled past, spraying us with slush. After a few minutes the owl took flight and stooped up onto a roadside wire. Graham was naturally delighted to get such excellent views, despite the worsening weather. After a bit of posing the owl printed off across the road and into another distant tree and we thought we’d peaked.

We were so preoccupied with notes, sketches and reviewing photos that we didn’t notice that the owl had returned and was now sat mid-road on a convenient wire. The angle was good and the photo op taken, the results are below.

For Graham it was a life bird, for me another one of quite a few I’ve visited in Quebec and Ontario, and the thrill of the experience never diminishes. To understand why this owl is so revered by UK birders you have to remember that the last vagrant there was a Shetland bird in 1983, a record very well documented with some stunning photographs, the envy of all who didn’t see it.

As it may be the last time I see Graham, what with our move and the difficulty in him getting to crew to Montreal, the Hawk Owl is a fitting tick to remember some great birding trips by. If anyone is thinking of going out there for a look, it is well worth it. The area if favours is open, the bird seems healthy and was active and the road is broad enough to be able to get over. Sightings of it are usually found at http://quebecoiseaux.org/index.php?option=com_oiseauxrares&Itemid=133 with some directions and reference points, good luck if you try.

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Some Compensation

Today I was out with Claude, it continued cold so we went and stood in an open area of Ontario looking for the Gyr Falcon (yes, I know that is not how eBird spell it, they are wrong), it steadfastly refused to join us. Common sense just nipped in before hypothermia and we headed off to Ottawa to search for an American Three-toed Woodpecker, which we also didn’t see, can you see a pattern developing here?

As the toothless budgie said, try, “try and you will suck seed” (it’s called poetic licence) and our little pause on Chemin Grimes got us this beauty, well a bunch of noisy crows did actually.

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It posed at the roadside before one of the few cars to use the road flushed it deep into a woodlot awaiting another house. Unfortunately Claude had missed the chance due to technical difficulties and it looked like a hat-trick of disappointment was to be his burden to bear, but no, we did a circuit of the road and on the opposite loop we found the owl again sat roadside. Enter a busy Canada Post person with a big red flushing van (I think that was the make). Fortunately the van stopped and I engaged the postie in conversation while Claude got his shots. Having enjoyed its 15 minutes of fame the owl promptly went back to teasing crows.

After a short tour of the scenic areas of Ottawa we returned via the fields of Casselman and found four Snowy Owls, a high count according to eBird, but in the real world, no not really.

Addendum – I was back yesterday with my friend Graham looking for the Gyr and peckers – no joy again but the roads were entertaining with jack-knifed trucks and people resting in the median. One delight was a Porcupine munching on branches in Ottawa.

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And now, after the pictures for those with a short attention span, are the comments relating in my piece about owl suppression. The first is from an Internet forum where somebody I don’t know has made comments on a forum that I don’t subscribe too.

I find the reasons he states, to be a bit bizarre, personally. If sightings are suppressed, then the number of people who find the owls is lessened. Less people, less disturbance. Less people, less of the ones that will choose to disturb them for a shot. More people, more bad apples that will do bad things to get good shots. It almost seems like he says what he does to find locations for his own purposes, IMO. I find the joy in finding owls, especially GHOs, on my own with no tips. I have found several nests that are easily accessible, but remotely located from crowds. They have been used for decades, although certainly not by the same pairs of owls. I have only taken three people there who I trust to not spread the word. One of them passed on in 1999. I would never tell anyone else, not even birders who would likely respect the owls more than many photographers. I once found a sick owl at Bosque that nobody else had noticed. I called a guy from the refuge to come and catch it. While waiting for him to come, another photographer started to get very close and even got into the water to get even closer. I told him to back off, knowing he would not like me saying that. His young son was also trying to approach it from another angle and I chased him off too. When the refuge guy got there with an assistant, they caught it and took it to a rehab place. It was later released back into the same area. If I hadn’t stayed with it, the owl would have probably flown out into the pond to escape the photographer like it tried to when it was being captured. I know not all photographers are disrespectful of their subjects, but I feel that I’d rather not create situations for owls by revealing their locations. Let others find their own subjects – Santa Fe Joe

My answer: Apart from a mushy pet rescue story it is clear that he didn’t understand my point about suppressed owls still getting ‘abuse’ but no chance to Police sites nor educate. His comment ” it almost seems like he says what he does to find locations for his own purposes,” are superfluous. My purposes are to enjoy seeing owls, I said what I said because I’m missing owls and because I believe it is counterproductive to suppress, as the piece says. I take the view that the majority of people are respectful and well behaved. You can only hope to correct poor behaviour by witnessing it.

These comments are on the blog but reproduced here as part of the debate.

I as a rule, do not share my findings at all. Not because I don’t want other people to see the birds, but because I don’t want a horde of outside people in one place getting the police and locals pissed off in my area. I went to see the Lark Bunting on Amherst Island and ran into several locals who were pissed off by the horde of birders that showed up there (I happened to come the day after it was last seen, so at the tail end of the extravaganza). The farmer next door wasn’t happy and spoke to us, the people living around him who stopped to give us an opinion weren’t happy and the Municipal personnel whose dump truck stopped to give us a lecture weren’t happy. I learned my lesson that day about reporting anything. That is Ontario. I can only imagine what it would be like in Quebec – David.

My answer: David – People moan about a lot of things, but the very minor disturbance a few birders cause when enjoying what might be a once only rarity doesn’t warrant suppression. As for people on Amherst, tough, they were wanting birder backing when the wind farm thing came up, so they should welcome birders with open arms. As for municipal people complaining, so what if you are in their way, people move when they see it is needed, and the municipal people can wait a few seconds, it’s not like it happens all of the time. As for not sharing findings while going to see something else that someone has found, that is rank hypocrisy. By all means keep your sightings to yourself if you wish, just don’t go and see anything found by someone else. I saw the Lark Bunting, it was on a road that probably saw three cars a day. The road wasn’t blocked, the birders didn’t trespass and nobody stopped to talk or complain. Quebec doesn’t have as many birders as Ontario, nor the number of rarities. I’ve chased a few things in Quebec but never had any problems. If I can I always make a point of chatting to locals and encourage them to take a look through the scope, engaged people are less likely to complain.

As you can see, we have rather wandered off topic.

On the whole I agree with you Mark – and would add that if there are problems and obstructions being caused for the locals then it’s only because some twit with bins, scope or camera is being thoughtless and inconsiderate. It isn’t impossible to avoid blocking roads and trails and I would guess all that utside money being spent in snack bars, gas stations and B&Bs is probably welcome in places like Amherst Island? – Richard.

A reply from David to my comment.

The let’s educate and police thing has already been tried. It doesn’t work. When word gets out is too late to control the situation. Don’t report owl locations and keep it quiet is the only way – David.

So, rather than keep trying to Police and educate, you advocate sticking your head in the sand and pretending that the problem is not happening. Look at the various photo forums, you will see owls that have been baited and shots of birds that have been harassed to provide the image. How many times this happened is anyone’s guess, nobody was there to voice an opinion. A significant part of the bad behaviour problem is that people prefer to walk away muttering rather than raise their voices.

A further comment from David – You do realize that the Owl Woods on Amherst Island are under full suppression now. They do not want people to report it to Ebird now, just to prevent new people from finding out about the place. There have been too many poorly behaved people traveling to that island for them to welcome them with open arms anymore.

Comment from me – yes I do know about the suppression of news from the owl woods, bolting the stable door really, perhaps renaming the woods might help in the long term. Logically, it is better to have the people misbehaving in one place then heavily Police it but there has to be a due process to enforce. I’ve often thought that, if a municipality can have rules regarding when you can place your trash bin out and the like, and be able to issue fines for contravention, then why can’t they all have bird protection bylaws and do the same. If photographers and birders thought that a spot-fine could be issued, especially something sufficiently punitive, they might think again about behaving badly.

As for twitching, I try not to do it at all. In rare moments, like the Lark Bunting who was so close to home, I break my rule and because I did, I was not the slightest bit angry when I dipped on it. The fact that I live less than an hour away from that bird and missed it goes to show you how much I don’t like twitching other people’s finds. I was however not happy with the less than stellar reception I got, considering I live in the area and out-of-towners seemed to have made local birders like myself unwelcome.

As for Quebec, as someone who grew up in that province and who returns on occasion to bird with his dad, I can tell you there a great many birders in the Outaouais region do not report. They want no part of record committees, junk data (as my dad calls Ebird), self aggrandizers who claim they found the 4th record of this or the 10th record of that. My dad is roughly your age and birding was as popular here when he was a kid as it was over in England. They had a great big gang when he was growing up that birded everywhere and the better part of them became scientists and naturalists, some of which went on to become North American birding stars like Ron Pittaway. So there is a birding culture here, it just doesn’t support listing like other areas.

Not using eBird is displaying a parochial attitude towards a proactive system. It has its faults, some pretty big ones in my opinion, but one day, thanks to eBird data, there will be a plaque on many a parking lot or residential development telling you that it is the site of the very last (fill in name of species here)… As for birding cultures, they differ from place to place but the underlying tenet is that we all want to see and enjoy birds. On moving to Canada in 2003, I was surprised by how photographers birded with just cameras and no bins. I’m used to the thing now but I still regard someone without bins, just a camera, as not really a birder. The reality is that they are birders, just doing it differently.

As an aside, I looked up the word tenet (via MS Word) and the first definition was this: Tenet Healthcare is one of the nation’s leading healthcare services companies, with a comprehensive network that extends the US from coast to coast. I would like to take all those bastards who have hijacked the Internet as their own, paid for advertising resource and drop them in the deepest part of the ocean – rant over.

As for not having trouble birding in Quebec, I’m surprised. As someone born and raised in the province and speaks both languages fluently I can’t count the number of times we had trouble with the cops about “hunting from the road” or “suspicious behaviour” or “being in a park too early”. I have been shot at, chased down roads and threatened by people who don’t want hippies or as I quote someone from last year translated from french “those damn perverts with the big cameras coming near our place”.

Cops I’ve spoken to when birding have been fine and even vaguely interested. Perhaps because I’m English I get a bit more latitud,e but my experiences have always been positive. Onetime I was birding with a visitor in a not very friendly area, lots of privee signs, and was challenged, politely. We chatted and it turned out that the guy owned a large woodlot and, once we convinced him that we were just birders, gave us carte blanche access, all that on a single meet.

Support from Darren – “Another superb essay and right on the mark, Mark!”

Big Blond Beauty

After all day snow yesterday, this morning was clear and bright and cold, -22°C to be exact. It warmed up to a balmy -19°C though, with no wind chill, so I took the opportunity to zip into Ontario to look for the white Gyr Falcons that had been in the Lafleche Tip area.

The road down to the tip was active with heavy trucks driven by both sorts of truck driver. Those that can, and the morons who can’t and who should never have been given a licence in the first place. Fortunately there is a broad pull-off zone and so the chances of getting wiped out by one of the morons is only around 40%, acceptable for a Gyr I’d say.

There were plenty of birds present so I switched to the scope and was able to pick out both Iceland and Glaucous Gull in the modest group above the tip. Perceived wisdom is that when the Starlings panic, the falcon flies, although I can see a Gyr showing much interest in a hors d’oeuvres when a main course is on offer. I went back to the bins, did a scan and there it was, sat on a utility pole, magnificent.

A Gyr is a big bird and they can take Canada Geese as prey, also small Italian cars, Nuns and Hang Gliders, that is mean. This one just sat for a bit, then launched into the air, cue the crazy Starlings. All it did was flit from one post to another but it was enough to put everything up, possible everything in Prescott-Russell county. Despite the cold I kept an eye on it and took a few record shots in which the pole comes out well. Then up it went and got stuck into the gulls. It isolated a large white-winged gull, probably one of the Glaucous Gulls, and simply took it out, then it went down into the tip, presumably to eat it, I expect Glaucous Gulls taste just like the ones mother used to bring when it was young.

Feeling like I was in the early stages of hypothermia, I went for a drive, saw a Snowy Owl and got warm. Heading back another two birders had arrived and we had a twenty minute wait until the beast returned to a post, that after it had offered a few teasing glimpses in the air. We collectively decided to go down and walk the field edge to get a bit nearer, it was fairly easy going but the Gyr always seemed a long way away. A few more record shots ensued and we pulled out to leave it in peace.

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I think this was the eleventh Gyr I’ve seen and the thrill never wanes. This was my first white morph in Canada and completed the set although I still want to get better photos, one day maybe.

Here are the lousy record shots.

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Counterproductive

One of the redeeming features of living in Quebec in the winter is the opportunity to see and photograph owls, or at least it was not so many years ago. The burgeoning mass of photographers and birders has seen finders reluctant to release information about day-roosting/hunting owls, almost entirely because people have not behaved as well as they should around them. Now, when owls are found they are rarely shared but how does this work out in stopping disturbance, it doesn’t.

Of the regular owl species in Quebec we can remove Snowy and Great Grey Owls from the discussion regarding releasing their whereabouts. The former are frequently easy to find although some winters are better than others. The problem for Snowies and, to a lesser extent, Great Greys, is baiting. There are many photographers out there who offer photography trips to get those talons out, eyes wide shots, expensive trips too. They are very well subscribed but, when attended by novices in terms of wildlife interaction, a poor start to their education if baiting is included in the teaching process.

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You can argue that baiting does no harm, or that it desensitises the birds to humans making them open to trapping or shooting, because as we all know, there are more than enough meatheads out there that would think nothing of pulling the trigger, if they thought they could get away with it. Come to think of it, has anyone ever been prosecuted for offences against birds in Quebec, I can’t think of a single instance that I’ve heard of in the past eleven years and that despite a protected Harlequin being shot by hunters and the event witnessed by a birding group.

Going back to owl issues and, if it is found through research that baiting is harmful, then legislation is needed to stop it. Unfortunately wildlife protection legislation generates little interest amongst our politicians, so they need a metaphorical kick up the rear-end to get their attention. That is the job of all of the bird clubs and organisations across Canada – collectively their voices should be very hard to ignore.

Great Grey Owls are less bothered by baiters because they are often so tame when they have one of their cyclic incursions, that they give natural opportunities to anyone with a camera. That said, baiting does still occur but not everyone present is a baiter and they should raise a concern and photograph the baiters and publically show them for what they are, there is enough access to social media to do that. Magazines, web sites and photographic groups also have to exercise their social conscience before publishing shots of baited birds. But are baited Great Grey Owls going to behave any different because of the baiting, is anyone actually researching the problem, if there is one.

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This Great Grey Owl actually flew towards me and then hunted feet away. I had to back up to focus.

Northern Hawk Owl is a treat to see at any time, but we are not seeing them so much now because of the same baiting issues. This species is at risk from baiting, Quebec had one die under the wheels of a truck because stupid baiters lured it from its tree top, causing it to cross a road. Did anyone get prosecuted? Not likely, again nobody wants to get involved in such things. Personally I believe that Hawk Owls along with Snowy Owls, because of their liking for roadside perches, need protective legislation that is effective and prosecuted fully. The law should include not just a ban on live baiting but also the pulling of lures. The problem and the cure are very black and white issues, so come on legislators, get it sorted.

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I can’t think of anything more exciting in birding terms that watching a Northern Hawk Owl. This bird took indifference to another level and hunted a quiet road, often flying into the tree above birders cars while they were there.

Short-eared Owls and, to some extent, Great Horned Owls take care of themselves. The former is scarce enough not to be easily found at roost, the latter deals with problems with an imperious stare, but Long-eared Owls are very loyal to roost sites and very prone to disturbance. Ideally we’d have a roost site that you can scope for views but that is inaccessible, until we have one then it is right to suppress sites and to actively protect roosting birds. Eastern Screech Owls are also loyal to their sunny roost sites, but they are common and widespread and just step back into their holes if they don’t like the look of things.

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I’m just happy to see one, a record shot will do.

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So photogenic, it just sat in the open while those around enjoyed.

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It knew I was there, stood by the car but, not being small and furry, it decided I was not that interesting.

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I had walked under this bird and back before I noticed it.

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The assembled group of watchers and snappers were just part of another day for this bird. At one point it lazily stretched and then turned around on the perch. Nobody made a sound bar the shutter noise.

Boreal Owl and Northern Saw-Whet are two species that are highly prized, even though the latter is not uncommon, a fact backed up by the number trapped at the McGill observatory in Ste-Ann-de-Bellevue every autumn. Boreal on the other hand is seldom encountered and so each time you see one it is very special. Both species are inactive daytime sitters and are perhaps the most disturbed of the roosting owls, I’ve even heard of people pitching snowballs at a roost tree to get an eye shot. It’s some time since I saw either species and not for want of looking, but, judging from the (open eyed) photo’s in various places on the web, there have been some birds available, just nobody else there to witness the behaviour that made the owls pose for the camera.

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This Boreal sat clutching its mouse lunch all day, unoffended by the small group watching it from a respectful distance.

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This Northern Saw-Whet sat just above eye-level as a procession of people saw or snapped away. One guy used flash and the others there tutted loudly. I used photoshop!

And that is one of the points that I’m trying to make. If owls get suppressed, all birders and photographers are then denied the chance to enjoy them. Yes there may be some disturbance but the owls will have many unknown roosting alternatives and, if they get to pissed, will fly off and use them.

The owls found represent a minute proportion of the owls out there, a tiny fraction, and their ‘exploitation’ for a short period by admiring lenses, whether in binocular or camera, is nothing. If you think that the owls being undisturbed is the be all and end all of things, fine. Don’t use your car, any electricity, lumber, don’t eat anything you didn’t grow yourself, in fact hermetically seal yourself in a self-dug pit that is not in an owl territory and let the rest of us get on with enjoying winter owls.

The very few owls out there that are being found and seen are being pished, and squeaked, coins, keys and paper are being rattled or rustled and the owls, by and large are ignoring it. When those same watchers resort to other tactics though, who is there to see it and to chastise those responsible in whatever way they can? Who is there to put the miscreant’s faces on Facebook or circulate their names to other, responsible watchers i.e. the majority. Not you or I because the owls are being suppressed. If day roosting owls are not unofficially policed by dint of the present of responsible watchers, then who knows what real indignities they might suffer?

You will have guessed from the content of this post that I am largely against the suppression of most owls, you would be correct. I think it is time we faced the problem head-on, instead of adopting a head-in-the-sand policy, it seems to me that it is the only practical way, deal with the minority directly. Police, educate, persuade and, if necessary, use peer opinion and public media to intimidate, whatever works but, let’s not pretend the problem is not happening, let’s not hide.

Incidentally, I realise that this rant won’t make any difference but at least I’ve said my piece. Agree or disagree, then say so and I’ll blog your comments next time.