Many birders now carry cameras on field trips in addition to — or sometimes instead of — binoculars and spotting scopes. As bird photography increases in popularity, it’s more important than ever for photographers to consider our collective impact on the welfare of birds and to minimize disruption while pursuing our craft.
Capturing a close-up view of a wild bird going about its life certainly is a thrill, but achieving that with a wary, skittish subject involves more than using a long telephoto lens. Photographic lenses don’t provide the extreme magnification of spotting scopes, and so photographers need to get physically closer to obtain a satisfactory subject size, either by approaching the bird or waiting for it to approach you. How do you do that safely and ethically?
The low-down on stalking
First, pick your location: Stalking birds is less disruptive where they are used to seeing people. But even with “tame” birds, closing the distance takes caution. Consider the birds’ point of view: They view us as a threat, particularly when raising young. To appear less threatening, minimize your profile by getting down low, even crawling if necessary. Move slowly and quietly, taking an indirect path rather than straight toward the bird. Use existing cover (rocks in open areas or trees in the forest, for instance) to conceal your approach. Don’t stare at the bird — that’s predator behavior!
Watch for signs that your presence is creating anxiety. If the bird stops what it is doing, stands upright and stares at you, starts moving away, and/or gives alarm calls, stop. Remain still and let the bird relax before proceeding. Better yet, be satisfied with the subject size you have already. Either crop later or compose creatively by including the habitat. Once you’re done, back away just as cautiously. Never flush a bird to get a flight shot — doing so wastes the bird’s vital energy.
Be a bump on a log
Far less intrusive than stalking is letting birds come to you. Act like part of the scenery, and birds may ignore you, going about their natural behavior, often coming surprisingly close. Find somewhere comfortable to sit or stand near where birds tend to gather, such as a source of food or nest material. Allow yourself plenty of time and keep still and quiet. Muted-color clothing or camouflage will help you blend in with the habitat. Support camera gear on a tripod at eye level to avoid needing to raise the camera up to your face, which may spook the bird.
Use a photo blind
If you tend to fidget, you will disturb birds less by using a photography blind to conceal your human outline, especially for sensitive species or those not accustomed to seeing people. Choosing and using blinds will likely be the topic of a future column, but one important tip is to enter the blind before the bird arrives and remain inside until after it has departed to avoid frightening it away.
Birds are at their most vulnerable when raising young, so photographers should be doubly cautious at these times. At roped-off tern and skimmer colonies on beaches or at wading bird rookeries, stay behind barriers or at posted minimum distances. Woodpeckers and cavity-nesting songbirds may be safely photographed from a distance, but open-cup nests hidden in shrubbery are best left alone. Never remove vegetation to get a better view: Doing so exposes vulnerable eggs and young to predation and the elements. Refrain from repeatedly visiting nests because you’ll leave a scent trail, leading predators to a free lunch. Pay attention to distraction displays — evidence that you are too close to a nest and must move away.
Attracting birds for photography
Enticing birds within camera range is commonly done using food. As before, birds’ health and safety are paramount. Few people would argue against feeding backyard birds for photography (so long as feeders are kept clean) or spreading cracked corn to attract turkeys or quail. Don’t feed bread to waterfowl though; studies show it damages their health.
Luring predatory birds for photography with live or dead bait is controversial. Should it be acceptable to stock ponds with live fish for kingfishers or Osprey? Provide dead fish to attract eagles or pelicans, or store-bought meat to entice hawks? There may be no clear-cut answers, but we should not condone practices that create dependency or through which birds learn to associate humans with food. This strongly applies to baiting wintering owls with live or fake mice, a practice now much frowned upon. Among many potential risks, baited owls may boldly approach people along roads, thereby getting perilously close to traffic or other hazards.
Also controversial is playing birds’ songs or calls to bring them close, a technique that easily can be over-used by birders and photographers alike. Remember that the bird perceives the playback as an intruder. Its stress hormone levels rise, something that is physiologically costly, and by investigating, it expends precious energy needlessly. Have a heart and use playback sparingly — and not at all in the case of endangered species or near nests and obviously not where it is prohibited.
Is electronic flash harmful to birds’ health? Opinions vary, but it is thought that fill-flash (reduced-power flash used to augment natural light) is not likely to harm birds’ visual systems. Flash used when photographing nocturnal birds at night is likely to temporarily affect vision but not cause permanent damage. Safest is to err on the side of caution: Use natural light whenever possible, using flash only sparingly.
Finally, some things to reflect upon. Consider the challenges, both natural and human-made, that birds face throughout their lives in order to survive. Don’t add to those challenges. No photo is worth causing harm to birds. Empathize with the bird: Know its life history and behavior, read its body language for signs of stress. By treating your subject with respect, you will be a responsible, ethical bird photographer who can rightly take pride in your work.
This article was first published in the July/August 2020 issue of BirdWatching magazine.
Flash Photography and the Visual System of Birds and Animals, by Dennis Olivero and Donald Cohen, Naturescapes, 2004