When the first snow owls arrived on Long Beach Island in November of 2014, I was exhausted. I had spent too much time that fall chasing Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons and needed a break before snowy season began. I’m only interested in my local animals and only take pictures in my local habitats so already had a lot of photos of snowies on Long Beach Island. The enthusiasm to get back out there and repeat the magical winter of 2013-2014 just wasn’t coming naturally. While chatting with New Jersey’s Osprey Hero Ben Wurst about it, he had an inspiring idea: “Instead of taking pictures of the owls this year, you should make a movie about people interacting with them!”
This idea was so exciting to me, I doubt I even took the time to say “Great idea!” before I had started gathering up my gear and setting out to make an epic and hopefully instructive movie about people & snow owls sharing the beach.
On my first day of filming, I realized how difficult it was to hang out with a snowy owl and not take pictures of it. I’d sit patiently with the owls for a while, waiting for birders and photographers to find them, but then would inevitably start taking pictures to pass the time. Of course that is precisely the moment when people would start showing up. They would come and join me and we’d shoot & chat. But I quickly realized my presence was influencing their behavior in the same way we influence a snow owl’s behavior when we stand right in front of it. People and wild animals both behave somewhat differently when someone is watching, and this was a lesson I would learn over and over again that year. And so I backed up.
I started by setting up my camp far enough away that I could only see the owls & the people with binoculars, and just watched for a while. I would slowly change positions throughout the day attempting to get a better view without alerting them to my presence. I soon discovered that human subjects are almost exactly the same as wild animal subjects in this regard. But being a human myself, it was much easier to gauge their reactions to me and judge whether I was altering their behavior in anyway. I learned more about the effect we have and the shadow we cast on other creatures in their habitats this way than I could ever express.
It only took a day or two to find the sweet spot where I could get close enough to observe without people being alerted and conscious of my presence. I would watch and film as people came & went, formed into groups, split off, flushed owls, chased them, got bored or tired or hungry or cold, gave up… it was all very eye opening. Most interesting was seeing how relentless the pressure is on a snow owl. Even on what might be considered a “slow day”, when most visitors probably thought that they were there all alone and might be the only visitor the owl would have that day, the traffic was always very steady; all day long. It was clear that while most of us think about our behavior around animals in terms of the immediate situation in front of us, we also need to consider our behavior as just a small piece of the gross sum of the unseen-by-us disturbance the animal will face on any given day. A photographer coming to a habitat and flushing an owl maybe once during a shoot seems OK, understandable, and excusable. But it is only at the 10,000 foot view level when you see this happening 15 times a day that you realize the extent of owl’s true problems. We must imagine that this their predicament across the entire range of their movements and migrations.
I tried in vain for a few days to make a stop-motion video of this constant coming-and-going (would have been awesome), but various technical and logistical problems crushed that idea. Eager for more angles, I started offering photographers & birders rides back to the parking lot and interviewing them. I was very curious to know how they saw the scenes I had just filmed, especially in situations involving gross-disturbance and trespassing. Having already discovered how differently people behave when the camera is on, I started these conversations informally as chit-chat in the car rather than formal interviews. I was also immensely curious on a personal level, as it was impossible not to reflect on my own behavior in the same situations after hours of watching others from a distance and hearing their take on things.
After about three weeks of filming & interviewing, I abandoned this project. Completely.
There was absolutely no way to take the material I was gathering and present in a way that would not be entirely negative and depressing to watch. I would also make far too many enemies. There were very few heroes in my footage, and lots of embarrassing naughtiness. And while it was kind of shocking to see all this from a distance and recognize the scale of the problems, it also had the opposite effect of making me feel more compassionate and understanding towards people, myself included, and their curiosities. After all, there were not too many true villains I filmed. Mostly just passionate, enthusiastic people making a few bad choices here and there. The real problem was the compound effect of it all on the owls. I got the sense that the real problems were less about a few bad apples, and were more universal issues about curious humans & wild animals living together on an increasingly crowded planet.
Probably the single most obvious thing I “discovered” was the difference between how we behave in groups, and how we behave when we assume we are alone. Even more interesting is that, on average, the extent of that discrepancy seems proportional to the delusions we suffer in terms of how we interpret our own behavior and the behavior of any group we might have been a part of. None of this is too surprising. We are very, very quick to judge others in a group when they, for example, flush a snowy owl or trespass, but almost totally blind when we do the same things when we are alone. If I had just filmed someone flush a snowy owl multiple times in a row before they got settled, I was almost guaranteed to hear stories from the same photographer on the ride home about how great it was to have the owl “all to myself” and how at other times and other places people were really disturbing the owls.
If you are walking down the beach and see a big group of people crowded around a snowy owl, it often looks bad and is easy to feel sorry for the animal. But as described, I definitely found the overall level of good behavior in terms of both trespassing and direct disturbance to be better with groups; probably for the simple fact that we keep each other honest. Large groups would gather around an owl, sometimes staying there for several hours without incident. But as the sun got low, or the wind became harsh, the groups would thin. And almost with out fail, the last person left would trespass or flush the owl. It was uncanny. Surely, at least some of the-last-people-standing stayed so long just waiting for an opportunity to trespass without being seen. But I also observed many of the same people and groups returning multiple times, and witnessed the same thing. In terms of behaving well around snow owls, we are better in groups than we are when we are alone. That is what I observed repeatedly, for better or worse.
With so many clips on the cutting room floor, there would never be enough footage to make any sort of compelling film of real value. And a straight-out shame piece about people behaving poorly around owls just didn’t satisfy my inspiration for the effort. There is plenty of finger pointing and shaming taking place already, yet that alone does not seem to be solving enough of the problem. While shaming serves some purpose, or perhaps has served some purpose in the past, what really should interest us is our own human evolution in relation to the issue of wild animals, and especially endangered species. For what I have seen is that there is much more for us to think about and to do than just trying to root out a few naughty individuals. What I’ve seen is that we have some more universal flaws in our thinking and behavior which are far more widespread than most people probably assume. The whole experience made me paranoid. If all of these people truly believed the animal was fine with their presence (a common comment in interviews) after I had just filmed them flushing it five times, what kinds of stuff that I’ve been doing am I not recognizing, or over-excusing?
I’ve said before that I truly believe the majority of birders, photographers, and wildlife enthusiasts to be good people. And while this post does not negate that, it also suggests we, en masse, may not be quite good enough for the big screen, yet. That is why it is so imperative that everyone interested in wild animals, at the very least, uphold the laws that protect them, and encourage others to do so. At the bare minimum, if there had been much less illegal trespassing in my footage, a much more interesting film about strategies and techniques for approaching wild animals could have been made. We have so much we can learn, and it worth learning. Both because it benefits the wild animals who interest us and it also is compatible with our own self interest. After all, a flushed owl is bummer for the animal and a lost opportunity for good photos or behavioral observations.
In closing, there is one moment from this experience I will never forget. During one day of filming, Sunny The Snow Owl had spent the entire afternoon sitting peacefully, like a big, white rock in the dune while a crowd of about 10 photographers took photos for almost five hours straight. As the sun began to set, the group finally left, and luckily no one stayed behind to trespass or flush as happened so often. I stayed in my position to watch Sunny for just a bit longer. He watched very carefully as the photographers left, and kept peeking his head up over the grass until they were completely out of sight. He then made a quick hop forward, and amazingly, pulled a duck out from under the grass. Sunny had been sitting on his meal for the entire day. Incredible. Apparently, even Sunny behaves very differently when he thinks no one is watching. Enjoy.