Enjoying The Snow. Part V: Birdographers

It was early October, 2013, when I decided I really, really wanted to see a Snowy White Owl. I fired off a random and hopeful email to NJ’s legendary biologist Kathy Clark to ask about my chances of seeing one on the beach that winter. “With your luck? You’ll see ten!” she replied in jest. It turns out she was dead wrong. For unknown to anyone at the time, that winter would turn out to be an historic, once-in-a-lifetime “irruption” of snow owls along the coast. I saw way more than ten that magic winter. I saw fourteen on Long Beach Island on one day alone.

This would be more than just the first time I ever saw a snow owl; it would also be the first time I would meet two other unusual species that haunt the wild beach: photographers, and birders.

Although I take a lot of pictures, I’ve never self-identified as a photographer. I have no background or training in the fine art of photography. I never take pictures anywhere but Long Beach Island, and I’m not interested in Harlequin Ducks at Barnegat Light State Park, so I had never really met a wildlife photographer before. And although I take a lot of pictures of birds, that is only because some of them live on the beach. I really know nothing about them other than what I’ve seen, find them a bit boring in general, have no background in science, and so was completely unaware there even was such a thing as a “birder” at the time. But just as the crazy-seal-lady left a much larger impression on me than the seal, the photographers and the birders I would observe that winter would prove, in many ways, more fascinating than the snow owls would.

A few weeks after the owls arrived, I started to see a small trickle of photographers showing up on the island which is something I had never seen before. Knowing how heavy their gear was, I started offering  them rides. The very first photographers I ever met this way happened to be two of New Jersey’s greatest wildlife photographers, and all around great guys, Chris Davidson and B.N. Singh. I’ve learned more from those two than I could ever repay. But one particular moment I will never forget was on the ride home, seeing a distant figure heading out onto the beach, B.N. lifted his binoculars and said in his thick Indian accent, “Is that photographer? Or biirrrdderrrr?” I was puzzled at first by the slow, mysterious, and suspicious way in which B.N.  said “birrrrrddddeerrr”  but would soon learn there was a serious war between these two groups, which had been raging for years in habitats all around the world.

It was just a day before Christmas when I got a txt message from Chris with a link and a comment. “This is bad,” was all it said. The link took me to something I believe was called the “ABA” which is some large birding organization. Apparently a famous birder had posted on a message board there that there were 14 snow owls at Holgate on Long Beach Island. “How bad could it be?” I wondered, innocently.

Within 48 hours, tour buses began arriving at Holgate and huge groups of people began trampling through the refuge trying to find the owls. Within three days, only three owls were left.

Let’s stop there, because I’m sure some people like that story more than they should, and others hate it more than they should. First, I’d like to repeat that I do not self-identify as a photographer, or as a birder. Or perhaps more accurately, I self-identify as an amateur noob in both groups equally. Secondly, I confess that I absolutely love to tell the very true story of the famous birder posting the location of some very happy rare birds and consequently causing them to be violently mobbed and flushed from their habitat. Those are facts, but I love to tell it in that backhanded, turn-an-argument-on-its-head kind-of way because this is something that photographers are accused of quite often by birders as something inexcusably harmful that they do. The reality is that you’ll find all kinds of different people who like animals doing it everyday, and the real debate about over whether sharing locations is a good or bad thing is fascinatingly complex, worth serious discussion, and is harmfully oversimplified by finger pointing between groups that have a common love of animals and are self-interested to see them thriving.

While stirring the pot can sometimes make us think in new ways, it can also be very dangerous. I am certain that when groups who are passionate about wild animals pit themselves against each other and point fingers, everybody loses; especially the animals. So since I apparently could not resist telling that story, I’ll come right out and state my experience and current conclusions about the Birder Vs. Photographer debate clearly, both to satisfy anyone’s curiosity and hopefully move past the skirmish to more universal issues that effect us all:

Birders, generally, are better behaved around wild animals than photographers are. To deny that fact means you are not watching closely and broadly enough, or you are an entrenched photographer with an (often valid) axe to grind. By the simple nature of the two activities, photographers need to get closer to the animals, and hang around them longer, than birders do. It is as simple as that. This inevitably causes more problems and puts a greater responsibility on photographers to develop solid ethics and phenomenal skills. Birders take less risks, so they make fewer mistakes, and good behavior is naturally easier as a result.

Both groups are really just collections of individuals, and numerous individuals in both groups behave really recklessly and illegally. Birders are a much, much larger group. So while I have certainly seen more individual photographers flush, for example, wild birds, the absolute worst thing I ever saw was the damage done (not just to the owls, but also to the habitat) by the tour buses full of birders. Serious amateurs in both groups do similarly dumb things. I’ve seen more professional photographers do harm than I have seen professional birders do, but again, the gross impact of the scale I witnessed in the earlier story about birders topped everything else awful I would see that season. That carnage was the result of a single, experienced birder. Yet a single, experienced photographer lacking any ethics and only interested in his or her craft can directly do enormous damage to animals and their habitats, probably on a scale you’d never see an experienced birder bother with.

Because photographers have to take more risks around wild animals, birders have it easy in criticizing them for their activities and their ethics. And my experience is that many birders relish this. You’ll find lots and lots of counter-productive, crazy-seal-ladies in the birding group. It did not take me long to learn why B.N. would rather have a photographer coming out to the habitat than a birder. The Holgate Refuge is a place I visit daily, and when the big birding groups are there, I do get harassed, mostly unnecessarily. Lots of people flag me down, arms waving, and tell me I can’t drive there because I’ll run over the snowy owls. They tell me I shouldn’t take pictures there, not to stay too long… all kinds of bizarre and very unrealistic stuff which, very much like the original, well-intentioned crazy-seal-lady, discredit everything useful they might have to teach me and reflect badly on their entire group. I wish these were isolated incidents, but they are not. They are part of the DNA of the group as I’ve experienced it. It happens enough that my entitlement response is not even triggered anymore, and I don’t even bother telling them “I’ve been comin’ here my whole life!”

Photographers on the other hand generally don’t communicate or speak out enough. If birders tend to be outwardly focused and perhaps too eager to control the scene, photographers can be too withdrawn and focused on their own thing to see what is really happening around them, or to do anything about it, especially when animals are at real risk.  They are also often too busy to be bothered. Even when another photographer comes along and aggressively flushes a bird that another group of photographers has been patiently sitting with for hours, they won’t say anything to the perpetrator. They’ll often just grumble amongst themselves and move on. I’ve seen this many times. Even photographers with very strong views on ethics often don’t risk confrontation in the field, for a wide variety of understandable reasons.

While photographers do indeed take more risks, and by necessity, get much closer to animals, the end result of their activity has an extremely important and far reaching impact, in many cases at least, the benefits of which can not be understated. That’s not to say there is not a lot of value in birding outside the experience of the birder, but a single iconic image does indeed have the power to change the fate of an entire species.

The truth is, what came to town that winter was not snow owls, or birders, or photographers. It was a Circus. A totally chaotic and unrehearsed Circus. It was sad to watch. To say that “everybody loses” is probably too dramatic. While the owls certainly lost, some photographers got pictures and some birders got to see a snow owl and check it off a list. But there were lots of tiny atrocities committed by all groups, and the general level of hostility and competition just felt so out of place on the beach; especially among the magic of the snow owls. It just could have been so much better.

There are animals, and there are curious people. While there are still plenty of arguments floating around out there that people should just leave the animals alone, that is simply not realistic, and in my opinion, not desirable either. While many birders wish photographers would keep the distances birders keep, or behave the way birders behave, the nature of the activity is just totally different. Wildlife photography has different risks and a different value to the animal than birding and observation. To try to wish it away, or say it shouldn’t be done is simply not realistic, and in my opinion, not desirable either. While many photographers wish the birders would just shut up, that is simply not realistic, and in my opinion, not desirable either. Birders and wildlife observers can see the tremendous blind spots photographers have, as they stare through the lens, blind in one eye. Birders can see the photographers behavior and impact much more clearly. That puts an enormous ethical responsibility on birders to use that advantage intelligently, productively, and strategically, to benefit both the photographers and their animal subjects.

It is probably not realistic, or desirable, to believe we can achieve some hippy-dippy utopian fantasy of true harmony between all the groups of curious humans and the animals on the beach. But we can surely evolve quite quickly past the counter-productive finger pointing, blaming, hostility, and nonsense. We can certainly work together more, and communicate more, to develop deeper and more practical viewpoints on important issues that effect all animals and all fans of animals.

So be wary of birder vs. photographer debates. Accept the starting point that photography, wildlife observation, and being a wild animal are all valid & desirable activities, and steer the conversation in a better direction. Speak against arguments that are grossly unrealistic. Look for opportunities to merge the two groups, birders and photographers, to what they really are: humans who like animals. On a very practical level, it would be great to see photographers and birders working more closely together in crowded situations involving snow owls. Think about it. Think about how much a birder could learn and observe about an animal while monitoring the animal while a photographer works on finding a good position to shoot from. Think about how much a photographer could learn from a third party observing the animal and the photographer’s behavior from a distance. The trick is to work together as a team, rather than adversaries.

Birders and photographers share a common responsibility to behave well, and also to teach well. Photographers need to be very careful in recognizing and acknowledging the additional risks they take and additional pressure they put on animals, and to accept the enormous burden that comes with it. A photographer should never deny that. Accept that birders have a naturally superior ethical vantage point, and listen to them. Birders need to also acknowledge these things, and must use their different perspective to inform photography; not to fight against it. Birders have a huge responsibility to develop reasonable viewpoints, and to promote them. Birders must work to understand and improve the craft of photography. Finger pointing will never help animals.

The interesting thing about bias is that, by its nature, we can’t perceive our own. I can’t wait to hear the scoldings from those who read this as piece as dolphin-ately anti-photographer, or turtle-y anti-birder!