The one thing that marred the visit to Merced was that I ran into a couple of doofuses. Here’s a quick guide on how not to be a doofus with a camera (or binoculars).
The “Area Beyond This Sign Closed” sign evidently didn’t apply to this couple, who entered the refuge shortly after I did and headed back into tour area ahead of me. The car is significantly beyond the “do not enter” sign, and they are significantly beyond that. What you don’t see or hear here were the three or four coyotes that were actively making a lot of noise somewhere off to the left of this scene but between me and them. Sorry, but “it’s okay if the ranger doesn’t catch us” doesn’t sit well with me. I guess it’s also okay if the coyotes decide not to catch them, too.
These two seemed to be fairly knowledgable birders and at first glance their gear seemed to be of the “okay, they’re serious about this” quality. Not “take out a mortgage” glass, but “we’ve upgraded once or twice” glass. One would hope that serious birders would know to stick to the rules and not do things that impact the birds. Unfortunately, for some birders, “getting the bird” is most important, even to the detriment of the bird.
In fact, this is a minor transgression. They’re on a maintenance road. It’s just annoying to me when I see someone who’s first act when they arrive at a place like this is to put themselves above the rules. Rules which are there to protect them and to protect the birds they were interested in enough to come and visit. I just don’t have a lot of patience with the “it’s okay if I don’t get caught” mentality. Of course, you never know who might know the rangers and email them a picture of them, their car, and their license plate…
But the big doofus was in the afternoon. I’ve made my fourth trip through the refuge, this one to sit with the geese until the light fails or they leave. The geese are being moderately cooperative, with about 10,000 sitting in a large group with the close edge about 50 yards off the road, just past the back observation area. I’ve found a parking spot where I have good views, good light, good angles, I’m off the road, and I’m in the car shooting, watching and hanging out.
And along comes a photographer, walking up the access road, camera, tripod. Pro-caliber Nikon body, pro-caliber nikon lens. expensive tripod. He walks up, and proceeds to set up and start shooting. Right directly in front of me, directly in my line of sight.
Okay, say freaking WHAT? It’s not like my car’s invisible. I decided to defer having a cow and give him some time to get some shots in. Instead, I grabbed my long lens and started taking flight shots around him, since he only moderately impacted that. When he heard my camera going off, he looked, saw the lens, and asked me if he was in my way. And I noted that yes, at some point he was going to be impacting my shots. So he then said “well, tell me when I am” and turned around and went back to shooting. After about five minutes of that, he graciously decided that was good enough and moved to a new location off my rear fender that was out of my line of sight.
This is wrong on any number of levels. First of all, you don’t just plop yourself down in front of someone and start shooting as if they aren’t there. He compounded this — his actions and the way he said things made it clear to me that until he realized I was also a photographer that this was okay. It was only once he realized I had a camera that he worried about impacting my sight lines. It doesn’t matter if I have a camera or if I’m just there for, say, a gorgeous sunset with the geese, you don’t have the right to decide to just set up camp in front of me. I was mildly annoyed when he did it. I was majorly annoyed when I realized he thought it was okay until he realized I was another photographer, because that implies that he does this to others as well, because, evidently, his camera gives him right of priority view or something. And that he did it without acknowledging my presence until I hauled out a lens about as big as his.
I didn’t make a deal with it with him directly, because nothing good ever happens when you do, but man, this is annoying, because it’s this kind of behavior that gives all photographers a bad rep. When someone with a lens wades in and just plays this kind of game, it makes us all look bad to non photographers. So, kids, when you have a lens out, remember that your actions and how you act leaves an impression on those around you, and that impression is not just about you (and what a doofus you are), but on photographers in general. If you don’t care what people think about you (and I clearly think this man is a doofus) worry about what people think about all of us other photographers. Because it’s actions like this that get all photographer’s access restricted, when enough doofuses do things that annoy non-photographers enough to start making rules.
But it gets better. Or worse, I guess.
The other thing my friend didn’t realize was that he was scaring off the geese. He was standing out in the open moving around a lot, shifting his camera around. Every time he did, a few geese closest to him took off and flew off or flew deeper into the pack. I figured it was only a matter of time before he spooked a goose that spooked the flock and caused them all to leave.
Okay, a quick digression. Refuges allow access to restricted parts of the refuge. Many parts are out of bounds so that the birds can go places where they don’t have to deal with the stress of interacting with humans. that’s why humans shouldn’t be going into out of bounds places. At refuges like Merced, access is via a gravel road set up as an auto tour. One of the rules they encourage you to follow is to stay in the car, and use it as a blind. There’s a reason for that: the shape of a human scares the wildlife, and they move away from you, or they leave. If you’re carrying a big camera with a long lens, it looks an awful lot to geese like that other long, pointy thing that got pointed at uncle bob before he fell out of the sky and was never seen again. When you’re that close, the geese are going to notice you and react to you, especially if you’re moving around a lot.
What ultimately happened, though, was that another photographer arrived, parked back up the road a bit, and walked out from behind the screening trees to where the rest of us were (three or four cars, the photographer wandering around. fairly big crowd, actually). He was wearing a red sweatshirt, and got two steps out from behind the screening brush. The flock jumped, and suddenly we had 10-12,000 geese in the air in total chaos. Within a minute, they’d organized and flown off, and we were all sitting there staring at an empty pond.
That is why the rangers tell you to stay in the car, and use it as a blind. Because these folks didn’t, the rest of us lost access to the birds, too. Show over. So much for trying to get a picture of the flock in golden hour light.
If the first photographer had been more aware of how is movements were putting the geese on alert, the second photographer appearing might not have spooked them. Or maybe he would have. Or maybe nothing would have happened (but in the previous times i’ve been in this situation, there’s a fairly decent change they’ll find a reason to get spooked, whether it’s person, noise, or raptor. But one can hope). The point is, I guess, is that if people had been following the recommended rules, the chances we’d have had a longer time watching the birds would have gone up significantly. By being that close to the flock and unaware of what their actions were doing to the birds, they messed it up for all of us.
If you’re going to shoot wildlife, you should strive to understand their behaviors and know how to minimize your impact on them. Failing that, at least know what the rules of the refuge are and follow them, because they’re designed to help you do that. It’s sad and frustrating when I see people who seem oblivious to the stress they’re putting on the animals; this isn’t Disneyland, and these aren’t audio-anamatronic robots.
I’m still wondering what that morning couple’s plan was if those coyotes decided to come out and say hi. They were, after all, only 100-150 yards out from their position. Fortunately, a coyote is generally uninterested in taking on a person, but there were at least three in a group together. That’s not a situation I particularly want to be in, out in the open with a coyote between me and my car where I might be safe. What I did was watch from the “do not pass this point” sign for a couple of minutes, just to make sure there was no sign of the coyotes moving, then I wished them luck on whatever they were doing and moved on. I wonder if they even realized the coyotes were there? (they were sure noisy enough…)
And my friend the doofus? I guess I see that kind of behavior often enough now that it’s merely annoying. If he hadn’t moved, I’d have eventually escalated the situation, but I figured if I gave it time, it’d solve itself without creating a fight, and it did. Once they scared off the flock, there was no reason to stay, so I fired up the car and headed back to the front of the refuge, because if there’s no active flock involved, that’s a better place to photograph the evening fly-in (except when it’s not), where I ran into a nice couple who was there for the first time, and I spent some time trying to help them with what to expect. It was, unfortunately, a fairly weak fly-in, with the cranes mostly missing until very late when they all flew in at once, and the geese — well, they’d already flown off to the evening roost for some reason, so activity was low.
But still, even a lousy sunset on the refuge is better than most things…. And I’ll give this one a C+.