Birders Behaving Badly

on January 26, 2012

Singapore has no small number of rare bird species, but few are quite as rare and as beautiful as the Mangrove Pitta (Pitta megarhyncha), a colourful little bird that is found specifically in mangrove habitats in Singapore.

Mangrove Pitta (Pitta megarhyncha)

Spotting such a scarce and exquisite bird therefore tends to generate an incredible amount of excitement among bird enthusiasts and photographers alike, all of whom want the chance to observe and photograph the bird in its natural habitat. This level of excitement, however, leads some people to do things that may end up being detrimental to the livelihood of the bird in general and although I’ve heard many stories of such incidents happening, today was my first time witnessing this appalling behaviour in the flesh.

Mangrove Pitta (Pitta megarhyncha)

In this instance, the mangrove pitta was reportedly spotted somewhere in the East and the appearance of the pitta near the boardwalk sparked off a flurry of activity among the 10-odd bird photographers present with their unfeasibly large and expensive camera setups. With everyone focused on capturing a clear shot of the bird, things were remarkably calm and civilised, at least until one birder began making squeaking noises (known as ‘pishing’) to try to draw the bird closer to where the cameras were. As I found out to my surprise during my LSM2251 Ecology module, although pishing does have the effect of luring birds closer, doing so disrupts the natural behaviour of the birds and is therefore not recommended as a birding practice as it places unnecessary stress on the bird. In this case, with the pitta already so close to the cacophony of clicking cameras, pishing the pitta was entirely unnecessary and unwarranted since the bird was largely in plain view, albeit not directly facing the cameras, and that alone should be no reason for having to resort to disrupting the natural behaviour of the bird. In spite of this, however, not one of the birders present said a word and most of us were too engrossed with photographing the bird.

Mangrove Pitta (Pitta megarhyncha)

The last straw came, however, when the pitta finally flew off deeper into the mangrove, whereupon several of the birders present took the opportunity to leap off the boardwalk and onto the sandy mangrove substrate to chase after the bird. In addition to that, our erstwhile pisher whipped out his iPhone and began playing back a recording of the mangrove pitta’s call in an attempt to draw the bird out of the dense mangrove forest and out into the open. Like pishing, call playback also has the effect of luring out birds, though in this case it’s mainly due to the fact that birds tend to be territorial and playing back the call of another individual of the same species fools the bird into thinking another individual is present and is contesting its territory. This, too, has the unwanted side effect of placing the bird under unnecessary amounts of stress and duress since defending one’s territory is quite a taxing task for the bird and may lead to birds abandoning their territories if they lose the challenge. Indeed, if the bird happens to be nesting, playing back the call of another individual may sometimes lead to birds abandoning their nests and aborting their breeding cycles if the bird thinks the playback is a more dominant or aggressive individual. This is particularly problematic for slow-breeding species like the pittas and using call playbacks to draw pittas out may have the opposite effect of chasing the bird away from the site. All this, of course, on top of the fact that members of the public are generally not supposed to stray off the boardwalk in the mangrove areas for fear that their trampling may accidentally damage the mangrove trees or negatively affect the mangrove fauna.

Having seen and heard enough, I decided to approach the man behind these highly disruptive activities and his birding companion (see below) and very politely told them that they ought not to be using recorded calls and pishing to draw out the birds, whereupon the man simply paid no attention to what I said and his companion claimed to not have pished or played back any calls at all, an excuse which I found to be completely preposterous since he was clearly a party complicit in his friend’s needlessly disruptive actions.

Badly Behaved Birder (centre) and his companion (left)

Badly Behaved Birder

Badly Behaved Birder using his iPhone to playback pitta calls

Badly Behaving Birder's Companion

Badly Behaving Birder's Companion

Another couple who came along much later and tried the same tactic of using call playbacks to lure the pitta out were much more receptive and when informed of the disruptive effects of call playbacks, claimed that they were unaware of the potential detrimental effects of playbacks and that they were simply following what other birders were doing (I have a very low res video of them which I’ll upload later).

At the end of the day, what this whole episode demonstrates is the dangers of over-enthusiasm and the problem of the o’erweening sense of self-entitlement that some birders and bird photographers possess toward their subjects. Having sunk tens of thousands of dollars into amassing ever longer lenses most certainly does not give one the right to disturb nature for one’s own selfish purposes and, as birders, we all have a responsibility toward treating our subjects with respect to ensure that their lives and the environments they live in are not unnecessarily impacted by human disturbance. More than that, however, it would appear that the root causes of this behaviour is sometimes selfish but also sometimes unintentional and may stem from imitating the practices of others. As such, it is just as important for us as birders to inform and educate, and maybe even sometimes admonish, those who would exhibit such errant behaviour in the hopes that misconceptions and unintentional disturbances can be minimised. All this, so that we may preserve and protect the birds we profess to love so very much.


15 responses to “Birders Behaving Badly

  1. TrueNatureLover says:

    To be fair, anyone’s presence there will affect the bird too. Especially if you are there to photograph the bird, which will usually take up substantial amount of time compared to passerbys. Best for welfare of wildlife is to give up photography, unless your photos are contributing to the welfare of the animals/birds. Just my 2 cents worth.

  2. budak says:

    TrueNatureLover’s just presenting a false dilemma. Photography is possible without imposing any more stress to an animal than disinterested passer-bys. And it’s a public park, so people will be walking/gathering on the boardwalk whether there are photographers or not. The issue in question is how these photographers can justify their deliberate acts to stomp where they shouldn’t be and use sounds to distract/stress the bird from its routine behaviour.

  3. TrueNatureLover says:

    budak is right. If done correctly, it can be stressless. But “Best” is to leave them alone. Taking photos of rare animals will only attract unwanted attention. I bet you all will agree on this. Unless a person’s presence there will make the bird more comfortable than not being there. Not sure if this is possible?

  4. budak says:

    true that. Few of these photographers seem to ask themselves: will my act of stalking/waiting for a rare species, especially a nesting animal, lead to others, possibly poachers or plain vandals, noticing the creature?

  5. Ethan Lim says:

    Chanced upon your article on clubsnap and have decided to check out this article on your blog. As a photographer myself, I can’t help resist the temptation to stay, observe and photograph wildlife in its nature environment, especially those which are rarely seen.

    But as much as possible, I do make sure I do not stand tall and close to the wildlife for I may seem too intimidating for the wildlife. Next, I try not to stay for too long as that will prevent the wildlife to freely roam around its territorial ground to feed or move around. Generally, I avoid crowding with photographers and even if i do, I make it a point to observe and shoot in 10-15mins limit. If I can’t get any good pictures, I’ll just count myself lucky enough to be a witness through observation.

    I’ve seen how unethical Singaporean photographers can be when it comes to wildlife or birding shoot of a rare subject and till this day I feel that it’s very hard to educate them.

    Most of them are very senior (both in age and probably experience in photography) to accept feedbacks from younger chaps like me and also, some of them actually hope that their actions will deny the photography opportunity of other photographers, thus no competition with their “prized” shots.

    This kinda competition and obsession is highly undesirable and I do hope to see improvement.

    Maybe we can work out some campaign to educate the masses? Drop me an email if you think we can combine our efforts to do something to improve the situation ya?

    Ethan Lim

    • As a birding guide of some thirty years (in the Top End of Australia) I’m still appalled at such behaviour. And it can have wide ramifications. For several years Australia’s rarest raptor, Red Goshawk, has nested in the small town of Mataranka. Some birders trespass, angering property owners. Photographers have harassed the birds, one even climbing their nest tree. The result is that birders are fast becoming unwelcome. In the end the birds may move elsewhere. I have requested the property owners to photograph the miscreants and mentioned this in a letter to Government ministers. For not only are the birds at risk but so is birdwatching tourism in Mataranka. I have also included your URL. Congratulations, and keep up the good work.

  6. budak says:

    Hi Ethan,

    unfortunately, in Singapore, there’s little one can do beyond moral suasion. Various people, including admins from Clubsnap (which does an admirable though little-appreciated job in policing its posts) got together a while ago to draft a code of conduct for nature watchers as well as photographers, see http://wildshores.blogspot.com/2011/06/nature-society-singapore-code-of-ethics.html . Some people and photographers, however, don’t see the need for rules at all, and yet claim to be nature lovers.

  7. TrueNatureLover says:

    Hi Ethan,

    Budak is right. The list of guidelines is pretty well written and comprehensive. For example:

    28. “Be discreet. Only inform others of the presence of a rare animal or
    bird, or of its last known location, if you are confident that they will
    not do anything to compromise the creature’s safety and welfare.
    Do not post or circulate photos of rare or unusual animals or birds if
    the photographs reveal where they were taken.”

    So, I was thinking maybe owner of this blog can remove any traces that can reveal or lead to the location of the critically endangered bird. Just my 2 cents worth.

  8. g33k5p34k says:

    That’s a good suggestion. Will get right on that straightaway

  9. budak says:

    I think horse already fled the barn long before this blog mentioned it la. In this case, it’s not as if anyone can prevent people from going to the park. And attempts at appealing to individual subjectivity are in effect a dubious way of saying the photographers have every right to decide for themselves how much they want to pish or invade the bird’s space and nobody can tell them off. So who’s to be held responsible should the bird abandon the park (which might be a good thing) or perish due to stress or poaching? Certainly, not these photographers who claim to have their subject’s interest at heart.

  10. MangroveWhistler says:

    “So who’s to be held responsible should the bird abandon the park (which might be a good thing) or perish due to stress or poaching? Certainly, not these photographers who claim to have their subject’s interest at heart.”

    Answer: You & the blogger. After publishing the thread at Clubsnap & this blog, today, a lot more new people (photographers/birders/public) arrived at the site. No surprised. Unless you tell me that crowd doesn’t stress the bird. Mark my words – you two definitely played a major role in the whole picture. You better pray that there are no poachers among them! Thank you very much guys!

    • g33k5p34k says:

      Sometimes I’m amazed by how people rationalise their own wrongdoing by accusing others of ostensible wrongdoing as though it’s possible to balance them out. Your behaviour and comments, MangroveWhistler, smack of the sort of primary school vindictiveness that ought to have died out as people reach the hitherto arbitrary stage known as adulthood. Clearly your immature and infantile squealings of injustice is merely an attempt at deflecting the blame from one such as yourself – thereby implying that you yourself are culpable of such despicable behaviour as pishing or playbacks – to someone else for something completely unrelated. Why, even the BESG has reported the location of the pitta. Does that make them as culpable as you of harming the bird? That the bird’s locale is far from secret is nothing new, and all I’m doing is merely bringing to light something that has been known for ages already. Instead, what your argument reveals is just how childish, petulant and insolent you are. You disgust me, you pathetic, sanctimonious Cunt.

      I pray you learn some manners before you come here and start hurling accusations at those who would endeavour to bring to light the bad behaviour of others, unless of course you are merely reacting with a guilty conscience to something you know should not be done but yet you yourself have perpetrated in a similar manner. Now do us all a favour and piss on the fuck off. Thank you very much.

  11. budak says:

    Aiyah, these photographers apparently can’t hear anything apart from the clicks of their shutters la. Would they rush to condemn some random blogger who posts about the bird and its location simply because the blogger wants to share the existence of a rare bird he or she found interesting? I hardly think so.

    And though it’s tiring to repeat myself, I think we are pretty clear that within the confines of the park, there’s nothing anyone can do to tell people that they can’t crowd on the boardwalk, whether to see/photograph birds or do other activities. Nobody’s saying anything against watching, even photographing, the bird going about its activities from the boardwalk, and it seems clear that the bird is tolerant enough to go about its business despite the heavy human presence and traffic. What’s being questioned is the persistent and incessant use of sounds to distract the bird from its routine. Nobody’s saying the practice should be stopped altogether either; it’s too bad that the photographers just refuse to acknowledge that there should be limits to it. Now who’s being irresponsible?

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