The popularity of bird photography is booming, and advances in digital technology have put stunning images within ever-easier reach. But with this reach comes the critical responsibility of protecting the birds we photograph. This is never more important than during nesting season, when birds are both doing their most important work—reproducing—and are at their most vulnerable. Here are some basic guidelines that can enable us to get the nest shots we want without jeopardizing the well-being of the birds we love.
Do your research
Spend some time learning about your subject before you head out. What are the threats to the young? What do the birds eat? What eats them? Is the species a skittish, furtive nester? What is its conservation status? If your subject is threatened or endangered, minimizing your disturbance is even more critical.
Learn to read the signs
Ethical bird photography requires being constantly aware of the behavior of our subjects, and on the lookout for signs of stress or fear. These may vary across species, but common distress behavior may include a stiff upright posture and a widening of the eyes (particularly with owls); attempts to look as big as possible, sometimes with wings flared out; and warning vocalizations. Do the parents fly away and not return? If they’re avoiding the nest because you’re close, the unprotected nestlings or eggs could be threatened by the hot sun or chilly temperatures. A photographer once set up a blind near an American White Pelican rookery, unintentionally flushing the parents, which stayed away all day. Hundreds of chicks perished in the direct sun.
I’ve heard photographers in Florida complain about waiting at an owl nest for hours, frustrated that they’re unable to get the “food delivery” shot. What people may not realize is that parents could either be afraid of them or instinctively reluctant to draw attention to the nest by returning to it. If an hour or two has passed with no sign of the parent, retreat a good distance to see if you’re what’s keeping the parents away.
Keep your distance
Telephoto lenses are a good choice, since you can shoot from a distance. But how far away do you need to be? There’s really no hard-and-fast rule. Some backyard nests, for example, can be approached much less intrusively than, say, a woodland warbler’s nest in the forest. The sensitivity of individual birds can also vary within the same species, depending on location. Many of Florida’s Great Horned Owls appear quite comfortable near humans, while in other parts of the country they can be very sensitive to disturbance. A robin’s nest or a Mourning Dove’s nest in your front yard can bear close scrutiny. A kingfisher’s nest on a riverbank, or a kestrel’s wood box, cannot.
For birds that are skittish at the nest, blinds are advised. Pop-up hunting blinds are one option; higher-end blinds made expressly for photographers are another. Set the blind up as far in advance as possible—days or even weeks—so the birds get used to it. Some photographers say that having two people enter the blind and then having one leave can sometimes fool the bird into thinking the blind is empty. There are also body blinds that are a lot more portable and yield a smaller profile. Last, cars can make a great “movable blind.” Many times birds are more comfortable when you’re in your car than on foot.
Protect nests from predators
The biggest threat to eggs and chicks, even when the parents are present, is predators. For nests hidden from plain view, visits should be kept to a minimum to avoid damage to vegetation and the creation of pathways that predators can follow. Never move or remove anything around the nest. All too often, photographers take shears and cut away vegetation from around a nest in order to get a clear line of sight and a “cleaner” image. Those very branches or leaves are likely providing essential camouflage from predators, or protection from wind, rain and sun. The bird chose that site precisely for its particular cover.
Never remove nestlings or eggs from a nest
This goes without saying—but it still needs to be said! Handling the young or the eggs to better arrange your photo is just plain wrong.
Consider the cumulative impact of photographers
Repeated visits by multiple photographers have a cumulative impact. If a nesting bird is disturbed often enough, it may abandon its nest (and eggs). Sometimes it’s clear that lots of birders or other photographers have visited a nest. In that case, you should be ready to simply forego this photographic opportunity.
Protect nest sites after you have taken the photo
Before publishing or sharing images of nesting birds, especially if they’re threatened or endangered, remove all GPS-embedded data from the image. Thinking of sharing your photo on social media? Keep in mind it is our responsibility to protect sensitive areas and species by refraining from indiscriminately disclosing their location, as the general public may not understand the potentially mortal implications of approaching a nest site.