Favorites from 2016

It’s time once again for an annual “best of” post. Again this year I have limited the gallery to a dozen of my favorite images and I added a few comments about each shot for some backstory. I hope you enjoy them.

They’re arranged roughly chronologically and clicking on a photo will take you to the full gallery with many other favorites from 2016 that didn’t quite make it into this post.


#1

Amazing things happen when you least expect it. I came around a corner on a road in Wyoming in January and saw four coyotes run up steep rocky hill. When they got to the top of a rocky ledge, three bighorn ewes popped over the top and stood on the cliff face. Smart sheep! And smart coyotes, too. They knew they couldn’t get at the sheep where they were, so just as quickly as the chase started, it ended. For predators like these coyotes it doesn’t pay to waste precious energy on a lost cause in sub-zero weather, so the whole encounter lasted only a minute or two. In addition to be an interesting wildlife interaction shot, this photo has the distinction of becoming a two-page spread in a national magazine. That automatically qualifies it as a favorite for me!

#2

January was also the month of the great bobcat photo op. Even in an area known for cats, you are never guaranteed to see any, but a group of friends and I had a magnificent day with this cat. We were able to watch hunt up and down a river in Wyoming for much of the day. Just as the day ended we watched in amazement as the cat leapt far out into the river, disappeared completely under the water for a moment, and emerged with a fat muskrat. It was spectacular. I came away from that encounter with so many bobcat photos that I still haven’t fully processed them all. With so many good shots, it was tough to choose one, but this is my current favorite. It just says “predator” to me and I have a large metal print of it hanging in my home.

#3

It’s all about the feet. In 2016 I spent much of March in northern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin working on a magazine project involving hares. While this shot didn’t make it into print, I just love that you can so clearly see why Varying hares are often called “snowshoe” hares. Those feet are impossibly, comically huge… and perfectly adapted for running on the snow. This particular hare was soaking wet from all the melting snow dripping down from the spruce trees it was hiding under on a warm March afternoon.

#4

If you know me at all, you know that I love wide open grasslands and the critters that live there. Some of my best friends are prairie dogs, Black-footed ferrets, and Swift foxes. I especially love Burrowing owls. They’re tenacious hunters, and brave to a fault. I once watched a pair viciously attack a badger which approached their nest. As the name suggests, the little raptors live in abandoned prairie dog burrows. They are primarily insect eaters, with the occasional small rodent or reptile added to their menu. This one was obediently catching a variety of insects (a hornet, in this case) and bringing them back to its mate at the burrow in Buffalo Gap Grasslands in South Dakota.

#5

I spent almost all of July in Alaska, and while I knew I had to visit Brooks Falls at Katmai National Park, I also knew that there are literally millions of photos of bears catching salmon there. I wanted to try some long exposures to get the feel of the powerful falls juxtaposed with the big, beautiful bears. I took somewhere around 1100 long-exposure shots varying between 1/16 second up to about 3 full seconds. It takes some time produce that many long-exposures. It’s not like average wildlife photo ops where I’m spraying and praying at 12 frames-per-second. And the bear has to remain absolutely still for it to work out. Of those 1100 frames, there were four I was satisfied with. This one is the best.

#6

For varieties sake I wasn’t going to post any bear cub photos in this year’s favorites list, but these two are pretty tough to ignore. This photo was also taken at Katmai National Park, and these Brown bear cubs-of-the-year belong to the bear in the long-exposure above. They were the most well-behaved, patient young cubs I’ve ever photographed. They sat together like this for ages waiting for the sow to catch a salmon. When she did, the larger cub would carefully walk through the rapid water to sniff and tug at the fish while the sow ate the best bits. While the cubs were sitting together like this they never squabbled with each other, which is unusual. They just waited for mom, occasionally glancing at the tourists watching them from the viewing platform. Most of those tourists had cameras, of course, which means there are probably thousands of similar photos out there. I don’t ordinarily enjoy those kind of photo ops, but the cubs are still dang cute.

#7

Another shot from Katmai, Alaska, but this time far from the crowded falls. The best part of this experience was I was the only photographer there as this Brown bear wandered back and forth on this tiny peninsula for a long while. I took dozens of shots of him in various postures – some sitting, some laying down, and even some with float planes landing in the background – but this one just makes me smile more than the others. I don’t know why.

#8

Photographing Barren Ground Caribou on the tundra was one of the primary reasons I went to Alaska. I had never seen wild Caribou before, and they didn’t disappoint!  To get this shot I had to belly crawl along the back side of a ridge, staying out of view of this bull and another one. At the same time I was keeping one eye on a Grizzly sow with two cubs-of-the-year. The three bears had just crossed the same ridge, but fortunately they kept going and I could concentrate on the bulls. Unfortunately, the two caribou winded me before I could photograph them bedded down. At least this one paused to look at me, and just look at that white beard!

#9

This Bugling bull elk is another shot I set out specifically to get. I’ve always wanted to get a full-frame, in-your-face shot where you can almost feel his breath. A close-up shot like that is the only way I know to see the incredible textures these old bulls are made of. So I was very pleased when this big Colorado bugler came up over a rise, very early one morning and floored me with his wild music. Nothing says September in the Rockies like bugling elk.

#10

This may have been my proudest moment of 2016. I saw these Blue-winged teal circling an island on a lake in northern Wisconsin in early October. There was only time for four frames, handle-holding my biggest glass. Given how fast those teal were moving, and the fact I had to run to a shooting position at the lake shore before they disappeared around a corner, I was pretty sure none of those four frames would be any good. This one was.

#11

November means the rut, when big bucks lose much of their natural caution and start chasing does in broad daylight – well, almost broad daylight. In fact, this shot was taken well before sunrise, at 1/15th of a second, and the buck is back lit, making the shot even more challenging. But modern cameras and lenses are really something if you use good technique. I don’t normally add the tech specs, but in this case it was taken with a Canon 5DmkIII, 1/15th sec, 700mm (500mm & 1.4 teleconverter,) f/5.6, Exposure bias was -1, ISO 1000, on a Gitzo CF monopod. It’s also just cropped a tiny bit to straighten.

#12

Some photos do better in Black & White. Especially when there are contrasting textures you want to emphasize. That’s the case with this Bighorn ram. Between the teeth just peeking from his slightly drawn upper lip, to the death-ray eyes, to the undulating layers of horn, there was so much texture to look at that B&W was the only way to go. An artist friend of mine recently used this image as a study for an amazing drawing, too. That also makes the image special to me.

Bonus image –

A bonus photo, just because I love this quote so much — “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing… about in boats — or with boats. In or out of ’em, it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not.” – from “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame

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And your comments are always welcome!

Happy 2017!!!

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A Baker’s Dozen: My Favorite Wildlife Images of 2015

By Keith R. Crowley

Posting my personal favorites from the past twelve months is a new tradition I look forward to at the end of each year.

For one thing, it reminds me of all the fascinating places I’ve been and wonderful wild things I’ve seen in the past twelve months. For another, it gives me a chance to share some backstories, and to explain why certain images are special to me.

I’ve cut back the selection this year to thirteen images. But if you do want to see further highlights from the year, including additional foxes, wolves, grizzlies, owls, albino deer, (and even a couple of landscapes!) please check out the full “Best of 2015” gallery by clicking here. I’m proud of all 48 images in that gallery, so please take a look.

And, of course, I would truly appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends and families.

2015 Wildlife Favorites –  in the order taken:


870F – This is a bittersweet photo and a reminder about the real “wild life”. This old Yellowstone wolf, research #870F, had lived a tough 7 years in the park. When I got there in January, she had recently been chewed up and spit out of her pack, literally, where she once had been the alpha female. On this day she crossed my path, then slowly ambled up a hillside and laid down – tired and sore from just being a wild wolf. As it turned out, she only lived a few more weeks after this photo was taken. She died alone deep in the Yellowstone back country, injured and unable to feed herself. Most Yellowstone wolves die by other wolves, and rarely is it pretty. Nature is a cruel mistress, and this photo is especially poignant for me because on this day, as I photographed this once-formidable predator, I knew it would be the last time. (More images from this encounter can be seen here.)

Synchronicity – The juxtaposition of the subjects is what appeals to me most about this image. Golden light reflecting off a hillside in the background, and a Golden Eagle perched alongside the tiny, spring fed pond on a frosty morning, just seemed “right” to me. The pond, by the way, was full of trout, which may explain the eagle’s attraction to it. While Bald eagles are notorious fish eaters, occasionally Golden eagles will actively hunt them, too.

Sky Walker – I was busy looking at the reflection of the clouds in this shallow tidal bay in south Florida when a Tri-colored heron walked into the shot. Lucky. I knew I was going to like this one as I clicked the shutter. And, I discovered by accident, if you flip this image vertically, it still looks pretty good!

Flying Kites – The bird I went to Florida looking for in March was this one, the Swallow-tailed Kite. These gorgeous raptors were very elusive for me and it wasn’t until the last day that I managed to find a nesting site. Once I located that, it was only a matter of waiting for the adults to come and go with whatever they managed to catch – in this case a frog. I wish I would have found them sooner in the trip – one day wasn’t enough – but I was glad to have found them at all, and thrilled that they were in the air almost continually.

Deep, Dark Forest – Thousands of miles away from the mangrove swamps of southern Florida, Spring was also arriving in Wyoming. By early May, when this shot was taken, the bull elk are already starting to regrow their massive antlers. This shot is all about the mood for me. The sun had just risen and the back lit bulls seemed almost like mythical creatures emerging from the deep, dark forest.

Hang On, Here We Go – Actually, this Common loon is just stretching it’s wings. But it looks like she’s getting ready to take off with her chick on her back. In fact, at the end of this stretch the little chick was unceremoniously dumped off her back, but it climbed right back on to continue the ride. I took a lot of baby loon photos this year, but this one is by far my favorite! The Latin name for Common loons is Gavia immer, which is a wonderful taxonomic designation. It sounds like poetry to me and fits the birds so well.

Septet – As I mentioned in the preamble, 2015 was the year of the fox, partially by design, but mostly by happy accident. The Swift foxes pictured here were the designed part of the fox encounters. I’d been planning to photograph the amazing, tiny foxes for several years and this year it finally came together. This particular photo probably isn’t the “best” fox  image I captured, but in it there are SEVEN swifties, mama (peering over the head of the closest foxlet) and six kits. It’s my favorite memory from this particular den site. In keeping with the previous photo’s caption, I’ll tell you that the Latin name for Swifts is Vulpes velox, which is another wonderful scientific name (when so many are less than poetic.)

Playmates – Shortly before I left to photograph the Swift foxes, I learned about a Red fox den in my home state of Wisconsin. By time I got there, the kits were half grown and very active. Well, two of the three little ones were very active. One kit preferred to sit and watch as the other two – these two – practiced being foxes.

Super Fox – Almost unbelievably, while I was photographing the red fox den in Wisconsin, a friend told me about a Gray fox den nearby. Since I didn’t have a single good Gray fox photo, I left the Reds and spent the next few weeks photographing the two adult and three young Grays. What I was truly hoping to get was a photograph of a Gray in a tree. With cat-like retractable claws, they are the only member of the dog family that regularly climbs trees, and I knew it would only be a matter of time before the little ones started exploring the area around the den and learning how to climb. It took 12 days of waiting, but eventually one climbed way up into a crab apple tree and stayed there long enough for me to photograph it. (You can see that shot by clicking here. ) With that mission accomplished, I spent the next week trying to get a clean shot of a running kit. By the time they get this big, they move so fast it’s hard to describe. I have dozens of soft images of them tearing around. Then I got this one – the one and only truly clean, in-focus shot I managed. I love that the kit is in full flight, too. In the end I came away with hundreds of really fine shots of the whole group of grays. It was a long process, but so well worth it!  By the way, in Latin Gray foxess are Urocyon cinereogenteus, (so now you know why I like Gavia immer and Vulpes velox so much.)

Zen Buck – One afternoon I came across this handsome mule deer buck bedded in an old forest at the top of a mountain. With light rain falling and a cool breeze blowing through the timber, I spent a couple hours with this buck. Watching him breath and doze and just “be” was a deep and pastoral experience for me… very much zen. (I also made a short You Tube video of the experience you can see by clicking here.)

Smile – 2015 was a great year for Grizzlies. I have so many shots of the big bears from Spring and Fall, that I still haven’t sorted through them all. It’s an embarrassment of Griz riches, and by waiting until the light got good before he started moving around, this huge boar was perhaps the most cooperative bear of all. And it didn’t hurt that I was there with some good friends!

Spread – My stated goal at the beginning of the year was to photograph large mule deer bucks. Last year, I was a hair away from having a major national magazine cover photo, (they even sent me a mock-up of the cover using my photo) but I lost out because the buck just wasn’t quite mature enough. So I spent some quality time this fall looking for the really big guys. This one will do…

Landing Gear – We’ll call this the Baker’s Dozen photo. Image #13 was an unexpected bonus for me while I was photographing mule deer, so I’ll make it a bonus here, too. Kestrels have been frustratingly difficult for me to capture, but while I was waiting for a large mule deer buck to reappear from a thicket, this one brought a meadow vole near me and consumed it. When he finished eating, he moved over to a perch even nearer to me. Maybe I was trying too hard. Anyway, thank you, Mr. Kestrel!

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If you would like to see these images in larger, hi-res versions, along with 35 other images that just missed out of the favorites list, click this link: Best_of_2015

And have a great 2016 everyone!

All words and images ©2015 Copyright Keith R. Crowley. All rights reserved. No reproduction or distribution in any form without prior written authorization.

 

 

 

 

 

The Owls and the Badger

With the amount of time I spend in the field each year, I get to photograph some truly remarkable scenes. 2014 didn’t disappoint. It was a year filled with unforgettable sights and sounds in the wildest of places.

With all the fantastic things I witnessed in 2014, my favorite memory belongs to an hour I spent alone on the prairie with two little owls and a badger.

On May 19, 2014, at 6:18 in the evening, I was in the middle of a Black-tailed Prairie dog town near the South Dakota Badlands. I was there lying flat on my stomach, photographing a pair of Burrowing owls as they fed on the large insects which are ever-present on the prairie. As the owls floated from place to place among the burrows catching the occasional grasshopper or moth, I noticed a movement further out in the dog town. It was a low, scuttling motion. Even at a distance I could tell it was an American badger.

Badgers are almost as ubiquitous in prairie dog towns as coyotes are, and nothing I know of can dig as efficiently.  There is no wasted motion as the pile of once concrete-hard soil grows behind them. They can disappear from view in moments. All that digging isn’t for fun — they are predators, and will eat just about anything that they can unearth. They are also beautiful creatures perfectly adapted to their environment. I will always watch them when I can.

As enamored as I was of the badger, the owls were much less so. When they spotted  the badger approaching, they launched an all out aerial assault on the big, bad weasel that lasted precisely 57 minutes. Certainly, the owls had a nest nearby, but I do not know where it was. I only know that a wild parent defending it’s young is formidable, no matter the size.

The unfolding scene was something I’ve never witnessed, nor even heard about before. You might expect the owls to make feinting dives at the badger, but these fearless little owls repeatedly hit the badger using their needle-sharp talons to strike with as much force as they could generate. It was a vicious thing to witness, and it certainly looked painful to me.

The badger, however, was unimpressed. In fact, as I photographed and filmed the conflict,  I can’t say I ever saw the badger react at all. From my perspective it looked as though the badger was unaware of the attack, or at least totally unconcerned. Occasionally the badger would shuffle along a bit quicker, but I don’t think it had anything to do with the owls. It didn’t turn to engage the birds. It didn’t snap at them or duck the impacts. Mostly the badger just continued to meander from burrow to burrow, intent on finding a meal which might be anything from prairie dog pups to Burrowing owl eggs.

The owls were determined to make sure eggs were not on the menu. They never tired, never paused. One or both would scream and dive and dive and scream – tenacity and bravery on the wing.

Clicking on the thumbnails below will open a larger version of the image. Clicking HERE will take you to the full gallery with additional images.

Part way through the one-sided attack a coyote wandered by. Undoubtedly attracted by the loud protestations of the owls as they frantically tried to be rid of the badger, the coyote stopped for a time to watch what I was watching. The two of us, the coyote and I, along with several nervous prairie dogs were the only witnesses to the life & death struggle of two little birds, their unseen nest, and the badger. Eventually the coyote walked away, leaving me and the prairie dogs, along with a thoroughly disinterested pair of Bison to watch the curtain close.

As the light waned, the badger eventually found something of interest to dig for. After a very few minutes of enthusiastic excavation he disappeared underground. It was 7:15 p.m.

The owls went back to their insect hunt, satisfied the threat was gone. I stayed until it was nearly dark and didn’t see the badger again.

The owls were there the next morning, feeding on the large insects which are ever-present on the prairie.

Of Mice and Owls

A Northern hawk owl being baited with a domestic mouse at Sax-Zim Bog. The camera and mouse pictured are NOT the author’s.

It’s getting bad out there.

The irruption of Snowy owls in the eastern United States this winter has photographers and birders at each other’s throats over the issue of baiting owls.

For the uninitiated, baiting means luring the owls with store bought mice in order to get dramatic, close-up views of the birds. I know photographers who do it, I know birders who do it, and I know farmers in rural Wisconsin who do it.

This year isn’t unique.  Owls of all sorts are baited every winter when their natural food supply, usually rodents, becomes scarcer.

Like everyone involved with this issue, I have an opinion on the subject; an opinion I hope is fairly moderate. High emotions tend to bubble to the surface with topics like this, so please read it all the way through before you call me an idiot and close the tab.

I will tell you that baiting owls is so common that last year, the winter of 2012-13, a mouse shortage developed in North America.  I can’t say that the shortage was solely the result of baiting, but laboratories, animal rehab centers and pet owners that use the mice for their own purposes ran low last winter, yet the owl baiters I observed were out in force with a seemingly unending supply of mice.

In short, for some people, feeding pet store mice to wild owls is a common and acceptable practice.

For others, people pursuing essentially the same goal of close-up views and dramatic photos, baiting is unethical and potentially injurious to the birds. They will point out a host of reasons that it’s a bad idea to feed wild owls.

Most of those reasons are completely accurate in my opinion. Baiting is not my way.

So now you know my slant. I am not an owl baiter. I have been accused of it, as have other wildlife photographers I know who do not bait, but I don’t do it. Usually just I shrug off the accusations. 

But this year I was able to witness both sides of the issue in late January in person at an internationally known birding area in northeast Minnesota called Sax-Zim Bog

A half-dozen species of owls and a multitude of other species regularly appear in the bog, and people literally come from around the world to search for birds on their “life list.” This coming weekend they are having their International Birding Festival.

Sax-Zim is a beautiful, wild place. And for the most part it’s very peaceful.

I went there several days in January, and one day while I was photographing a Northern hawk owl in the bog, a situation unfolded which finally inspired this story. And it has me re-examining my own definition of baiting.

My previous contact with owl baiters had always been a long-distance affair. In other words, when I saw them coming I left. But this year I decided that I’m simply not going to leave a great photo op because I don’t agree with other people’s methods, especially when I’ve driven hundreds of miles to get there and I have limited time to shoot.  I will not stop where baiting is already in progress because I don’t wish to get my photos that way, but neither will I leave if I was there first.

Owls and other raptors will fly toward the camera without the use of bait. Like every other type of wildlife photography it takes a lot of preparation and patience, but it does happen. (See the Snowy owl photo below, taken the same day as the hawk owl photos.) That’s the kind of photo I was attempting to get in Sax-Zim that day with the hawk owl.

As I was photographing the hawk owl, three vehicles pulled up and parked on the opposite side of the road from my vehicle. And something peculiar happened. The owl which had been about 40 yards away from me on the west side of the road, flew directly over my head, over the three new vehicles, and perched on a brushy limb about 20 yards away from the newcomers on the east side.  I soon found out that the owl and the newcomers were not strangers. As the photographers set up cameras and lenses and tripods, the owl watched them intently, even hovering directly over them.  Clearly this was a habituated owl.

Then they broke out the mice.

From my perspective this was a great opportunity to talk to these guys and to photograph them setting up their well-oiled routine. I walked over and introduced myself.  I took a few photos of the owl perched in a willow near their vehicle, and then, when they starting using the mice, I switched from a long lens to a shorter lens and took the baiting photos used here.

This story has been in the back of my mind for some time, and here was my chance to get an inside look. We talked off and on as I photographed them running through the baiting process three times. I found out who they were, where they were from, and how often they did this. They were cordial, and they were insistent that they “feed,” they don’t “bait.” Semantics aside, they were pleasant enough guys who were just doing something I didn’t want to do. . . something I won’t do.

Vehicles came and went. Some people got out and watched the proceedings. Some stayed in their cars. Some took their own photos.

A mouse being readied for the hawk owl at Sax-Zim bog. The mouse is about to be placed under the McDonald’s cup. The fishing line visible is then used to remove the cup when the photographers are ready.

Then, as I was taking the photo to the right, a person positioned behind the group loudly announced that we were all “pathetic!”  

Suddenly I was one of “them.”

But since I didn’t get any of those amazing in-your-face shots as the owl grabbed mouse after mouse, I didn’t feel even a little pathetic. In fact, I was feeling pretty good about the opportunity to get the information and the photos I wanted without pissing off anyone.

And the photos I wanted were not the same ones the baiters wanted. The baiters even offered to let me place a remote camera next to the mouse to get the great shots they were getting; an offer I politely declined.

Had the Anonymous Insulter bothered to ask, I might have told him what I was doing. He did not. He assumed the worst of everyone, told us all what he thought and then hurried away. But the Insulter actually did me a favor – more on that in a bit. 

The situation devolved further when another vehicle pulled up.

A  birding expert from the area arrived and began taking photographs of vehicles, license plates, and people there, including the “innocent bystanders.” He then got into a shouting match with one of the four baiters. The egos of both men were on prominent display as they recited their résumés to each other. But I have to say, the expert did himself no favors with his behavior, and with some false accusations he directed at the baiting crew.

Had the expert actually talked politely to the people there, baiters and non-baiters alike, he would have learned some interesting things that he might have used later to further his cause; something that might have helped him argue against baiting. Instead he learned nothing. It’s a shame.

However, despite disagreeing with his manner, I agree with the expert on the baiting issue.

I don’t believe it helps wildlife to receive supplemental food from people, no matter how well-meaning that feeding may be. I have felt this way for a long time.

I don’t think that feeding white-tailed deer to help them through a tough northern winter is biologically sound. Likewise, I don’t think trucking tons of hay to the elk in Grand Teton National Park every year is smart. I don’t think giving a black bear a sandwich from a picnic basket is cute. And I don’t think giving mice to owls is the right thing to do. So I don’t do it.

But – and this is important- it’s not illegal to give mice to owls. (Edit: at the time of this writing, it is not illegal to feed owls in Minnesota where this scene took place.)

To me, that means I have no reason to impose my beliefs on other people who are doing something that is their legal right. To escalate a situation through insults and by photographing license plates as if you are conducting a criminal investigation, to paint everyone present with the same broad brush, and to avoid constructive conversation in favor of loud accusations is counterproductive.

I can only choose not to participate in those legal activities I disagree with. And if I feel strongly enough about a topic, I can try to have the law amended. That is the only way to end the practice – make it illegal. That will drive some practitioners underground, of course, but most people will just stop baiting.

For now, however, the practice is legal in most places. So, I won’t bait owls, but I won’t try to stop you from doing it either. I won’t curse you, insult you, and I certainly won’t steal your box of mice and speed away (something I witnessed last year over the same issue, but in a different locale.)

But, too, I won’t leave if I was already there when someone shows up with a bucket of mice. I just won’t shoot an owl taking the bait.

In the end, unless it is being used for editorial purposes (like the one at the top of this story,) the only photo of mine you will ever see featuring a raptor coming at the camera, will be from a natural hunt with no bait present. If you ever see me with a mouse in my hand, it will be a dead one I’m removing from my house – and there won’t be any owls present.

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The Snowy owl above was photographed at Sax-Zim the same day as the Hawk owl above was baited. No bait was used to attract this Snowy by anyone present, and this particular owl made several attempts at voles (mostly unsuccessful) during the time the author was present. This attempt was a miss. The meadow voles were never visible to the author – they were always just under the snow.

While we’re on the topic, I don’t photograph captive animals and pass them off as wild either. I don’t digitally move animals from one scene into another and call it real, and I don’t do “nature photography” like this coming out of Indonesia.

There are many wildlife photographers who do these things, but it’s not against the law, so I grit my teeth and bear it. I grit them harder every time one wins a photo contest, but I don’t run the contests either.

Now back to the Anonymous Insulter. I didn’t know it at the time, but I have since become aware that he is a well-known bird photographer, and that many of his shots are taken at his feeders near his home. That gave me the direction I needed for this writing.

The Insulter baits birds to get them super-close for his photos, yet somehow manages to be outraged when others bait birds for their own purposes.

I won’t condemn him for taking his photos because I also take photos of songbirds at my feeders. But here’s the real difference:

The hypocrisy of my feeding songbirds at home while being generally against feeding owls prevents me from shouting insults at strangers.

Tolerance and moderation are in short supply these days, and obviously bird enthusiasts and photographers aren’t immune to blanket indictments and indignation.

“Do it my way, or you’re just plain wrong!” is a sadly prevalent perspective, and it’s not helpful wherever you find it – even in a bog in northern Minnesota.

I’ve recently read several attempted explanations as to why backyard bird feeders are not the same as baiting. Usually the argument is that the birds come and go at will from the feeders. That way they are somehow “wilder” than habituated owls. But that doesn’t hold up to any kind of real scrutiny.

Of course feeding backyard birds is baiting birds. Whether they are finches or owls, you and I are using food as a positive reinforcement to alter the bird’s behavior; to get them to do what we want them to do, where and when we want them to do it. It’s a time-tested way to train animals, straight from B.F. Skinner. The Anonymous Insulter knows that too and he takes songbird photos with that knowledge.

If you want to prove to yourself that your birds are conditioned too, put your feeders out at the same time everyday, then take them in at night, and see how long it takes for the little wild birds to figure out your schedule. Hell, I know several people, including a professional naturalist, who hand feed chickadees. There’s your conditioned response.

At my own house the bluebirds gather in the branches over my head every time I bring out the bag of mealworms – it’s absolutely classic behavioral conditioning.

Actually, it’s kind of neat that they are waiting for me, but the image of the hawk owl hovering over the cars at Sax-Zim is now what comes to mind when it happens. It’s unsettling. I am a bluebird baiter.

We put up feeders to satisfy our own wishes. We want to see the birds. We want to photograph the birds. If we really only did it to help the birds, we would scatter our bird feeders all over the countryside, in out-of-the-way spots where the birds could feed unmolested. And we would make sure those feeders stayed stocked at all times. And then we would go there occasionally to get our bird photos. (There are a couple places like that at Sax-Zim, by the way.) 

But having them just outside the kitchen window is so much more fun.

One of the best arguments against feeding any wild creatures is that it causes them to become dependent on that food source. And that’s absolutely true. Once you start feeding, in winter particularly, you have to keep it up as long as the weather is cold and the birds stay. That’s an unspoken pact we enter into with the birds. And it’s as true in the black-oil sunflower seeds/chickadees equation as it is for mice and owls. But the fact is, occasionally feeders run dry.

Even if you do make the commitment to continual feeding, you and I are potentially causing harm to the birds in other ways by bringing them to our feeders.

Raise your hand if you feed birds at home and have NOT had one smash into a window and land motionless below. That happens frequently, but most songbird enthusiasts don’t like to talk about it. I hate to think how many birds have died in my yard from window strikes over the years, despite actively trying to prevent the collisions using every trick I can. It also happens at the brand-spanking-new Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center, which has windows large and small throughout the little building, all looking out upon well-stocked bird feeders. I stopped one morning and was in the building for less than five minutes when an American goldfinch crashed headlong into one of the large bird-viewing windows there.

Don’t get me wrong, the Friends of the Sax-Zim Bog group does wonderful educational work, and most of them have been exceedingly nice to me, but even their feeders have a cost.

The same Northern hawk owl pictured above with a wild vole it caught prior to the baiter’s arrival.

The corollary to that when it comes to the baiting of owls is that feeding the owls makes them less wary of humans, and it puts them in close proximity to roads. You already know that birds and automobiles don’t mix any better than birds and glass windows do.

It seems when we get involved with feeding, birds die.

And then there’s the issue of disease. The fervent anti-baiters will also tell you that domestic mice can introduce disease into the wild owls. That’s possible, but not very likely. Mice sold in pet stores are raised in controlled facilities and bred to feed to other domestic animals. Disease is the last thing anyone wants there – it’s not profitable.

The disease issue is much more prevalent at wild bird feeding stations and there are reams of information available at the click of a mouse. The long and short of it is… Anytime you congregate many animals into a small area by feeding, the chance of disease spreading disastrously through the population, and across populations, is magnified immensely.

Salmonella is the most frequent feeding station disease among birds. There are Salmonella outbreaks every year and every year thousands of songbirds die because of it. Mold kills backyard birds too. We try to keep immaculate feeders, disinfecting them regularly, but we don’t always succeed, and then we put the birds at risk.

Ever toss bread to the ducks and geese at the local park? Then you are definitely endangering the bird’s welfare by inducing them to gather in dense flocks. Botulism is a major waterfowl killer and can wipe out ducks by the hundreds in one location.

And there is tuberculosis, and conjunctivitis, and avian pox, etc., etc.

In the end, there are lot’s of reasons not to feed wild animals anywhere – unless you are willing to accept some collateral damage.

Rationalizing those reasons away is disingenuous and I won’t do it – my hypocrisy has limits.

I bait birds – I just do it with sunflower seeds, suet and mealworms, not mice.

So who am I to condemn the owl baiters?

An American robin near the author’s feeding stations and birdbath.

 

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Baiting Northern hawk owls with domestic mice at Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota.