Snowy Owl and Social Responsibility

It’s time for me to rant a little as something came up yesterday when I was out in the field in Delaware visiting the Snowy Owl that many have heard of by now. Please bear with me as this will be a long story.

Allow me to first say that wildlife is unpredictable, but many many times they have the ability to move whenever and where ever they please. Over the past few years in my wildlife photography endeavors I have seen how wildlife have chosen to be near humans. Placing their nests, burrows or dens along heavily trafficked areas when they have the choice of thousands of acres to locate far away from humanity.

Even if they chose to be near humanity, it is our social responsibility to respect and care for them. With the digital age of photography, nearly everyone has a camera and when something rare comes along, every Tom, Dick and Harry want to get out there to enjoy the rarity as well. With the advent of the internet and information passing quickly through venues like Facebook, the social pressure on these rare animal/bird sightings have dramatically increased.

As a nature and wildlife photographer, I have spent countless hours in the field spending time observing wildlife and learning their behaviors. Understanding when they express movements that indicate distress or fear due to my presence helps me to be respectful and to know when it is all right to approach, and even more importantly, when it is time to leave the animal alone.

I had visited this owl once before about two weeks ago when very few people were aware of the owl yet. She was very cooperative and tolerant of the few visitors and after a lovely visit and a good number of beautiful images I left as I didn’t want to overstay my welcome.

Yesterday, I arrived at the National Wildlife Refuge before dawn and along with a few other early arrivals, we quickly located the owl and slowly made our approach to her. Her behavior indicated that she was comfortable with our presence and we made our gradual approach as a tight knit group and stayed in one spot to enjoy the owl.

There were over 30,000 Snow Geese in the water behind us and they were flying all about. In watching the video above, you can see that she was on high alert keeping an eye on the geese. She also clearly looked at us and recognized us as not to be threatening. But watch the video even closer and listen. There was one camera that she didn’t like the sound to – it has a lower tone. After the first burst she became more accustomed to it. Another photographer had his focus beep ON and it kept beeping. I always keep my focus beep off when photographing wildlife, and seemingly she appears to not react to the beep. In consideration however, the focus beep sound should have been turned off.

Here’s when things began to fall apart. As the sun began to rise, more and more people began to arrive onto the beach. They were walking quickly on the beach and spread out behind us. Between the quick movements and number of new arrivals, she moved to another spot not much further down the fence line.

And the people kept coming up behind us and it was just too much for her. She flew a second time, a little further but still within reach of the photographers. I observed them lining themselves up right against the fence line and this is when I decided that it was too much for her. Too many people, too much pressure and so I left.

There were plenty of other birds on the beach and I knew I had some beautiful captures already and I didn’t need more. After wandering for a little while, I began walking back to the fence line near the entrance to the beach to pick up some items I had left there and darned if the owl didn’t fly right past me and land shortly further along the fence line in front of me.

I had her all to myself as all of the other people were down the beach. I took the opportunity and approached a little and stayed where both of us were comfortable. Photographing with my 500mm with 1.4x extender, I was shooting with a 720mm equivalent. For a few minutes I watched her begin to doze off. I then turned around to check on the people who were once again power walking the beach to catch up to where I was. One girl in particular was taking the lead and walking really fast. I had to ask her to slow down and quietly approach. Luckily she did listen to me and we were there a few minutes before the rest of the groupies caught up with us.

Guess what happened? Yep, you got it – they had moved too fast, there were too many and the owl flew down the fence line again (reminder – she has acres of unreachable land she could have flown to…) This was my cue to leave once more. And so I did. Upon my departure I looked back to see the people and they had spread out on the beach from fence line to the waterline – about 20 people. Way too many people, way to spread out as if they were circling her.

I went to the parking area and spent some time visiting with a friend and enjoying a super cooperative Juvenile Great Blue Heron. I could look down to the beach and see the line of photographers and the owl down the fence line.

I then saw the owl fly yet again. After a while, one of the photographers who had been out there had returned to the parking lot. They informed me that someone reached them and started shouting at them about how they were too close to the owl. His shouting is what caused the owl to leave. Sigh…

I drove off for exploring and returned after 12:00 p.m. I managed to relocate the owl up the beach and slowly approached with another couple. Sitting in the sand at a comfortable distance I was ready to spend some time with her. But the one of the people kept walking back and forth quickly trying to find a position he liked. In fact he started to walk onto the sand dunes, which I quickly told him not to do so. got it – Owl flew off again. It was clear that with the continual arrival of sightseers that the owl wanted her space. So I laid down on the sand to rest and enjoy the warm winter sun. It wasn’t long until others arrived. I informed them that she was skittish and they needed to keep their distance and stay at the water’s edge. The first three people listened and were respectful. But then a fourth person arrived and I said the same thing. “Walk Slowly..stay along the water line” I watched him walk off quickly. I had to tell him THREE TIMES to walk slowly. Within minutes he walked directly to the owl quickly and sure enough she flew off once more.

When I got home, I didn’t post any images of the Snowy Owl. There are plenty out there. I don’t need to brag. But I did put a post up of the other birds I had seen that day and placed a friendly reminder to all on the Facebook Page that she wants her space and for people to be respectful.

That’s when the stones began to be thrown at me. “Weren’t you the one that was yelled at?” Ah…no… I was at the parking lot. “But I saw you !” No…that wasn’t me. “It’s the Photographers”…the seasoned wildlife photographers understand wildlife and know how to approach. It’s other birders, sightseers and wanna be photographers that don’t.

And so you can understand my rant. One of these stone throwers was someone that has visited the owl on a number of occasions and even has posted several times the exact location of the owl on Facebook. I would never do so.

It has unnerved me to be accused of lying and not being respectful to wildlife as I am neither, so you can understand my rant.

So I’ll get off my rant for now and hope that all bodes will the rest of the week for the owl. I understand they found her again today in easy access, so I think she doesn’t mind company all that much. Just so long as it’s respectful and not being mobbed.

Tomorrow’s post will provide good guidelines for ethics in the field for wildlife photography.

30 replies »

  1. Emily thanks for the reminder and your post. Folks need to respect wildlife and give them the space they need.
    I applaud you for your efforts.

    • It’s was a nightmare Jack and I’ve never seen so much pressure on one bird like this. Conowingo is such a different situation. There are many people arriving from out of state that heard of the owl and just don’t have the experience or know-how on what the proper way is to respect wildlife. Thank you so much for your support.

  2. You are the best Emily….I am so envious but am not as motivated as you. Your work is exceptional and I find myself blessed to observe your journey from afar. I wish you all the best for 2018 we all will be indebited to your talent & hard work.

  3. Nice shots of the owl! Sorry some reacted the way they did to your suggestions. For some, a bird is something to check off on a life list; for others they are a thing to study and admire. Thanks for reminding others to respect wildlife and wild places.

  4. That she flew back to you is pure karma. Thank you for trying to protect her and provide a little guidance for those who need it.

    • I sure did try George. That last guy I shouldn’t have told him where she was but I got it that he wanted to see one for the first time. I’m not the kind of person that is vicious but I should have also given him a tongue lashing when he returned. You are so kind and thank you.

  5. This seems to be a recurring theme, as I’ve come across several posts on social media in recent times talking about behavior of so-called photographers. I consider myself a landscape photographer, but occasionally I encounter wildlife. The only reason I have been able to get wildlife photos is because my movement is slow and quiet. Maybe there should be an etiquette handbook issued with all new cameras. Nice photos, as usual, Emily.

    • You understand then about being a guest in their living room. We need to be respectful and leave things as we found them. Great idea about the etiquette handbook! 🙂 I’d be interested in seeing some of those posts if you happen to remember where you saw them. Thank you and Happy Holidays.

  6. This is sadly so indicative of a large proportion of society today – if it’s there, it’s theirs! What’s more annoying is that when it comes to nature, which as we all know to be highly unpredictable, things don’t always go to plan. When a person puts themselves in a position for nature to protect themselves, it always seems to be the poor animal that needs to be dealt with as “there was no signage saying I shouldn’t be inconsiderate or selfish”. Yep, more then happy to jump on a soap-box to rant alongside of you anytime!

    • LOL ! That would be awesome, seeing you and I on the soap-box together. Oh yeah..didn’t get into the well don’t stick your hands near the wild critters bit you? LOL ! Gee..I wonder why. Hilarious!

      • The “professional” photographers all but ruined my children’s experience at Churchill with the polar bears. The photographers were getting closer and closer to the bears with every photo they took yet we learnt that if the bears were to defend themselves, ON THEIR LAND, IN THEIR ENVIRONMENT, the bear would be put have to be put down. On learning that the photographers were lucky that day no one from our vehicle didn’t harm them! (My apologies if I’ve already vented about this.🤬)

        • That is ridiculous indeed. Hopefully the bears weren’t too terribly disturbed but yes, so very inconsiderate of others. It would be one thing if it was just that group all alone and they remained in vehicles. But walking and getting closer is just asking for trouble.

  7. These are amazing images Em, some of the best I’ve seen from your good self. I’m sorry that you had an upsetting time though…..unfortunately some people are just idiots.

    • You are too sweet Mark, and yes I am in particularly in love with this series too. The situation really did rattle me for a while. Luckily things have settled down and I can go back under my rock now. Thank you so much.

  8. Hear, hear. I wonder if well-worded ‘respect wildlife’ signs at refuges would help educate the newbies. As you noted, some people responded to your remarks. Ignorance and hubris are some of human’s least attractive characteristics. Good and worthy rant! 🙂

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