As Bald Eagle populations have rebounded dramatically in recent decades, it’s easier than ever to encounter an eagle nest anywhere from a remote forest to a tree next to the Walmart parking lot. But even though Bald Eagles are no longer listed as endangered or threatened in the United States, and many of them have grown surprisingly tolerant of human activity, photographing their nests comes with important caveats, both ethical and legal.
Bald Eagles are protected from disturbance and harassment by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and doing anything that eagles respond to can be interpreted as a disturbance, distracting them from what they should be doing to successfully raise their young. Here are some precautions you can take in order to get a great Bald Eagle nest shot while staying on the right side of your conscience—and the law.
Consider context. Not all Bald Eagle families have the same degree of tolerance for humans hanging around their nest. Remember that birds that are nesting in remote areas might be more easily disturbed than birds who have set up camp in close proximity to houses or roads, and consider focusing your efforts on birds that are more used to humans and might be more blasé about your presence.
Know when the birds are most vulnerable. Bald Eagles are more sensitive to disturbance during certain periods of their breeding cycle than others, and knowing these cycles can help you determine the best (and worst) times to try to get a shot of a particular nest. Like many birds, eagles are most likely to abandon a nest early in the season, during courtship and egg laying. Another sensitive period comes when the nestlings are getting ready to fledge, at about eight weeks—if startled during this time, they may jump out of the nest.
Nests in remote areas, away from human activity, should be avoided altogether during extra-sensitive periods. And it’s best not to attempt any nest shots, even those close to human activity, when it’s rainy or especially cold out, when the chicks are most vulnerable.
Make yourself scarce. Research shows that eagles are more likely to be bothered by any activity happening in full view, so try to shoot from a blind when you can. Distance is also a factor. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service guidelines suggest staying 330 feet away from an active nest (and some states have their own laws about how close you can get)—though eagles that have set up shop close to human hustle-and-bustle might be more comfortable at closer distances, provided that your photography set-up isn’t any more intrusive than the typical activity they’re accustomed to.
Use your judgement. When it comes to nest photography, the rules aren’t black and white, and every situation is different. Pay close attention to whether a bird is changing its behavior or exhibiting signs of stress due to your presence (or your equipment). If it is, back off. And use your common sense: For example, just because a family of eagles might tolerate one human hanging around, that doesn’t mean it will tolerate a crowd.
Don’t bait. This rule isn’t specific to nest photography, but it bears mentioning anyway. Though you may be tempted to set out food to draw eagles closer in order to get a great shot, baiting Bald Eagles isn’t just ethically untenable, it’s also arguably illegal, as it could be interpreted as a violation of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.