Etiquette – Birders, Bird Photographers and the General Public

Roseate Spoonbill just prior to leavingRoseate Spoonbill just prior to leaving

Below are just a few examples of situations I have found myself in where Birding or Bird Photography Etiquette might have helped:

#1 One morning in 2008 while photographing Roseate Spoonbills in the lagoon of Fort De Soto County Park’s north beach my subjects took flight because two bird photographers walked up behind me talking loudly and banging their gear. This image shows one of the Spoonbills looking at those photographers as they walked up.

I had taken a long time to get close to my subjects, moving forward by scooting my knees across the bottom of the lagoon while making sure not to splash the water to alarm the birds. I was ticked off because the opportunity to photograph the birds longer literally flew away because the photographers didn’t use etiquette when they approached.

These photographers should have been talking softly and taking care not to make unnecessary noise.

If they wanted to photograph the birds I was already on they could have softly asked if it was okay to approach or moved slowly into the field of my peripheral vision and motioned to me. If they had approached like I had; down low and slow, they probably would not have frightened the birds away and then all of us could have photographed the Spoonbills together.


#2 On another morning at Fort De Soto County Park I noticed some Roseate Spoonbills, a white morph Reddish Egret and several Snowy Egrets actively feeding in the shallow water of a tidal lagoon and I also saw that a bird photographer was already there. I looked the situation over and decided that if I were to approach the female bird photographer I would most likely scare her subjects away so I kept walking down the beach.

On my return to the area the bird photographer had left so I dropped down into the sand and slowly belly crawled towards the birds and the edge of the lagoon. I had been photographing for a few minutes when I noticed that all the birds seemed alarmed and since I hadn’t moved or upset the birds I wondered what the problem was and soon found out as I heard someone behind me yelling “Is that a Flamingo?” at which point all of the birds flushed and flew away. The woman had just strolled up, which caused the birds to be alarmed and when she yelled, I lost my subjects.

This lady was obviously a tourist and not native to Florida, most likely not a photographer (she didn’t have any gear) or a birder (no binocs or scope) and perhaps she didn’t realize that yelling was going to scare away the birds I had very patiently approached. She was there for sunning on the beach, not birds or wildlife. Still a bit of common courtesy on her part would have gone a long way.


#3 One afternoon at Honeymoon Island State Park there were several Eastern Towhees right next to Osprey Trail that were not paying the least attention to me as they flitted around chasing each other, I would say I was easily within 10 feet of the birds and they were in beautiful light. I took one test shot to make sure that the exposure looked good on my LCD screen when some people walking the trail came up talking very loudly and scared the birds away. They did not have binoculars or cameras in hand so I would say they were members of the “general public” just enjoying the park that scared away my subjects.

Nature is enjoyed by many people, not just birders and bird photographers but if these people had been quieter they would not have scared away my subjects and they might have gotten some good looks at the Eastern Towhees themselves.


#4 On another occasion I was trying to get images of a Barred Owl at Lettuce Lake near Tampa, Florida when a birder/bird photographer played audio so many times that the Barred Owl took off for a quieter part of the park which robbed me and the other photographers in the area from getting images of the owl.

This guy was just rude, when there are other people in the area it would have been courteous to ask “if” they minded if he played audio near us. He didn’t ask and he played it over and over until the bird had enough and left.

I would also feel cheated if someone nearby used a call that made the subject I was photographing go over to investigate the playback. 

Personally I do not use audio playbacks of birds or animal calls to attract my subjects or bring them closer to me, I want to photograph my subjects doing what they do naturally.


#5 I was at a local Wildlife Management Area on the dirt road where a group of birders all traveling by separate cars had effectively blocked anyone else from passing them because not all of them had pulled their vehicles over to the shoulder as far as they could. We had to wait for those people to pull over to the shoulder after some people in the birding group brought it to the attention of the people parked in the middle of the road.

We all need to extend common courtesy to other people using the outdoor areas by allowing room for other people to pass on foot or by vehicle if it the location is on a road.


#6 A few days ago while trying to photograph White-crowned Sparrows on a wild Rose bush at Farmington Bay Wildlife Management Area from inside a mobile blind (pickup) a person pulled up behind us, got out of their truck and walked up to the window I was shooting out of. My 200-400mm VR lens was plainly visible resting on my noodle and the sounds of my shutter was clearly audible. The man chatted about what he had seen, asked what we had seen and asked what we were aiming our lenses at. Meanwhile some of the birds took off because he was outside his vehicle and talking and moving quite often to show me what he had taken images of while he appeared oblivious to the fact he had interrupted me from taking images or that he had scared off some of the subjects that I was attempting to photograph.

This gentleman might not have been aware of Birding or Wildlife Photography Etiquette. When a photographer is looking through their lens while it is set up on a tripod it would be polite to wait to talk to them after they move their eyes away from their viewfinder. In the case of people using a vehicle as a mobile blind it would be polite to wait to approach them on foot until after they move their lens inside the vehicle or until they motion to you to come forward.


Doing a Google Search on Birding Etiquette will bring up lots of links that have plenty of information available for birders, bird photographers and the general public who participate in outdoor activities like nature watching. It is especially helpful for novice birders and budding bird photographers to take the time to study the guidelines.

Birding/Bird Photography Etiquette and Birding/Bird Photography Ethics are different, etiquette has to do with how Birders and Bird Photographers interact with other birders, with other people enjoying the outdoors and how we behave in the field. I hope to do a post on Birding/Bird Photography Ethics in the future.

Here are a few links to Birding/Bird Photography etiquette information:

Birding Etiquette – National Audubon Society

Birding Etiquette – Birding About.com

I think it is always important to try to remember that not everyone knows that there is such a thing as Birding or Bird Photography Etiquette. It could be a good time to bring the subject up; politely of course. You never know, you may be making a lifetime friend or introducing someone to the (addictive) wonderful world of birds!

Mia

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About Mia McPherson

I am a nature lover, wildlife watcher and a bird photographer. I first become serious about bird photography when I moved to Florida in 2004 and it wasn’t long before I was hooked (addicted is more like it). My move to the Salt Lake area of Utah was a great opportunity to continue observing their behavior and to pursue my passion for photographing birds.

18 Comments

  1. Thanks for this, Mia. The biggest challenge I’ve had since moving to the Northwest — outside of light and weather — is that I don’t have access to vast network of trails that surround my home turf of San Francisco Bay. Most waterfront is privately held here, so the few areas that do offer public access are also inundated with humans. I find I lose almost every photographic opportunity these days because of human activity. I do understanding having to share trails in my environment, and I may just have to wait until I’m back in California to appreciate the open spaces again. So, like Larry, I’ve used my lens as educational tool when people stop and ask what I’m photographing. I generally enjoy the response, because a lot of people just don’t see the birds and wildlife around them, particularly in urban environments. I do often miss shots because of it, but I hope the trickle-down effect is more beneficial than a single photo would have been.

    What I can’t abide is the deliberate interference I see so often. People don’t understood how running into a flock of birds, or allowing their kids and dogs to do so, jeopardizes their safety, feeding and squanders energy. When I can, I educate on this level. But I’m getting so tired of being the disciplinarian. I wish there was some general sensibility and common sense about this. And, I also wish more parks took the time to put up bold signage, spelling out precisely what it is people can’t do. They won’t stop doing it until they know what it is they shouldn’t be doing. There’s no central hub of wildlife knowledge and etiquette for all humans. There should be.

  2. People are stupid Mia. I’ve had the same issues and I get super angry. To combat these idiots on the trails, I have to get up early when they’re filling their faces with pancakes, sausage patties, watching their QVC, and drinking their coffee. And I have to get up even earlier before the dog walkers get to the places. You want to write about RUDE!!! But I’ve learned how to use people and their clumsiness to my advantage. I now spy where the people walk and where the wildlife is located and position myself in a spot to get the best shot before the bird takes off. I’m getting better figuring how to configure it all…..but as you mention, the lighting is the one we can’t control and that’s the frustrating bit. You get the subject all lined up and that unpredictable kid comes out of nowhere……or worse, people see you and instead of keeping their distance, they walk right up carelessly or leave their cars on and ruin the shoot. Yeah….I’m with you on this. Over the weekend, I lost 3 shots because of this. I was in a canyon and people in a car spied me and left their loud car running while I was filming a Bridled Titmouse. I was irritated to the max. Good post for wildlife photographers!

    • Thanks Chris, perhaps gentle instruction is the best way to get the message of field etiquette across to people who are out enjoying the outdoors and don’t know about it.

  3. Great post, iI’ve had this issue with children too, and I just pray that children don’t show around in shooting grounds.

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  5. These are excellent examples of sometimes ignorance but many times just lack of common courtesy. My opinion is that #1, bird photographers should know better. I would have read those guys the riot act! #2, like you stated, common courtesy seems to be more and more lacking these days. #3, I bird and take photographs at some locations where most of the people are there simply to exercise. They are walking briskly or jogging with their partners and usually talking loudly. I actually take these opportunities to share my experience with these folks if they stop to ask “what are you photographing.” Many times I find that they are excited about seeing whatever I am photographing and I hope it opens their eyes to nature in some way. In these situations, I don’t expect other people to even be conscious of me or what I am doing. #4, is one of my pet peeves. An excerpt from an article from Sibley Guides states “Under no circumstances should you play a recording continuously or at very high volume. The epitome of bad playback etiquette is the birder who walks around with a device continuously and loudly broadcasting sound, or the photographer who sets up a device on continuous playback and waits for the bird to fly in. This is ineffective, unnecessary, and is the kind of playback most likely to be harmful to birds and disturbing to other birders.” I urge people to read the full article. #5 and #6, common courtesy strikes again.

    Thank you for highlighting birding and bird photography etiquette Mia. You are the poster child for wildlife photography ethics in both your actions and your photographs. Showing folks your excellent photos should clue them in to what a good wildlife photographer can do if they keep high standards to protect our wildlife.

    • Larry,

      Thanks so much for providing the link to Sibley’s post about playback, I wish more people would read the whole thing. There are photographers who use playback all day long at set up to call birds into the locations they have turned into a “studio” even during migration, mating and nesting season. It bothers me greatly that this is done with seemingly little or no regard for the subject’s well being. I’ll cover that in a post about bird photography ethics, soon I hope.

  6. Beautiful photo of Roseate Spoonbill!!
    One time I was walking back to my car after observing and photographing migrating waterfowl on a flooded field. A woman unaware of the photographer was letting her spaniel chase the ducks. He was having so much fun! I complimented her on the dog and then pointed out to her that there were a bunch of birders, partially hidden from her, trying to photograph those birds. She was very apologetic and took her dog out of the area. She’ll probably be more attentive the next time around.

  7. What an awesome photo! Your comments on the etiquette is right on, don’t know how many times I’ve been rudely interrupted while taking photos, wish this was posted at every wildlife refuge, natural area, hiking trail, or park

  8. Great points to keep in mind, expressed in respectful and gentle fashion. Your comments would make a nice brochure or posting at the entrance to a wildlife refuge area!

    • Thank you Fern. It would probably be a great idea if all parks, refuges and recreation areas posted information about wildlife observation etiquette or had brochures to hand out.

  9. wooooow, beautifull,
    great shot mia ☺

  10. People, loud ones at least. Beautiful picture of Roseate Spoonbill.

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