Photog shares tips for being a conscientious birdwatcher, not a dangerous paparazzi

There’s a tree in Ottawa that has been surrounded by people for the past few weeks, but that’s not the attraction. Rather, it is a nest of great horned owls that people flock to.

Photos of the owls are popping up on social media, and that could endanger the very survival of the fluffy nestlings, according to Melissa Groo, a New York state wildlife photographer.

Groo, who also consults on ethics in wildlife photography for the National Audubon Society, said many wildlife-focused Facebook groups have stopped posting pictures of owls — or at least their location — because of this risk.

Owls and other birds can also become stressed if people linger too long for the best shot, she said.

“One of the things I’d like to remind people is that these are just pictures for us. But for a wild animal, every moment is about survival.”

That’s why the Facebook group Friends of Mud Lake blocked posts containing the word “owl” earlier in the pandemic.

This great horned owl was photographed not in the wild, but at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa at the 2021 Owls Rendezvous exhibit. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

David Stibbe created the group for the Britannia Conservation Area in response to a different issue, but the page has seen the number of wildlife photos grow dramatically in recent years.

Mud Lake used to be home to a pair of great horned owls, Stibbe said, but isn’t anymore.

“I would literally see 30, 40, 50 people with cameras there every day, and they would go off the beaten track and break new ground,” Stibbe said.

“It almost became paparazzi for a celebrity when… [the birds] appear in a major urban center and everyone knows where they are.”

The presence of the great horned owls led to deterioration, Stibbe said, due to a “few bad apples.”

“People began to lure the birds to make them come down and fly, [by] throw dead mice. You name it, it happened.”

Stibbe said he’s looking forward to plans the National Capital Commission is developing for the area that would hinder visitors in a path with guardrails, as the ecosystem is quite fragile.

Reminders for Ethical Photography

In the Audubon’s Guide to Ethical Bird Photography and Videographyto which Groo has contributed, respect for the habitat of birds is paramount.

The guide recommends not trampling vegetation or moving branches away from a nest as they provide important camouflage.

It also suggests not using flash photography, especially for nocturnal birds such as owls, as it “may temporarily limit their ability to hunt for food or avoid obstacles.”

For Groo, the easiest way to ensure a bird’s comfort is to keep at least eight meters away.

“This isn’t really a great opportunity for an iPhone recording,” she told CBC Radios Ottawa morning

Ottawa morning5:19How to photograph owls in the wild without being a jerk.

Bird watchers adore a great horned owl and her babies nesting in a tree along the Ottawa River. But the behavior of some birdwatchers fluffs the feathers of a conservation photographer.

Another way to judge proper distance, the guide says, is by the bird’s reaction to you. If they fly or freeze, you’re too close.

Owls at this fuzzy stage test their wings, Groo said, but still rely on their parents for food. People could scare the parents.

She also said to think about where to look at them.

Groo was referring to an incident in Washington state a few years ago when a northern hawk owl was discovered on private property and made the news.

People camped with binoculars trained on the person’s property – until one day the owl was discovered shot dead.

“It was quite likely that the homeowner killed the owl because they felt so hurt and disturbed,” Groo said.

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