Editorial: Changes coming to an Anne Arundel County Park because of overzealous photographers and the death of a baby owl. Can we learn from this tragedy?

They came to capture photos and videos of the three, great horned owlets that were born in a nest at Thomas Point Park in Annapolis – some gathered in groups, some went off trail to get better views, some crinkled plastic water bottles to get the owls to look towards lenses and many shared their images on social media.

As more posts on social media spread, more people showed up to see the owlets – to photograph them. Some traveled from other counties, some didn’t.

I live about 10 minutes from Thomas Point Park and I enjoy walking my dog there. It’s one of three parks I go to a lot.

When I arrived at the park on April 21, the parking lot was more crowded than usual. Usual, for that time of the year, was just me or perhaps a few neighbors of the park who walk in, not drive.

I called Alison Woodfield, the park superintendent and relayed my concern for the owls.

Woodfield and I both had reason for concern for the owls. Two years earlier, an owlet from the same nest was shot at Thomas Point- it was rehabilitated at Owl Moon Raptor Center, the case was successfully prosecuted and both Woodfield and I were on site when that owl was released back to the wild not far from the park.

October 2021. Maryland Natural Resources Police Officer First Class Brian Hunt watches a great horned owl being released back to the wild near Thomas Point Park. The owl had been shot at the park in May 2020.

It was now two years later and there were three owlets in the nest staring out at photographers all day long. Woodfield said she’d she send a ranger – there’s no permeant ranger facility at Thomas Point Park, so they come from nearby Quiet Waters Park.

My dog and I got out of the car and began walking on the trail. As usual, I had my camera with me.

I saw three photographers, all with long lenses – all three were off trail, in a small, temporary wetland area and two had lenses aimed at the owl nest.

April 21, 2021. Three photographers off trail at Thomas Point Park – two had long lenses pointed at the owl nest. Faces deliberately obscured.

While there aren’t always wetland areas at Thomas Point Park, there is when it rains a lot and there was that day.

Because I knew two of the photographers, I mentioned that a park ranger was on the way and they may want to get on the trail – I was also concerned (for them) if they didn’t have parking permits.

I was just giving them a heads up and I thought it would be received as friendly.

One of the photographers said they had a permit, but also said they didn’t want to have an issue with the ranger – he went back to the vehicle, another followed, the third stayed but moved onto the trail.

Later in the day, I received a direct message on Facebook from one of the photographers.

Among much more, he wrote, “There is NO rule that you have to stay on any path in that park. You really pissed off two photographers today.”

He also went on a tirade about how there are no wetlands at the park, though he also stated he was standing in mud. Hmmm.

That I “pissed off” anyone, much less this man who had zero concerns for anything other than his photos, was of zero concern to me.

To be clear, I’m a photographer. I like shooting photos of birds, including owls. I have shot photos at Thomas Point Park and I did on that day – I stayed on the trail, I shot three photos and I left.

Four days later, Anne Arundel County Recreation and Parks personnel were so concerned for the welfare of the owls and the park itself, a social media post was put up that addressed the topic, including the part about “stay on trails and durable surfaces.”

Two days later, on April 27, one of the three owlets was discovered dead in the park. On examination by Woodfield, she noted the keel of the dead owlet indicated it hadn’t gotten enough food – in other words, it likely died of starvation.

“Adult owls need to have access to their nest 24 hours a day to care for their owlets,” said Woodfield. “High traffic by park visitors near a nesting site could interfere with feeding,”

If humans contributed to the tragedy in any way, Woodfield doesn’t want it to happen again..

“I’m always heartbroken when we lose a bird,” said Woodfield. “I think in the future, park staff will have to do a better job of educating visitors about respecting active nesting areas.”

In addition to being the superintendent of both Quiet Waters and Thomas Point parks, Woodfield is a bird of prey rescuer – she said she discussed the owl and the exam with Kathleen Woods, president of the Maryland Wildlife Rehabilitators Association and executive director of Phoenix Wildlife Center.

Do all owlets in a nest survive? Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.

“Sometimes when there are two in a nest, the older one will outcompete the younger one for food,” explained Woods. “It’s very common for the youngest one to not survive, especially if there are three.”

“It could be a combination,” said Woods, adding that photographers gathering near the nest will impede the adult owls from hunting and feeding their young.

The exact cause for the owlet’s death will never be known as no necropsy was done, but overzealous photographers certainly didn’t help in any way given that this owl was underfed.

“Our hope is humans didn’t make it happen,” said Woodfield.

As a wildlife photographer, I’ve made mistakes and I’ve tried to change any behaviors that might cause issues for the birds. I’ve learned the signs of stressed birds.

In my own backyard, where I’ve had nesting barred owls for years, I’ve learned when I can go in my backyard and when I can’t – I’ve had to make that decision for my dogs too. Quite often and very fortunately, I can shoot photos of the owls and their owlets from inside my house.

People can make mistakes, people can learn, people can change. I will continue to make mistakes in life and I hope other people will help educate me when I do.

In a 2020 article about photographers putting unnecessary stress on owls in Canada, ” Lia McKinnon, a biologist with the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of British Columbia was interviewed.

The article states, “The presence of humans stresses the birds out, particularly if they’re near their nest, and, as McKinnon points out, stress isn’t healthy for anyone, or any bird.”

The article continues, “She (McKinnon) said the predatory appearance of photographers as they slowly approach a nest can particularly stress the birds because they are acting like a potential threat.”

About the birds at Thomas Point Park, I keep thinking about one video posted to social media of the three owlets – this was seven days before the owlet was found dead. In the video, you can see two of the owlets unbothered, the third was clearly staring forward, not at the camera, but it was showing agitation with something or someone near the photographer – its head was bobbing back and forth.

The video has over 700 likes and more than 60 shares. It was posted by a friend and one who often often advocates for wildlife – he didn’t post the location of the owls, but it was already well-known.

Prior to learning as much as I have about owls and owl behavior, I might’ve done the same. I’ve definitely posted photos of owls that I was too close to.

What can be done to help the birds?

Photographers like to get attention for their work but at what cost? I’m guilty of it too – we all can and should do better.

There’s no shortage of owl photography protocol / ethics on the internet. Here are a few:

International Owl Center’s “Respectful owl photography and observation”

Chicago Audubon’s “Respecting Owls: Ethical Owl Viewing and Photography”

Audubon’s Guide to Ethical Bird Photography and Videography

In public parks, I’m in favor of restricting humans in areas where birds of prey nest and where photographers continually gather to photograph them. The health and survival of the birds, as well as the environment, is and will always be more important than photos, videos and photographers egos.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge closes off a large area for eagle nesting season, although there are other bird nesting areas at the refuge they can’t close off and where there have been ongoing issues with some overzealous photographers.

Photo courtesy of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

As for the social media issue, where photos and videos of rare, nesting or unusual birds, will create more attention, administrators of some birding-related Facebook groups have created rules that prohibit the posting of images of some birds, such as owls. Some prohibit posting location of the owl. Some require lens and camera information for images that are posted.

Park personnel are definitely part of the solution.

“As a park ranger it is my duty to teach – to reach out to individuals who come to parks for the ability to identify and learn about the natural things around them,” stated Dave Burman, an Anne Arundel County park ranger assigned to Quiet Waters and Thomas Point parks. ” In this process it is my duty to also give the patrons the tools to be good stewards of the area. Sometimes that comes with making tough choices to close off areas to protect wildlife.”

According to Woodfield, the entire area around nest site at Thomas Point Park will be closed off during the coming nesting season in a similar way that is done at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

Woodfield is planning on posting educational signs to explain why closing the nesting area to visitors is being done in hopes it will promote an understanding of the importance of protecting nature.

Donna L. Cole is an award-winning multimedia and investigative reporter. She’s also a bird or prey rescuer.

Further reading on this topic –

4 Replies to “Editorial: Changes coming to an Anne Arundel County Park because of overzealous photographers and the death of a baby owl. Can we learn from this tragedy?”

  1. Gosh…the photo of Blackwater is misleading. The Marsh Trail is blocked off during eagle nesting time…but we only lose access to a few acres out of over 30000 acres in the refuge. Most nesting areas are open and the refuge welcomed birders, photographers and nature lovers to view the nests.

    1. Frank – the photo is courtesy of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. In other words, it was a photo shot by staff and used on Blackwater NWR social media too. While it is a large area, you’re absolutely correct the refuge is huge with plenty to see and do. Some nesting areas at Blackwater can be seen by humans and at a safe distance for the birds. Others are closer. Fortunately, there is no shortage of photo opportunities for visitors in all seasons.

  2. Ms. Cole,
    Thank you for your response. Also…I just read through a lot of things on this site. Thank you for all the work you do in rescuing and helping to rehab raptors. I do have a question about your post regarding the owlets. I have been involved with helping raptors survive myself. I have seen many owlets die especially when three have been hatched. The mother tends to not feed one as much as the other two. The other thing I must take note of is that you were walking a dog in a raptor nesting area. Dogs are looked on by raptors as potential predators. I think the park should disallow pets of any kind when there are raptors nesting. I do not mean to cast you in a bad light…however, you should lead by example.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read some of my posts. Please note this very post mentions that I was walking my dog and I stayed on path as I always do. As I also mentioned, I shot three photos, I didn’t linger and I moved on. The post also mentions that not all owlets always survive in a nest – if you read it again, do note the quote from the licensed wildlife rehabilitator who explains that very fact.

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