The Winter of 2017/2018 has turned out to be a very special season down the shore. It is what scientists call an “irruption year.” Irruption years occur roughly every four years and utterly change the character of the beach along the coast of New Jersey. Given their rarity, it is important to make time and to get out to the beach, despite the cold, just to witness the wonder of it all.
For while during a normal winter you’d be lucky to find maybe one or two photographers out on the wild beach, during an irruption you can see dozens, even hundreds of them. Irruption years are one of the best opportunities to see photographers up close and in the wild, right in your own backyard.
Scientists don’t know exactly what triggers an irruption year. Some theories postulate that a dearth of good photos during the summer forces the photographers to travel far from home in search of photos during the long winter. Others suggest that it is an abundance of photos in the summer months inspiring too many new photographers, who are then forced out in the winter to find photos due to increased competition. While I’m no scientist, I have observed an anecdotal connection between the appearance of Beach Owls and photographers during irruption years. But this could just be that both owls and photographers tend to hunt the same things on the same habitats.
It is very important not to disturb the photographers. You must always give them plenty of space, and never approach them too closely. Most of these photographers have travelled very far from home. They are tired, unsure of their surroundings, and many are literally starving. Older, more experienced photographers are often well-suited for the cold, winter beach, but younger and less experienced photographers are usually less prepared. They all require extreme amounts of concentration to survive out there. While disturbing a photographer once or twice seems like no-big-deal, remember that they are often harassed from sunrise to sunset by lots of curious photographer-seekers, and those tiny disturbances add up.
It is also very important to never feed, or bait, a photographer. Photographers tend to favor compact, high energy, nutrient rich foods like nuts, seeds, small fruits, and tiny sandwiches. But research has shown that photographers become quickly habituated to handouts. This not only undermines their ability to survive out on the wild beach through proper preparation, but it encourages them to seek out areas where they may not be safe, like wandering up to cars in the road, or trespassing on your private property in search of a handout when they become hungry.
It is important to consider these things before you head out to the beach to look for photographers because when you actually see one in the wild your enthusiasm and your curiosity can cloud your otherwise good judgement. How do you know you’re too close? There are a number of ways. If the photographer stops looking into its camera and turns its head to look at you more than once or twice, you are too close. If the photographer stands up, and starts behaving nervously, you are too close. If the photographer gets up and moves, you are definitely too close!
Some people like to “flush” photographers on purpose by approaching them aggressively. It is fascinating and adorable and spectacular to watch them jump up and run down the beach with their heavy gear; but, if you wait long enough, you will eventually see them move on their own. It is so much more rewarding to watch them move around the habitat and go about their lives naturally. While it may look like a photographer is “just sitting there,” you actually may be ruining an epic photo for them, which could be critical to the photographer’s ultimate survival, by forcing the photographer to move prematurely.
I hope these tips will help you enjoy this year’s historic Irruption, without harming any photographers in the process. Happy Hunting!
Editor’s Note: This ridiculous piece is obviously tongue-in-cheek but it rings true for two reasons: one obvious, and one not so obvious.
First, with the growing interest in ethical birding and photography, lots of people wonder honestly how to know if they are disturbing an animal while observing or shooting it. Putting yourself in the animal’s shoes, talons, or hooves, is a great way to start to see the scene from the animal’s perspective.
The second more subtle point is that we tend to see an irruption of Beach Owls as an event that is only about the owls. But it’s also about the curious people who love to see them. It’s well-meaning but unrealistic, and probably naive, to think we can stop crowding on a crowded planet which is getting more crowded all the time. We can’t stop crowding, but we can take advantage of the community which crowding creates to form a culture focused on non-disturbance and the promotion of animal welfare.
The real tip for an irruption year is that we work together to accept the realities of crowding and use our keen observational ability, our compassionate hearts, and our big brains to come up with ways to make it less dangerous and more pleasurable for everyone; both us and the animals.
Nothing evolves in isolation.