I made it a couple more years before the long arm of the law was in my rear view again. It was January of 2005 and my last semester in college in Wisconsin. It was the invasion winter in the upper Midwest, and the Sax-Zim Bog was crawling with Great Gray Owls, Northern Hawk-Owls, Woodpeckers, Redpolls, and hoards of birders and photographers. I couldn’t resist the temptation to go, so when I had a free weekend and decent weather, I booked a hotel, gassed up my Jeep, and hit the road for the 350 mile drive. I planned to stay for two days, but the first day provided so many opportunities to witness one of the greatest irruptions in recent history that I decided to head home a day early. As evening was setting on the the upper Wisconsin Prairie I was making good time going my usual 14 over on the 65mph highway. The state troopers didn’t even give me a chance hiding just on the other side of a ridge--I was caught red-handed. the officer actually tried to arrest me since my license and vehicle were from out of state. Apparently in Wisconsin if you are from out of state, you must post the “bail” or fine immediately or get locked up until you can. It took some convincing and paperwork I happened to have to show my Wisconsin address to the overzealous mustache model--but in the end I was again on my way--this time about $208 poorer than before (but well worth it).
In 2007 while I was taking a shot at a Big Year in Utah, it seemed like I was getting pulled over every other month for one thing or another. In February I was a passenger in a friend of Colby Neuman’s car and we were pulled over in St. George at 1:15am for having a tail light out. No ticket and the payoff for the weekend were beautiful photographs of a Red-breasted Sapsucker.
In April Colby and I had headed into the far northern Wasatch in the middle of the night in search of Boreal Owls. We heard numerous Saw-whets and had an eerie encounter with what we could only figure was a Boreal Owl based off the behavior of the bird (that’s a whole other story). I didn’t put the Boreal on my list as the encounter was so strange and unconfirmable, but it was a cool night to be wandering in the mountains. The last place we tried for the owls was at the Rich/Cache County line--from there we dropped into Bear Lake Valley to head south to I-80 and back to Salt Lake. It was just after midnight when we rolled out of Laketown and not even 2 miles out of the city I saw the flashing lights of a cruiser racing up on my tail. The officer was looking for drunk drivers, and decided to pull us over for going 44 in a 40 zone. He was surprised to see two guys in their 20’s with binoculars, cameras, tape players, and bird books--instead of a couple of drunk fisherman. He “let me off” with a warning while I was furious for why I had been pulled over. It was one of those “you’ve got to be kidding me” moments.
I made it through May, June, and July without any run ins with the police. I was driving a State of Utah vehicle for much of that period--which probably helped my cause. It wasn’t until the end of August when again, Colby Neuman and I (are you starting to see a pattern) were in southern Utah chasing warblers and hawks that it happened again. We made a Friday drive down to the Kolob region picking up a Hermit Warbler in a mixed flock that afternoon. We stayed on the Kolob Terrace till after dark to listen for night migrants, then drove the road down, stopping briefly for a Northern Pygmy-Owl to come into us whistling along the road. Finally we made our way to the desert and drove through Hurricane towards I-15. Just past Quail Creek Reservoir a police SUV was on my tail, following me onto the freeway and all the way to Washington before pulling me over. His excuse wasn’t speeding or dead tail-lights. It wasn’t suspected drunk driving either. This time it was a clear license plate cover. I joke with him that maybe instead of pulling us over they should go to the stores that sell them and take them off the shelves. What a stupid thing to be able to buy if they are illegal. No ticket, and only a few minutes wasted, we drove into St. George, where I unscrewed the cover and chucked it in the trash. The following day we picked up 2 Red-shouldered Hawks for the year--a successful trip.
In May of 2008 I had volunteered to lead a class for the Basin and Range weekend near Scipio. 9 days earlier I purchased my first new car, an orange Dodge Nitro and was excited to take it on my first out of town drive. I didn’t even make it to 106th south in Salt Lake City when I was the middle car in a 5 car pile up on I-15. My new vehicle had to be towed while everyone else was able to drive away. To boot I did receive a ticket (along with 3 of the 4 other vehicles involved). Not only did I not make it to Scipio, birding had yet again brought me into contact with the police.
Just a few months later, during the Salt Lake CBC, Colby, Carl, Jeff, and I had our next run in with the fuzz. As we were making our way to the north end of one of the canals that off shoots the Jordan River just to the west of the Salt Lake International Airport, an Airport Police vehicle approached and turned on its lights. Despite taking the precautions we were told to and calling the airport in advance we were escorted to the main road where we spent 40 minutes being questioned, having our our drivers licensed checked, and vehicle searched. After all the 4 guys birding from Utah fit the terrorist profile so well. Apparently the person at the airport who we called to avoid this, hadn’t bothered to put the note in their books! This was perhaps the most angry because there was seemingly no reason they should have even been able to pull us over since the road was outside the airport.
After that I took a hiatus from dealing with the police. No getting pulled over, no tickets, no driving in areas where suspicion might be aroused. It was a few years later when I think Jeff and I were stopped by another airport cop, this time north of the airport on 3200 west. I don’t remember exactly how this went down, but in the end, we again left, with no tickets.
The most recent encounter happened just last week in Eagle Mountain. I was parked in the median photographing Horned Larks, when a car drove through the flock and honked--or so I thought. Bothered at the continued rude nature by the locals I didn’t hesitate to raise my middle finger to the white SUV as it passed. Then I saw the flashing lights and realized I just flipped off a cop. Oops! After a short talk with him I apologized for myself being a jerk and he was on his way. A reminder to just go about my birding and ignore the locals if they are being rude.
It’s ironic that almost every time I have been pulled over, or had a traffic incident, it has involved birding. Those damn birds! What about you? What run-ins have you had with the law, or security, or land owners while birding? Share your stories in the comments below!