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.

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5 thoughts on “Counterproductive

  1. 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 – 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.

      • 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?

      • 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. 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.

        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”.

  2. 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.

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