Weaving a thread between the natural world and ourselves is one of the most rewarding facets of photography. So when we come across rare fauna or discover an untamed location, it is no surprise to feel over the moon and want others to experience the same.
Birds are among the most photographed animals in the world. Hence, when a species of interest is spotted (as it was with a Painted Bunting in NYC and a white Tui in New Zealand), a large number of shutters are bound to click. And although sightings have long been a talking point between enthusiasts, technological developments have made the disclosing of information much more instantaneous and widespread with social media dynamics induces people to hash-tag and geotag to snag more likes and followers.
In an insightful guide, Canon shares practices on how to ethically photograph wild birds, advising photographers not to announce the location of rare species online. A common counter-argument is that advertising the whereabouts of an animal raises public awareness and engagement with nature. However, indiscriminately disclosing the information will likely result in crowds swarming to the place – many of whom are ignorant of wildlife photography etiquette – consequently disturbing not only the bird but their habitat and the local community too. Still, even if everyone behaves impeccably, a recent study suggests that human presence hampers the bird from hunting or attracting a mate, coercing them to fly away.
In the end, it is down to each one of us to find a point of balance. Perhaps if you happened to stumble upon a rare bird, the brief encounter and photographic evidence would be enough?
Below are few tips on how to share bird sightings responsibly:
- Share guidelines alongside the location, educating people on how to behave.
- Remove GPS-embedded data from the picture and be generic with the whereabouts.
- Don't disclose the location until the bird has moved on.
- Reach out to the relevant environmental authority to conduct a risk assessment.
- Consider where the bird is – private properties and protected areas may be illegal to enter.
- Only share the location with friends you trust who will respect the bird.
- We talked to some of our members about their views on photographing birds - you will surely find a lot of inspiration and food for thought.
- "Bird photography is unique in that you’re attempting to get as close as possible to your subject without being seen as a threat. Too close and the bird will become anxious and either fly away or, if nesting, become agitated. Nervous birds mean poor images, it's far better to be in harmony with your subject and environment.", says Graham Jones.
"I always use a 600mm telephoto lens and a tripod if practical to do so. The long lens allows you to shoot from a minimum of 20metres from your subject and capture sharp images that you can crop down in post-processing.
The secret to capturing good images is patience and planning. Early morning with low tide is the perfect time for the coast. Dress in gear that blends with your surroundings and leave the dog and children at home. If you are a local you will have some idea of nesting areas and how best to approach your subject without disturbing them.
Early summer is breeding time and many coastal birds are either incubating eggs or nursing young chics. Many coastal birds choose to nest on open ground with little protection from predators and humans. Be aware of your environment and how delicate it is after all, we are the caretakers for the next generation.
When posting on social media, I generally give the name of the species in Maori / English and a reference site eg NZ Birds Online but I limit the locality information to a broad geographical area e.g. Waihi beach instead of Anzac Cove to minimize the foot traffic and visitors."
We asked Toya Heatley, recreational photographer, what is the best practice to follow when photographing birds from her perspective.
"From my point of view, anything that damages the environment or stresses the birds is a big no no.", says Toya. "For example, I have seen people go to the beaches to photograph birds with their chicks and they have herded the birds towards each other to get those "magic" shots. This is extremely stressful for the birds and puts the chicks in danger of abandonment or worse. Likewise, in the bush I have seen flax bushes flattened by photographers pushing their way to the best spot for photographing the birds. Many birds use the cover of the flax for shelter or nesting and the flax flowers for food. It is possible to get all the images you want without doing either of these things. With patience and by sitting still, most birds will stop seeing you and your camera as a threat and will come closer to you. This is when you get the most natural looking images and it is easier too! To sum up, the best practice for me is to do no harm, have patience, and wait for the birds to accept you into their world."
How do we find the balance as photographers between sharing the opportunity to photograph (rare) birds with fellow photographers but at the same time not turning it into a hunting/chasing game after the (rare) species for a few seconds of 'insta' fame?
"When you find something special you want to show everyone, however if that happens it can create a mad rush to capture the same image. The white fantail in Stratford did exactly that.", shares Toya. "It was first seen and photographed in March 2020 and crowds went to see it. This was great for the local camping ground and the local economy but I'm not sure about how good it was for the fantail. I held off going up there until July/August 2020 when most of the hype had cooled off. By waiting, I was able to spend time alone with the fantail without the crowds - it was a very special experience that I will never forget. I have a small group of trusted fellow photographers who share information about the birds we find with each other, but we have stopped making this fully public to protect the birds and our own opportunities. I photograph birds because I am passionate about bird photography, not because I want to win a race."
Vandy Pollard, an active bird and nature photographer, has her own tips for responsible photography practice when approaching and photographing birds.
"I always spend a significant amount of time researching their behaviour, distribution, and habitat, and for 'rare' birds, research their threats and conservation.", says Vandy.
"Often the best times to photograph birds is early in the morning so I am often the only photographer there, which helps minimise, potential for disturbance.
I find nzbirdsonline.org.nz a particularly useful resource. If we show respect and become educated on birds and their environment, we are less likely to disturb their habitat, minimise the risk of startling them, ensure we don't encroach on mating and nesting colonies.I usually photograph birds alone or with someone I really trust in their approach to photographing birds. Some of my favourite shots of birds are those where they are obviously relaxed, have continued to forage, gone to sleep or one in particular; a Variable Oyster Catcher yawning.
I am very careful to avoid being the catalyst for birds to display signs of distress, diversionary (distraction) displays or taken flight, due to being disturbed. People often query why I detail that an image has been shot on zoom, with an extender and cropped (often by 90%) - it's important for people to know that I have not ventured too close, especially if a bird is rare or endangered.
When the Rare Leucistic or White Native Tui was reported to have been found in Mount Victoria, Wellington, a fellow photographer who had photographed her days earlier, drew me a map of the exact location. I visited just before 8am on the weekend and was the only person there, as the first rays of sunlight crept across the Green belt. When I visited in the evening a few days later, the Leucistic Tui appeared oblivious to people, as they ran or biked past so I felt comfortable that I wasn't disturbing her. I had given a few photographers I knew well, her location but I was confident they would be respectful and not encroach on her foraging."
Keep an eye on the upcoming Blog posts on Exciohub for more topics and tips about photographing birds as we continue the series talking to other members of our wonderful creative community.