Juvenile Barred Owl | Kamriell Welty
by Kamriell Welty
What is it about owls that is inherently fascinating to so many birders? Perhaps it’s their elusive nature, difficulty to spot, or piercing gaze. Maybe we love their hunting prowess or haunting calls. It’s likely a combination of all these things that makes them such beloved and rewarding birding subjects.
I have had the privilege of observing and photographing most of Washington’s owl species, and the most memorable and significant encounters for me are quiet, private moments with just a friend or my family in tow. Hours spent in the car driving to the right habitat, patiently waiting, listening for any sign that your bird is in the area … those are what make birding, and bird photography, so exciting.
Bird enthusiasts know the thrill of a rare sighting, of finally spotting a new species to add to your life list, or witnessing incredible bird behavior. We know the hours that have been spent scouring, listening, researching, waiting. And we also know the disappointment or discouragement that goes hand in hand with birding. I’ve spent countless hours waiting and hoping for a Short-eared Owl to make its appearance, only to see it flying off in the distance, hunting a different field.
A lot of time and energy is invested in the outdoors, and there may be a temptation to maximize your wildlife encounters, especially when searching for an uncommon species. There are techniques and practices used to attract wildlife that don’t seem too harmful at first glance, but I’m going to share some tips I’ve learned over the years that will help you self-assess how you fit into the big picture and what impacts small behaviors can have on our beloved avian friends.
Short-eared Owls | Kamriell Welty
Keep your Distance
Birds, by nature, are flighty creatures. It’s in their DNA and that’s one of the amazing things we love about them. They can just lift off into the sky and go anywhere they want (unless they’re emus or ostriches!). Therefore, maintaining a proper distance can be hard to judge; one step too close and off they go.
When our behavior impacts the bird’s behavior, we are doing more than just scaring them away. Getting too close stresses most birds, and can disrupt hunting, nesting, or much needed rest during migratory travel. Keeping your distance is key to being respectful to your subject.
But how do we know when we’re too close? Since there isn’t exactly a scientific formula for calculating the proper distance for each species of bird, this is where personal judgment comes into play. My method involves observing the bird’s behavior for any signs of stress. Some typical signs include adjusting position to keep an eye on me, ceasing relaxed bird behavior (preening, sleeping, hunting, etc.), and flying to a different branch. When I see some or all of these things, I know I’m too close and I back away or leave.
Having a longer lens allows me to observe from a distance, but that also requires more specific camera gear that isn’t accessible to everyone. If you don’t have that gear available to you, great options include photographing visitors at your bird feeder or bird bath, or checking out local wildlife preserves with trails or ponds where birds are often used to human activity. There are several trails where I live that include blinds for visitors to observe waterfowl at the water’s edge with minimal disruption to the bird.
Anna’s Hummingbird | Kamriell Welty
Keep Locations Private
One way we can collectively protect our favorite fliers is by not broadcasting a sensitive or rare bird’s location, especially nesting areas. Word travels fast amongst bird enthusiasts and openly sharing a specific spot, either on social media or by word of mouth, can bring throngs of visitors to a single bird. This can cause distress to the bird by putting pressure on nests with young babies inside, disrupting their ability to hunt, or pushing birds away from the area completely.
If you are lucky enough to find that special or rare bird, be mindful of how much time you spend observing and photographing. “Camping out” and spending hours watching and waiting can impact wildlife behavior so I encourage you to enjoy your moment, capture your images, and then leave your feathered friend to carry on with their day. Also, depending on the type of habitat, staying just a short while might be important to minimize your impact on sensitive plants or shoreline.
Keep off Social Media …
… for now! Birding and photography often go hand in hand. Many of us who love birds also love documenting our observations. I strongly encourage you to consider the timeliness of your posts on social media, whether it’s for birds or other wildlife, and delay your posts by weeks, months, or even years.
There is no potential harm in delaying your posts of special or sensitive subjects. Not delaying your posts, however, has much potential for harm to the subject. This circles back to the above topic of keeping locations private, and goes one step further. By delaying your posts on social media until after your subject has moved on from the area, you won’t feel any pressure to share that location as the bird is gone.
Great Gray Owl| Kamriell Welty
Keep on Learning and Educating
This advice is two-fold: As responsible and ethical birders and photographers, it is our duty to keep learning and adapting to best practices while out in the field. That means being open to respectful and kind suggestions from other birders, as well as being respectful and kind when making suggestions to other birders. Many years ago when I was new to wildlife photography, I showed up to a location where there were other photographers. Not wanting to encroach on their space, I stayed about 30 feet away from them. In a short while, they invited me to come closer to where they were. In wanting to respect their space, I was actually creating more of an impact on our subject because we were all spread out surrounding it. Grouping closer together kept their areas of travel wide open and minimized our footprint. To this day, I stay in contact with those kind photographers who took the time to share their knowledge in such a respectful and gracious manner. I learned so much in that brief interaction and that’s what I love about wildlife photography! We are all out birding because we are passionate about nature and wildlife. Let’s work together to protect the best interest of the birds, and have some fun while doing it.
Northern Saw-whet Owl | Kamriell Welty
Do Your Homework on Tours
Wildlife and photography workshops and tours are becoming more commonplace for both tourists and locals. If you are interested in participating in one of these, I highly encourage you to research your guide’s practices and reputation before you sign up. While there are many wonderful, ethical operators out there, there are unethical ones as well.
Anyone guaranteeing specific sightings of rare birds or owls should be scrutinized as no one can guarantee a bird’s location on any given day, unless measures such as baiting are being taken. Baiting is the unethical practice of luring raptors and owls in for close encounters using live mice as bait.
Baiting raptors with rodents is detrimental for several reasons. First, a bird that relies on hunting for food will become habituated to easy meals. This results in hanging around humans, often on or near roads, that makes them vulnerable to car strikes. Secondly, to use a living creature to entice a wild animal to come closer benefits no one except for the human.
It is our duty as bird and nature lovers to minimize our impact, protect the best interest of the birds, and to bird responsibly and ethically. Please see the Audubon Guide to Ethical Photography and Videography and the American Birding Association’s “Code of Birding Ethics” for additional resources on ethics in birding.
Go forth and bird ethically! And capture some great images while you are at it.
Bufflehead | Kamriell Welty
About Kamriell Welty
Kamriell is a local family, wedding, and wildlife photographer residing in Bow, Washington. She considers observing wildlife in their natural habitat as one of the most refreshing and inspiring things she gets to do with her camera. She believes that it is our responsibility to be good stewards of the earth, and through education and awareness, we can help protect and preserve wildlife and nature for generations to come.
Follow her on Instagram at @iamkamriell for more shots of birds, bears, and bison.
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