Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.

Minnesota's rogue photographers and the "worst situation"

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird biology, Bird conservation, Bird sightings Updated: February 23, 2014 - 1:23 PM

A few Minnesota bird photographers, continuing to harass Snowy Owls for photographs, have put us on the national birding map.

You know about our Snowy Owl visitors and ProjectSNOWstorm. About a dozen of the hundreds of owls being seen from here to the East Coast have been fitted with small transmitters. These devices allow a research team in Pennsylvania to track owl movements. This is the first time this opportunity has been available to biologists who study these birds. One of tagged owls can be found in Ramsey, a suburb on the north edge of the metro area. This owl has been given the name Ramsey.

Ramsey and a second owl in an adjacent hunting territory have been harassed continually for weeks by a few ego-driven, irresponsible photographers. They bait the birds with pet-store mice or dummy mice attached to casting reels on fishing rods. This is unethical, bad for the birds, and now is messing with the data ProjectSNOWstorm is collecting. Unnatural owl movement creates invalid information.

Scott Weidensaul, a member of the research team, maintains maps that show the location of the tagged birds. Their movements at 30-minute intervals can be seen on web-site maps (http://www.projectsnowstorm.org/posts/tag/ramsey/). Scott posts weekly email updates on this project. Sunday morning he wrote, in part:

“Almost all of the transmitters checked in (delivered information) Thursday night, but we haven’t yet updated the maps. Unfortunately, in a few places something we’ve been worried about from the beginning has begun to happen — photographers using our maps to locate and target a couple of owls, which they then flush repeatedly. 

“This is not an indictment of photographers in general — in fact, the vast majority have been respectful, considerate, and a tremendous help in documenting this winter’s irruption, and our tagged birds specifically. Those folks keep their distance, often using their vehicles as blinds, and make a point of not bumping or flushing the owls. Would that everyone was as well-behaved.

“So, for the foreseeable future, we’ll be delaying the map updates by (three days) to give the birds a chance to move on. …

“Frankly, this won’t help address the worst situation, involving Ramsey in Minnesota," Scott wrote. "Ramsey is a highly predictable owl in a fairly small winter territory where a few lazy photographers are routinely feeding him and another Snowy Owl lots of pet-store mice. ….”

The feeding is done, as you might guess, to manufacture photo opportunities. 

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