Hey, birdwatchers! Our feathered friends aren’t so eager to see you up close.


By Bob Duchesne Just so you know, Steller’s now-legendary sea eagle has spent much of the week around Boothbay, glimpsed by a few, missed by most. How can a bird the size of a Prius be so good at hiding? Naturally, its ability to evade bird watchers only encourages a more vigorous pursuit.

By Bob Duchesne

Just so you know, Steller’s now legendary sea eagle has spent much of the week around Boothbay, sighted by a few, missed by most. How can a bird the size of a Prius be so good at hiding?

Naturally, its ability to evade bird watchers only encourages a more vigorous pursuit. Hundreds of people carrying binoculars continue to hunt him, in Boothbay and elsewhere.

In general, cheery crowd behavior rates a 9 on a scale where 10 is the Common Ground fair and 1 storms the United States Capitol. Nonetheless, now might be a good time to talk about the ethics of birdwatching.

Photo courtesy of Bob Duchesne
KEEP A DISTANCE – A great gray owl keeps a close eye on what’s going on. They are among the birds visiting Maine that do not encounter many humans and can be negatively affected by excessive attention.

The American Birding Association was founded in 1969 as an organization dedicated to recreational birdwatching. There has long been an unwritten understanding of how to observe birds without harming them. The association has put these agreements in writing.

Its code of ethics is considered the gold standard, often adopted by other birding groups, organizations and societies. A significant part of the code deals with the need to conserve birds and their habitats in general. These principles range from keeping cats indoors to avoiding collisions with windows, cleaning bird feeders, landscaping appropriately, and even drinking shade-grown coffee.

The code also advises birdwatchers on how to interact with each other: respect people of all skill levels, freely share their knowledge, report important sightings, and guide group behavior.

The code becomes more specific when dealing with rare and sensitive birds. We humans have invented many creative ways to mess things up. The code warns of bird stress or exposure to danger, especially around nests, roosts, displays and feeding sites. Of course, these are the same places where it may be easier to observe them.

Audio playbacks can sometimes attract birds. But they can also be used inappropriately or simply overused. I’ve used the audio once or twice or more. Judging by my own behavior over the years, I don’t think I’ll go to hell, but I might have to spend some time in purgatory before heaven lets me in.

The code is straightforward on whether to approach rare, threatened, or endangered birds, or use audio cues to attract them. One word: don’t. Our famous Steller’s sea eagle has mostly kept its distance from people, choosing to roost on inaccessible islands and isolated treetops. There were a few instances where someone got too close on foot or in a kayak, the draft, but mostly the crowd didn’t pile in.

Other birds are not so lucky. Owls can be stressed and sensitive in crowded situations, and there are three northern owls that occasionally visit Maine in the winter. Northern hawk owl and great gray owl do not appear every year, but there has been a big increase in the number of snowy owls arriving each year.

All of these owls are far from their home territory and are doing their best to survive. They also don’t know people, given the distance north where they nest. Too much human attention can prevent owls from hunting, or drive their prey away, or even throw them into oncoming traffic.

The obvious question is: how close is it? The short answer is: if the bird is looking at you, you are too close. This complicates things. Some birds are more sensitive than others.

In my personal experience, Northern Hawk Owls are unimpressed with people, Lapland Owls are indifferent, and Snowy Owls are uncertain. However, given the natural human tendency to look kindly at something rare, even the most innocent disturbance can happen to any owl. It has become common in recent years to avoid disclosing the location of rare owls, lest they suffer from excessive attention.

The code of ethics of the association of ornithologists is explicit on the respect of the laws and the rights of others. Never enter private property without the owner’s permission. Know the laws, rules and regulations where you are. For example, audio playback is prohibited in many refuges and parks, including Baxter State Park. Many coastal nesting islands are off-limits during nesting season, and off-leash dogs are prohibited on some beaches.

Lead us not into temptation. Sometimes, for a bird watcher, it’s like having an angel on one shoulder, whispering “Don’t come any closer” and a demon on the other whispering, “A few more steps and you can get a great shot!” The code sides with your angel. There is no need to approach a bird too closely. That’s what binoculars are for.


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