I normally don’t post entire articles when I reference them, but I think it’s important to get these rules in as many eyeballs as possible. It seems like we have a discussion about once a year or so on one of the birding lists I’m on (and disclosure: I’m one of the moderator/owners of South Bay Birds) when we run into someone who’s getting too close or causing stress to the animals or birds they are looking at or trying to photograph.

In this case, from reading the list, someone took the photographer aside and talked to him, and he was understanding and cooperative. That’s not always the case, unfortunately, and sometimes, the impact of the visits isn’t visible to you at the time, but is only obvious later — read, for instance, this story of the loss of a burrowing owl nest in Utah from being loved to death. Unfortunately, that’s happened here in the Bay area as well, where nests have been abandoned due to our enthusiasm for the birds.

Most of the time when I’ve run into these situations, the photographers or birders involved just aren’t thinking about the impact of their actions. Once in a while, I’ve run into someone who doesn’t care, as long as they get their shot. If I see bad or negligent behavior, I’ll typically take some reference shots and if I can, engage the person and try to help them understand why they should back off. If they turn out to be a “get the shot” idiot, if I have images that can identify them, I’ll usually get those to a Ranger if I can.  On SBB, we’ve had discussions about whether to ban someone from the list for this kind of behavior, but since the list archives are open (and should be), we haven’t done that. I’ve been tempted, though.

When practical, I do nest photography.

Some bird photographers won’t. Some sites and publications won’t accept nest photos. I sympathize with those positions; I wish more sites were more active about the ethics of taking nest photos.  I struggle whether I should stop myself at times, because  I worry that out of context, my images my encourage someone else to try it without understanding the limitations you need to put on yourself to keep this work safe for the birds.

My self-imposed rules for dealing with animals at any time are pretty simple and strict:

If the animal or bird acknowledges my presence (by turning to look at me, or stopping whatever it’s doing or changing behavior), I stop and freeze. If it is watching me, I’m too close and it’s defense mechanisms are kicking in. I do not immediately retreat because I don’t want MORE movement until I see how they react. Many times they’ll settle down. If they don’t, I retreat. If I can, I’ll try to move into cover or out of direct view so I’m not triggering their defense mechanism. Once I hit this point, under no circumstance do I move closer once I see where their distance limit is for comfort. ( side note 1: If I’m stopped in place and they come closer to me, I do what I can not to make movements that’ll surprise or scare them, but I don’t retreat, because that typically makes things worse. Doing nothing is always a good option. side note 2: if whatever I’m photographing or watching can EAT ME, I ignore everything I just said about not retreating if I think it’s appropriate to ignore it)

If I flush a bird or animal, I immediately back off. Depending on the situation, I might give it time to settle down and return to its normal behavior and then try again for a shot, or I might decide it’s too stressed and leave. If I flush a bird or animal a second time, that ends any attempt to photograph it. My photo always loses to the welfare of the animal.

If I’m approaching a nest, I’m much stricter. As soon as I see a bird on a nest react to my presence, I back off, and under no circumstances go any closer to where I was when they reacted. And if I flush a bird off their nest, I leave. Period. A bird on a nest only leaves if it feels significant danger, because it’s potentially abandoning it’s eggs or young. You can kill eggs if you keep a bird off the nest too long. there is no photograph worth that risk.

My view on this is simple: watch the animal. It will tell you when you’re too close. If it’s watching you, that’s as clones as it feels comfortable, so that’s as close as you should get. If it’s changing its behavior, you’re too close. If you’re too close, stop, and get further away.

There is no photo worth putting the animal you’re photographing into jeopardy over. It’s easy to get so tied up with getting the shot (believe me, I know the feeling) that you stop paying attention to what the animal is saying. But trust me, they will let you know if you get too close. IMHO, there’s no excuse. All you have to do is pay attention to the animal as much as you do your camera.

Audublog ~ Bird photography code of ethics:

We snagged this list of wildlife code of ethics from Annette Herz on the SBB Listserve and liked it so much we wanted to share it with our readers too:

Wildlife Code of Ethics

1. First and foremost, view wildlife from a safe distance for both you and them. Respect their spatial needs. If the animal interrupts its behavior (resting, feeding, etc.), then you are too close and must distance yourself.

2. Never force an action. Be patient! The most beautiful photographs result from natural action.

3. Never come between a parent and its offspring. I’ve seen tiny bear cubs distressed, treed then separated from their mother by a throng of tourists eager for a closer look. This is unacceptable behavior.

4. Never crowd, pursue, prevent escape, make deliberate noises to distract, startle or harass wildlife. This is stressful and wastes valuable energy in needless flight. The impact is cumulative. Consider that you may be the 65th person to yell “hey moose” at that animal that day while it’s attempting to tend to its young.

5. Never feed or leave food (baiting) for wildlife. Habituation due to handouts can result in disease or even death of that animal and injury to you.

6. Never encroach on nests or dens as certain species will abandon their young.

7. Never interfere with animals engaged in breeding, nesting, or caring for young.

8. Learn to recognize wildlife alarm signals and never forget that these animals are NOT tame no matter how docile or cuddly they appear. No one would argue that you should not try to pet a bull yet there have been numerous instances where a tourist attempted to have his/her photo taken next to a bison with disastrous consequences.

9. Do not damage or remove any plant, life form or natural object. Do pack out trash.

10. Acquaint yourself with and respect the behaviors and ecosystems of the wildlife you may encounter. By doing so, you will enrich your experience tremendously.

11. Finally, and most significant, remember that the welfare of the subject and habitat are irrefutably more important than the photograph.