What is causing a once-sedate pastime to produce a greater number of natural offenders?
The little mountain bluebird showed up in Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, in early March, likely blown off course by the last windy gasps of the BC winter.
The species is not unheard of on Vancouver Island but rare enough and rather stunning enough, with their powder blue plumage, that the sighting was quickly posted online in a local Parksville community group. Within an hour, the parking lot at Rathtrevor Beach was full.
“It was insane,” says Josie Lacey, one of park operators.
The bird was flitting among the trees along the ocean. Between the crowd and their quarry was a fenced area where BC Parks is rehabilitating the natural sand dune habitat. There are signs telling people to stay out.
“People just started walking over the fence and traipsing through this area and ignoring me when I asked them to not go there,” Lacey says. “They stalked the poor bird for hours. The next day one of the regular park-goers approached me to tell me that they were actually tossing rocks toward the bird to try and make it fly so they could get pictures.”
Birding has never been more popular. The number of people participating in the Project FeederWatch, a citizen science initiative that monitors birds throughout North America, reportedly jumped 30 per cent this year.
However, parks like Rathtrevor Beach don’t have the staff or the funding to police excess visitors when a rare bird shows up. The park used to get a number of great horned owls but they are seldom seen within the park anymore, and Lacey says park staff believe the horde of people who would show up is one of the reasons why.
“It’s not as rare as you’d think,” says Roberta Olenick, a Vancouver-based wildlife photographer. “That’s one of the reasons I don’t photograph locally much anymore. If there’s a rare bird I know what will happen—there will be people throwing rocks or running right up to it.”
Before the advent of social media and bird-alert websites, a rare sighting would draw a crowd of eight to 10 people, she says. Now, an Instagram post can draw dozens of people within hours. Her very last outing in Metro Vancouver was to photograph a northern hawk-owl in Maple Ridge. There were about 70 people there.
“You get 70 people out there and they’re each flushing the bird, and they’re trampling through the habitat, that is excessive,” says Olenick, a biologist by training and an environmental activist.
“Birders with spotting scopes aren’t so much of a problem as the people who want a killer shot so they can get nine million likes on Instagram, or the person with a cellphone who thinks they can get the kind of shot they see online taken with a 500-millimetre lens at a decent distance. They walk right up to the bird, trying to get that shot.”
It’s not just Instagram stars, though. As the margins on professional wildlife photography shrink, more are offering workshops and there are more reports of baiting birds to ensure nice flight photos for paying clients, she says.
“What happens is the owls get used to people, they start approaching near roads and get hit and that sort of thing,” she says.
Olenick has written a chapter for a handbook on the ethics of wildlife photography coming soon from the North American Nature Photography Association, and has also written about the problem for the Audubon Society.
Reports of trespassing, baiting, trampling habitat and crowding owls prompted the conservation group Ontario Nature to urge followers not to reveal the location of owls in public forums.
Most serious birders or professional photographers have learned to shoot and
“I never post anything on my website or on social media until the animal’s moved on,” Olenick says, and she’s not alone.
The rise in incidents of bad behaviour has prompted birding websites like Birding in BC to censor location information for rare sightings, says Kevin Slagboom, the administrator of the site and a long-time birder from Victoria, BC.
“I’ve definitely removed people who have broken the rules. There was one fellow who threw rocks and he got banned,” Slagboom says.
Online bird tracking sites for the most part censor location information for rare or sensitive species. The eBird system, for example, a global citizen science project managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, automatically filters that information from public view.
Loss of habitat means there are fewer and fewer sites for birdwatching, Slagboom says, and a lot more pressure on viewing opportunities. The vast majority of birders do not behave badly, he says.
“But there are those that have a need to see something and don’t have the patience, and then they make bad decisions.”
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue.