Friday 23 January 2015

No Magic at Owl Twitches

Jan 20 2015 Chilliwack Sunny 7c

The recent activity/controversy surrounding the chasing of Northern Pygmy Owls in Chilliwack has really got me thinking. I was an angler most of my life, first in the UK and then in Canada. I fished for recreation and later to feed my family as we drove from the Canada's East Coast. Finally we settled on Vancouver Island. I continued to fish until about a decade ago when loutish riverbank behaviour signalled a time to leave the sport I dearly loved. I saw birding as an alternative way to get outdoors enjoys the countryside and leave gentler human footprint.
I don't want to come off as being holier than thou but I didn't really like what I saw at the Northern Pygmy Owl twitch in Chilliwack recently.
I first visited ten days ago with fellow photographer Raymond Ng, we never did find the owls but we lucked out when we happened upon a flock of over one hundred Evening Grosbeak.
My second visit was with with photographer Peter, birder Floyd and 'Birder Girl' Mel. We stayed on the logging road overlooking the the clearcut where the birds sometimes feed. After two hours of waiting two owls arrived and about a dozen of us photographed and observed them hunting. They were very close. It was a sublime, watching the tiny owls flying along the roadside hunting voles at close range..just brilliant!
During breaks in the action there was the usual banter about adventures and sightings. All good fun and to top it all off the sun was shining, it was warm and everyone got some great pictures. For many the owl were a lifer. It was a great days birding.

Ptarmigan can be found around the snow line but you'll need to hike up. The owls hunt the open cut blocks and cache their prey in the forest below. We saw one owl catch a vole then fly into the woods and come out moments later to continue hunting.
On my third visit I returned to find perhaps twenty photographers and a lesser number of birders. The word had now got out to a wider audience.
This time the owls were being pursued by a small group of photographers with their long lens. Most kept to the road but one photographer in particular would try to get closer and closer until the bird would fly off to another perch. He continued to rush the bird, banging his silver video tripod into the bush, we could hear it from a hundred metres away. Like lemmings another photographer followed and the same happened perhaps over a dozen times until the bird flew off in the forest. They continued to pursue it, finally giving up when the bird had enough and gave them the slip.
Meanwhile my guests who had driven me up there with their three year old grandaughter waited patiently for the bird to come up to the main logging road so they could see it. Meanwhile we enjoyed the sunshine peeking through the clouds and the ravens flying overhead.

Common  Raven
Back down in the clearcut most of the photographers kept to the roadway respecting the owls hunting territory but yet again a few of the clueless began leaving the road and walking into the brush to get closer looks. By now any unsuspecting vole would have long fled. I thought to myself don't they know the owls hunt by surprising their prey! Anyway it was almost sunset and three hours later when most everyone had left for the day that an owl visited us on the upper logging road. The 'sweet light' had just made an appearance and we were blessed to have the owl all to ourselves.
The three year old finally got to see her owl and it wasn't long before we were back on the road and the munchkin was tucked into her car seat and fast asleep. On the way home I began wondering whether some of the magic had gone out the days birding.

 On Long-eared Owls

There has also been a heated discussion on vanbcbirds about the Long-eared Owls on Boundary Bay and people getting too close. That discussion has been going on as long as I have birded.
My suggestion is that if someone finds an owl share the information carefully and refrain from posting a exact location online. There is a certain amount of ego involved in posting great images and sharing them, I have done it myself in this blog, on my website and on social media but in the end we should stand back and do what is best for the birds.
Anyway that's my rant for the day.

For a discussion on owls see below.

                 More on the Boundary Bay Long-eared Owls 
 Guy L.Monty

It should also be kept in mind that flushing is only one aspect of this. Other potential issues include roost abandonment, predator detection, and disturbance.

Owls are more prone to roost abandonment than are most other species. In essence, when they perceive that they have been detected by a potential threat, they may decide to search out another roost site when they become active again, even if flushing does not take place. Searching for an alternative roost site can be costly energetically and result in less favorable roost sites being chosen in areas with little natural habitat remaining.

Predators, be they avian or mammalian (this includes other humans), pay attention to what humans are doing. Day roosting owls are preyed upon by Peregrines, raccoons, etc. They are also in danger of being injured by humans who for some reason enjoy throwing rocks, shooting paint balls, BB guns, etc at birds. Showing inordinate interest in owls in a public place very definitely raises the risk that the bird may later be at risk from humans who would likely otherwise not have detected them, and there is the potential for predators to detect the owl.

Negative disturbance without flushing is a reality that very definitely exists, but is extremely difficult to quantify. It would seem to be the number one issue to be aware of when dealing with owls in an urban environment. It is apparent from reading these posts that some believe that if they do not flush a bird, they have done no harm. This isn't always true. Not biologically true. Not ethically true. Not legally true. Disturbance is disturbance. I have noted the great number of photos of Long-eared Owls from Boundary Bay with their eyes open staring at the photographer, posted around websites in BC this winter. Its difficult to claim that you haven't disturbed a bird if it is awake and paying attention to you during a period in which it should be sleeping.  As I stated previously, negative disturbance is very hard to quantify. However, cumulative disturbance becomes fairly obvious, when groups of people are pointing anything at a day roosting owl, and doing their utmost to make sure the bird opens its eyes and looks at them. While one person causing a five minute disturbance might not be a problem, 25 people each causing a 5 minute disturbance might be. A near continual presence by interested humans all day every day, can be a disaster for a creature in need of rest. I cannot stress enough how important context is when dealing with disturbance. The actions of a single human in a wilderness setting, are never the concern that one persons actions are in an urban environment.

I am in no way pointing fingers at any person or group with this post. I am merely providing scientifically sound information which people may not have considered. I hope that everyone keeps the health and "happiness" of birds in the forefront of every interaction they have with birds, wherever they are. And if you are in an area of dense human habitation, please keep in mind that your actions are magnified greatly by the actions of your peers.

all the best,

Guy L. Monty

Nanoose bay, Vancouver Island, BC

Northern Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium gnome)

"It's never too late to start birding"

John Gordon



  1. Good post John. Way too much hysteria and misinformation on the subject. There is no doubt there are photographers who either do not know or do not care about ethical shooting. At the same time there is way too much photographer bashing by people who like to style themselves as 'birders".
    The need for people to get out and enjoy the outdoors may be due to the higher and higher densification of our living environment. As we cram more and more people into smaller and smaller places the need to get out into some space is skyrocketing. I know for myself walking the dike at Boundary Bay or wandering the trails at some nature park is a real release. The chance to see some real wildlife is a real draw and so when the word goes out that something interesting is being seen it is not surprising the crowds come.
    I have been fortunate enough to come across some unusual birds and I did what I could to spread the word and now I believe that I will have to reconsider doing that. There are some people who are really pushing these sightings which is both good and bad. The ethical and the ignorant and the stupid all follow this information.
    Something which irks me about all of this is the worst culprits will never read or care about ethical information but others with be attacked by the overzealous.
    Meanwhile I noticed out at Boundary Bay another "farmer" has cleared his land to the drainage ditches to plant more blueberries and I wondered where those birds would go.
    Keep up the postings John, you have helped me to rethink the way I look at the world.
    Nick Balachanoff

  2. Hi Nick,
    Your points are all very salient especially the part about the increasing numbers of people seeking out harmony in nature. Even in the past five years the amount of cutting, ploughing, spraying and planting has shrunk what little land did remain. As for culture of birding there are probably many sightings that are not being reported and that may be a blessing for birds themselves. I hope to continue sharing my sighting but with the bird's welfare coming first.
    One thing I real do like about the pastime is meeting interesting people from all walks of life, some who have helped preserve the places we now bird, Iona and Boundary Bay spring to mind.They have left a great legacy which in turn has made my life that much richer.

    Thanks for your encouraging words.