Saturday, December 31, 2011

Great Gray End to 2011 - 28 Dec 2011

A Great Gray Owl in Kingsville, Essex Co., ON!  What more needs to be said? A lot, actually...

This bird was first reported a few days before Christmas on the Ontario Listserve.  Kingsville is approximately half-way between Windsor and Leamington (Pt. Pelee), or a little over an hour's drive from our house in Wyandotte, MI.  Robin and I were enroute to Lakeland, FL at the time, so naturally I was pulling my hair out that I was driving away from one of the most sought-after birds in North America.  As a bird photographer/digiscoper I was also crushed to see that the bird had flown to within 10' of fellow birders and had provided gallery-quality images to those lucky enough to have cameras on-hand. I had expected that the bird might be gone by the time we got home (27th), so we were happy to learn that it was still being seen in same general vicinity for more than a week now.

I actually wrestled with the decision to see this bird.  An owl of this stature is certainly out of its normal winter range and is presumed to be under some stress from having to fly so far to apparently new foraging grounds.  An owl of this grandeur is also going to garner a lot of attention: both good and bad.  Birders, birder/photographers, and photograhers are going to flock to see this bird, and the potential for additional stress is almost assured.  In the end, we decided to go.  With Dad in the hospital it might be a nice pick-me-up to be able to report that we saw the bird, and (possibly) were able to photograph it.

On the 28th the skies were clearing and temps were cold.  Snow was absent, and the Great Gray Owl was reported a day earlier.  We drove to Kingsville, not expecting anything more than possibly seeing a silhouette of the bird from a 1/2 mile across a large field.  We were stunned when we came upon a small caravan of cars/birders/photographer in the road ahead of us.  As we pulled up I recognized Mike McCullough and Don Burlett, and asked if the bird was seen.  They pointed to the ditch next to the road and indicated that the owl was feeding on a squirrel just across the ditch and in full view of everyone present.

I grabbed the camera and walked over to the group and found Josh Haas and his friend happily photographing the owl from approximately 60' away.  The bird was hunched over its meal and nonchalantly eating small bites at a time. Its eyelids were half-closed the entire time, so it appeared not to be adversely affected by our presence.  A van was parked on the side of the road directly across from the bird, and a group of 10 - 15 folks were crowded on either end.  Overall the group was well-behaved and most were savoring views of a life-bird.

I photographed the bird first using the Nikon D300s and 300/2.8VRII/TC14, then went back to the car to digiscope it w/ the Zeiss 85T*Fl, 45X W eyepiece, Nikon Coolpix P6000 and homemade adaptor.  The owl was partially obscured by several tall strands of grass (several of which I cloned out using Photoshop) so 'perfect' photos could not be obtained 'naturally'.  I mention this only because Josh relayed that several overenthused photoenthusiasts wanted to approach the bird to make it flush so that flight shots could be obtained.  Mr. Haas, one of Michigan's most skilled and respected photographers, quickly convinced them that it was not to the bird's best interest, at which time they quickly agreed and backed away.  Before leaving I made it a point to remind the crowd to keep their distance and to avoid spooking the bird.


Just a comment on this image: it was taken as the owl was raising its head after taking a bite of squirrel and I was able to capture a series of frames w/ the D300s/300 2.8; In light of the extreme response this owl is raising in terms of photographer ethics I can say that (at the time) the owl was under no duress or appeared 'threatened' by the number of photographers present. However, it is sad to report that a number of photographers have been accused of trying to harass the bird into flushing/flying so that 'better' photos could be obtained. I would ask anyone attempting to see this owl please keep their distance and respect that the bird 'could' be under great stress from lack of food and being so far from its normal range. Thanks!
 Sadly, however, there has been stories circulating that perhaps well-meaning, overenthused photographers have been portrayed as harassing the owl in order to obtain better photos.  This has raised criticism toward bird photographers in general, and a bit of outrage being felt from photographers and non-photograhers alike.  The debates of distance, the use of flash photography, baiting, and noise will once again result in flaming commentary and hurt feelings due to improper generalizations from both camps.   What are my thoughts regarding all of this?

First, I believe that everyone needs to read the American Birding Associations Code of Birding Ethics, whether you are a birder or a photographer, or both!  As for the following:

Distance - one should never approach close enough that an owl, hawk or other bird has to monitor your actions.  I consider it a failure if a bird flies away as a result of my trying to photograph it, whether its from a car, or trying to get an unobscured view.  This is why I'm such a fan of Digiscoping - it reduces/eliminates the need to 'get closer'.

Flash photography -  we've all read stories of birds being blinded by a flash unit, or spooked, or even stunned only to be taken by a bird of prey, and for this reason it is important to evaluate whether the use of flash will harm the bird in any fashion.  A single flash, or a synchronized, multi-flash flash setup for a hummingbird coming to a feeder in the summertime is acceptable, in my opinon, so long as the bird is not scared away from the feeder. However, once October/November rolls around, and rarer, migrating hummingbirds (such as Anna's or Allen's) appear in our area I believe that flash photography should not be used under any circumstance.  As for owls? A single flash is acceptable and usually results in no detriment to the bird, even in total darkness.  The problem comes in when 10 photographers are present and single flashes result in a strobe effect that could momentarily blind or disorient a bird, and simultaneously cause it to flush.  Therefore, when more than one photographer is present it is best to avoid flash photography altogether.  On a bird tour it is best to ask the guide whether the use of flash is permitted or is acceptable (also keep in mind the effect it may have on other birders' chances for missing a potential life-bird).

Baiting - this subject is probably the most sensitive of all and is widely debated.  Some believe that baiting provides a free meal and helps a stressed bird that may be having difficulty hunting on its own.  Its a resulting win-win for both bird and photographer.  I, however, have no respect for anyone who is willing to sacrifice the life of one living organism, no matter how low it is on the food chain, for the purpose of obtaing a photograph of another. Concerns regarding the growing dependency of birds, like Hawk Owls, Snowy Owls or Great Gray Owls, on an external food source are also raised, as well as the concern of attracting these birds to the proximity of cars and the increased chance of becoming a road-kill, are also valid.

Noise - we're all guilty of this one.  Large crowds produce alot of excitement and a lot of noise.  We should not underestimate its negative effects on a bird.  Please keep conversations for the bar afterward...

The presence of this owl is undoubtedly a major highlight of everyone's year.  We can only hope that everyone will be on their best behavior and keep the bird's best interest in the forefront.

Happy New Year!   

1 comment:

eileeninmd said...

Awesome post and great photos of the Great Gray Owl! Happy New Year!

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