Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, February 15, 2013

Boreal Owl update

Boreal Owl
Boreal Owl seen on Superb Owl Sunday

I recently wrote about a Boreal Owl Russ and I watched on Super Bowl Sunday—or what I call Superb Owl Sunday. Birders from as far as Scotland have been descending on Duluth to see these birds, and Sam Cook wrote about them in a Sunday Duluth News Tribune.
All the attention and all the birders have been making drives down Highway 61 more interesting than usual. In the same way that Turkey Vultures locate good thermals by watching for other Turkey Vultures already floating on them, birders sometimes locate good birds by watching for other birders already looking at them. It’s way easier to spot a dozen birders gathered on the roadside, binoculars, spotting scopes, and cameras pointed at a 10-inch cryptically-colored bird, than to notice that tiny camouflaged mite in the first place.

I think it would be impossible for me to have a better time with a Boreal Owl than I already have this year, so I haven’t been searching for them or chasing reported ones down, but it’s been ever so fun and exciting to read about other birders’ sightings, and to forward messages about ones being observed right that minute to out-of-towners who are still searching. The thrill of hearing people’s joyous experiences with these exquisite creatures, often for the first time in many years of birding, has been giving me plenty of vicarious joy. Part of the fun this year comes about thanks to social media—text messages and emails accessed via cell phones are getting more people to the right place at the right time than has ever before been possible. Duluth’s cadre of professional birding guides has been sharing information among themselves, and a couple of them have been at least occasionally keeping me in the loop so I can also help visiting birders.

Of course, the huge number of birders and photographers involved and this kind of immediacy are also leading to problems. When one Boreal Owl was hunting on the edge of the tree line off Highway 61, one well-known professional wildlife photographer ran off the road toward it, chasing the little predator until it fled into the woods. Another well-known author/photographer lured a Boreal Owl across the highway—a dangerous road with fast-moving traffic—by setting out pet-store mice for it on the far side. There were witnesses to both these egregious lapses of ethics, but I can’t help but wonder, if such prominent people who tout themselves as conservationists can do such unethical things in front of people, how are they getting their photos when no one’s around to see? That was very disillusioning, and I’m glad they were soundly chastised both when they were caught in the act and later on the Internet.

Fortunately, the vast majority of birders and photographers here have been enjoying the birds from a respectful distance. Some people are naturally worried that big crowds of birders might be disturbing the owls, but even without birders, Highway 61 and the Scenic North Shore Drive are busy and noisy, yet the owls along them have been observed hunting successfully. It’s almost certainly more disturbing when busloads of birders comb the much more remote Sax-Zim Bog during their annual birding festival, but that once-a-year event has raised awareness of northern birds, including vulnerable species, and virtually all the field trip leaders are conscientious about protecting the birds. When I weigh the interests of birders vs. birds, I would much prefer erring on the side of the birds, so I’m glad that so far most of the Boreal Owls have been seen hunting successfully, and most of the birders have been exemplary in behavior toward one another and toward the owls on Highway 61.