In the past couple of weeks, a northern saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus) appeared in the woodland of our local river valley. In the days that followed, both “birders” and “wildlife photographers” alike, from far and wide, excitedly began scouring the woods hoping to spot this diminutive little owl, and hopefully, get a few quick shots of it. I was one of the hopeful. Although I had seen a saw-whet owl a couple of years ago in British Columbia, its location in a conifer tree unfortunately did not lead to the best photo opportunities. So I welcomed the chance for a "do-over."
When alarmed, these owls make a “skiew” call that apparently sounds like the whetting of a saw blade. Although I have to admit I do not whet too many saw blades, I understand this is how they first got their name. At only 20 cm tall, it is one of the smallest owls that inhabit parkland, foothill and Rocky Mountain natural regions within our Province. Lethbridge is probably situated on the very eastern edge of this range.
Like many owls, the saw-whet is strictly nocturnal and hunts only at night, therefore if spotted during daylight hours, there is a very good chance it will be sleeping. This is exactly as I found it, along with a small group of photographers who had gathered below the tree in which it was roosting.
Responsible Wildlife PhotographySleepy saw-whet owl
While most “birders” I have met appear to be knowledgeable about, and respectful of the birds they encounter, unfortunately I can’t always say the same for “wildlife photographers.” While there are many that do practice ethical and responsible wildlife photography, there are also unfortunately those for whom an image posted on social media, appears to be far more important than the welfare of their wildlife subject.
As I stood with this small group of photographers, they told me of others who had considered using a mirror to reflect available light into the tree cavity to artificially illuminate the owl as it slept. There were also stories of people using cell phones to play recorded calls or tapping on the tree to presumably rouse the owl from its sleep so they could photograph it with open eyes.
I also heard from a “birder” who was one of the first people to spot this owl, as well as from a staff member at our local Nature Centre, who both told me that when the owl was first spotted it was roosting in dense vegetation just above eye-level. While this vegetation provided protection as it slept, it created a similar problem to that which I had encountered earlier in British Columbia. It was just too difficult to photograph clearly. However instead of accepting this and perhaps waiting for a better opportunity, someone decided to remove all the cross twigs to presumably provide a clearer shot of the owl. Unfortunately what they did not understand is that once the cross twigs had been removed, there was no further protection, and therefore little chance the owl would ever return to that spot again.
Responsible wildlife photography is about so much more than simply generating social media “likes” and “shares.” In my opinion, what separates a good “wildlife photographer” from a hobbyist, is that they learn as much as possible about any species they are fortunate to encounter. They learn about its habits, where it can be found and in what season. They understand the impact that their presence may have on its feeding or sleeping habits, and when they encounter sensitive species, they talk in hushed voices and do not make any sudden movements. They also understand that winter is often a critical time for wildlife, and that in some cases, winter may very well determine if they live to see another Spring. But most importantly, they also understand that, without exception, the welfare of wildlife is always far more important than any image, no matter how good that image may be.