Cemetery visitors ruffled by 'traipsing' bird-watching shutterbugs

Woodland Cemetery has been a well-loved birding spot since at least the 1950s, but cemetery visitors say amateur photographers are "traipsing" disrespectfully through the grounds.

'I'm a nature guy myself, but they're just really stomping around,' says man whose parents are buried there

Dave O'Reilly, whose family members are buried at Woodland Cemetery, says he has a problem with bird-watching photographers "traipsing" through grave sites, like he says they were doing on Family Day. (Dave O'Reilly)

On the edge of Hamilton Harbour, where a stockade once stood during the War of 1812, a new conflict has arisen.

Gaggles of bird-watchers have long found the 100-acre Woodland Cemetery one of the best birding places around. There, they spy migrating birds like cedar waxwings, eastern bluebirds and, in the winter, even bald eagles.

But in their excitement to document their finds, some amateur nature photographers have upset the sensibilities of a couple of people visiting the cemetery to pay respects to their dearly departed.

"Our family plot is there and it happens to be at a spot that is an old section in the cemetery where there are some nesting owls and everything," said Dave O'Reilly, a man who likes to speak aloud to his parents when he pays their gravesites a visit. "It's been getting worse over the last couple of years."

A gaggle of bird-watchers took pictures of birds at Woodland Cemetery on Family Day. (Dave O'Reilly)

He's seen sunflower seeds on headstones, left there to lure birds. He's also noticed the resulting muck – "you know what birds do."

"I'm a nature guy myself," he said. "But they're just really stomping around."

'Lack of respect'

The cemetery is public property, run by the city, and there's no restriction on accessing the grounds during daylight hours. Birders have found 242 species there in records going back at least to the 1950s. Birders' behaviour hasn't seemed to be a problem before but a couple of recent calls got the city's attention.

The city is worried about ruts in the grass from absent-mindedly parked cars, and a level of disrespect being paid by the eagle-oglers.

"I knew we had bird-watchers going out there," said the city's manager of parks and cemeteries, Tennessee Propedo. "But not to the extent – the lack of respect they're showing."

'Beating the nest tree with sticks'

O'Reilly shot some video of a flock of shutterbugs on Family Day, setting up a tripod near a headstone and pointing their zoom lenses at a feathered target.

The video doesn't appear to show them being loud, but O'Reilly said he has a problem with people "traipsing" all over gravesites and near markers to get a good shot.

A letter-writer to the editor published in the Spectator a couple of years ago chastised some inexpert explorers for "beating the nest tree with sticks" to try to get a beloved screech owl to wake up and fly for some candid action shots.

The city's parks manager says photos like this one of a screech owl seen at Woodland Cemetery, published in the Waterloo Record, are like magnets for amateur photographers who want to try to catch their own glimpse. (Tennessee Propedo)

Propedo says bird-watchers and hikers have been using the city's public spaces for decades without incident. He said he thinks it's smaller hobbyist groups focused on photography that are causing the trouble. 

Rob Porter, a local naturalist and photographer, agreed that photography groups tend to stalk the screech owl, for example.

"As with all hobbies there's a wide range of sub-groups and interests, and certainly there are some who are very (or solely) focused on photography who tend to be the ones who stake out known birds that are perceived to be uncommon," said Porter.

"I'm not sure why anyone would be putting birdseed out for an owl though – as they're carnivores."

Leaving behind only footprints

Propedo hopes for a détente between the groups of birders and photographers and those who want to visit their loved ones in peace.

His message to the photographers:

"That at the end of the day the only thing they leave behind are their footprints," he said. "Don't take away from somebody else's grieving. It may not have any connection to you, but there's definitely loved ones who would take offence."

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca | @kellyrbennett