A Border Problem for Birders


(This column was first published in the January 12, 2004 issue of The Buffalo News.)


The high security level at the border is creating problems for some local birders.


On Sunday morning, January 4, Willie D'Anna and Dean DiTommaso walked out along the Bird Island Pier carrying their telescopes. (For those not familiar with the Buffalo waterfront, the Bird Island Pier stretches from Squaw Island south and parallel to the Niagara River shore. Between the pier and the mainland is the Black Rock Channel. Midway along its length the pier passes under the Peace Bridge.) The two bird watchers were looking for a rare species, a shorebird called a willet that had been reported there the previous week.


Near the end of the pier they found the willet and were studying it through their telescopes when they were surprised to hear a shout: "Put your hands in the air and walk slowly toward us." They turned to find three Buffalo police officers, one with a drawn gun pointed at them.


The two birders did as they were told. They produced identification that immediately satisfied the officers, but they were asked to return to the base of the pier to talk with Border Patrol and FBI officials. They were also monitored as they walked back by a Coast Guard boat in the nearby river.


The additional interviews and a search of their car took most of another hour.


I am certain that reader reactions to that episode will be as mixed as were those on the Internet where Willie described his experience. In fact, the e-mail exchanges became hostile with some responders telling of bad experiences with police (but thankfully not in this area) and another calling the complainers un-American.


My own take on this incident is between those extremes.


Because Goat Island lies within the area that a group of us census several times each year, I have had many opportunities to talk with Border Guards. I have found them uniformly polite and whenever called upon for information always helpful. When I asked one of them recently, "Have you seen either of the peregrine falcons this morning?" he simply turned and called my attention to the bird I had missed. When he walked on, he left me both thankful and embarrassed.


Although I have fewer contacts with them, I have also been favorably impressed with police officers and customs officials of this area. One Buffalo policeman occasionally calls to report his unusual natural history observations.


I invite those who have criticized what they feel was the officers' overreaction in this case to consider how they would have felt walking out onto that pier toward suspected terrorists. They didn't know that the instruments being used were telescopes. (In fact, many people I meet believe that the scope I'm carrying is a camera.) And if Dean and Willie had been terrorists, they might well have been armed.


So I side with the police on this matter. Perhaps the lengthy wait for the FBI and the car search were unnecessary, but once episodes like this get started, law enforcement officials want to touch all bases.


But now let's consider the future. I hope that birders and our border guards will accommodate to each other. One suggestion for birders is to inform the Border Patrol at 447-3942 when they will be at the river; another, to seek NEXUS cards to facilitate border crossing and identification.


Today we must recognize that our nation is under threat. This region has even been specifically named. Most border guards and bridge inspectors are already aware of birders but those of us who enjoy this hobby must be prepared occasionally to be inconvenienced.-- Gerry Rising