We had a report of some photographers using artificial calls to attract Owls near a nest which started an interesting discussion about ethical birding on the Long Island Wildlife Photography Page.  Grace Scalzo, a very experienced wildlife Photographer,  had some thoughts on the subject and was nice enough to share them below.  This week’s photos will follow!


Ethical Birding and Wildlife Phtography By Grace Scalzo

The question of ethics in nature photography has come up again in our Long Island Wildlife Photography Face Book group. One of our members reported a couple of folks near an eastern screech owl nest playing calls of owls and creatures that they prey on in the hopes of getting a response from the sleeping owl so that a picture could be snapped.

In the series of comments that follow on that thread, quite a few people are surprised to hear that some individuals do this at nest sites. The practice surprises them. Let’s discuss the ugly side of nature photography since not everyone is aware that this happens.

Sometimes those gorgeous shots that we see of a bird on a pretty perch, usually singing, with a perfectly clean background, have been obtained naturally. But often, the bird is attracted to the perch by playing his call. He then responds by coming over to see who is around in his territory and the photographer fires off a burst of images. Is this an ethical practice? If a call is played for a very short time and a bird comes to take a look, it may be that no long-term harm has been done. However, a human has indeed caused him to change his behavior, so some thought does need to be given to the practice. (Note that many parks ban the use of calls). Birders have been crying foul when group leaders repeatedly use calls in city parks. While it probably is disturbing to the birds, it certainly is to other park users.

How about those gorgeous shots we see of a snowy owl, maybe a great gray owl, gliding across new fallen show, talons extended, ready to catch a mouse. Usually the photographer has used a wide-angle lens. Be skeptical! Many times, the owl has been “baited”- a live mouse has been let go and the owl swoops in to grab it, placed exactly where the photographer wants the shot. Can this happen naturally? Of course, but rarely as we all know. I have even heard of people tying a mouse to a string and staking it in a field so that a raptor swoops down and those dramatic images are obtained. Thankfully, baiting has never been an accepted practice on Long Island and in the few instances where people have tried, they are quickly told to quit it.

What about tossing fish to eagles? Does that cross a line? Feeding backyard birds? We all do that, and in fact it is usually encouraged since we humans have destroyed so much habit that it is not always easy for birds to find food and water.

Let’s talk about nest sites since eagles are returning to Long Island. Not only is it distracting to the birds to have photographers crowding around their nests, snapping shots and making noise, it is also not fair to the people who own the parking lots where these gatherings take place. These birds do not have an easy time of it when it comes to raising their young, the last thing that they need is to be distracted by us. It is likely that certain osprey nests have been abandoned due to crowing by photographers. Drones over nests have been observed. Clearly, this is not ethical in any circumstance.

Thanks to social media and people wanting “likes”, people entering contests in the hopes of winning a top spot, etc, temptation is high to resort to these tactics. Think about it, people. For what? Are those “Likes” so important to you that you will risk the safety of your subject? Will you truly be proud when you see those images, knowing what you did to get them?

The members of Long Island Wildlife Photography Facebook page have always prided ourselves on our ethics. We strive to get out and enjoy both nature and photography while at the same time being respectful of our subjects, our environment and each other. It is for this reason that the location of nests and sensitive species are not allowed. That said, nothing stops people from posting these types of shots on their own pages, or on other social media platforms. Good judgement needs to prevail and that has to be determined by each photographer for him/herself.

So what can we do regarding educating ourselves and others regarding good field behavior?

Here are some thoughts:

  • Learn from your mistakes. We have all erred, myself included, and the best thing we can do is to not repeat. Learn, evolve. Study your subject, figure out the story that you want to tell with your photograph and how to get the shots that will not disturb.
  • Read about ethics in nature photography and birding. Much is written as this is a hot topic with so many people involved in these activities.
  • If you see something going wrong in the field, try to get the proper help to correct the situation. If you can speak to the person calmly and they respond appropriately, fine. But do NOT engage with someone who might put you in danger. Call the parks police, the DEC, etc. Shaming on social media with photographs and names that identify the offenders is usually not a good idea.
  • Know and obey the laws. (Even if you disagree with them…) Set a good example.
  • Think about what you are doing from your subject’s point of view. Are your actions causing a change in behavior? If so, move along. If the subject is relaxed, enjoy.
  • Question a photo that looks like one of the above practices was used. Be respectful, but it is ok to ask if a subject was baited, for example.
  • Become a better naturalist. Read, learn, study, think.

Brian Doherty | Eastern Bluebird

Carole Ryder | Coopers Hawk

Christopher Carl | Northern Harrier

Matt Kaelin | Tiger Salamander

Nancy Viscardi-Ricigliano | Dunlins

More Images on Pages 2,3,4 and 5