Owls, their owlet and the Berkeley masses

by on May 10, 2012

 

Mother keeps tabs on trail users.

Mother keeps tabs on trail users. Photo by Jen Joynt.

 

 

One evening, as I rounded the bend to the great horned owl nest in Claremont Canyon, I noticed another photographer already set up in my preferred spot. The owl parents and their owlet had become an East Bay sensation ever since the mama began dive-bombing dogs in early March. But up until then, I had been lucky and had not encountered the owl paparazzi I had feared would be drawn to the much-publicized nest.

staring

Mother owl stares down at a dog on the trail. Photo by Jen Joynt.

The other photographer was welcoming and made space for me to join her on the side of the trail. We watched the sleepy owlet, along with many others who stopped to watch. As the sun began to set, the owlet began to yawn, stretch and preen — great moments to try to capture in an image. The other photographer turned on her external flash and began snapping away.

As a wildlife photographer, I couldn’t help but to try to rein her in. I explained that a bright flash might harm the owlet’s developing eyes, and just wasn’t respectful of its still-fragile place in the world. The photographer argued that the flash was so fast it probably would do no harm; plus, it would be hard to capture sharp images otherwise.

I went home and thought more about the encounter. Some research revealed that although there was no definitive MO on flash photography and owls, many experts recommend a policy of “Do no harm.” Depending on the source, that translates to not using the flash, using it sparingly, or only during the day. In its ethics code, the American Birding Association states: “Use artificial light sparingly for filming or photography, especially for close-ups.”

During my field expeditions, I often worry about the impact I have on the birds and mammals that I watch and photograph. I absolutely love finding an interesting animal and having the opportunity to observe its behavior. But I try hard to respect the animal and minimize my impact on its stress level, hunting success, and general way of life.

alert owl

Hooo- hooo goes there? An alert owlet watches viewers on the hillside. Photo by Jen Joynt.

This great horned owl nest presented a unique challenge to quiet observation, as the nest is located in a large eucalyptus tree directly above a heavily trafficked trail. There is no natural cover to fade into. And there is a fairly constant stream of hikers, runners, and dog walkers passing right underneath. In addition to all the normal users of this trail, many owl lovers (like me) have been visiting, tipped off by online articles and photos, or the local birding community.

Some I have talked to think the owls chose this spot because it is so trafficked by people and, thus, perhaps more protected from natural predators who may be scared off by the human activity. Others note that the last time great horned owls were known to nest here, in 2008, the chicks seemed to fledge too early.

This year, two owl chicks hatched at the end of March, but unfortunately, only one of the chicks has survived. It is not clear what happened to the second owlet, although it seemed to perish in the nest during a week with multiple nights of rainy, windy storms.

On the days that I have visited, I have encountered many other people who are delighted by the close-up views. Birders come with their binoculars, mothers with their young children, runners and neighbors who walk these trails regularly, and many others. And there are, of course, many people taking photos with a variety of cameras from cell phones to professional wildlife rigs complete with flash.

life and death

Life and death in the owl’s nest. The surviving owl sits next to its dead sibling. Photo by Jen Joynt.

It is nearly impossible to know what impact our presence is having on the owlet or its parents. I have watched the mother swoop down on a dog (even dogs on leash). I have seen the owlet roused from sleep and open its eyes wide when a passerby, in search of a direct view of the nest, climbed up and then crashed loudly and slid down the hillside.

Then again, I have also observed the owlet sleeping in the nest while a dozen people watched intently and discussed the young owl’s progress.

Last time I was there, the owlet was gone. It had been practicing flying in recent weeks, hopping around and flapping its wings. I am hopeful the young owl took flight and is now hiding peacefully deep in the eucalyptus forest, perhaps near its mother and away from the all the staring eyes.

hop and flap

Practice makes perfect. The owlet gets ready to take flight. Photo by Jen Joynt.

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4 comments:

Kayloughman on May 11th, 2012 at 12:00 am

Thank you for writing this piece.  I’m never quite sure how to react when I encounter photographers who feel their desire to get a great photo trumps the comfort or potential health of the subject.  Similarly, the media who are so anxious to share their discovery with all who might be interested, regardless of the impact their story might have on the subject, the neighbors, etc.   Just because we know there is something wonderful out there, do we all have to troop out to see and document it?

autumn on May 12th, 2012 at 12:00 am

i hadn’t seen the owlet branching at all before it disappeared, so i am somewhat relieved to hear that someone saw it practicing flight. i was fearing the worst had happened.

EdNolty on May 14th, 2012 at 12:00 am

Pictures weren’t a problem, I don’t think.  Just the flash was.

Kayloughman on May 15th, 2012 at 12:00 am

I hope you are correct; but who among us is qualified to say what bothers the owls?  Certainly not me.  Flash photography seems a likely candidate for negative impact.  Less clear, but possible:  quantities of people with their concomitant noise, non-flash photographers who stay a long time, people  who scrambled up the hillside to get a better view, dogs, etc. 

To support our personal desire to see the birds and/or get some photos, we each made a self-serving decision that our presence or activity would not be a problem for the birds. 

When owls nested in the same location in 2008, birders and Berkeley residents visited in droves.  In 2009-2011 the adult birds chose to nest elsewhere.   Many local residents have suggested that the 2008 owls were put off by all the people.  We can’t know what really went on in their minds.

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