Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Birder Watching!

"The true test of a man's character is what he does when no one is watching."

― John Wooden

Or thinks no one is.

There's a pair of Indigo Buntings nesting right alongside the south drumlin trail at the prairie parcel of Pheasant Branch Conservancy. While walking up the hill yesterday morning, I observed both the male and female flush away from the nest site in an attempt to lead me away. Their efforts were successful; well, I let them think so and kept walking past them. The same thing happened when I left an hour or so later. It probably isn't the best spot for them to nest, but most people who use the trail (joggers and hikers) aren't likely to stop or pay much attention to the buntings. However, I wondered what another nature photographer would do in this situation. That question was answered this morning.

During my hike to the top of the drumlin, the buntings reacted as they did yesterday. Again, I kept right on walking to keep my disturbance to a minimum. Plus, there are far more countersinging Indigo Buntings at the top of the hill using much better perches that are easier to photograph. However, after the stunning images I recently obtained of this species, my focus was fixed on the Orchard Orioles at the oak savanna.

Later on while scanning the prairie with my binoculars from the hilltop, I saw a photographer with a large telephoto lens at the parking lot getting ready to hit the field. I know him by his first name from creek corridor birding, but don't often see him at the prairie. I was already beginning to speculate what might happen if he encountered the Indigo Buntings on the south trail.

Some time went by and he hadn't yet arrived at the top of the drumlin, so I decided to walk down to see if he was at the bunting's nest site. Sure enough, he was photographing the male as it gave off multiple "tink" threat-response calls. Clearly distressed, the female was flying low from sedge to sedge. Approaching closer I said to the photographer, "The male is really angry at you." "Yeah, I know." he replied. I added, "The female is also upset because they have a nest close by." He pointed a few feet from where he was standing to the spot he thought the nest might be located. I continued, "I would probably only stay a couple more minutes and move on. Plus, there are more birds at the top of the hill." A little peeved, I continued walking down the hill. When I got to the main gravel trail that bisects the prairie I turned around to see if he was still there. Thankfully, he left the buntings be.

But I had a feeling this wasn't quite the end of it, so I set up my spotting scope at the small hill right next to the parking lot and waited. Watching from over 500 yards away, the photographer returned to the south slope trail at the bunting's nest site. I was hoping he would keep walking past them, but he didn't. Then I saw him hold up an iMainGo portable speaker and apparently played a song recording. Naturally, it was too far away for me to hear it, but then I saw the male bunting flush out and fly up to an open perch.
Walking off trail!

When the photographer began to walk off the trail to get even closer to the bird, I shouted from across the valley, "Hey! What are you doing?!" He immediately returned to the trail and sat down at the bench under the oak trees. There he remained for over twenty minutes. Apparently, he wasn't going to return to the parking lot while I was there so I wrote him a note and left it on his car:

"Please don't play song recordings to nesting birds. And while you're not supposed to walk off the trails here, it's even worse to do it right where birds are nesting. How disappointing!"

I decided to make a quick coffee run. I was going to head to work, but changed my mind and went back to the prairie. When I got there the photographer was putting his camera in the trunk of his car. I got out of my car and said, "{His name} … I saw that you were playing recordings to the nesting Indigo Buntings. Why?" He replied, "I wanted a photograph of one." I removed my note off his windshield and said, "I left you a note. Look, you can do whatever you want, but please don't come here if you're going to distress the conservancy's wildlife."

You really can get great portraits of birds without resorting to playback. Learn their behavior and vocalizations. During late spring, listen for coutnersinging males as they're among the easiest birds to photograph at an open space like a prairie. Know when a bird is stressed and walk away if they become threatened by your presence. Finally, when birding at Pheasant Branch Conservancy always be cognizant of the real possibility that I might be observing you from a distance.

Above image © 2015 Mike McDowell


  1. One of your best entries Mike. Always a pleasure to read your stuff (and view your pics). Disappointed to hear of the intrusive behavior of some of your peers, and proud to hear how you handle such encounters, firmly but with civility.

  2. Good for you , MIke - It isn't pleasant to have to confront someone but hopefully he learned something useful and will think twice about doing it again. When I see people going off trail I ask who they got permission from to do that. Then I wait until they get back on the trail. They may not like it but they may not bother to do it again. Well Done!!

  3. I'll second what John and Patricia have already written. Mike, thank you so much for speaking up.