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Birding and Johnny Law

posted by Tim Avery at
on Thursday, January 24, 2013 

The first time I had a run in with the law while birdwatching was when I was 20. I was home from college for Christmas break and Colby Neuman and I had gone to the Bountiful Landfill to look through the gulls. Afterwards as I “sped” back towards Salt Lake, I was pulled over on a desolate street in west Bountiful for going 14 mph over the 25mph speed limit. I didn’t know the speed limit was 25mph, as the street was a large, wide, main throroughfare. The street was in a front of a grade school--but it was a Saturday, and the school was out for the holidays to boot. I had made a mistake in not paying attention to the street signs in my pursuit of birds. The officer asked if we were, “looking for the eagles?”. I was a tad snide when I replied, “no, we were looking at gulls at the dump.” I wish I had been more witty at the time, and replied with something like, “yes, and I sped up to avoid hitting one of them--so no ticket right?” In any event, I took the ticket, paid the $65 fine, and went about my way.

Looking for Thayer's Gulls at the Bountiful Landfill
led to my first speeding ticket.

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).

One of dozens of Great Gray Owls I photographed before
getting a $200 speeding ticket!

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.

The Red-breasted Sapsucker I photographed the morning
following our run in with the law.

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.

Northern Saw-whet Owls were everywhere the night
we got pulled over in Cache County.

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.

Red-shouldered Hawks at Lytle Ranch.

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.

We weren't really trespassing. But the cops didn't buy it!

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.

You can see a few Rosy-Finches in this flock of Larks...
The same flock that led to flipping off a cop.

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!

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Blogger shyloh monster said...

luckily for me, I've yet to encounter any law-enforcement, security, or pissed off homeowner or land manager in 4 years of birding. Fingers crossed it doesn't happen anytime soon. Sounds like you're taking all the heat. Keep up the good work!

A cop doesn't notice the rosy-finches or larks, but is quick to spot an even smaller bird!

January 24, 2013 at 4:17 PM  
Blogger Oliver Hansen said...

New Years Day in 2012 I was in a rural part of Springville birding. It was around freezing and there was not a single car to be seen anywhere. I was driving pretty much like 2 miles an hour half way in the shoulder. I continued this two mile an hour speed around a corner and pulled over to look at some ruddy ducks in a pond. About 2 minutes later a cop pulled up behind me and I figured he was gonna ask what I was doing. As he walked up to the car I said "Just looking at the ducks." He then proceeded to tell me that I had just ran the stop sign and that they were having a big problem with people running that specific stop sign and were giving out tickets. I was flabbergasted. So annoying.

January 24, 2013 at 6:23 PM  
Blogger Dickson said...

I'm sorry but I have to chuckle at these stories as I spent 13 1/2 years with a badge attached to my chest stopping people for a lot of the reasons given. I don't know if I can make these incidents any easier to swallow but don't take it to personal unless you let your mouth or finger do the talking with out first engaging the brain. For most part men and women wearing a badge are there trying to do the job they were hired to do as best as they can and not get killed in the process. Laws are laws and the officers are hired to enforce them and to protect and serve. The best advice I can give if you get stopped is to be cooperative, courteous and do what the nice policeman asks. I know there were a lot of people I had no intention of giving them a ticket but just a warning until they decided to open their mouth and tell me how wrong I was for stopping them. Keep a smile on your face and take your medicine when you screw up and if you don't agree fight it in the court room not with the officer on the street you won't win. Happy birding to all! :-)

January 24, 2013 at 8:54 PM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...

@Shyloh: I have a feeling your day is coming my friend :)

@Oliver: You ran a stop sign going 2mph and it took him a couple minutes to pull you over. Sounds like he was really on top of the job!

@Dickson: So there are birder cops! I knew it! I will say that with me its been a 50/50 I deserved to get pulled over/couldn't figure out why they were wasting their time. Speeding, I get it, I was breaking the law and those made sense. The times I was bothered were the fishing expeditions, where not even warnings were issued. In Wisconsin when I got nailed the officer asked if I knew why he pulled me over, and I responded with, "yeah, I was going a bit on the fast side..." This was just meant to be a funny look back at my run-ins while birding. Ironically I thought of a couple more last night that I had forgotten about. Times when police stopped to ask me what I was doing--I've got a handful of those.

January 25, 2013 at 7:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh these are hilarious! Thanks for sharing.

January 25, 2013 at 9:04 AM  
Blogger Kenny Frisch said...

Last easter, I was up in White's Valley looking for grouse. I was at an place that had been reported to have sightings and I saw a field to the north with a no trespassing sign. Instead I started walking east when I heard a distant vehicle. It got close enough for me to see the sheriff's logo on the side of a truck so I started heading back to the road.

He finally stopped and asked what I was doing. I told him I was birding and looking for Sharp-tailed Grouse and he told me that I was trespassing on private property. When I told him that I hadn't seeing any "No Trespassing signs where I was walking, he told me that since the field was planted it was private (which I don't think is true; don't NWRs plant food for birds?).

I apologized for not knowing I couldn't go there and he told me "You should be more worried about being shot by the property owner". Good to know for later.

Just be careful where you are walking even if there isn't a "No Trespassing" sign.

January 28, 2013 at 5:55 PM  
Blogger David said...

I was once pulled over by Border Patrol, driving around in in SE Arizona looking for grassland sparrows. It was an area heavily frequented by birders, and I had NY plates and birding bumper stickers, and binos in hand, so I'm surprised they even bothered to stop me. But, I did camp nearby that night, and has some pretty sketchy cars drive by around midnight, so maybe they were justified..

When I was doing point counts along the side of the road in Ohio a few years ago, I got people (cops and just passerbys) pulling over all the time to ask if I was alright.

February 8, 2013 at 4:59 PM  
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