Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Liars, Cheats, Spies, and Birders

If you don't have access to the Los Angeles Times, check out today's front page Column One article on birders falling prey to post-9-11 paranoia. It's quite a shock over morning coffee:

Over the last four decades, bird-watchers have flocked to the four manufactured islands of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, where at least 350 different species have been spotted. "It's probably the single most popular birding site in the mid-Atlantic," said Brinkley, who edits the journal North American Birds.

But nowadays it isn't as easy or simple for birders like Brinkley to do what they love. At popular birding sites across the country, they are facing stricter regulations — in some cases being required to hire a police escort — as authorities beef up national security.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Americans have been subject to increased government restrictions and scrutiny at airports and elsewhere. That bird-watchers have become a target is somewhat surprising, since all they do is "walk quietly through the woods," as Brinkley put it.

But those woods are often around military bases, wastewater management plants and dams — places where government authorities fear that terrorists, disguised as birders, could lurk or strike.

And the equipment they carry — binoculars, telescopes and cameras — can make birders look suspicious at first glance. That has been the case at Wisconsin's Jones Island, a peninsula in Milwaukee Harbor about 100 yards from a Coast Guard station and a Navy Reserve station.

Since they have "sophisticated gear and [are] looking at things not normally photographed by the common citizen in this area, they may be stopped and asked a few questions," said Lt. Jamie Rickerson, chief of port operations at the Coast Guard station's Marine Safety office.

Now, I personally know some birders, and they are about as likely a group of terrorists as one might find at a Popular Mechanics reading group. They are also, I might add, much smarter than the minor-league Platos who came up with this policy.

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