Thursday, October 9, 2014

Minimizing Birder Disturbance: A Cautionary Tale

Guest post by Tara Tanaka
Have you ever witnessed something involving a helpless party and felt that you should have spoken up or intervened – and it just kept bothering you that you didn’t?  I had this happen in the spring of 2013, and now I’ve been given a second opportunity. 

My husband and I flew into Tucson in April of last year to do some birding in Madera Canyon and the Huachuca Mountains.  It was our first trip to both places, and we were excited about seeing a lot of new species.  I do a lot of digiscoping (taking photos through a spotting scope), and photographing new birds was a big reason for the trip. 

We have friends in Green Valley – both excellent birders, and we made plans with them for a trip to Madera Canyon.  They told us that a Western Screech Owl had a cavity in a Saguaro cactus right across the street from their home, so we made plans to stop by on our way from the airport to our B&B in Madera Canyon.  We arrived late in the afternoon, and just before sunset two of us walked across the street to the Saguaro, and sure enough, the little owl was just waking up.  He was having trouble keeping both eyes open, and was making soft little noises (see the mesmerizing video!!, ).  The digiscoping system I was using is 1200mm, so I was able to stay well back at a distance that didn’t cause him any stress as he slowly woke up and his eyes adjusted to the fading light, preparing for his evening of hunting.  I lowered my tripod and sat on the ground, using a remote.  My camera is one of the mirrorless designs, so when I press the remote there is virtually no movement and I can take photos with very slow shutter speeds without a flash.  

As the last light was fading and it was getting too dark for me to take photos a man arrived and walked over with his camera gear.  He said he’d heard about the owl from a friend.  He was polite and got behind me and set up his gear.  We walked back to our friend’s house and visited for at least another thirty minutes before we said our “goodbyes” and walked out to our car.  I was horrified to see a very bright strobe flashing over and over again right on the owl’s cavity.  It was completely dark, and the man was repeatedly hitting the bird in the eyes with an intensity of light that made me wince. 

I should have gone over there and said something.  The owl couldn’t speak for himself and say “Hey!  My eyes are supposed to be adjusting to the dark so I can go out and catch my food.  What are you thinking???” Maybe he wasn’t thinking, or maybe he just cared more about getting what he thought was a better photo than if he’d taken it in an unobtrusive way.  Either way, the owl was at his mercy and I saw it and I should have said something.

A few days later, during our stay in Madera Canyon, I heard a report that an Elf Owl was using a cavity nearby.  Before sunset we joined a growing crowd of about twenty-five others and waited quietly to get a glimpse of this special bird.  The second the owl showed his face in the cavity entrance, a woman who was off to the side and much closer than the rest of us, blasted his no doubt wide-open pupils with a bright flash from about twenty feet away.  As many of us gasped in shock, she made no apologies to the owl or the waiting crowd of birders.  It was another forty-five minutes before, with much fear and trepidation, he showed his face again, and by then it too dark for anyone to get a decent view. 

It is not my intent to say that all use of supplemental lighting is wrong in bird photography, although I have made the personal decision not to use it. I do however think that it is wrong to use a flash in the ways and situations that I witnessed it being used last year. 

I’ve been disappointed in myself for a year and a half for not speaking up. Yesterday I received an email from Matt Griffiths with the Tucson Audubon Society, asking if they could use a photo of a Western Screech Owl that they saw on my Flickr site as a cover for the magazine.  I said of course, and by the way - there’s an interesting story behind that photo if you’d like to share it, because there is something I’ve been needing to say.

Tara and her husband live on the edge of a 45-acre cypress swamp in north Florida that they own and manage as a sanctuary for Wood Storks, Great Egrets, Wood Ducks and other birds and wildlife.  Tara’s photos can be viewed on Flickr:

Also see:

More info on birding ethics from the American Birding Association:

1. Promote the welfare of birds and their environment.
1(a) Support the protection of important bird habitat.
1(b) To avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger, exercise restraint and caution during observation, photography, sound recording, or filming.
Limit the use of recordings and other methods of attracting birds, and never use such methods in heavily birded areas, or for attracting any species that is Threatened, Endangered, or of Special Concern, or is rare in your local area;
Keep well back from nests and nesting colonies, roosts, display areas, and important feeding sites. In such sensitive areas, if there is a need for extended observation, photography, filming, or recording, try to use a blind or hide, and take advantage of natural cover.
Use artificial light sparingly for filming or photography, especially for close-ups.
1(c) Before advertising the presence of a rare bird, evaluate the potential for disturbance to the bird, its surroundings, and other people in the area, and proceed only if access can be controlled, disturbance minimized, and permission has been obtained from private land-owners. The sites of rare nesting birds should be divulged only to the proper conservation authorities.



  1. I completely agree that using flash photography for owls is unethical. Actually I am an amateur photographer and I never use flash for any bird even though that decreases the quality of my pictures.

  2. I was told by a professional photographer that using flash in sunlight, to eliminate shadows, is the only time flash is needed. And then at the very lowest settings. Better to find a different angle, and go from there. I have only used flash a couple of times, but not for many years. And you can tell when I could have used one, but I just don't anymore...


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