A Facebook group of Maine birders is asking its members to stop posting specific locations of rare species out of concern that the information is being used by hunters.

The change to the private group’s policy stemmed from a post that alleged a hunter killed a king eider duck in Wells Harbor after he saw information about it on the group’s page. Although the Maine Birds Facebook group administrator who posted about the incident last month was not able to provide information to corroborate the allegation, the outrage it spurred from the group’s members speaks to a larger question about the ethics of using social media to seek out wildlife.

King eiders are legal to hunt in Maine but are rare winter visitors. Hunters say that the use of social media to find and kill a specific animal is uncommon and discouraged. While that may be unusual, it’s not the only way social media can have a negative effect on wildlife. Overzealous photographers and birders who use information posted online to seek out rare and popular species, such as owls, and then get too close, stressing and even harassing the animals, also are causing harm. And with the ability to share information so quickly, that unwanted attention often comes in sudden intense bursts.

“When people ask what is the best thing they can do for birds, the answer I give is, ‘Stay away from them,'” said Doug Hitchcox, a naturalist at Maine Audubon.

‘THERE HAS TO BE A BALANCE’

Though Maine wildlife enthusiasts said that people who misuse information posted online to aggressively pursue animals are exceptions, they acknowledged it’s undeniable that social media has fueled bad behavior.

Any hunter who used specific information posted about rare bird sightings to then kill them for trophies would be an obvious example, especially when the ethics of “fair chase” are taught in the state-required hunter education course.

Robin Robinson, the administrator for the Maine Birds Facebook group, said she has no problem, in general, with hunters being among the group’s 20,000-plus members.

“I have no personal investment in trying to police the hunting community,” she said. “Photographers and people who are interested in wildlife all look at the internet and use all available resources.”

In response to her post that “our page has been used by hunters to find and ultimately kill wild birds in Maine,” more than 300 members of the Facebook group posted comments of outrage that she said she read through to edit out personal attacks.

Though one member wrote, “I despise hunters,” others came to the defense of the community, like one who responded: “Hunters are responsible for funding a lot of land conservation projects through taxes and permits. Don’t let one bad apple spoil the bunch.”

Social media can be a legitimate resource for hunters to learn from each other and gather information, like the migration patterns of ducks and when certain species arrive in Maine, waterfowl hunter Melissa Watson Bartlett said.

Tracking certain animals, however, goes against the unspoken code of hunting and fishing, she said.

“Me, as a waterfowl hunter, we don’t discuss locations most of the time. We keep that on the down low. I think some people are posting too much. You have to do your own homework in the field. We travel around Casco Bay looking for birds. We spend a lot of time scouting,” Bartlett said.

In the rule change for the Facebook group, Robinson asked members to limit their posts about a bird’s location to the town or county in order to protect them “from hunters and overly zealous seekers of rarities and owls.”

“I do have a problem with anybody in any situation broadcasting specifics of a rarity or an owl, because they’re very popular and have been the subject of harassment,” she said. “There has to be a balance between our enthusiasm and wanting to share our experiences, and just speaking to a larger level. We need to tighten up regulations, and we need to think about the consequences.”

‘IT’S HARD … TO HAVE NO IMPACT’

Hunters are not alone in using social media to try to quickly locate wildlife for “a trophy.” Photographers do as well, Maine birders said.

“Photographers are famous for showing up in big numbers when great gray owls show up. They’ll be there, getting way too close,” Hitchcox said. “It’s why birders have binoculars, to keep our distance.”

A few years ago, the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, one of the world’s foremost centers for the study of bird life, determined that the excessive use of social media to pursue wildlife could be harmful to some birds. So in the fall of 2017, the online eBird project run out of the Cornell Lab asked the thousands of volunteers around the world who contribute data about bird sightings to stop posting locations within 2 kilometers for “sensitive species” – birds that are not listed as endangered or threatened but still exist in low numbers.

The Cornell Lab reached out to knowledgeable birders – including three in Maine – to create a list of those species.

One is the northern hawk owl, which was spotted in southern Ontario before the Cornell Lab’s new policy, said Hitchcox, one of the Maine birders whom eBird asked to contribute. Birders from all over New England drove up to see it, and many fed the bird, which is harmful because it discourages the bird from hunting for its own food.

“It got to the point a car would drive up and the hawk would fly up to the car hood. It was outrageous,” he said. The incident is infamous among birders.

Closer to home, similar bad behavior surrounded the great black hawk that took up residence in Deering Oaks park last fall, Hitchcox said.

Thousands of people came to gaze at the Central American raptor, including a few photographers, whose behavior may have endangered an animal that was already struggling to survive so far from its warmer home range.

Hitchcox said pushing a bird from its chosen spot stresses it.

“Birders love saying they are the least invasive of all (outdoor groups), but it’s hard for anyone to have no impact,” Hitchcox said. “A number of times I’ve come to look at ducks on a pond, and seen them blast out of the pond and fly away. It’s beautiful to see, but flushing those ducks is causing them to burn energy they need unnecessarily. Everyone has some impact. It comes down to a question of ethics.”

All it takes is one person in pursuit of a rare experience or rare photo to harm a bird, said Derek Lovitch, a birding guide who co-owns Freeport Wild Bird Supply. Lovitch saw a photographer chase the great black hawk into traffic in order to get a better photo. That bird, which later suffered frostbite during a snowstorm last month, died at Avian Haven, a wild bird rehabilitation center in Freedom.

“Photographers can get too close and spook their subject. Plus, birders can harass birds with too much audio playback (of bird calls),” said Nick Lund, a hunter and birder on staff at Maine Audubon.

THE INTERNET’S IMMEDIATE IMPACT

Sharing information on wildlife locations has long been a part of conservation and naturalist circles, but it’s never before been shared with such immediacy. In the 1980s, for example, Maine Audubon had a voice recording that listed rare bird sightings. Anyone could call a number and listen to the information. Ten years later, the voice-recording became an email listserve. Now most wildlife fans get such information on social media as fast as someone can hit a button and tweet.

Likewise, Hitchcox said, “in the 1980s if you saw a king eider duck in Wells Harbor, you’d take a photo of it and bring it to the pharmacy to develop and that would take a few days, and then you might bring it to your local Audubon club and maybe Audubon would update their phone recording. There is no way hundreds of people would find out about it right away. That’s a long way to say: ‘Yes, social media is impacting wildlife.’

“It’s 2019, and the information is out there. People are going to take advantage of it.”

Robinson hopes some good comes out of the controversy over the king eider.

“Social media certainly has the potential to increase the harassing of wildlife. It also has the tremendous capacity to be an educational tool,” Robinson said. “I work really hard to be constantly focused on that.”

She said thousands of birds have been saved because people now know, from social media, about places like Avian Haven and what to do when a bird hits a window.

“My objective is to find some place closer to the middle for everyone,” she said. “That means not pointing the finger and not calling someone a monster. Let’s have a conversation.”

Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: FlemingPph


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