Monday, August 15, 2016

Environmental Ethics 101: Limiting Exposure

It was bound to happen. I should have been more careful about what I put into this blog and should have considered what people would do with the information I shared. I know better now. There is rule in wildlife photography that if the photographer's actions cause a change in the subjects behavior, then he or she is too close. The ethical photographer keeps a respectable distance from the subject (unless undetected  in a hide), respects private property, and conducts him or herself respectfully around all others who are seeking the quiet and enjoyment of time in nature. I try very hard to be an ethical wildlife watcher, although there have been some instances when wildlife is curious about me and initiates a close encounter - even contact! This happened recently with a close-to-home pack of coyote puppies on a neighbor's farm. I took several pictures as the pups crept closer and closer to study my walk through their ever expanding hillside home ground. I will not share the location of this den or the name of the farmer who is appreciative of his coyote family. He says they are excellent rodent catchers in his grain fields and has observed new pups for three years in a row now. He is protective of them and worries that "some yeehaw with a gun or poison will make his way back here if the wrong people find out about them."

Coyote pup peeping at me from a cornfield.

Sometimes my posting photos on FaceBook attracts attention and folks will message me to ask where they can find the subjects I photograph. I don't mind sharing how and when to look for unusual species like the incredibly wild looking Butternut Wooly Worm I photographed in my own forest garden. This raggedy shaggy little caterpillar can be found on its favorite host plants in the heat of summer, but, I warned the eager photographer - be respectful of delicate woodlands if you wander off trails or cross on to private property! I gave him the location of a nearby state park and local trail system where I have observed these wispy little cats. He messaged me later to say he'd found them along the Mason Dixon Trail right where I said they would be. And, he said, he never stepped off the path. Good man!

Butternut Wooly Worm

I've written about our favorite fossil collecting sites in the Mid-Atlantic region and will share with interested readers where these are. For Maryland fossil hunters, it is good to remember that most of the shoreline known for fossil finds is privately owned. We may however, search for and collect up to the high tide or wrack line. Knowing when the tides go out and where to find the safest beaches to tie the boats is important on open Bay exposures. More important (in our book) is taking care of the beaches we use. Take a trash bag. Clean up as you collect. So far so good...

August 2016 Randall Cliffs trip for fossil hunting.

Then it happened. A while ago I had posted details about a kayak trip up a local river. I had observed a bird species not rare, but uncommon for this area, while walking along the bank and posted this in my trip log. I didn't say the species was uncommon. I just happened to mention it along with the other species I saw that day. A few days later I was contacted by a birder about the location. He'd read my post, didn't know me, but knew he wanted that bird on his county list. It was private property, I said. In fact, the property owner had been fishing nearby and was none to happy about me being there. I made my observations and had moved quickly on. Recently I was back in my kayak to check on the site. I had no intention of getting out my boat - just float by and look. There was the property owner again, standing on the bank that now sported a dozen No Trespassing! signs. Word got out I suppose? He must have had a few visitors. I felt awful. It started with a careless post. He glared at me. "NO BIRDWATCHING!" he yelled. I turned my boat around.

Big Henry Island.

So, the lesson of this post is that I need to be more careful about what I write and how I write about it. Whether coyote pups, interesting insects, uncommon birds, or special places, I have to consider how some people may use the information I share. And that's too bad for all others who enjoy learning about the biodiversity of our region and want to experience these places for themselves. The Mid-Atlantic is heavily populated and much of our landscape is private property. But at the same time there are incredible public lands (and waters) that contain a wealth of natural history for our study and enjoyment, not to mention the opportunity to study the rich human-nature history that our region holds. So to avoid future problems with private landowners I will no longer post or share rare sightings unless on these happen to occur on public lands, and I will not share locations of those special places, whether privately or publicly owned, if doing so endangers the animal, plant, insects or which disturbs sites with important historic / prehistoric artifacts with increased human presence.

Muddy Creek.
I was watching the activities of a large group of kayakers this weekend as they made their way up a local creek ravine. They were loud and rough. My kayaking friend and I made a quick exit after an hour of beautiful creek snorkeling and floating in deep, cold pools of turquoise water. The access to this site is easy enough from the river, but one must pass many private homes and docks to reach the deep recesses of the ravine. I was sure the noise and commotion of large groups of people must be annoying to those who live along the creek's banks at its entrance from the river. This is ethics too, to respect those who live where we like to play. 

Two arrowheads in the gravel. No further information available.

A birding friend listened to my story, how I intended to leave information out to protect places and the beings that live in them (including people). "But what about your reputation in the birding community that requires accurate information to confirm your sightings?" he asked. I thought about the farmer who entrusted me with not giving the name of his farm and the fisherman who owned the property where I saw the uncommon bird species. I replied that what good was one's reputation if I'd broken a trust or caused, indirectly, unethical behavior that disturbs people, fragile places, or creatures? I'd rather my reputation suffer with a few info hungry people than contribute further to the very real possibility that private lands be posted off-limits, owners angered, and the integrity of natural communities compromised by all too eager listers or collectors. I'm just limiting exposure.