September 5, 2013
Eastern Screech-Owl at Point Pelee
Eastern Screech-Owl at Point Pelee

This is my column’s second installment of humorous birding stories.  You can check out the first one at  This one and a later one will remind you how easy it is to lose focus on the outside world as you chase, with extreme tunnel vision, that next lifer.

This happened to me years ago at Point Pelee, the famous springtime migration stopover in Ontario an hour east of Detroit.  If you haven’t been to Pelee or dreamed of going there, you’re not a serious birder, and once you go you know you’ll go again.  On my second trip I had a shockingly embarrassing loss of focus which might have turned out much worse than it did.  As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.

One of the joys of Pelee, a Canadian Provincial Park totally geared to birders and their needs, is that you can spend all day walking the trails and not see all the different habitats.  A weekend might be enough time, but only if you hurry.  There is a bulletin board in the Visitors’ Center/Gift Shop which updates recent sightings several times throughout the day.  There is also the helpfulness with which the rangers and fellow birders will address any inquiry regarding species and sightings.  These things can be a curse, though, because it often happens that you’ll hear about a great bird at the opposite end of the park.  The good news is there is a tram system, running on a regular published schedule, which can help you get from here to there, or at least close to there, quicker than you can walk.

Quicker than I could walk with thirty pounds of camera equipment, I figured, as I came back into the complex one hot, humid afternoon after lunch in the parking lot.  I was desperately in need of the Visitors’ Center restroom but ran into an acquaintance who reported an Eastern Screech-Owl camouflaged in a tree bole near the southern end of the park trails.  Having walked the trails all morning with said camera gear and seeing that the tram was just departing, I hurriedly collapsed my tripod legs and clambered aboard.  I knew exactly which stop to take, and I knew there was a restroom right at the stop.

The owl had last been reported a couple hours ago.  I had never photographed an Eastern Screech-Owl.  Yeah, I was in a hurry.  One issue always presented by a telephoto lens on a tripod in a public area is what to do with the lens and tripod when you go to lunch or need a pit stop.  The only rational answer is to take it with you.  I hurried off the tram juggling photo gear, stopped hurriedly at the water fountain outside the restroom, then hurried inside.  My restroom needs were such that I was already figuring how to wrestle the tripod and lens into one of the stalls, so I didn’t even give so much as a glance toward the urinals.  Ever try to get a telephoto lens on a tripod inside a public restroom stall . . . and get the door shut?  Remember, you have to set everything down, so you have to leave the tripod legs open.  Think about it.

Luckily there wasn’t another soul in the small, three-stall restroom, so I didn’t have to endure weird looks clanking the tripod legs through the door, shutting it, careful all the while not to whack the lens on the metal sides of the stall.  So, I’m sitting there taking care of business, sweating profusely in the cramped quarters (me, the stool, my tripod and lens, binoculars, large fanny pack with camera) in the closed building.  I hear the outside door open.  I hear voices.  Oh $#&*!  Female voices!

Yep, I had really done that!  Since I hadn’t needed a urinal, I hadn’t noticed there weren’t any, which would have been a good first clue to my egregious error.  Instinctively I stopped breathing and tried to shrink inward, harboring three simultaneous, horrible thoughts:  how many women are in this group (there were only two empty stalls); how am I going to get out of this (even if there’s a lull in restroom traffic, someone will probably see me coming out because it’ll take me awhile wrestling all the equipment); how long is the owl going to wait for me (owls often retreat into the interior of the tree cavity in the heat of the day)?

I’m ecstatic to report I didn’t have a heart attack, I went undiscovered, there was a lull after about ten minutes, and no one saw me come out (sweating even more profusely).  Then I leaned against the outside wall (on the men’s side) for several minutes just shaking a little and breathing deeply.  And the owl waited.  Oh yeah, and I’ve never made that mistake again.  And I’ve never forgotten it.  It’s all about focus.