Sunday, November 04, 2012

Perception Validated

I am a birder and bird photographer, but a birder first. However, this fact alone doesn't cover the various hats I wear relative to the hobby, the pastime, the passion, or those fortunate enough to consider it a veritable lifestyle as I do. I'm also a field trip leader, a public speaker, an author, a citizen scientist, an advocate for conservation, and more. Plus, I'm employed in the sport optics industry where I have opportunities to speak with birders from around the country every day. If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know I enjoy writing about birds as much as I do photographing and watching them. So, whenever I hear stories about bad bird photographer behavior, I'm interested.

Unethical behavior by nature photographers has probably been around since there have been cameras. And like the historical pursuit of birds by naturalists, nature ethics has evolved over time. Debate on this subject reaches critical mass on internet forums, blogs, and other websites. Google the topic and you'll see. I doubt that I have anything new to add to the discourse, but it's true that there is a perception by some birders that bird photographers are to be met with disdain and scorn. I think the pertinent question here is why would anyone hold a negative perception toward a group of people who consistently show the public the beauty of birds and nature in a way other birders can't? I'll tell you why, but it should be obvious. If bird photographers are looked upon unfavorably by other birders, there's a good chance they've been observed:

  • Baiting raptors or owls with live animals.
  • Clearing habitat or cutting down branches to get a clear shot.
  • Trespassing on or destroying private property. 
  • Walking off designated trails or trampling habitat.
  • Repeatedly flushing a bird to get it into the open.
  • Luring birds by overplaying song recordings.
  • Causing a bird to abandon its territory.
  • Disturbing nesting birds.

Overplaying a recording of a Black-throated Blue Warbler song until the bird attacks a camera lens? Blasting a Worm-eating Warbler song over large speakers propped out the back end of a truck at Baxter's Hollow until the bird is frantically singing its head off defending its territory when it shouldn't have to? Feeding a living creature to an owl or raptor just to get a photograph published in a newspaper or magazine? Throwing rocks into the air near an owl that has been practically “trained” by being fed store bought mice that the bird flies down to investigate? These and other stories get around. I'm sure many of you have heard or perhaps have witnessed similar examples of a lack of respect towards wildlife by bird photographers. Though it may be a case of a few bad apples tarnishing the reputation of all bird photographers, it occurs with enough regularity that the subject keeps coming up and the perception is validated.

Carrying a camera doesn't make unethical behavior inevitable. There are birders who will commit some of the same sins for the sake of getting a glimpse of a bird, and I personally know many ethical bird photographers. That being said, it's been my experience that the most egregious examples of unethical behavior are committed by bird photographers. And I haven't failed to notice that there is often a correlation between camera gear and unethical practices in the field. Correlation isn't causation, but owning a $15,000.00 Canon EF 600 lens and DSLR may predispose one to unethical birding behavior.

Now I'm not claiming to be St. Francis of Assisi when I'm in the field, but I do place the welfare of birds and other wildlife above my desire to get a beautiful photograph. My personal methodology is more about repetition and familiarity and not the paparazzi experience. I go birding at Pheasant Branch Conservancy several times a week – I know where the good spots are. Given simple probability, it's inevitable that sooner or later a bird is going to present itself before me in a pose that will make a nice photograph. Sometimes I have my digiscoping gear with me, and sometimes I don't. What you see on my blog stems from me being part lucky, but also being proficient with the gear I have, as well as being a skilled birder. Digiscoping offers the nature photographer tremendous focal length (2,000mm or more), so one doesn't have to get as close to birds in order to obtain good photographs. Spotting scopes, small digital cameras, and adapters have gotten so good that there's really no need (for me) to buy professional grade camera gear.

The reason I'm writing about this today is because I heard a story a few days ago about a Wisconsin bird photographer whose behavior on someone's property was so appalling that the hosts said they will never report another rare backyard bird again. That's really a tragedy for the Wisconsin birding community, and a bird photographer is to blame. I realize you're probably curious as all hell as to what happened, but I'm going to avoid additional details to save the photographer the embarrassment he/she probably deserves. Plus, one never knows who might be offended by my free speech rights and complain to my employer about the content of my blog.

Have you experienced unethical behavior by bird photographers?

Link: Caught in the act!

Link: Animal Parade

Link: Birding & Wheaton's Law

Link: Photographers trample habitat for Nelson's Sparrow

Link: Photographers too close to owl

Link: A Plea For Respect For The Burrowing Owl

Link: The perfect snowy owl photo might not be all-natural

Link: Wildlife & Nature Photography Ethics

 Link: Ethics in Nature Photography

Link: Don't Push it - Wildlife Photography Ethics

Link: "Baiting" – A Matter of Definition and Ethics

Image credit: Atellie Fotografia.


  1. Mike,

    I think the issue with the 'Big Lens' thing you are talking about is that many people who buy these lenses already are into photography and think' hey, that bird is cute. How do I get into that type of photography?' They know little to nothing about birding. And sign up for the list server and there ya go! That is what I have experienced.

    I have a 600mm and have birded for 40 years. Unfortunately, I have experienced MUCH grief from birders who make the assumption that because you have a camera you are an ass. I have watched birders do many things you mentioned way more often to be honest. I was at the Clark's Nutcracker and watched two birders with a point and shoot get so close to take a picture they scared it a block away. Same with the Nelson's...where birders were playing calls, trampling habitat, etc. Watched a bird tour guide throw mice to bring an owl in....but the 20+ birders didn't complain about that. Also saw birders pull branches down so they could get a better picture of a NSWO with their point and shoot. I just shook my head. And this is a small sample of my experience. But photographers with big lenses get the blame.

    I almost always photograph alone and away from birders. I even find rarities and don't post the pictures so no birders will chase it away. I meet/bird with/know many fun birders. I am still a birder at heart and always will be. But to assume someone who has a big lens is less ethical is over the top to me. It is more about the ignorance of the individual per se than the size of the lens. And it is sad to see someone such as yourself pile on photographers when it was an individual who was to blame. And....nice of you to give birders a pass. Maybe next time you should write an article on bad birding behavior as well. Better yet...I can do it for you as my paycheck doesn't come from the birding community.

  2. Hey Jon,

    Maybe you missed the part where I said:

    "Carrying a camera doesn't make unethical behavior inevitable. There are birders who will commit some of the same sins for the sake of getting a glimpse of a bird, and I personally know many ethical bird photographers."

    Mike M.

  3. Making this statement totally erases the comment you made previous to it: 'That being said, it's been my experience that the most egregious examples of unethical behavior are committed by bird photographers. And I haven't failed to notice that there is often a correlation between camera gear and unethical practices in the field. Correlation isn't causation, but owning a $15,000.00 Canon EF 600 lens and DSLR may predispose one to unethical birding behavior.'

    So I didn't miss it at all Mike. This type of prose is made to instill undo hatred of photographers. Plain and simple. It poses no solution and gets birders panties in a bunch at the expense of the normal, ethical, photographers. It is totally uncalled for.

    Nor does it address birder ethics (which is something you should address given your profession...and a search of your blog using 'birding behavior' shows nothing).

    I also think you should talk to someone in the know regarding drawbacks of digiscoping vs. photography. In camera control, autofocus, small sensor imagery, etc. are just a few of the drawbacks of that type of photography. With a DSLR I can take images you can only dream of. So saying it is the end all is bordering on ignorance.

  4. Jon,

    It doesn't erase the comment just because you say it does or want it to. It's still there and I meant what I said. You're just angry. Look at the tone what you've written. You can't even discuss the subject without taking personal jabs at me.

    I'm sure the overwhelming majority of nature photographers are ethical and respect nature just as you and I do. Today I've written about my personal experiences – not yours, but I appreciate you sharing your stories. Others are well aware I've chastised birders on this blog in the past on a variety of issues, but that doesn't mean I think all birders are unethical. That would be absurd.

    Maybe what I've written doesn't serve any purpose to you, but it does serve as a reminder to both birders and birders who are also photographers that their actions on the field are observed by others and that both need to respect private property and the welfare of birds. If this stuff is going on, then maybe people need a reminder.

    What the Wisconsin photographer did was pretty bad, but you don't know what that is. Just as bad birder behavior tarnishes the reputation of birders in the public eye, bad bird photographer behavior reinforces prejudices people may have about photographers, however unfairly. But I can guarantee you that whenever a Snowy Owl shows up near Milwaukee, there will be a veritable paparazzi out there feeding it store bought mice just to get flight shots of the bird.

    This is one blog post with one issue and it wasn't intended be a treatise on birding ethics. It was meant to be about the very perception you're concerned about that birders have toward bird photographers. You're welcome to comment, but your angry words aren't helping. I was merely providing an explanation as to why this perception exists. It exists because of bad bird photographer behavior. This in no way represents a denial that there are bad birders out there, too.

    I didn't say digiscoping is the “end all.” It isn't helpful when you put your words in my mouth. If you check, you'll see that I said it's the right equipment for me. I'm sure your photography is wonderful, but I don't spend time dreaming about your results. It's not all about the photograph for me. It's about getting outside with friends, enjoying nature, and looking at birds and other critters.

    You also assumed I don't know the pros and cons between digiscoping gear and super telephoto DSLR rigs. Of course I do. I've had plenty of opportunities to try long lenses on DSLR cameras. I'm sure if I had the kind of gear you do I would likely have more flight shots, action shots, perhaps sharper results, and better color. Digiscoping is tricky business and it isn't for all nature photographers, but I enjoy working within the boundaries of the gear that I have.

    If you want to comment on my blog again, I suggest you do so in a more honest and courteous manner.

    Mike M.

  5. Greetings Mike,
    Its nice to know there are other like minded people out there. I am currently in a "discussion" with a number of folks at a recent Siberian Tree Pipit "twitch"(NL), i walked away from the site with only a short sighting of the bird and no pictures as i did not want to be party to what was transpiring.
    Digiscoping fulfills my own hobby of taking pictures of birds/animals, and sits within my own ethos of OBSERVING not DISTURBING.
    I had no idea that Digiscoped pictures could actually be comparable to DSLR+Lense set ups, until i saw some of your work and some of the other exceptionally good digiscopers on Facebook and Flickr and suchlike.

  6. Mike,

    An observation. 2 of the 9 posts decrying unethical field behavior by bird photographers are mine ("A Plea For Respect For The Burrowing Owl" and "Baiting - A Matter Of Definition And Ethics").

    I'm a bird photographer, and have no interest in the traditional trappings of "birding". And yes, I have one of those big, expensive lenses - the same one I used to expose the jerk trampling all over the Burrowing Owl nesting area on my blog.

    I've seen unethical field behavior fom both bird photographers and birders. If both groups don't begin to more effectively police their own actions, others will intervene - to the detriment of all.

    IMO, if your real goal with this post is to positively influence shoddy field behaviors it would be more accurate, and more effective, to publicly "attack" individuals, rather than groups. I know that what you have said here certainly got my feathers ruffled - and not just because of the unethical activities you point out (with the help of others -including bird photographers).

    One more thing: You say that if bad behavior by bird photographers keeps coming up, "then it is validated". Horse puckey! The accusation that Obama is a Muslim "keeps coming up" too. Does that validate the accusation?

    Your premise, "Perception Validated" is flawed.

  7. Ron,

    Your analogy is interesting, but fundamentally flawed with respect to the fact that there is zero evidence for Obama being a Muslim. There is ample evidence to validate unethical behavior by bird photographers. I chose the post title in the context of an explanation and not necessarily a conclusion. Does that make sense?

    Read my post carefully once again. I have never claimed that *all* bird photographers are unethical. I'm not trying to say all bird photographers are unethical. I am saying that there *may* be a correlation between gear and photographer behavior. I may be wrong on that point. Also, I did not give birders a free pass, nor would I. I've observed bad behavior in the field by birders, non-birders, photographers, and all sorts of people. This post is about bird photographers.

    You are absolutely right on your point that the groups need to police their own actions - great comment.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    Mike M.

  8. Mike,

    A. I made no claim that there is "zero evidence for Obama being a Muslim", as you said I did. Read my comment carefully...

    B. I also never said that you claimed that "all bird photographers are unethical" as you insinuate that I did. You attacked the group, but never said they were all unethical. You were very careful to "cover your bases" there.

    My point was, and is, that just because a generalization "keeps coming up", doesn't validate it. And that you'd be better off questioning actions of individuals from either/both camps, rather than using the shotgun approach. Innocents get hurt that way (just ask Cheney). But that makes the assumption that your goal was to influence unethical field behavior, rather than promote digiscoping over traditional photography.

    Still flawed, I'm afraid. But it's your blog.



  9. Ron,

    I wasn't claiming that you said that re: Obama being a Muslim. I was showing you how your analogy is flawed. It is still flawed, I'm afraid.

    On unethical behavior by bird photographers: It is validated by the people who hold this perception *because* these things are observed in the field by other bird photographers and birders. Is this so difficult to grasp?

    Do you deny this perception exists? I've known about it for over a decade and so have many of my bird photographer friends. This blog post is an attempt to explain why this perception exists. It is not a condemnation of a group of people.

    Mike M.

  10. So, whose words were (originally) "there is zero evidence for Obama being a Muslim" - yours or mine? They were yours, put in my mouth by you. But we're getting nowhere here, so lets go elsewhere.

    Of course the perception exists! And that kind of behavior from a few nature photographers drives me nuts. That's why I blog about it and post photos of them doing it on my blog and warn about it in photography forums and ALWAYS include this line in my techs when posting photos on bird photography critique forums "no bait, no decoy, not set up or called in".

    I have a blog of my own and I've seen many outrageous things in the field from both bird photographers and birders. But I would never attack either camp as a group, only individually.

    "Is that so difficult to grasp?"

    Different strokes, I guess.

    I'm out'a here.

  11. Ron,

    The flawed Obama/Muslim analogy was all yours. You're the one who brought it up. I merely showed you how it's flawed.

    Thanks for your comments.

    Mike M.

  12. Jon is sending all sorts of petty insults to me via my blog. Resorting to ad hominem attacks is a sure sign of a defeated intellect.

    Mike M.

  13. One more time for clarity ...

    Ron wrote:

    One more thing: You say that if bad behavior by bird photographers keeps coming up, "then it is validated". Horse puckey! The accusation that Obama is a Muslim "keeps coming up" too. Does that validate the accusation?

    Let's break it down.

    Argument #1:

    P1: Accusations of poor ethics against bird photographers exist.
    P2: There are genuine examples of poor ethics by bird photographers.
    C: Because P2, the perception of what is accused in P1 is validated.

    Argument #2:

    P1: Accusations that Obama is a Muslim exist.
    P2: There are genuine examples of Obama practicing Islam.
    C: Because P2, the perception of what is accused in P1 is validated.

    Premise #2 in Argument #2 is false. I realize Ron isn't claiming P2, but that's what's missing in his analogy for it to be a fair one. That being said, there are no genuine examples of Obama being observed practicing Islam, therefore even if Ron included P2, his argument is invalid for false premise. The fact that there are observed examples of poor ethics by bird photographers is precisely what fuels the perception some birders have about bird photographers. There are real world examples being used validate their perception. Now, does this justify labeling all bird photographers unethical? No. And I did not do that, though Ron and Jon seem to be acting as if I have. Why are they both so angry? I confess I'm still unsure what it is they're objecting to.

    Also note how Ron left out the word "perception" in his first sentence, thus distorting my argument. It reads differently when written as: "You say that if bad behavior by bird photographers keeps coming up, then the perception is validated." If there is observed bad behavior by bird photographers, then the perception is validated in the minds of those who continue to make those particular accusations. But I'm not saying that's what I believe; I'm merely providing at least one possible explanation why the perception exists.

    Mike M.

  14. I just started taking bird photographs this year. I've never done any of those things. I'm shocked to hear people do. I like the challenge of naturally capturing a bird in a photo. I go out often and learn from my experiences. I've had some good shots and people ask how did you do that and most often the answer is Luck! Happened to be in right place at the right time. I guess I'll never look at those owl shot in same way again. Oh and my equipment is pretty basic.