Birders keep their distanceSAM COOK: Two of us were driving down Homestead Road near Duluth last Saturday when we saw several cars pulled off the road. Warmly dressed people with binoculars and spotting scopes were lined up, facing west.
By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune
Two of us were driving down Homestead Road near Duluth last Saturday when we saw several cars pulled off the road. Warmly dressed people with binoculars and spotting scopes were lined up, facing west.
I guessed immediately that they were looking at a boreal owl. Lots of the tiny owls are down from Canada in search of mice and voles this winter, and the word is out among birders across the country.
But I was wrong. The bird wasn’t a boreal but a great gray owl, the largest of all North American owls, sitting like a statue in a bare tree. Cool. Some years, great grays move south from Canada’s boreal forest, too, but not many have been around this year.
Great grays, which Duluth naturalist Sparky Stensaas calls the “phantoms of the north,” are more than 2 feet tall, fluffy, mottled gray and brown, with riveting yellow eyes.
The birders, perhaps a dozen of them, talked quietly as they watched the owl, perhaps 30 yards away. All of them stayed on the road, following the unspoken ethics of birding: Don’t get too close. Don’t move in front of another birder or someone photographing the bird.
Seems like common sense.
But birders will tell you that sometimes, in their quest to put one more species on their lists or to get a better photo, some birders cross that ethical line. They get too close. They move in front of others who want to see the bird. They frighten owls away. They interrupt an owl’s hunting activity.
Granted, it’s hard to know exactly how close “too close” is in some cases, but it seems pretty clear that if 20 birders are lined up along a road looking at a bird, you don’t barge in front of them so you can get a better photo.
Last weekend, Facebook was lit up with a long discussion by Duluth photographer Michael Furtman about another owl photographer who Furtman said pursued a boreal owl into the woods so he could photograph it eating a mouse or vole. That allegedly drove the owl farther away and prevented numerous birders from being able to see it later.
It turns out that birders must be something like anglers. Most anglers have experienced being out on the water, catching fish, when another angler comes buzzing up, drops anchor and begins fishing in the same spot. It’s hard not to feel a little bitter at the intruder.
People are just people, whether they’re trying to collect boreal owls or walleyes. Some just seem to think their needs or desires trump those of others.
Later last Saturday, we watched a boreal owl along the road. Every time the owl moved, the assembled crowd scurried down the road to keep up with it, always remaining on the road. I’m not an avid birder, and I didn’t move with the group. But it’s hard to believe the owl didn’t find all of that commotion annoying.
But then, I’m not an owl, either.
SAM COOK is a Duluth News Tribune outdoors writer and columnist. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/samcookoutdoors.