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.
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.)
Laura Erickson, Duluth resident, birder, author, radio personality, and blogger, has been given the Roger Tory Peterson Award by the American Birding Association. She is honored for a lifetime of work on behalf of birding. Laura has been particularly focused on birding for youngsters.
She is author of six books about birds: "101 Ways to Help Birds;" "Sharing the Wonder of Birds with Kids," which won the 1997 National Outdoor Book Award; "The Bird Watching Answer Book;" For the Birds: An Unusual Guide;" and"Twelve Owls" and "Minnesota Birds of Prey," both illustrated by Betsy Bowen, artist from Grand Marais.
Laura has been producer of her own radio show about birds since 1986. This brief and entertaining bit about birds can be heard on public radio stations in Duluth, Grand Rapids, St. Cloud, and Thief River Falls. She also is a busy public speaker. Laura's web address is www.lauraerickson.com
Congratulations to an outstanding educator and ambassador for birding.
Federal law prohibits harassment of owls. Harassment is to disturb. Disturb is to interfere with. I would think that using mice to lure Snowy Owls close for photographs is interfering with the bird's usual behavior. In that case, baiting owls is against the law.
And baiting owls is a cheesy way to get a photo. Don't those photographers -- and more than one has been baiting owls seen in the town of Ramsey and in Dakota County -- don't they have any pride?
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.
The Dark-eyed Junco is probably the most common feeder bird in North America. In fact, recent FeederWatch data from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology indicate that among 15 feeder-regions monitored in U.S. and Canada, the Dark-eyed Junco is the first, second, or third most-common bird in nine of those regions, occurring in from 77% to 97% of the feeders.
Different forms of Dark-eyed Juncos are to wintering right now here and at lower elevations in the West and across multiple wide swaths of the East.
The presence of this bird in our backyards, woodlands, and edges comes at the same time as the general distribution of a fine video, called the Ordinary Extraordinary Junco. This is the project of a team of biologists at Indiana University led by Drs. Ellen Ketterson and Jonathan Atwell, and film student Steve Burns, and it is accessible free at http://juncoproject.org
The video highlights how biologists study birds in the wild and in controlled environments, using a highly variable bird that even the most casual backyard bird watcher can identify. The video was funded by the National Science Foundation and Indiana University.
Eight sections can be viewed separately or appreciated as a single feature-length piece, whether one wishes to study diversification, natural selection, breeding biology, or much more. The different forms are examined, among the Dark-eyed and Yellow-eyed taxa.
The eight sections of the video can be short (3 minutes) or long( 20 minutes). They are broken down as follows:
2 Chapter 1, the pioneers in junco science
3 Chapter 2, Appalachian Sprint: studies in Virginia
4 Chapter 3, diversification in Dark-eyed Junco
5 Chapter 4, diversification south of the border
6 Chapter 5, the mysterious juncos of Guadalupe Island
7 Chapter 6, campus juncos in San Diego
8 What we can learn from the junco The website includes related materials for teachers.
Juncos are so much more than "snowbirds," so much more than most observers ever considered.
(From Great Birding Projects, email newsletter, October 2013, Paul Baicich editor. Electronic subscriptions for this monthly publication are available by contacting the editor at email@example.com)
Photo is of a Slate-colored Junco seen in Minnesota.
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