Enjoying The Snow. Part VII: Making Bad Days Better

A common piece of advice from professional photographers to beginners is “shoot in your own backyard.” The benefits are obvious. You don’t have to travel far. You can spend more time with your subjects. You get to know them better, and can observe them in a wide variety situations. I am always happy to hear someone give this advice because I’m lazy and I only take pictures on my island, and so often have a nagging feeling that I should be expanding my horizons. Their advice gives me the perfect excuse to maintain my inertia and stay put on my island where I am quite happy.

Sometimes I wonder though if I’m ever going to get bored of shooting the same animals in the same places. But nope, it just never seems to happen. Every Osprey I see still feels like the very first time I ever saw an Osprey. That is true both in terms of the thrill I get when I see one, and in my eagerness to get a good photo. It took years of shooting the exact same shots of Osprey over and over before the thought even occurred to me that I already have 5,000 versions of those shots, so I could probably relax and look at the scene a little differently; maybe find a new angle or focus my efforts on a picture I wanted but had never achieved.

Attempting to make a movie about people interacting with snow owls in 2014 really pushed me into a whole new world in this regard. It forced me to spend time with the snow owls without taking any photos at all. This was very difficult at first. But soon I learned one of the less obvious advantages of shooting in your own backyard: your time investment is so minimal, you can take zero pictures and still enjoy yourself without feeling like you wasted a huge effort. What’s more, I learned more about the owls, about people, about myself, and about photography by taking no photos at all and simply observing than I had in years of taking pictures. I saw owls do things I had never seen before, and I got to watch people doing things that I do all the time. And most importantly, I got to see the results of those activities from a more complete vantage point.

The first big thing I learned for sure was that there are good days, and there are bad days, and there are zero things that we can do to change that. Some days the owls will be sitting out on the beach on the most beautiful perches, totally relaxed, and in perfect light. Those are good days. Other days, they will be crouched on hill deep in the refuge with a big bundle of ugly weeds in their face. Those are bad days. It was only through watching photographers stand for hours in the freezing cold on the bad days taking one hundred versions of the same terrible shot that I finally decided I would (try to) stop doing that myself. Having watched for a season from a distance, I now have a pretty good sense when I’m better off just leaving and coming back another day. This might seem obvious but it took a surprisingly long time to learn and become mentally comfortable with. Because another piece of good advice from professional photographers is to “stay with your subject.” After all, these are wild animals. Anything could happen at anytime, and there is always a nagging feeling that something magical will happen the moment you walk away from the scene, no matter how hopeless it may appear. Patience is often rewarded. Yet watching, uninvested, from a distance, it became clear that in certain setups those magical things almost never, ever happen. (Staying with your subject on the good days though, well, that’s another story.)

Walking away from a bad scene with little potential is a hard skill to learn, even for a local with very little invested in that particular opportunity. After all, I would only be out about twenty minutes or so if I walked away, and I always have the option of trying again later. Even a few hours later. Yet still it is hard to do. So what about someone who travels an enormous distance, and has gone through great personal & professional expense to be there? Unfortunately, yes, this is part of the game for all birders, photographers, and wildlife enthusiasts and something anyone should be mentally prepared for the moment they plan a trip or leave the house. In fact, the lack of acceptance and unwillingness to admit defeat when we hit a “bad” day can quickly encourage even the best of us to act more recklessly in the field.

It makes perfect sense that, for example, the amount of trespassing would increase on a “bad day.” Obviously, it is only when an animal embeds itself deep in a refuge or piece of private land that trespassing even becomes necessary. Similarly, it is understandable why the willingness to trespass would be proportional to the distance someone traveled to see the animal. The farther you travelled, the more you have to lose. Because of this, those who travel long distances to unfamiliar places to see a rare animal are more likely to succumb to two things: a sense of entitlement, and desperation. And both of these things are powerful influences on how likely we are to make poor choices and endanger wild animals.

The fantasy of entitlement is something we often associate at the beach with homeowners and others with deep roots there. They feel they have somehow earned special rights and privileges, perhaps as a birthright. Thinking carefully about it, you’ll hopefully come to the conclusion that the opposite is closer to the truth: homeowners and those with deep roots anywhere actually should have a greater responsibility to care for a place, respect its laws & rules, and set a good example for others. But the entitlement fantasy can also be found at the opposite end of the spectrum. Daytrippers and one time visitors, often from far off places, also can show signs of entitlement thinking and are just as likely both to trespass, for example, and to refuse to stop trespassing when informed of the local laws. While surely this is in part because they have a vacationer’s mentality, having no connection to the place or the people around them and so are less self-conscious about how they behave because the social consequences are only immediate, my conversations and interviews with people in the field made it clear that they felt they deserved these breaches of ethics because of the effort they put in to be there. Over and over again this came up. These visitors were not so bold as to say “the law does not apply to me because I do not live here,” but instead they were simply real quick to excuse themselves in their desperation. A “bad day” had shattered their hopes and dreams and wasted a lot of their precious time. It is frustrating, disappointing, and it effects our thoughts, judgements, and actions. Normally these people might be well behaved and play by the rules. But this situation is different. They need to. What’s the big deal if they “trespass a little” just this once? They deserve it. They travelled a long way.

It is interesting to note that trespassing actually begets trespassing in this way on the island in regards to snow owls. Snow owls at the Holgate refuge generally like to perch close to the water which makes them easily accessible. On the quiet days left undisturbed, they will often spend the entire day on the open beach or near dune. It is only after repeated flushing that they generally have to seek the safety of the inner refuge, which then encourages more trespassing as people chase them deeper, as they now will need to trespass just to get a good look. By the end of the 2014-2015 season, the two resident snow owls had both learned precisely where the most inaccessible parts of the marsh were and would retreat there immediately at the first signs of trouble on all but the most quiet days. It is interesting to consider that when you see a distant snow owl who would require trespassing to get a good look, that is most likely an already stressed bird and one you really, really shouldn’t trespass against! If you see a snowy owl on a hill deep in the refuge, you can pretty sure you were preceded by some trespassers.

The reality is that some days are just hopeless. As a local, visiting daily, it can be heartbreaking to watch folks with pounds of gear making a 5 mile trek to see a snow owl in a horrible set up, then discover they travelled hundreds of miles just to be there for this sub-par opportunity. Sorry buddy, but you picked the wrong day! I never have the heart to tell them how they should’ve been here yesterday.

It took me years to learn to walk away from a bad setup and save my ammo. I’m still learning how to do this. This should be incredibly easy for me as I only visit my local wildlife and so have very little time invested; yet still, it remains oh so difficult to do. I can only imagine what it is like to travel hundreds or even thousands of miles and find a set up so lame that the best option is to just pack it in and drive home. But that is the reality, and it is surely happening in habitats all over the world right at this very moment. The experience of trying to turn a bad day into a good one, or trying to make a photo that just isn’t there is frustrating in the extreme. It is frustrating because it is basically impossible, and we humans are hard wired to fight and overcome the poor hands that nature deals us sometimes. And so we try to make lemonade from lemons. But in regards to wild animals, usually our  only options involve breaking the law or harassing the animal in our desperation. The very subtle sense of entitlement we can feel after making such a big effort to be there makes it that much easier than it might otherwise be to do such things. Unfortunately, the lemonade we make in this way is always sour, and quite nasty.

While I have seen a lot of people harass snow owls in their attempts to turn a bad day into a good one, I have yet to see anyone be really successful doing this. Perhaps someone popped off one shot that was slightly better than anything else they got that day, or someone got a quick view through the scope they otherwise would not have gotten, but most of the time the big flush or trespass is the grande finale of a long, disappointing visit; a final act of desperation, or tantrum of sorts. The problem is that when we do this we still walk away unsatisfied, perhaps even more so from the guilt we feel after trespassing or flushing without good result, and we also leave our pain behind in terms of a trampled habitat and a stressed animal. We seem to only succeed in making bad days worse. I find that observation encouraging. For by remembering it we can short-circuit any instincts we have to push harder, and release ourselves from the spell that subtle feelings of entitlement cast, and be sure that it is in our own self interest to leave a bad day be and not make it worse. We can relax and accept the reality that this is part of the game when chasing wild animals.

There is only one thing worse than traveling a long way to find no snow owls and that is traveling a long way to find a snow owl who is just out of our reach. It is just so painful. Many people have good backup plans and have mentally prepared themselves for what to do if they can’t find their subjects: if there are no snow owls at Holgate, we’ll go see the ducks at Barnegat Light. But it seems that we are generally not prepared for snow owls or other subjects in bad, or impossible, setups. And so we sit perhaps longer than we should, increasing our frustration, and letting our sense of entitlement and desperation get the best of us. I believe this to be the foundational phenomenon that consistently makes these bad days so much worse. The problem seems to be pretty universal which is obviously extremely unfortunate for the owls. Because on these bad days, this pattern of behavior repeats itself dozens of times and the cumulative effect on the owl can’t be overstated.

It is a subtle, but very, very real phenomenon that nothing compromises our ability to think clearly and behave well like a snow owl just out of reach. If I could tell the owls one thing it would be to sit on these nice perches in the good light right over here, just inside the refuge, because far fewer people will flush you and chase you down. We’re pretty good people if you don’t tease us.

But here’s an idea with trying: if you ever find yourself in this kind of situation, just back up a little. Find a quiet place to sit and watch others come and go and confront the same situation. See what they do. You are bound to see some interesting stuff that might open up some fresh perspectives and inspire some thoughts that just might make a bad day a little bit better.

But of course, that’s easy for me to say. Because I live right down the road!