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.