Snowy Owls and Owl Photography in the Lower Mainland and a Young Birder Painting of a Snowy Owl!

Seeing an owl anytime is special, they are rare and beautiful and when they look at you, you are entranced. You can't blame people for being excited when they see one. It's a thrill! Especially when you see ones that you don't normally see in the area you live, like the ones from the Boreal. This year I successfully completed an owl big year, seeing all 19 North American Species. So no one has to tell me twice, how special they are.
Speaking of Owls, here is a gorgeous photo of a painting of a Snowy Owl that young birder Viktor Vandereyk completed recently. Man these youth are talented!

"Snowy Owl in BC' - Painting and Photo by Viktor Vandereyk

It seems this year may be a flight year for Snowy Owls in the Lower Mainland. Time will tell. Snowy Owls are here now and getting lots of attention. Photos are posted on Facebook and sightings are all over eBird. 

This year many incidents have occurred already. People have witnessed a Snowy Owl flushed 4 times in 30 mins by photographers approaching it on both sides. Another one was caught throwing rocks at an owl, in order to get a flight shot. Others were seen running at an owl. I presume again for a flight shot. Snowy Owls don't have a place to retreat and hide, so it's really unfair. I've seen fools running at Snow Geese in the same manner for a flight shot. Others have caused the owls both Short-eared and Snowy to lose their meal or be mobbed by Harriers.  I've received several emails, photos and videos of the poor behavior and complaints from concerned birders. Most photographers don't do this and stand on the dyke or stand out in the marsh in one spot, without flushing the bird. If you stand in one spot and let the animal come to you, it doesn't cause them this high degree of stress. It is best if you stand on the dyke to view the bird giving it lots of space to hunt, roost and relax. This is especially true in high traffic crowded areas like local dykes. If one or 2 people are out there in the marsh, it is different than 30. If one goes out, more will follow. So a blanket rule is needed for all.

Hunters are allowed out in the marsh and that seems a double standard to photographers. Why should they be allowed out there and not them? It doesn't make sense to me either. Surely shooting guns off and killing birds causes them to flush. Recently two hunters got fined in the area, one for killing a Great Blue Heron and one for killing a Trumpeter Swan (both are illegal). If you see this or any unethical behavior record it with a camera, get license plate numbers and report it to a Conservation Officer. Signs have now gone up on dykes in the Lower Mainland asking people to stay on the dyke trails and not to go on the marsh. As usual poor behavior by some, ruins it for us all.

Signs preventing Snowy Owl disturbance have recently popped up here.

The other problem is with Long-eared Owls, a species that needs to sleep during the day. They tend to hide in heavy brush area. This is usually not conducive to good photography. There are some who try to flush the bird out of the roost site or at least make enough noise to wake it up. I've seen some real atrocities with this species and then people returning daily to that same owl. Long-eared Owls are the most sensitive owl we have. They are completely nocturnal and need to roost. They should never be awake in the day and shouldn't hunt in the day, unless flushed, sick or starving. This owl needs as much space as possible. Sometimes we get lucky and a nocturnal owl is out during the day (with no one flushing it) but it's not good for the owl, since it is now competing for prey with diurnal species. I have noticed on Flickr people being so happy when they see a Long-eared Owl awake (and looking alert and stressed and sometimes mantling) obviously these people are not reading the behavioral signs of the bird. I think this is the largest problem that they just aren't aware that this bird is freaked out and not happy. It's all about learning bird body language. I don't think most people want to harm the birds at all but are totally unaware of behavioral signs of stress in raptors. There are always bad apples who don't care at all if the owl is disturbed. There are some who can read the cues and only care about getting the shot but I firmly believe this is the minority. I know this from speaking to other photographers on the dyke. Some even were livid watching other photographers flush the Snowy Owls. This is why you can't paint everyone with one brush.

When you see Barn Owls as well hunting in the day it's the same story, they need as much space as possible. Especially, since our local Barn Owls got depleted so heavily last winter and may become sadly extirpated, as per scientists (see research paper HERE). Even Short-eareds who roost on the ground and hunt in competition with Harriers need ample space not to flush and lose their prey.

If everyone acted normal and didn't chase after owls, we could enjoy these beautiful owls in peace without so much restriction. Sadly, it doesn't work this way in this day and age, where info spreads like wildfire and everyone, both ethical and not has a camera. There seems to be always someone out there who has to push the limits of the bird and the law.

Hunters contribute to bird conservation by giving money to wetland restoration and just like everything there are ethical and non ethical hunters. Ones who don't take more than they need to eat, ones who don't cause unnecessary suffering to the animal etc. Hunters cannot be shooting from the dyke it could cause danger to people around, that is why they are in the marsh. So if photographers/birders want fairness about being off the dyke, I don't see this happening anytime soon; unless the area is completely closed to hunting. Also, hunters pay license fees which gives the Government economic incentive to keep them there, despite bird disturbance.

The other thing that blows my mind and is troublesome is birders who have to put their owl sightings in public output on eBird. If you see an owl in a city like this and publicly record it, you will most likely put pressure on the bird. Even if others have already put the bird on eBird, why contribute more to this problem?. You may not realize it but if you have just seen the bird for the first time, many others haven't and even if it doesn't trigger a rare bird alert, it will trigger a "needs alert" for many. If you put a general location down for the owl and it is submitted  5-20 mins after birding another location, people will know where the owl is. So why do any of this at all? If people stop reporting the bird publicly on eBird, then less people will know it's still there and it will reduce harassment. Hiding a sensitive owl or species on eBird does not decrease your list total.  I know some listers are worried about this. Showing off an owl on your eBird list doesn't make you cool, quite the opposite. Also when you take a photo and publish it on Flickr, try to leave the exact location out. I simply put nothing at all or BC, WA etc.  Don't put it on listserves or forums. I have noticed how an owl in WA has been posted almost daily on a listserve there, adding much more pressure than necessary to a single bird. Another mind boggler for me.

If you can do all you can to protect an owl from disturbance you can walk away from that bird knowing you personally did the best you could to protect that owl. There are many photographers who have told me they find an owl from eBird and that makes sense to me. Why wouldn't they if people put it up there? Birders do the same. Some birders even put explicit directions right to a bird roosting spot or nest. No need for this. I don't allow them reported on the RBA across the province now. It used to just be hidden in the Lower Mainland but I decided to increase it for fairness and because birds on Vancouver Island and the Interior, were also becoming subjected to increasing similar pressures. For instance, someone cutting branches around a roosting Saw-whet Owl on the Island. Try to go out and find your own owl while searching in the appropriate habitat. It's much more fun and much more rewarding. This is true for photography and for birding.

eBird has come out with a new platform (as of Oct 2017), to hide sensitive species from public output automatically in eBird. So far in North America (in regards to raptors), the Great Gray Owl and the Northern Hawk-Owl and Gyrfalcon are hidden automatically when entered by someone. Read my post about that HERE.

All other owls and sensitive species are hidden manually by the observer for now. Soon that will change and it will be up to individual eBird reviewers, to decide which species should be automatically hidden. Endangered birds like the Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse and all Owls should be hidden, in my opinion. However, we should at least start with the sensitive ones that are truly affected by human disturbance, like the Long-eared Owl and the Burrowing Owl. Sadly, I have seen a Barn Owl flushed by photographers and killed by a Great-Horned, this was not intentional by the photographers but it can happen and that is why it is vital we protect them. I'm so proud of my Young Birders for being so proactive about hiding owls on eBird and their proper etiquette around them.

eBird says 

"Roosting owls are vulnerable to disturbance, particularly in areas where owls are scarce and people are abundant!  When owls are flushed from their secretive roosting spots they are frequently ‘mobbed’ by crows and jays, creating lots of commotion in the process, and drawing attention to species that rely on their cryptic plumage to help hide them from potential predators.  If mobbing occurs frequently, the owls may abandon the roosting site.  In the worst-case scenario, a larger predator like a Red-tailed Hawk or Great Horned Owl may be alerted to the presence of the smaller owls, and prey upon them.  We use owls as an example of what might be considered a ‘sensitive species’.

If you want to hide owls and sensitive species manually from eBird follow these simple steps:

**To hide observations in eBird after you have submitted a checklist. Go to manage my observations, click on the checklist you want to hide and scroll to the bottom. There is a link to hide the checklist. Please note that this keeps the species off the output (e.g., maps, bar charts etc.) but does not hide the fact that you went birding altogether (i.e., the date and location may show up on the the Recent Checklists feed, but no one will be able to see the species you saw). **

Here are a few ways to help protect sensitive species when reporting to eBird:
  • "Wait until the season is over and the sensitive species (e.g., owls) have left before reporting the birds to eBird. You can always go back and ‘edit’ your checklists later to include sensitive species after the birds have departed.
  • Do not provide explicit coordinates or directions to sensitive species. When using the mapping tool to plot your location, use the ‘general area’ instead of the exact grove of trees where the birds are. For instance, you may say that birds were seen at a state park, instead of listing the exact location within a state park.
  • Delay reporting observations for a week to keep these reports off the ‘eBird Alerts’. These Alerts are mostly for rare birds, but please note that 'Needs Alerts' also go out to individuals who have yet to see a species in a certain area. By delaying your reports for 8 days or more, your report may appear in eBird but not be 'pushed' to birders via the Alerts."

eBird says
  • "Sensitive Species are formally recommended by a partner or published source, and rationale for the listing is stored at eBird.
  • Sensitive Species in eBird are those for which demonstrable harm could occur from public display of site-level records, including (but not limited to): 1) targeted capture for the cage bird trade; 2) targeted hunting; 3) targeted disturbance of nests, roosts, or individual birds from birdwatchers or photographers. Species that are rare but are not under pressure from targeted human exploitation or disturbance generally are not considered Sensitive.
  • In most, but not all, cases, a Sensitive Species has formal listing as an Endangered or Threatened species either on a local priority list or by the IUCN"

"We ask eBirders observing any of the species marked as Sensitive to please review the information on the species on our Sensitive Species page and to use discretion in sharing sightings via other public platforms (e.g., Facebook, WhatsApp, webpages, listservs, etc.). Revealing site-level records exposes the birds to risk from professional bird trappers, hunters, and/or pressure by birdwatchers and photographers and could cause significant harm to the conservation of these species. We recommend that you enjoy your good fortune privately, keep the specific location secret to help protect the species, and contribute the sighting to eBird where the bird will be protected from exploitation and your sighting will still help inform research and conservation for the species."

After all of this, we need more enforcement from the Provincial and Federal Governments on this. The Provincial Government needs to change the laws to what constitutes harassment because right now people can get away with far too much. Conservation Officers need to actually enforce the laws in place.  It's hard to get them to listen to bird issues. Much more so, than a bear or cougar issue.... well they usually solve those by shooting the animal but that's another topic all together.

It is not completely fruitless though. This is why you need to record license plate numbers. I know of one recent incident where a license plate number and photos of the incident in progress caused a person cutting branches around a roosting Barn Owl to be charged and fined by the Conservation Officer. The Federal Government needs to enforce SARA more effectively and afford more protection to certain species. They need to finally upgrade the recommendations of COSEWIC to several species that are currently listed as "special concern" to either "threatened" or "endangered". Some have been sitting in limbo for years.

It's a long uphill battle and one we can't win overnight. Baiting, which still happens in the lower mainland and I've witnessed myself here, is still legal except for in National Parks. The painting of all photographers as negative with one brush is unfair. I've seen some birders and photographers playing tapes, including to Short-eared Owls, to my amazement. Taping a bird constantly on a loop is just as bad or worse than flushing one. There are many ethical photographers and birders and we can't forget it but even if the ethical ones are punished due to the bad ones, we should just suck it up for the betterment of the birds. If I can't get that 4 star photo in this location, I will just go to others where there are no crowds  and the bird is not subject to harassment. I can be more free and relaxed and it's better for all this way. I've stood face to face with a Great Gray Owl. I've had a Spotted Owl fly right at me and stare into my eyes. You can get close to owls for photography and while birding and they are special, memorable encounters but letting that animal come to you is so much more rewarding than having to chase it down.

We tend to focus on owls because they are so sensitive to disturbance but this goes for all birds. Lekking Grouse especially and for nesting birds and shorebirds that are tired and hungry from long migrations. I don't like to separate birders and photographers as two separate entities in birding. There are many who are both. I myself am both. Sure I am a birder before I am a photographer because that is where I started and I am just as happy if I go out for a day and look at birds without my camera. However, I love none any less than the other. Photography helps me connect to nature in a way that I couldn't before as solely a birder. It helps me to be a better birder as I study the animal more closely for longer periods of time. I see the subtle beauty in the feathers and seeing it through my lens creates another sort of magic. The foundation of birding is important too, since it taught me how to learn bird behavior, biology and identification and the signs of an animal in distress. They work hand in hand. The birding community needs both photographers and birders and they both play a vital role. Without photos there are many rare bird records that would never get approved, think of the recent BC Piping Plover. Without birders there wouldn't be birding associations, habitat protection and wildlife refuges. Both are vital and we both need to be proactive in protecting the birds from harassment as best as we can. via eBird, listservs, ethical birding and via ethical photography.

Female Snowy Owl in BC- Photo: Melissa Hafting


  1. it's about time someone said this. as a photographer myself i was quite upset recently at the goings on. hard to see those owls so distressed there, especially that one snowy owl that people are flushing all around. thanks mel for always having the best interest of the birds as a priority. one thing about you is you don't put us photographers down like so many birders who think they are better than us. definitely a reason why you are liked so much around here. you probably don't know me but I've learned a lot from you over the years from reading the old forum (which i and many others no longer read since you left) and now on your blog. i didn't just learn about bird identification (which i'm still poor at) but ethical photography and birding. so thank you mel, great post.

  2. Glad you posted about this. It's really important people are responsible when viewing and photographing owls.

  3. It's unfortunate that things like this need to be said in the first place. I've witnessed some of the harassment that you have mentioned, and it's sad to see such disregard for the well-being of the bird for better looks or photos. I hope this brings awareness to the issues surrounding these birds, and people are more cautious about the consequences of disrespecting these birds' spaces.

  4. Really well said, Mel. I know you have been a tireless advocate for BC's owls, voicing the concerns many of us have but too few are willing to stir the hornet's nest to speak up about. I will say this - it is incumbent on all of us, whether we are birders or photographers, to consider more frequently the impact of our hobby on the birds we love. For some of us, it may be the casual neglect of misreading a bird's fear response while we eagerly approach for a closer look. While this may be inadvertent, this should be remedied in the future by increased senstivity. There is another group - however - who are so singleminded in their pursuit of a photo, that they are willing to knowingly disregard the bird's wellbeing to get it. These people who throw rocks at owls to get them to move when they are trying to rest, who chop off the branches of a tree sheltering an owl from the elements, who bait owls near roads only to see them killed by traffic - these people are acting with a callousness that is truly disheartening. It is appalling that a person who admires an owl's beauty is willing to see it perish for the trivial pleasure of a few likes on social media. Yet that is what more a handful of people in our community have come to. We need to hold ourselves and each other, birders and photographers together to maintain higher standards of ethics or we will not be able to enjoy owls in years to come.

  5. Here's an issue that you might not have noticed: On many cameras, when you take a photo, the GPS location of the photo is stamped into the photo's meta-data. This is true of most cell-phones, I think, and of many cameras. And when you post that photo, it may be possible for people who see it online to extract the GPS location. And then they know exactly where the bird was.

    Some sites strip off the metadata but others don't when you upload photos to them. So if it's possible to turn the GPS-stamping off when you're photographing a sensitive species, you should do that. My camera has the option to use the GPS stamping or not; I don't know about cell-phone cameras.

  6. Thanks everyone appreciate you all taking the time to comment and the support you have for protecting these sensitive species. cheers

  7. Good for you for caring Melissa and for putting the animals first!… it is indeed a delicate balancing act in life to love/appreciate without interfering.

    1. Thanks a lot Chris appreciate it. Have a great time in sri lanka. Cheers.


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