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Observing and Photographing Wildlife

The Short-eared owl is a species at risk listed as Special Concern in Ontario. The appearance of owls in southern Ontario over winter months can attract large crowds of wildlife photographers.

Recent events at some birding sites in our region have prompted me to write a blog about birdwatching ethics. In particular, due to overwhelming popularity of wintering owls at scattered locations across the area, poor behaviour by visiting observers has resulted in some unfortunate incidents and anxiety.

In the last few years there has been a large upswing in the numbers of people enjoying nature viewing, especially in the fields of birding and photography. Of course, many who study our avian friends are interested in both hobbies.

As more people come in at the ground level of such endeavours, there is a learning curve to manage the various aspects and techniques of the pastimes. All wildlife viewing has, or should have, a number of ethical considerations in common, ones that all of us should adhere to.

Wildlife viewing should not be a me-first situation, but one of enjoyment along with careful consideration of cumulative impacts on the wildlife.

To observe wildlife safely and respectfully, we must first consider two main aspects. One, of course, is to adhere to a set of guidelines which protect the wildlife we are observing. These involve a list of appropriate behaviours which protect wildlife from such things as habitat loss, nest or den degradation, interference with feeding or other behaviours, and really just anything impacting its ability to survive. Inappropriate or thoughtless actions by wildlife viewers can cause an animal to leave an area or worse, to not survive our visits. These guidelines are posted on various websites, from the Audubon Society to Ontario Field Ornithologists (OFO) or the Ontario Bird Photography Facebook group. They often are called Codes of Ethics. Many other important suggestions are listed on those pages.

For instance, in the case of owl viewing, these guidelines usually include a note on not baiting birds to come closer, because supplied foods might be harmful to their digestive system, or it might attract them close to roadways, putting them at risk of being struck by passing vehicles.

Suggestions also include not approaching owls too closely. Approaching wildlife often causes them stress, but some individuals in pursuit of a perfect picture, or in eagerness to get a good look at an owl, rationalize that because the bird did not fly away, it was not stressed. This is a fallacy. Stress does not manifest in wildlife in the same way as humans. For instance, a bird might not move due to it trusting in its camouflage to make it invisible. Or it might not move until the last minute, since moving uses valuable energy, especially important to survival in the winter.

If your pursuit is to find owls, check out these links. For Ontario Bird Photography see here. Download the rules pdf and note the part about owls. And for a Code of Birding Ethics, the OFO site offers suggestions.

A second aspect that is perhaps understated in guidelines for observation of wildlife is that while pursuing wildlife, we must avoid negatively impacting the people in the vicinity of our observations. For example, often an overwintering group of owls can be located for many months in the same area or have an accessible roosting site which adequately protects them from danger. These can occur on private property, sometimes near residences. Imagine having a constant stream of visitors, day after day, being especially worse on weekends, invading your quiet street or road without some sort of self-control and respect for residents on the part of the viewers.

In cases where situations like this come up, whether in urban or rural locations, several issues may be objectionable for homeowners. For instance, it is essential that if the viewing involves entering private property, the property owner must first be consulted and permission must be obtained. If viewing will be from a roadway onto private property, there are a number of things to think about, not the least of which is where to park and observe without impacting the homeowners.

On rural backroads, especially in winter when the roadside may be dicey to park along, people may be tempted to park on the actual road surface to avoid becoming stuck. But if they park on both sides of the road, it can obstruct traffic, including school buses and farm vehicles. Sustained disruptions of normal life and routines for the locals can cause them stress, and make communities less hospitable to both wildlife and its viewers.

So, what can be done differently? If wildlife observers make an effort to make their visits as short as possible (and not linger for hours waiting for the perfect picture or spectacular event) it would allow more space for vehicles. Also, if people would not park in front of rural homes, the undue anxiety and lack of privacy for the homeowners would likely be mitigated. Visiting during weekdays, rather than on the weekends can also help with congestion of traffic.

If consideration is not given to the homeowners, sometimes it can lead to angry discord between homeowners and wildlife watchers. Perhaps a fed-up homeowner, not understanding why we are so fanatic about being there, curtly asks people to get away or park more appropriately. The resulting dialogue can be distressing to both parties. In some cases I have seen lately, the children in a family are adversely affected by the anger shown by parties. They are afraid to be anywhere near the strange visitors who seem overly aggressive. Past that point, all visitors could be considered a threat due to the conduct of few inconsiderate ones. And I have also seen social media posts maligning the homeowners, after such confrontations, in an attempt to justify their actions and put the blame on the homeowner, which only exacerbates the animosity.

Another potential threat can result from property owners attempting to deter birds we are wanting to view. For example, following negative altercations, property owners might go out of their way to remove the wildlife which they deem as the source of their problems. I have seen rural fields plowed under to prevent some species of owls from wintering. Of course, that also disrupts other wildlife which would normally use such grasslands for nesting, like Bobolinks, or field rodents. Other times, frustrated landowners have driven 4-wheelers out in fields to scare off birds while a line of cars and people are watching from a rural road.

If you hear about a tantalizing rare bird or winter owling location, perhaps reconsider when or how or even if you will attend the site, reflecting on the pros and cons of such a visit. Think of your impact on the wildlife you are pursuing, as well as the cumulative effects on the local community. If you are inclined to visit, plan your trip with utmost care and consideration.

Also important is to consider, when finding a rare or interesting bird, whether to refrain from announcing its location. Many birders and photographers like to share our good fortune, as disclosing our findings can improve our social standing in the birding world. And yet, there could be myriad negative consequences to posting, with aspects beyond our capacity to predict. In general, one should follow the precautionary principle: if there is a plausible risk to people or to wildlife, we should exercise caution and respect our individual social responsibility to protect others from exposure to harm, whether caused directly or indirectly by our actions.

The OFO Ambassador program takes the guesswork out of planning a wildlife viewing event. Check their webpage about it.

In summary, observers must make sure that wildlife can be viewed without stress, from an appropriate distance, and homeowners should be consulted and informed about what might occur should there be a large number of visitors for an extended period. Above all, protect the wildlife and respect the landowners and nearby residents who could be affected by visiting observers. Accounting for these considerations will allow as many people as possible to enjoy the viewing without undue negativity.

One must also consider carefully whether to post pictures of some birds, such as owls, especially at potentially controversial or difficult logistical locations or roosting sites where the birds might be scared away. After posting pictures, it is common for photographers to face pressure to disclose the animal's location, or through some investigation, the location might become known. Such instances too often result in the site becoming crowded to the consternation of locals and risking frightening the bird away from the site.

There is a fine blog written by Paul Nicholson for Bird Friendly London which outlines suggestions as to posting owl sightings. These suggestions can apply to all rare or unusual birds as well as owls.

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