Binoculars  746

Are people who wander around the country with binoculars and cameras terrorists and criminals? Well some police and members of the public seem to think we are!

Earlier this year I ran into a mate from the UK who had located a small clan of Ground Cuckoo-shrikes just outside of Alice Springs. He was in Alice as part of his latest travels around the country trying to catch as many species of our birds as he could in as short a time as possible. He’d put up a post on the local birding webgroup NT Birds relating his sightings. I arranged to meet him a day or so later and we went out to the area late one afternoon. As we were driving out he described the birds and where he’d seen them. Then he related his experience of the day before with our local plods.

His story went something like this:

“I’d found a couple of Ground Cuckoo-shrikes in some woodland along Hatt Road south of Alice Springs the day before so went back out to have a closer look and see if they were nesting or if there were more birds around. I found the birds again and jumped a fence along the road to follow them through the scrub. I’d been wandering around for an hour or so when I noticed a lot of commotion back near where I’d parked my car, so walked back in that direction. I was gobsmacked to see about half-a-dozen or so Police cars, blue lights blazing and a whole bunch of cops standing around waiting to talk to me.  After a half-hour of questioning and me explaining they were not very convinced and told me that the area I was in had the local prison on one side of the road and was a few miles away from the secret Pine Gap spy base.”

Pine Gap, Alice Springs
Pine Gap, Alice Springs

Okay, I thought, I can understand the police paranoia about a bloke wandering around outside the prison with a set of binoculars – but such close attention several miles away from the “secret” spy base at Pine Gap was a bit of a stretch.

We went out to the site the next day and within half an hour we were confronted by two truckloads of Australian Federal police (they have responsibility for security at  Pine Gap). Two of them had confronted my mate the day before but they still spent the best part of 20 minutes on the radio doing background checks on both of us. In the end they were reluctantly helpful (we told them we’d be back the next morning at dawn) and gave me the contact number for the local Desk Sergeant and advised we should give him a call when we were next out at the site.

All this had faded into the gentle folds of memory until earlier this week when I noticed a posting on another Birding webgroup, Birding-Aus, from a woman in s-e Queensland who posted the following comment:

Being a lone woman, I was birding from my car window on the weekend, when an off-duty policeman pulled up behind me, & demanded I prove I was a birdwatcher, & advised me that whenever I stopped the car I had to go into all the surrounding houses & inform them I am a birdwatcher.

This post understandably provoked a pretty spirited set of responses along two broad themes – interactions with Police and security staff and those with householders and members of the public.

The general legal position is that if you are on public land and not obstructing the road or traffic, poking a long lens into the private spaces of a residence or property (or through the bath/bed room windows), trespassing on private property or committing some other breach of the law or peace then you can pretty much what you want on public lands. But that won’t stop the officious, ignorant, ill-informed, suspicious, busily-bodied, nosey and downright paranoid from sticking their beak into your peaceful and law-abiding business.

What follows is but a sample of some of the responses, firstly in relation to cops, security guards and the military – but firstly a bit more from the original poster:

So… He also insisted I should have a sign affixed to my car whenever I’m birding — ‘BIRDWATCHER’. If I think about it, I can probably remember more of the encounter… But I was just so astounded that I haven’t actually dwelt on what was said…Well, I showed him my Field Guide, but he insisted I show him the photos in my camera. Apparently someone had seen me with camera & binoculars, & had phoned him. I was in that street partly to follow the evening progress of seasonally local GBCs– but when I cried out, ‘Look, there goes one now, a rare bird!’ he didn’t turn a hair. We were in a dead end (‘Because it’s good for birds!’ I said to him) but apparently that made me even more offensive.

This response comes from an ecologist working on the north coast of NSW:

I plan to have a whole chapter entitled ‘the boys and girls in blue’ in my future book if ever I get the time to write it!! It includes references to mist nets (used for bird banding), ‘van burning’ no ‘bird banding’ and an incident when a rather officious fisheries officer thought that all of his Christmases had come at once. We were bird banding with mist nest in an estuary and he thought that we were illegal fishers. He regretted his actions after a long drawn out lecture on birds and bird banding!!

And in a similar, though more explosive, vein:

I remember being a part of a group which had permission from the Royal Australian Navy to cannon-net for waders at a beach on Garden Island in WA, on the opposite side of the island to where the naval base is located. Within minutes of the cannon-net being fired we were approached at great speed from all directions (land and sea) by naval police. Obviously, they had not been informed by authorities higher up in the naval chain of command that we would be firing cannons. They must have thought Australia was being invaded! Once again, this was in the early 1980s. I would very much doubt that with increased military security we would be allowed to even mist-net for waders on Garden I today.

This poster’s experience with a carload of UK plods in a “jam-sandwich” illustrates that it isn’t just “twitchers” that get harassed:

Me busy carrying out shorebird disturbance survey. Parked up at the edge of a village overlooking an bay of an estuary minding my own business, fairly oblivious to things around me as I was concentration on counting and mapping waders. Next thing, I see a jam sandwich with blue flashing lights in rear mirror followed by a loud knock on window. Two boys in blue standing there, one at window, one behind car talking into his radio.

Officer “Can you please step out of the car”.

Me “Why, what’s wrong”

Officer “Just step out of the car madam”

I get out of the car.

Officer “I need to take some details. Can I ask what you’re doing here madam?”

Me “Erm……. I’m doing a bird survey”

I show him my recording forms from the morning’s work and try to explain the details of what I’m doing. He doesn’t seem impressed or doesn’t understand.

Officer “And you’re name and address please”

Details given

Officer “And what exactly are you doing” he asks again

I try to explain, again and tell them I’m working on a contract to a company.

Officer “Well madam, we’ve had complaints from someone who says they’re uncomfortable with you pointing your large camera lens near their house.”

Me “I don’t have a camera with me”

Officer “So what’s that then madam?” pointing to the ‘scope in a Skua case.

Me “It’s my telescope, here, have a look”

While this is happening, his mate is wandering round the car checking things out. Officer has a look down the scope. Officer “Thank you ma’am. Can you let me have the details of who you’re working so I can check out your story”

I give him name, address and number. Officer phones the co-worker at the office and asks for a description of me just to check.Officer looks puzzled and concerned. He walks away talking into radio and gesturing to his mate to come over. There’s a lot of mumbling between them and they keep looking at me. I’m starting to get a little nervous…Seems co-worker gave my description. Unfortunately, that preceding weekend I’d had my very long hair all chopped off very, very short unbeknown to co-worker. The description given didn’t match my appearance. Needless to say, things went a little downhill for a while. In the end I was told to move on despite my protests about not being able to finish my work. I even tried to explain that this was a government contract. That didn’t wash with them and they waited behind me until I moved off. You can’t win.

The other set of interactions that drew responses related to local residents and landowners – some are relatively benign – others less so:

I’m often stopped and quizzed about what I’m doing (sometimes by the police, often by other members of the public). The frequency of these inquiries seems to have increased considerably since 9/11and the introduction of the “Be Alert But Not Alarmed” campaign. However, before you think it is a recent phenomenon, I remember when I was a student at uni (late 1970s/early ’80s), a fellow zoology student arrived back on campus after being physically attacked the night before. He had been out spotlighting for crickets and while crouched down among some bushes with his head torch on was whacked across the back with either a bar or plank of wood (can’t remember which one). Apparently, some farmer thought the guy was spying on the family farm from the roadside reserve. A case of “whack first, ask questions later”!

And it is not just private residences that birders have to be careful around:

I’m usually careful to face away from houses and schools if I’m near them. I was challenged by the security guard patrolling the Mobil complex when I was birding along Kororoit Creek in Altona last week, and he was happy with the explanation. It might have been a different story if I’d been actually looking into the complex instead of away from it, as it is an offence to photograph such places, so he’d be entitled to call the police. After Lewin’s Rails were discovered in the pond behind a girls’ school in Altona I emailed the school to let them know why there were suddenly lots of people with binoculars and telescopes wandering around. No idea if they even read it, but at least it had been done in case anyone had to justify their presence.

This post gives two good examples of the kind of ill-informed outrage that birders – and bird tour-guides – encounter:

The first was outside a little country school here on the Atherton Tablelands. I stopped with some clients outside the school because the Channel-billed Cuckoos parasitised the nests of Currawongs there every year and that was a bird we were chasing. I used to live nearby and though I was known to all the staff and most of the kids. I was yelled at by a young lady from 30 metres away who demanded to know, “What do you think you are doing? Don’t you know this is a school?” When I started to enter the school grounds to talk to her she told me to stay outside. She relaxed a little when I asked after the principal (who she was relieving) and two teachers’ aides by name and came a little closer so we did not have to shout at each other. I explained what I was doing and that as we were on the road reserve we were quite entitled to be there bird watching. She said that if ever I was to do that again I was to come to the office first to inform the school of our presence. The incongruence of this request/demand and her demanding I remain outside the gate seemed to have not occurred to her.

The second was on a country road in W. A. I was there with a friend and had walked up and down the road for about 20 minutes when we noticed a car come out of one of the nearby farms and drive towards my friend’s vehicle. It stopped behind it. We had observed that it contained three females of three generations. We quickened our pace to see what they wanted. “What do you think you are doing?” (Do they always say this?)” I called out an answer and held up my binoculars thinking that would help show our intentions were honourable but my approaching so quickly seemed to frighten her. “Just know that we’ve got your number!” Slipping the vehicle into gear she did a 180 of which any hoon would be proud and sped off into town. We thought about going up to the farm where we could see people working but decided that we would leave it at that. My friend mused that he would not have considered two reasonably well presented middle-aged gentlemen in a pale blue Mercedes to be so intimidating.

And the same writer gave an insight that many of us know is true – most people have a good bird story to tell – or will, once you have gained their trust and acceptance, pester you with requests to identify “a little brown bird” that they saw at the bottom of their garden…

On the other hand I have more often been held up by people wanting to tell me about some “rare bird” which comes to their garden. When I see people are suspicious I too try to explain to them what is going on. Usually with pleasing results for all concerned.

There are a million similar tales out there – and these all seems to come out alright in the end so far – no-one seems to have been shot or locked up for wandering around with a pair of binoculars and a camera.

And Australia is nowhere near as dangerous as some of the countries that my friend Mark Cocker writes about in his wonderful book “Birders: Tales of a Tribe” (2001, Jonathan Cape).

Throughout the book Mark refers to a series of birders adding to the “great canon of harmless eccentricities” but notes that the lengths that birders will go to to see birds sometimes end in dreadful tragedy, including being pursued – and shot at – by armed Afghan tribesmen, being eaten by a Tiger in northern India and being shot and killed by Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerillas in Peru.

That puts being harassed by local flatfoots or three women yelling “What do you think you are doing” somewhat into perspective, doesn’t it?

I’d love to hear your stories – or responses to the tales told here – register and leave a comment about your experiences.