This is a piece I originally wrote in November of 2014. I’m re-posting today because it has added relevance as more discussions arise about this very thing: should we share locations, especially when it involves a rare or coveted animal? In my Facebook feed, one of the hot topics is Great Gray Owls overrun by humans seeking a look or a photo, and the concurrent controversy over photographers who bait owls for their shots. A friend linked me to this recent piece on owl baiting if you’re interested in another perspective.
[The photos here are of animals, scenes and experiences shared by or with fellow photographers and birders. Adjustments include standard raw file edits and some individually noted corrections]
One of the best things about wildlife photography, outside of spending time with wild animals, is the community you build. A good number of us grew into this pursuit because we connected with animals … which then translated naturally to observing them behind the lens. Most of us share a zeal for the craft, and — especially — a love for our subjects, the animals we photograph and also protect, fervently.
Over the years, other photographers have entrusted me with their emeralds and sapphires — sharing their best wild sightings and most sacred spaces. I’m grateful for the privilege. And I enjoy paying their goodness forward by sharing my own information and inspiration with others.
In my mind, that’s the way it should be.
But, this is real life, right?
It’s happened to me and to many people I know — the betrayal of that disclosure. You start out sharing with enthusiasm, then learn over time your information was misused.
In one case, I disclosed some locations to a photographer and later learned he regularly trampled over basic wildlife ethics, and invited others to do the same.
An acquaintance of mine gave information about Burrowing Owls to a trusted colleague who promised she would keep the location confidential. Then, that person showed up with friends, posted the location online, and the word spread exponentially until the location was overrun. The owls didn’t return to that spot the following year, which may or may not be related.
In my life travels, these are the exceptions. I’ve had more positive experiences than I’ve had disappointments. But it’s tough to assess a person’s intent online, so I’ve become much more selective about what I disclose in public. I’m not hoarder of information. I simply view the animal’s welfare as my top priority.
Even with wide disclosure of locations, most photographer-wildlife interactions don’t result in lethal or injurious effects for the animals. There is, however, another consideration when deciding what to reveal. Several years ago, I came upon a piece in Field and Stream, where the author, a hunter, discussed using birding lists for scouting.
“When Waterfowlers Lie, Turn to Birdwatchers to Help Zero In on Area Ducks” ~ Excerpts:
“When it comes to divulging useful information about the ducks and geese they hunt, waterfowlers are easily the shiftiest, most obtuse and completely untrustworthy pack of liars in the outdoors. I know I am, and I’m pretty sure you are, too. Asking a duck hunter, especially a public water duck hunter, to share info about the ducks he’s been seeing is tantamount to asking him to share Polaroids of his wife. It just ‘aint gonna happen.”
“But if you really want to get you and your dog into some birds, here’s a tip on a gold mine of potential waterfowl information that’s right under your nose and right at your fingertips, and the best part is it’s completely tamper-proof from waterfowling degenerates like us: birdwatching listservs. That’s right, birdwatchers.”
To be fair, he claims to use listservs to get a sense of migration patterns, not to target particular ducks. But you may remember the controversy a couple of years back about a Harlequin Duck shot in Utah. There was suspicion, I don’t know if it was confirmed, that the hunters used birding lists to find and shoot at that particular location.
The ABA blog discussed this incident in How the Harlequin Duck Lost His Life. A commenter on that post wrote:
“The Falcated Duck at the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge this past winter could have suffered the same fate if it had been found outside the non-hunting zone. Hunters found out about it from the listservs and then on a hunting discussion forum several were talking about ways to get it to leave the non-hunting area so they could shoot it. In Humboldt County, there is a hunter who checks the listserv and the local telephone birdbox because he uses it to find rare ducks to shoot for trophies. He shot a Steller’s Eider on South Humboldt Bay years ago. Hunters and falconers can and do use directions birders give for rare birds to their advantage.”
The following short exchange comes from a popular waterfowl hunting board:
COMMENTER 1: Anybody on here heard of or use [the bird listserv]? It is an email list where bird watchers report sightings, field reports, interesting bird behavior. I am a birdwatcher and a hunter. This resource seems to be helpful to give an overview of migration. People report on new birds moving into their “birding” spots. It’s an interesting email. I don’t let too many birders know I am a hunter because of the fowl (hehe) reactions I have gotten ….
COMMENTER 2: Read it everyday … rarely post to it … its been a scouting tool for years.
COMMENTER 3: Typically when I start chasing seaducks I visit this site. Great secondary scouting tool. There info can be more accurate than the forums.
The situation is obviously more precarious for birds on hunting bucket lists — the birds coveted as trophies and collections. A piece at Outdoor Life listed “8 Birds to Bag Before You Die.” I won’t link out, but here are a few excerpts to show what these beautiful birds are up against:
- King Eider: “King eiders are maybe the rarest of prizes …”
- Cinnamon Teal: “Hunters looking to put a U.S. teal slam together face a serious challenge when it comes to this small, dark-red duck.”
- Barrow’s Goldeneye: “This blue-headed, yellow-eyed duck can haunt any hunter who wants to complete a sea-duck collection.”
- Mottled Duck: “On the bright side, because mottled ducks don’t migrate, they’re one of the most banded waterfowl, so you have a good chance of adding some bling to your lanyard.”
- Brandt Geese: “Brant make a great addition to Canada and white-front goose mounts and provide a different style of hunting.”
Does this listserv issue matter?
It doesn’t to some people, including some birders and photographers. I’ve read opinions suggesting that if the activity is legal, it ought to be acceptable. I don’t share that view for many reasons. But for the purposes of this discussion, I feel personally responsible if I’ve made anyone, human or nonhuman, more vulnerable because of my actions or revelations.
INTENT ~ WHEN SHARING HELPS PROTECT
Buddhists have a term, samma sankappa, which loosely interpreted speaks to “RIGHT INTENT”: the intent of goodwill and harmlessness. That’s obviously an over-simplification. But in deciding what to share without completely withholding, intent and possible outcome inform my wildlife choices.
Will sharing this information have the effect of harm or harmlessness? Or better yet, can sharing this achieve some possible benefit to the animals?
One “should I/shouldn’t I” situation for me was in the context of a citizen science project. I was the first to stumble upon a local colony of Caspian Terns — a nesting colony we later monitored for eggs and chicks. Because the terns were in an urban area, subject to the tolerance of local landowners, I didn’t know how much to say or report when I first discovered them. Ultimately, I contemplated the above question and decided that the more people who knew about the colony, the better the chances of public protest should any action be taken to haze or remove the terns (something that’s happened with some regularity in the Northwest).
MY PERSONAL RULES:
- I don’t share locations of nests, dens or baby animals. One exception would be a public rookery like the heron rookery just down the street from us. It’s in a public park, well known and monitored by a local conservation group. There are so many reasons not to bother baby wild animals — spooking the parents away, creating a scent trail for predators — and I don’t want to contribute to that hazard.
- I don’t share (for the reasons stated above) locations of animals that could be targeted during hunting season. That includes birds and mammals. If I think disclosure of the location might in any way make that animal a target, I refrain.
- I trust my hunches about when to share with individuals. For instance, Hugh and I met two men at a remote Washington wildlife refuge, saying they were birders, and asking about rare ducks we may have seen. Their demeanor and the questions they asked made us believe they were probably scouting a hunt. We didn’t reveal anything.
- If I share information with a new photographer, I include my sentiments about field ethics. I made some ignorant mistakes at the outset of my own endeavors, and I benefitted from those who helped me to better understand.
To my fellow photographers and wildlife people: What are your thoughts on this issue? Do you share on listservs? Do you feel uncomfortable at all with location disclosures?