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.
The Minnesota Snowy Owl that has been tracked by GPS signals since Jan. 26 has moved to a location west of Cosmos, Minnesota. That is a shift 15 miles west-northwest from its previous site south of Hutchinson. It moved to Hutch from its long-time location in Ramsey, Minnesota, west of Anoka, where it was netted and given its transmitter. This bird is named Ramsey. It is one of 21 Snowy Owls equipped with transmitters by ProjectSNOWstorm, based in Pennsylvania. The project was initiated when the owls began being seen in the eastern U.S. by the hundreds earlier this winter. The owls and the technology came together as a unique opportunity to follow movement of these birds. You can track Ramsey and the other owls at www.projectSNOWstorm.org.
Below is an image (©ProjectSNOWstorm and Google) from the project website showing the movements of an owl located in urban Baltimore. The transmitter on this bird was set to record location every 30 seconds instead of 30 minutes. The illustration shows movements over a two-hour period.
ProjectSNOWstorm will follow the birds as they move back north to breeding grounds. Information is sent to project headquarters via cell-phone technology. The data is downloaded whenever the birds are within range of a cell-phone tower. Yes, there are few if any cell towers in Arctic Canda, but the transmitters can collect and store thousands of pieces of location data for transmission when possible.
You also can use the website to make a contribution to help with financing of the project.
There are codes of ethics for people who photograph wildlife. These codes and guidelines easily can be found on the Internet by Googling “wildlife photography ethics.”
There is an ongoing clash locally involving behavior of some of the photographers taking photos of Snowy Owls. Not all photographers; let me be clear on that. There are many photographers who understand and follow appropriate behaviors. And there are those few who do not.
Perhaps you saw the WCCO-TV (Channel 4) story two nights ago on the 5 p.m local news. It illustrated and discussed the issue of baiting owls. Baiting involves either offering an owl a live mouse to lure the bird into close photo range, or casting fake mice toward the bird for the same purpose. These photographers have been particularly present at a site in Dakota County and at another location in the City of Ramsey, a northern suburb. There, you might see them in action between Armstrong Boulevard and Ferret Street along 147th Avenue. Watch for the ice-fishing rods and reels used for casting dummy mice.
The Ramsey owl, unfortunately cooperative, has been harassed in such a fashion for days, maybe weeks. The same photographers appear, with the same fake or store-bought mice. These men have been told by other photographers on site that such behavior is unethical, and bad for the bird. Those comments have been met with laughter and threats, or the people urging appropriate behavior are simply ignored.
It seems that none of the the photographers who need to bait owls to get the photos, photos they must desperately want, know anything about ethics. They seem ignorant of the numerous wildlife photography clubs and national associations that have very specific codes of conduct. These codes pointedly say baiting is unethical and should never be used to bring a bird close for photos.
So, our bozo photographers either are so uninformed about their own hobby that they don’t know behavior codes exist, or they just don’t care.
Our DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are looking into interpretation of existing laws concerning harassment of birds. The debate is whether baiting is or isn’t harassment. Well, according to many wildlife photography groups baiting, illegal or not, is unethical. If you are a photographer who would represent your hobby in an acceptable way, baiting or use of lures to bring birds closer to the camera should not be done.
Here are excerpts from two photography codes:
Nature Photographers Network — “Do not entice a wild animals with food (baiting) in order to get the photo.”
digicamhelp.com: “Never force an action.” “Never feed or leave food (baiting) for wildlife.”
North American Nature Photography Association: “… use good judgement: treat wildlife, plants, and places as if you were their guest.”
britishbirds.co.uk: “Be honest in declaring the circumstances in which a picture was taken.” I include this because I wonder how many of our baiters are explaining their methods when showing off their photos. It’s not hard to find these photos on Facebook and other photo-posting sites. If you go to look, pay attention to explanations, if any, on how the photo was obtained -- with true skill and care or faked with baiting. In my experience as a wildlife photographer the chances of a raptor attempting or making a capture or kill directly in front of you, at close range, is nearly impossible. Such photos are almost always faked. How can a person be proud of or brag about a faked photo?
Ottawa Field-Naturalists Bird Committee: “Keep a good distance away and do not linger.”
International Association of Wildlife Photographers: “In the field, security and lack of disturbance of the animal must be put before all other things.”
In conversation this week with another photographer at the Ramsey location I was told that a local nature photographers club met recently and discussed the ethics of baiting. I was told club members broke about 50/50 on whether or not baiting was acceptable. I hope that’s not true. I hope someone misunderstood. I hope photo clubs here have clear ethical standards. I hope the clubs are not endorsing behavior that wildlife photographers world-wide find unacceptable.
How much should you spend on a pair of binoculars? This question has been followed for several days on the birding email network BirdChat. Today, this piece of advice: Spend as much on your binoculars as you would on one month of rent or one monthly house payment.
This comes from a book by Jack Connor, "The Complete Birder." I don't know when it was published, but I'd guess rent and house payments were lower than. I'm not sure you could find binoculars priced high enough today to match many current monthly rent/mortgage payments.
Jude and I were in Ramsey yesterday (11 Feb 14) afternoon, looking for the Snowy Owl being seen there, and hoping to see some of the photographers who are using mice to bait the owls into position for “hunting” photos. The owl was there. Two guys with stubby ice-fishing rods were there, fake mice tied to the end of the fishing line. Casting for owls. They were kneeling in the snow about 50 feet from the bird. I walked to within about of 20 feet of them, behind them, and began talking to them, to their backs, actually.
I told them using mice is wrong. It stresses the bird. It’s unethical. The photos would be fakes, cheesy photos. Never one to under-emphasize, I said most of this at least twice. I invited them to cast a fake mouse so I could take a photo. They neither did so nor turned to face me.
The fake mouse on the fishing line is tossed toward the owl, then retrieved to lure the owl into attack. The owl, of course, gets nothing for its effort. It expends energy and wastes time. We have no way of knowing the cost to the bird of these fruitless hunting efforts. How many times in recent weeks have Twin Cities Snowy Owls wasted energy on cold days in pursuit of fake mice? This is being done at both the Ramsey site and in Dakota County along 180th Street, and perhaps elsewhere. It is an unfortunately common way that a handful of photographers use to scam owls.
After maybe 20 minutes in Ramsey, the two men with fishing rods left. There was a small older one and a large younger one. Walking past me to get to the parking lot, the larger fellow said to me, “Take my picture and I’ll break your f…ing nose.” To add insult to potential injury he said my camera was shitty. So there!!
His comments weren’t unexpected. I certainly did push. But the reluctance of those two men to have their photos taken tells me that they understood perfectly well that their behavior was bad for the owl. These birds get stressed, heart rate elevated, stress hormones released. There is no way to know this by looking at the bird. I read of a comment by a photographer in Dakota County who said of an owl, “Look at him. He’s not stressed. He just sits there and watches us.” The bird should not be watching photographers. It should be hunting.
Four other photographers were present in Ramsey, none armed with mice. Two of them came over to introduce themselves. One of them told me that if I had been “attacked” the four of them were ready to intervene. Can you believe this? Six birders wrestling in two feet of snow because one of them is desperate for a photo! Half an hour later the big ornery guy returned. He walked past me to get onto the path into the owl field, saying in a very quiet polite voice as he passed, “I’m just going to look for something I lost, and then I’ll get out of your hair.” He almost sounded contrite. If so, good for him. What a day!
Photos can be taken of the birds without harm. Keep your distance. Get in and out quickly. Leave if the bird seems to be paying attention to you.
I work with Nikon equipment.. The shot here was taken from about 100 feet with a 400mm lens. One picture is as it came from the camera, the other cropped in Photoshop to enlarge the image of the bird. (The photo would be better if I had a better camera.)
Photographer Michael Thompson spent about five hours Saturday watching for opportunities to photograph the Snowy Owl that has been seen for several days near the intersection of U.S. Highway 10 and 147th Avenue in Ramsey (which is about 10 miles east of Elk River). His cold fingers were rewarded with many excellent shots of the bird. These two show it approaching its landing point atop an evergreen tree at the edge of a public street. Thompson, shown in the third photo as he watched the owl, kindly agreed to share them.
There have been some problems with photographers and a Snowy Owl in Dakota County. Those particular photographers have been trespassing, and approaching the owl close enough to flush it. One day last week someone was seen tossing live mice to the bird as photographers waited for a" hunting" shot. (How happy or proud can you be of a photo that was faked?). All of this is photographic and birding behavior at its worst. Birds never should be disturbed. And feeding an owl is unethical, habituating the bird to humans, which can only lead to problems.
The photographers at Ramsey, and there were five in addition to Thompson, kept their distance from the owl, waiting for it to give them photo opportunities. All were working with telephoto lenses. The bird was allowed to behave in a natural manner. Excellent photos obviously were available without cost to the bird. And Mr. Thompson obviously was equipped to wait as long as was necessary.
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