When I’m birding I’m often amazed at the paranoia from land owners, law enforcement, and even the casual passerby. There have been a number of times where the local sheriff or a policeman has stopped to ask what I’m doing. The most memorable to me was several months after 9/11. I was driving to work and I saw a very pale hawk in a tree. I pulled over to the side of the road, got my camera out, and started taking pictures, right at the edge of my hometown. After just a minute a policeman pulled in behind me with his lights on. He approached the open window, where I still had my camera trained on the bird, and asked what I was taking pictures of. I told him, but he certainly didn’t seem convinced. He took my license and went back to his car, doing a background check to make sure I wasn’t a shady terrorist, plotting against the oh-so-high value targets in Brandon, South Dakota. After at least 10 minutes, he returned, saying I “checked out” (whatever that meant), and then explained that after 9/11, they were cautious about people loitering in strange locations, taking photos,etc.
While annoying, the most paranoid group that birders come across are land owners. I always respect private property, never venturing on private land without permission. But that hasn’t stopped innumerable encounters with paranoid and sometimes angry land owners, wondering what I’m doing stopped by the side of a road, taking pictures of their land. It’s to the point that even if I see a close, photogenic bird, I often won’t stop if I’m right near a farmstead or other home. There have been so many times where the home/land owner would see a car stopped, and would come screaming down their driveway to check out what nefarious activities I was up to.
Just recently, I was taking photos on a very cold day near Pierre, in an area with few people, and on this day, few birds. However, I saw a flock of geese circling in the distance, and when I got closer to check it out, noticed a pond off the road with a bubbler that was keeping the water open. The open water had attracted many geese and ducks. I stopped, walked up to the fence line, and started taking photos. As I did so, much to my surprise, a juvenile Gyrfalcon came whizzing in, sending the flocks of geese and ducks into flight. The Gyrfalcon did a couple of passes, not making any serious attacks, and then disappeared over a ridge. As I was watching, I heard a pickup come roaring up the road. Knowing what was coming, I stood there and kept taking photos of the still circling waterfowl, while the pickup driver got out and walked towards me.
“What the hell are you doing, scaring away my ducks!“, screamed the older man in a cowboy hat. I calmly explained how I ended up here, and about the Gyrfalcon that flew past and scared the birds. This guy operated a hunting lodge, and had the bubbler installed in the lake to attract more waterfowl for his clients. Thus the reference to “his” ducks. That’s the attitude you run into with so many landowners. Simply being on the border of their land, with camera or binoculars in tow, is seen as a violation of their privacy. As this guy finally calmed down and left, it dawned on me that I probably shouldn’t have told him about the Gyrfalcon. There have been a number of publicized incidents where operators of hunting lodges in South Dakota have been found illegally killing raptors and other predators that DARE to feed on “their” gamebirds.
I wasn’t on this man’s land. As always, it pissed me off to have this paranoid guy yell at me, but…I’ve learned to let idiots like this vent while I calmly explain what I’m doing. I admit I’ve gotten a certain amount of satisfaction over the years byof using a very calm demeanor in the face of raving lunatics, as staying calm and cool just seems to make them even more suspicious and mad!!
Today I came across a brief online article titled “9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher“. It’s written as a semi-humorous piece, but with many biting truths sprinkled throughout. South Dakota isn’t a place that’s could be characterized as a bastion of progressive attitudes on social issues. I know how close-minded, paranoid, and yes, bigoted, many folks can be in a very “red” state, particularly in rural areas where I typically bird. As a middle-aged white man, driving the requisite pickup truck for the state, I’ve gotten more than my fair share of paranoia and mistrust. I imagine any level of paranoia directed towards me would be greatly magnified if I happened to have a different color of skin.