Juvenile Burrowing Owl in flightJuvenile Burrowing Owl in flight –    Nikon D200, f7.1, 1/1500, ISO 400, Nikkor200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light, not baited and not harassed 

I saw something yesterday that made me sick and it also made me angry.

I get it that Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia) are beautiful, funny, comical, hilarious, adorable, cute, infinitely interesting to watch, universally appealing and great fun to photograph. I love to see them, observe them and photograph them too. I understand the desire to add Burrowing Owls to a photographers portfolio. Or any owl.

There is a location on Antelope Island State Park where Burrowing Owls have nested for years. The owls can easily be photographed by using a vehicle as a mobile blind using a DSLR with a longer lens or a point & shoot camera with some optical zoom by anyone. By not getting out of the vehicle you are less likely to stress or harass the owls. By staying in the vehicle the owls go about their normal behavior. The burrow isn’t that far from the road.

At this time of the year some of the migrant Burrowing Owls start to return to the island and those that remained there through the winter begin to look for mates and places to nest. Burrowing Owls often return to the same nesting site for years which is probably good for them because they only need to clean the burrow up and don’t have to expend as much energy in creating a new one.

A pair of juvenile Burrowing OwlsA pair of juvenile Burrowing Owls –  Nikon D200, f8, 1/250, ISO 400, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light, not baited and not harassed

Yesterday morning I was out on Antelope Island to photograph birds, the day started without any clouds and I knew the light might be beautiful. I’ve been seeing one adult owl in the location of this burrow but haven’t yet seen a pair and I have been going past it to see if the other adult shows up to mate and nest when we go to the island.

When I came around the hill where the burrow is visible I saw three vehicles parked on both sides of the road but that wasn’t the shocker. There were three photographers, all with long lenses, out of their vehicles plus another person who didn’t have a camera in hand. What made me sick was that there were three of those people tromping around the owl’s burrow. I mean RIGHT up on it.  They had no need to be that close but they were.

I felt like my stomach had been punched. You know, I can understand wanting to have a close look at the burrow but not at this time of the year, not when there are chicks, not when fledglings are still present and certainly not before or as the adult owls are in the process of deciding whether to use the same burrow again.

Perched Burrowing OwlBurrowing Owl small in the frame –   Nikon D200, f6.3, 1/800, ISO 400, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light, not baited and not harassed

I’ve decided from now on I won’t list locations of raptors; nesting or not, other than the county the images were taken in. If a photographer emails me whom I believe to have good field ethics I will tell them the location but I won’t give that information out to just anyone ever again.

I don’t bait birds; specifically birds of prey, and I also do not harass birds in the field to get the “shot”. It goes against my personal ethics but there are some photographers who will “do anything to get the shot” despite the stress they may cause the birds. Especially nesting birds or birds with young. How they can have so little regard for their living, breathing subjects is beyond me.  If everyone got out of their vehicle at this burrow and if a great many photographers stomp around it the adult owls may decide to nest elsewhere thereby disrupting the normal behavior of the owls and depriving people with good field ethics the opportunity of observing, photographing and admiring the beauty of this burrow of owls.

There used to be burrowing owls close to the park headquarters and close to the road that are no longer there. The park staff when asked about why the owls were no longer there said they thought “the owls had been loved to death”.

Personally I will always put the welfare of birds or animals above the desire to get a photograph.

Once I was trying to get into a better position to photograph a Barred Owl in Florida, it was perched and did not appear distressed by the photographers in the area. There was one photographer there though that kept playing the sound of barred owls on a player of some sort, perhaps he was trying to get the owl to open its eyes but he played it so much that it caused the owl stress and it flew away into deeper unreachable habitat. That person caused the rest of us to lose the opportunity to photograph that owl and caused the owl to be distressed.

I hear of rare owl sightings being reported and then throngs of photographers (and to be fair; birders) showing up, some of them get to close and even chase after the owls disrupting the bird and its normal behavior just to get the “shot” or check it off their life list. And it isn’t just owls, I’ve seen images of wild Bald Eagle chicks where the photographer was close enough to use a wide angle lens.

Here is a link to an example of this type of behavior:
Amherst Island Owls

Did the photographers yesterday consider what their behavior might do to the owls? Probably not. Did they think that walking right up to the burrow at this time of the year might cause the adults to nest elsewhere? Probably not. Did they know for certain that the owls hadn’t already laid eggs and that their presence might cause the adults to abandon the nest and eggs? Certainly not since the eggs would be back in the burrow and might not be visible. Perhaps they just didn’t care. I do know they left the area several times to return again (and again).

Later that day I spotted one adult owl on the ground well away from the burrow and nearly hidden by a sagebrush when it may have normally have been perched in the sagebrush over the burrow to warm up in the rising sun.

Didn’t happen and I don’t wonder why.


PS: As far as addressing good field ethics with those photographers in today society that could be risky and unsafe. Reporting the unneeded (and unnecessary) encroachment to the park staff? Their guidelines say on that end of the  island people are free to walk about and they have every right to do so legally there might not be anything they can do about their poor field ethics. But that does not make it “right“.

Afterthoughts: I thought I should include links to the  Principles of Birding Ethics published by the American Birding Association. Also NANPA’s Ethical Practices(pdf)

I also wonder how these photographers would feel if complete stranger began walking around their homes, in the houses where they are raising their children. Would they like it? Appreciate it? Think that they deserve to have respect?

So do the birds.


A follow up on these Burrowing Owls can be found here

Save the Owls Project