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Sabbatical Weeks 28 & 29: Conflict is Inevitable, Respect is a Challenge

The snowy owl irruption this winter has resulted in many discussions about our relationship to wildlife as well as to those observing it. This high-profile event, especially in areas in Washington State and British Columbia where many people have congregated to be a part of it, has created circumstances where conflict is inevitable because we are human.

At any one time, we fall onto a spectrum between respecting what is outside of us and listening to our own internal desires. Many factors weigh into this calculation, all of which can change. Some of the variables in the equation may be fixed for one person, but conditional for others.

When we come into relationship with wildlife, there are a number of variables in play:

1. Our awareness of the wildlife around us.
2. Our perception of the sensitivity of the wildlife.
3. Our perception of our own impact on wildlife (including those we are responsible for, like pets and children).
4. Our perception of others' impact on wildlife.
5. Our perception of others around us (and our evaluation of their position on the spectrum).
6. Our perception of the personal benefits of interacting with the wildlife.

All of these, and more, combine to establish the level of respect we afford any individual we encounter, be it a duck or a person observing a duck. Conflict arises when people on different points in the spectrum meet in the field.

In the last few weeks, I have felt this conflict from both sides in the variety of locations I have visited. As a photographer, the desire to get a shot that evokes an emotional response or truly captures the beauty of a creature is very strong and usually requires one to be relatively close to their subject. Or, you need one huge budget for equipment. But, even if you are shooting a big, fast, 500mm lens, that is only the equivalent of a 10x binocular view -- nothing like the clear 45x view I can get from my small Televue TV-60 spotting scope. Cameras just aren't as good as the human eye.

For some, though, this desire is in clear conflict with others viewing or photographing a similar subject, and at times photographers have decided that their pursuit is of higher value than others around them. The worst case for me was at Damon Point in Ocean Shores, WA. A pair of photographers decided that the owl I had been sitting near for over 2 hours waiting for it to give me a good wide-eyed view wasn't satisfying their desires, so they began clucking, making cat sounds, and clapping their hands trying to get it to react. It was all I could do to keep from brandishing my monopod as they completely ignored my requests to stop. Their complete lack of respect for my time and the owl's peace was pretty infuriating. All that they accomplished was making the owl move to the other side of the driftwood and eventually fly away when someone else approached, likely due to its heightened agitation.

In another case, a dog, illegally on the beach at Discovery Park, scared away the sanderlings and brant I was photographing. The dog owners allowed their desire to have fun on the beach with their pet to override their respect for me, the birds, and the law.

As a counter to this, the previous day I was out in my kayak in Lake Washington. The problem with the kayak is that it does tend to disturb the ducks in the area. Generally, the waterfowl are pretty tolerant due to the number of watercraft that use the lake, but apparently this early in the season they haven't quite gotten used to it. I did my best to avoid areas where others were observing from shore, but I know I disturbed plenty. At one point I was coming into an area near the University of Washington surrounded by reeds when I noticed a photographer I've met a few times this year. Unfortunately, I did disturb some of the critters, but I stopped and backed out quietly to respect her desires to photograph these birds.

For me, I have as much desire to get that fabulous shot as anyone. But, the most rewarding times have always been when a bird either leaves on its own to follow its desires or, even better yet, I am able to extract myself from an encounter with a critter without it leaving at all. At the end of the day in Ocean Shores, I had the opportunity to sit with a juvenile snowy owl for about an hour before the sun went behind clouds on the horizon. It gave me some nice poses (especially when local dogs came up to sniff my shoes), but it was content where it was. At the end, I slowly got up and walked away sending it a silent thank you with a thought and a little wave. It was still there when I left.

These past two weeks have provided a number of opportunities to commune with some fabulous creatures:

1. Woodpeckers and short-eared owls in the Skagit Valley
2. Bushtits and flickers in my backyard
3. Woodpeckers, sanderlings, and brant at Discovery Park
4. The "Hollywood" American bittern at Nisqually NWR
5. Various waterfowl on Lake Washington
6. And ending with the incredible snowy owls.

Here is a selection of these fine creatures.

salman abbas's profile photoNguyễn Huấn's profile photochirag malvi's profile photoRichard Lee's profile photo
+Tom Talbott Boy this a great selection shots! Your Owls are very sharp...we never saw them in flight when we were there. Did you go later in the day? Just read your text....very good.
+Wayne Atkinson - Thanks Wayne. I was with the owls at Damon Point from about 10:30am to 5:30pm. Like +John Riegsecker that day, I shot around 500 frames. :) Other than the stiff breeze, it was beautiful weather.
+Leanna Turnbull-Madill - It is a tough issue. I understand both sides. The experience I had with these owls was very special and they chose to stay in that area all Winter even though there were likely other places for them to go. While I saw plenty of people show a good measure of respect, there were some who definitely put themselves at a different point in the spectrum.
With few exceptions, most of my birding and photography takes place where the birds have easy escape from disturbances or in areas where I am the only person around. My experience at Damon Point, Ocean Shores, was the the first time I have seen so many photographers pursuing birds. Even though I thought I was being conservative in approaching them, I did have to wonder when I left what affect the totality of us had on the owls.

Having read some of the opinions of people I respect on the local birding listserver (Tweeters) I can convince myself that we are not harming the owls by keeping a respectful distance. Part of the problem, I believe, is that we don't really know if we are putting them under stress. Of course deliberately disturbing the owls as you describe those photographers doing is completely uncalled for.

It was a wonderful day, which I will remember whenever I look at my photographs, but I would be sad if I though I contributed to loving these beautiful birds to death.
+John Riegsecker - "loving these beautiful birds to death" is very well said. "Respectful distance" is really the key. It was overall a wonderful day. Guess I just needed to talk out my frustration so that I can remember the good feelings, especially sitting with that last owl for an hour.
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