Friday 24 January 2020

A Non-Confrontational Exchange...

Whenever someone takes the trouble to leave a comment on this blog I will normally reply to it, if only to say thank you. Once in a while I feel compelled to respond more fully, and this post is a case in point. The catalyst is once again that lovely Seaton Hole Black Redstart and my soapbox monologue outlining the case against feeding it mealworms. A reader calling themselves 'Hull's Angel' expressed an interest in having a non-confrontational exchange on the subject, and asked what I thought might be the negative effects of feeding mealworms to the Black Redstart. In principle I am usually up for a discussion, so replied that I had no real idea what negative effects this action might have on the bird, but the negative consequences for people I had already sketched out in the original post. This prompted a longer comment from Hull's Angel, which I am going to use as the foundation of this post. I hope that Hull's Angel won't mind me breaking the comment down and responding piecemeal.

Hull's Angel begins...

  • Interesting. Think a good case could be made that feeding an insectivorous bird mealworms in a UK winter could be beneficial. Are you opposed to all feeding of birds garden bird tables, feeding stations on RSPB and other reserves, feeding swans at Welney etc etc?

No, I am not opposed to any of those things. Quite the opposite. But my soapbox issue is nothing whatsoever to do with the pros and cons of any of the scenarios mentioned in this question.

As an aside, when it comes to 'feeding an insectivorous bird mealworms in a UK winter' the RSPB has the following advice...

TIP: If buying dried mealworms rather than live mealworms, soak in warm water for 20-60 minutes before putting out to provide valuable moisture content. This makes them more attractive to birds plus easier to digest - especially for younger birds.

In the case of the Seaton Hole Black Redstart I don't know if this advice was being followed, but I somehow doubt it.

But here's the point: the Seaton Hole Black Redstart is not someone's garden bird, nor is it visiting an established feeding station. It is not being fed for its welfare. It is being baited. It is being baited by photographers.

Which leads nicely to this...

  • Also, I would think the effects on fellow photographers would be positive, they would get better pictures, and fellow birders would get better looks?

Well, I am a birder with a camera rather than a 'fellow photographer', so I cannot really comment from that perspective. However, if any actual photographers wish to offer a thought on whether the scenario would have a positive effect on them I would be delighted. Commenting as a 'fellow birder' though, is something I can do. I detest the whole scenario. 'Better looks' (or 'better pictures' on my bridge camera) are no justification for it, do not help me feel any better about it, and of course are utterly selfish motives anyway. Well, that's my opinion...

  • Aesthetically speaking, I'd be more concerned by the presence of a load of unattractive birders than a few mealworms :-) and more concerned as to what is good or bad for the bird.

Re 'what is good or bad for the bird' I would say this... 

During my years birding this area, Seaton Hole has always been a reliable spot for wintering Black Redstarts. The place evidently has what it takes to attract them, and I would guess that principally includes food and shelter. Knowing this, what would I say is good for the bird?
  • Keep your distance
  • Employ a little fieldcraft
  • Allow the bird to behave naturally 

And bad for the bird? Pretty obvious really. The polar opposite of any of the above.

  • Feeding mealworms to birds is common at "blinds" in Asia and for antpittas in South America, to entice shy forest birds into the open for both birders and photographers.

Fine. Doesn't surprise me. 

  • I'm trying to get at exactly what it is that generates such strong feelings?

For me, such behaviour betrays a selfish disregard for the sensibilities of others. The attitude seems to be 'I am perfectly within my rights, I am not breaking any law, so it is therefore okay to do exactly as I please, and anyone who has a problem with that can go whistle...'

In everyday life one encounters such folk on a regular basis, so it's no surprise that some of them will be into birding and/or bird photography. And when I come across it in my hobby, that profoundly selfish attitude generates strong feelings. Hopefully that answers your question.

  • The issues between birders and photographers seems much stronger in the UK than in the US where I live, although some behavior such as baiting winter owls with live mice cast by fishing line here is beyond the pale.

I think it's true that the interests of birders and photographers often clash, which frequently leads to photographers getting bad press from birders. But these days the classifications 'birder' and 'photographer' are probably too simplistic to be of much help in any discussion of the issues involved. It's a topic that interests me, and hopefully I'll get to it in a future post...

The 'live mice cast by fishing line' doesn't need any comment from me. 

  • In my 55 years as a birder and 40+ years as a bird photographer I have seen at least as much what I considered bad behavior by birders as by bird photographers, but appreciate we all have individual opinions as to what constitutes bad behaviour.

These days I don't often go anywhere that birders or photographers might be present in numbers, but during my 17 years in this part of the country the vast majority of 'bad behaviour' I've witnessed has involved people with cameras. As you say though, that's based on my opinion of what constitutes 'bad behaviour'.

So, I hope I've covered everything that you touched upon, Hull's Angel, and that my viewpoint is clear and unambiguous. Actually it has been nice to express some of my thoughts in more depth, and though I would prefer to thank a person with a real name, I am nonetheless grateful for the opportunity.


  1. I support Hulls Angels views. What your fuller answer tells me is that you are full of it. Suggest you re-read. You are way off mark

  2. Interesting again, I’d call your response slightly confrontational, so be it.
    You say in your blog that you hope that you addressed everything I touched on, unfortunately you seem to have avoided almost everything I was trying to examine.
    You still don’t address whether feeding the bird mealworms could be beneficial for the bird, i.e. it is actually something positive. I’ve suggested reasons I think this might be so, you don’t suggest any possible negatives. Instead, you make clear that you find it highly distasteful personally, and frame it in terms of a lack of consideration for other people by the photographers. You use the pejorative term “baited”, when fed could just as easily be used. Seems likely that both the bird and the photographers benefit from what took place, and as such I don’t see the problem. Were the photographers being selfish in spoiling the experience for you, possibly. Would you have been selfish in asking them not to feed the bird, possibly. The “selfish disregard for the sensibilities of others” is secondary and works both ways, my point is whether any harm is being to the bird, not your feelings?
    You list what you consider is good or bad for the bird in response to my query.
    Good for the bird,
    “keep your distance”. Agreed, it would actually be better for the bird if no one went to see it, birders or photographers. In fact, it would be better for birds if we didn’t use our cars, contributing to pollution and climate change just to travel miles to see unusual birds. We are all being selfish and hypocritical as we do this under the banner of conservationists.
    “DO NOT FEED THE BIRD” The bird might not agree!
    Bad for the bird,
    “not keeping your distance” – the bird has the ability to fly as far as it wants if it assesses people are dangerously close. It apparently hasn’t done so.
    In summary, I’d suggest that you examine your position regarding bird photographers. Call them out when they do something detrimental to the birds they are photographing. Live and let live when they are going about their chosen hobby, no matter how distasteful it is to you.
    You say that you would have liked to reply to a person with a real name. Hulls Angel is my only online name, I keep my real name separate for professional reasons. I could have posted as anonymous, but am happy to consistently stand behind my views. Who knows if Gavin Haig is real, the web is a strange place? �� I would have preferred to contact you by email and discuss this through an email exchange, but couldn’t find that contact. For your benefit, I am not the Unknown person, who posted his comments in a way that don’t match the manner in which I’m conducting this discussion.

    1. Hi Hull's Angel. In the sense that the bird gets food without expending much energy, then yes, feeding it mealworms could be beneficial. And if it was picking them off someone's garden bird table I'd have no problem with that. And if that someone set up a photographic hide/blind 6ft away from their bird table, ditto.
      But for reasons that perhaps I'm not able to rationalise as effectively as I would wish, I find this particular situation unpalatable. Harm to the bird? As I've said, I honestly don't know...
      Thanks for your measured response to this post. I didn't intend to be even slightly confrontational, and if we were having this conversation over a beer maybe I'd come across somewhat differently. But I suspect we would still have to agree to differ on a lot of this.
      Yep, Gavin Haig is my real name. Most of it anyway.

  3. The divide seems quite stark doesn't it? A large part of the reason I rarely photograph popular birds in this country any more is precisely because of this divide. I just don't wish to be involved in the almost inevitable arguments and slanging matches - Mr unknown (top) is a case in point. At least your original correspondent can have a discussion, that's unusual when it comes to the birder/photographer 'debate'.

    1. Cheers Jono, hardly my finest hour!

      It's funny, as a car driver who also cycles on the road I've learned that 'live and let live' is an illusory ideal. For two such different activities to exist in the same space without rancour, there has to be compromise both ways. With the cycling/driving thing I totally get it, and try to practice it also. Why does the birder/photographer thing feel so much more intractable?*

      *Rhetorical question ;)

    2. Also, today is the 25th January and you've only done 19 posts. Pathetic.

  4. In my relatively sparse collection of books I have a copy of Eric Hosking, 'An Eye for a Bird'. In it I could see a basic difference between the mind of a birder and a bird photographer.
    The birder simply enjoys the bird for what it is, like what is on offer in a shop window. They are happy with that. The bird photographer might be a birder too but having viewed what is on offer, wants more. They want to possess what is on offer.
    Hosking made mention of the odd rarity, but it was clear that seeing the bird was secondary to getting a picture of it. At least he made some attempt at caring for his quarry as in the incident when photographing Hobbies on the nest when 100 feet up in a metal scaffolding supported pylon hide - in a thunderstorm. (The adult was sheltering the new born chicks from the rain and Hosking wouldn't take the risk of leaving the hide in case the adult deserted the nest, so he stayed put)
    Anyway, bottom line is that many bird photographers don't give a damn about the bird. The bird is just a means to an end.
    That baiting up is but a symptom. They only used mealworms because they heard that might be the most effective bait.
    They would have used any bait if it led to getting a picture - even if the bird ended up dead.

    1. A 100ft pylon hide is dedication to the cause.