Challenges of Nest Photography

Jeffrey J. Jackson and I recently had drinks and lunch with retired biologist Richard R. Howie in Kamloops and the three of us talked about the pros and cons of nest photography. We discussed the concern among environmentalists and wildlife management agencies that the looking for nests and improper photography techniques could cause stress or disturb the birds at their nests or even result in predation and loss of the brood. Rick mentioned that there had been conflict between bird watchers and photographers for a variety of reasons which may have included nest photography. He also stressed that management authorities will always be vigilant about the contravention of the laws and that photographers could be charged if they were found to be in contravention of various statutes. I have to point out here that charges in Canada are criminal and come with maximum fines of $250,000 and up to five years jail time. Over the next few weeks the Rick sent me links to several sites that referenced bird photography ethics.

I was really perturbed when I read about the use of mist nets to capture birds for banding. Having photographed small birds for several years, I am well aware just how fast they fly. One ornithologist talked about the bruising on the bodies of birds caught in mist nets. He knew what he was talking about because he literally skinned thousands of birds throughout his career. Here’s the link to the entire article:

One section of the Audubon web site was about the photography of owls. Here’s some quotes, “Unfortunately, there’s little scientific research on the topic, but we do know a little about how bird vision works. The eyes of owls and humans respond to light in the same way, says Ellis Lowe, a professor of physiology at Cornel University of Veterinary Medicine. When the eye is exposed to bright light – like a flash firing in the dark – photoreceptors cells can become saturated. This causes brief “functional blindness”, a glowing afterimage that affects the ability to see and recognize objects. It can take anywhere from five to 30 seconds to readjust.”

The article continued, “Some experts, such as Denver Holt, director of the Montana-based Owl Research Institute, argue that the educational value of these images outweigh the potential risk – if the images are used for greater public awareness and conservation, for example, and the photographer works in tandem with researchers who study and understand the particular species. He allows limited use of photography when his team bands owls at night.”

Here’s the link to the entire article:

From past experiences, I would never ever attempt to photograph birds at night.

I was pleased to see that the 2016 Audubon contest winner of $5,000 U.S. was a picture of a pair of Prothonotary Warblers at their nest cavity. The photograph was taken with multiple flash.

Personally, I feel that nest bird photography can greatly contribute to man’s understanding of our feathered friends.


A Loggerhead Shrike has a noon-day siesta with its almost ready-to-fledge young.


A male Mountain Bluebird tends to his almost ready-to-fledge young residing in the abandoned nest of a pair of American Robins. Never before documented by photography, Damon S. Calderwood wrote an article for ‘Living Bird’, one of the most prestigious bird magazines in North America.


A Pacific Wren (previously the Winter Wren) with food  flies to its nest featuring its mate and at least three babies. This nest was located on a park trail 4-feet off the ground.

For several years I’ve dreamed of a special Canadian Federal (or in the US National) permit for bird photographers to be allowed to set up on nests following a 40-hour course given by a professional bird photographer and an experienced biologist. Below would be the requirements.

Application for a Federal (National) Permit to Photograph Birds at the Nest

1. – I hereby apply for a permit authorizing me to photograph migratory birds at nests.

2. – I acknowledge that I have successfully completed a 40-hour course in ‘Bird Photography at Nests’ that was taught by qualified wildlife photographers and biologists.

3. – I agree that if a permit is issued to me that I will provide my notes about any unusual observations and six copyrighted images at 8″ x 12″ at 100 dpi to Environment Canada, Wildlife Enforcement Section by year’s end.

4. – I agree that if a Species at Risk bird is encountered to immediately contact the nearest Canadian Wildlife Service for guidance prior to any photography.

5. – I am aware that the permit does not allow me to photograph migratory birds at nests in any Federal or Provincial Parks, Federal or Provincial Game Preserves or Bird Sanctuaries without the authority of Environment Canada, Wildlife Enforcement Section nor does it allow me to photograph in any public park within the limits of any city, village or hamlet without permission.

6. – I am aware that this permit does not allow me to trespass on privately owned property without the permission of the property owner.

Challenges of Nest Photography2020-03-31T10:06:40-07:00

High-speed Strobe Photography

Written by George L. Tickell

The below photo of a Red-naped Sapsucker was taken in early July, 2015, in a place often referred to as Valley X (in British Columbia) using High-speed Strobe Photography (HSSP). I have enjoyed many years of photography in this valley having never yet encountering other photographers. My reasoning for referring to this pristine habitat as Valley X is in consideration of protecting the natural meadows, lakes, forests and streams of this valuable wildlife habitat on First Nations Lands.


A Red-naped Sapsucker

I want to write about the very controversial subject of photographing birds at the nest in North America (and many other countries of the world). I want to emphasize that High-speed Strobe Photography can be used in a safe manner and be far less disruptive than an untrained person walking up to a nest for the sole purpose of getting a photograph of the babies. These people often cause the young to fledge prematurely. HSSP should never be attempted without proper training which includes the taking of ornithology courses that teach an understanding of environmental risks with wildlife habitats. HSSP should not be attempted without proper training. Prior to proceeding into the field, it is best to consult the local authorities (this especially applies to any endangered or at risk birds). The welfare and well-being of all wildlife, including the land we walk on, must be given full consideration at all times. For the record, I trespassed onto First Nations Lands with their full permission.

To do HSSP proper equipment should always be used that will permit shooting from a close but safe distance from the nest. For the Red-naped Sapsucker shoot, I used the Canon 5D Mark 111 body in conjunction with the Canon 500 mm, ET-138 4.5 lens combined with the Canon EF 1.4 11 extender, providing a focal length of 700 mm. On top of the camera was a Canon ST-E3-RT speedlite transmitter. The camera, lens, and transmitter were mounted on a Milano MI-CF4SQR carbon fibre tripod. I used a 15-pound lead ball, as a hanging underweight under the centre of the tripod. The three slave units were Canon 600EX-RT flash units, mounted on Optex OPT155 tripods. The slave units were set to fire by the master speedlite transmitter, mounted on the camera’s hot shoe. It is imperative that equipment be carefully cared for and be ready to go at all times. This includes charged batteries for all the equipment.

The nest was located 16-feet high in an Aspen tree. This shoot was photographed from what I considered a safe distance. The camera was set 35-feet from the base of the tree for full frame images of the birds. To get the height of the strobes to within 8 to 10-feet of the nest, the tripods were adopted to receive 5/8″ x 5/8″ x 1/16″ light wall aluminum channel extrusions.

Upon finding the nest, I sat and observed the comings and goings of the parents for several hours during the incubating period. I wanted to determine the best place to set up my equipment well in advance of any photography. I left the area undisturbed knowing that I would be back in 2 or 3 weeks for the best photography. I was hoping to capture an almost ready-to-fledge baby with its head sticking out of the nest hole being fed by an adult. (Often nests, for one reason or another, are simply not conducive for bird photography. If this happens, forget about them and keep looking. I found two previous sapsucker nests prior to this one that I passed on).

There was much to be learned by observing the adult birds feeding their young. You’ll learn the direction from which the parents enter and exit from the nest. This information will help in determining the setup for the camera and strobes. Much of what I learned didn’t appear in any books that I’d read on sapsuckers. From observation, I learned that the adults fed mostly ants to the babies, but also, on occasion the bitter tasting juniper berries. The adults were getting their ants from a nearby anthill. I noticed that very time after feeding the parents would fly to a nearby young Aspen and wipe their beaks and naps on a 3″ in diameter branch. At first I thought they were cleaning their bills. I then got out my 10 x 40 B Zeiss binoculars and observerved them more closely. I was wrong. I noticed that the branch was progressively drilled up the branch with holes for several feet. I watched them go from recent drillings and wipe the fresh sap onto their beaks and side of their heads. They were actually wiping the fresh sap onto their beaks and fronts of their heads after which they would quickly drill new holes if required. I watched them tilt their heads from side to side looking at each drilling for running sap. They would then fly to the ant mounds and collect ants on their beaks and naps. If one looks closely at the photograph, you can see the ants and feathers matted as a result of the sap collecting.

The first step in returning to the area was to quickly setup the equipment. I did this while the adults were away foraging. They were away sapping  for 5 to 10 minute intervals. If I was disrupting the feeding, the parents let me know immediately. It didn’t take the birds very long to realize that I didn’t pose any threat.

The second step upon returning to the nest was setting up a camouflaged pop up blind uphill and well back of the nest. Concealed within, I was able to fire the camera from within with a hot-wired cable-release.

I placed the strobes around the nest cavity and then set their strength, in this case 1/8 power, to synchronize with the ambient or available light from the sun. The left and middle strobes did an excellent job of knocking out the shadows of leaves from the nest tree. The right-hand strobe, closer to the nest than the other 2, gave rim lighting to the backside of the bird. With this shoot my settings were as follows: ISO 1000, camera speed 1/200 (for the strobes), f-20. The RAW files of the full-frame captures of the adult were razor-sharp. As well as seeing the catch-lights in the eyes of the adult sapsucker, I was able to see the eyes of the ants!

This shoot took place over 4 days and resulted in 2 trips to Valley X. Unfortunately, I never did see any of the babies at the entrance of the nest. When I made a third trip to Valley X, the babies had fledged.

I have a policy to leave these pristine valleys without so much as a footprint and when walking two and from his truck with his equipment tries to stay in the same footprints on the ground to disturb as little vegetation as possible.


George’s setup with 3 strobes to photograph a Red-naped Sapsucker.

High-speed Strobe Photography2020-03-26T14:18:21-07:00

Ethics & High-speed Strobes

I’m quite sure that this is going to be a controversial topic; especially because my associates and I often use high-speed strobes to photograph the smaller birds such as kinglets, bushtits, creepers and the smaller wrens. Our reasoning is quite simple, these tiny birds move so quickly that they can literally fly 3-4 feet before one has time to hit the firing button on the remote. Occasionally my young grandchildren accompany out into the bush to photograph one of these tiny birds coming and going from its nest. It’s amazing that their reflexes are so much faster than mine. I’ll have my camera and strobes set to fire at 3-frames per second. The strobes, set at a reasonable distance from the nest and at 1/8 or 1/16 power, are usually able to stop these birds in flight. Many novice photographers probably don’t know it but light from strobes diminish as the square of the distance. For example, strobes set at 4 feet from a subject are 4 times more powerful than the same power of strobes set at 16 feet.

I tell my grandkids to hit the button as soon as the bird takes flight from any branch that’s less than 5-feet away from the nest. If they are lucky, the middle or last frame captures the bird. As often as not, they capture  nothing at all and birds such as the Black-capped Chickadees, Pacific Wrens, and Brown Creepers disappear into their nest cavity without being photographed.

I am certainly not an optamologist and I don’t pretend to know much about a bird’s retina. As a layman – and a kid going to matinee movies – I recall exiting the dark theatre and going into bright sunlight. The retinas of my eyes closed down to pinpoints just like the iris of a lens closes down to f-16, f-22, or even smaller. It makes sense to me that photographing birds in bright sunlight with strobes powered down to a short flash duration would not harm the subjects. Their irises would be so pinpointed that the flash duration of the powered down strobes (as short as 1/10,000 second) would have nil effect.

I began my bird photography in the mid-1970s at a time when it was quite acceptable to photograph nocturnal birds bringing food into their babies in pitch darkness. An older associate – who was separated from me by 3,000 miles – photographed owls 25+ feet up in a tree. He and his partner used scaffolding to reach the same height as the nest. At twilight the two photographers set their high-powered strobes and prefocused the camera in readiness for nightfall. Concealed in a large blind, they illuminated the nest with a low-voltage flashlight to watch as the parents came in with food, most often a dead rat but on occasion a dead songbird. The bright flash of their strobes in the pitch darkness had to have blinded all the birds at the nest. The irises of these birds would have been wide open on account of the darkness.

I was not immune to this type of photography and in 1985 accompanied government employees to a seabird reserve to photograph murrelets and auklets. I used a very elaborate triggering device (for the time anyway) which caused the adult bird to take its own portrait upon exiting the burrow by stepping on the triggering platform. Totally blinded, the birds often flew full tilt into trees.


An Ancient Murrelet captures its own portrait by stepping on a photo-electric triggering device coupled to the Kenneth A. Olson’s 4-unit strobes that were in turn connected to a Hasselblad Electronic body with a telephoto lens. The strobes were as big as dinner plates and kicked out far more light than any of the commercial units now on the market. This capture was taken at 1/500 second at f-22 on the camera with the flash units, set 4-feet away from the nest firing at an incredible 1/20,000 second. The image was taken on Kodak Ektachrome 64 film. Taken on Reef Island, Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands), 1985.

As of late, I’ve spent a great deal of time perusing other professional wildlife photographers websites and finding images of owls with black backgrounds. To me, it’s pretty obvious that these captures took place at night and in the dark. This type of photography is totally unacceptable today and is definitely harassing the owl – and as such is subject to charges under Canada’s Migratory Birds Conventions Act.

An associate and I were charged under the Migragtory Birds Conventions Act and the Species at Risk Act in 2007. There were 18 indictable (criminal) charges in total and the maximum fines were a staggering $4,500,000. These fines are much higher today.

Ethics & High-speed Strobes2020-03-26T14:18:21-07:00

Ethics of Bird Photography

Western Wood-Pewee (WWPE)


A Western Wood Peewee shields its young from the noon day sun. Damon Calderwood used a step-ladder in conjunction with high-speed strobes to make this capture.

Over the past ten years I’ve really tried to come to terms with the ethics of bird photography in general but more importantly the photography of birds at the nest.

In 2007 Damon Calderwood and I were charged with nine indictable counts each under the Species at Risk Act and the Migratory Birds Conventions Act. The penalties in Canada were perhaps the most severe of any country in the world. The 18 indictable (criminal) charges carried a potential for maximum fines of $4,500,000. I suffered three mental breakdowns and a slight stroke as a result of the stress. In the end Damon and I plead guilty to one charge each that was reduced from criminal to summary conviction. I paid a $4,000 fine and Damon a $2,000 fine that were to be made payable to the Canadian Wildlife Service for the continuing studies of a Yellow-breasted Chat in the Okanagan Valley in the interior of British Columbia.

What started my decline into a mental state was an email that was uploaded by the head of the chat recovery team that contained a great deal of misinformation about me. Unfortunately, some of what she wrote was true. Damon cut vegetation about 5-6 feet away from the chat nest to set up a blind. We plead guilty to disturbing the residence of a species at risk bird. Looking back on the ordeal, I think we should have been charged with disturbing the habitat of a species at risk bird. In reading the Species at Risk Act, I don’t believe any such charge exists – a loophole perhaps. We never disturbed the nest. For the record, the babies fledged safely.

I  have to stress that I began doing bird photography at the nest back in the 1970s when bird photographers thought that it was alright to “groom” or “alter” a nest to get a better photograph of the parent bird and the babies. In 1984 I co-authored the book ‘The Art of Photographing North American Birds’ with an older Isidor Jeklin.  The book was a huge success and sold 44,000 copies over seven years. Looking at some of these photos, it is so obvious to a biologist that tampering took place at the nest.

In 1985 I travelled with Anthony J. Gaston, Co-ordination of Seabird Research with the Migratory Bird Branch of the Canadian Wildlife to photograph Ancient Murrelets on Reef Island in Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands). Although over 30 years ago, the biologists did things in the name of science that were downright unconscionable. They captured birds in pitch darkness with the aid of heads lamps for weighing and banding. They also pitlamped birds with the aid of a .22 rifle. In hindsight, I’m ashamed of my actions at the time since I photographed these birds as they exited their burrows in the pitch darkness.


An Ancient Murret takes its own portrait by stepping on a triggering device.

The 2007 Okanagan incident has left me bothered. Roberta Oleniuk, a photographer from the Okanagan, worked with the biologists doing the chat study. Here’s what she posted in a blog on the Internet in February 2009:

“I have been very interested in this yellow-breasted chat case because in 2005 I spent 6 very frustrating weeks trying to get chats in the Okanagan. The chat biologist at the Canadian Wildlife Service asked me if I would volunteer to get some images to be used in materials promoting chat conservation. So I agreed to donate my time and use of the images in exchange for being shown the chats’ territories as the biologist discovered them. I worked very closely with her and followed her instructions to the letter in terms of where I could go and when I could go there. She showed me the most open of the nests she found that year, and even those that were not photographable (and of course I would not and did not remove any vegetation).

The best I was able to get after a lot of effort were a few images of males singing from perches above the rose thickets where the nests are hidden, and a few grab shots of nests when I accompanied the biologist when she went very briefly to collect her nest data. If we heard an adult alarm call, we were otta there pretty fast.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. So at one point we collected a nest after the chat chicks had fledged (they do not reuse their nests), zapped it in a microwave to destroy and parasites and pathogens and then took the nest out to the field with us. To minimize time spent at the actual nest site, the biologist would generally put the chicks in cloth bags  and bring them out to a more open area when it was time to band them. So on a couple of occasions, we put these chicks in our collected nests where they were very happy as they waited their turn to be measured and banded. As they gave me an opportunity to take tight shots showing just the chicks and a bit of nest in better light than were was at any in sitsu nest. And moments later, the chicks were back in their real nests where they belonged. But that is the sort of thing I had to resort to get a decent “nest” shot or two (which are labeled appropriately).

In all that time, I only saw a chat feed a chick (a fledging) once and was not able to photograph it as it was in the densest, spiniest, nastiest rose thickets you can imagine, often with a nice understory of poison ivy. So I certainly was never able to get any shots of adults feeding chicks at the nest. I did, however, succeed in getting a really impressive case of poison ivy that lasted a month and covered me head to toe..”

Oleniuk went on to appeal to blog readers to express concerns to the company marketing Damon’s book (in other words, a boycott).

Her web site is:

The actions of Oleniuk and the biologist were much worse than anything I did while photographing birds in the Okanagan Valley. To me, the biologists hadn’t changed their mythology greatly over the years. Is it ethical for biologists and scientists, with a government kill/capture permit, to harass nesting birds? Is it alright to capture birds in mist nets during the nesting season for banding and weighing? From the number of bands on birds, the Okanagan Valley birds must have been the most studied on Earth.

Surely, with the new technology, there is a better way.


A banded Gray Catbird visits its nest in the Okanagan Valley, 2007.


A banded Black-headed Grosbeak visits its nest in the Okanagan Valley, 2007.

I got back into bird photography this year (2016) after vowing to never again go into the forest during the nesting season. I worked with Damon, George L. Tickell, and Jeffrey J. Jackson. There was a real synergy working together. We were after quality – not quantity – and in most cases we knew the exact image that we were wanting to capture. The best photos almost always took place shortly before fledging. We all realized that it was imperative not to do anything that would cause the babies to fledge prematurely.


A Pacific Wren (previously the Winter Wren) is captured in full flight approaching its nest that contains its mate and at least three hungry babies.

George L. Tickell and I found this nest of the Pacific Wren right on the pathway in Allco Park at the north end of 248 Street in Maple Ridge. The nest was located 4-feet off the ground in the roots of an upended Western Hemlock. When found, the nest still contained eggs. George and I set up when we observed the parents bringing in large insects for the babies. Three high-speed strobes were set up about 2.5′ from the nest and the camera, with a 100-400 zoom, at about 6′.  George and I took turns sitting about 15′ away on comfortable chairs. The camera was set to fire five bursts per second with the high-speed strobes set at 1/16 power. We used a 2o’ cable release to fire the camera. The parent birds would often be at the nest at the same time with the second one to arrive doing a “wing flutter” as a means of greeting its mate. While we were photographing, several school children were in the park. The teachers would take turns bringing children to watch us take photos. For many of the kids, it was their first time to be up close and personal with birds. The teachers thanked us for allowing everyone to watch. The presence of the strobes, camera, George and I, or the teachers and children didn’t bother the wrens as they  came with food and left with fecal sacks. George and I spent four days photographing these birds and obtained the best shots on the last day. When we returned the following morning, the young had already fledged.


A female Common Bushtit (with the yellow iris) exits her well-concealed nest.

My long-time associate Damon Calderwood found this nest about 6-feet off the ground in a Western Red Cedar in Elk Park in Port Coquitlam. It was amazing that so many people in the park were unable to see the nest even after we pointed it out to them. Although the high-speed strobes were set to capture the nest with strobes, the shutter speed of the camera was set very slow to capture the out-of-focus background. Although Damon, George and I, over a period of four days, took several photos that do not show the overlap of the strobes and the ambient (available) light, this image does show the overlap in the tail. Damon was set up at the nest when the babies fledged. George took the above photo.

The most difficult birds to photograph at the nest are the smaller birds but fortunately they usually adapt to camera equipment and a photographder almost immediately. With larger birds, even when photographed from a blind at greater distances, are much more of a challenge.

With today’s cameras and lenses it is becoming easier and easier to photograph a bird – or both parents and young – at the nest. When I got into trouble in 2007 one of my critics made a big deal of the fact that Damon, my wife Tina (a complete novice) and I had spent three days photographing the chats. Actually, it was two days as I was “busted” while I was setting up on the third day. With the longer lenses, it Is easy to set up on a small bird, such as a warbler or wren, and fill an area 10″ x 15″ from afar. The file sizes of today’s cameras easily allow for cropping because of their huge sizes. When the camera is set up with high-speed strobes on a tripod, the photographer can fire of several frames per second as a parent flies into the nest. With luck, sooner or later, the perfect photo will be captured.

I received one response on Facebook from one bird photographer who believes that photography of birds at the nest is unethical. I asked him if he had ever tried it and failed. He never came back with an answer to my question. I’d like to hear from others, both for and against considering photographing birds at the nest to learn more about our feathered friends. I predict that bird photography at nests will once again become more and more prevalent with the advances of camera equipment. Years ago, complete amateurs went out and photographed birds at nests with  impunity. Those that improved their knowledge over the years submitted their transparencies to Cornel University of ornithology. Go here:

To see images of birds at the nest taken by my “teacher” Isidor Jeklin between 30 and 50 years ago go to the Cornel website and type “Jeklin” or “Waite” in the search.

I can understand the government issuing a kill/capture permit to biologists/scientists who are wanting to advance the study on certain species of birds. I’d like to propose that the government issue a permit to photographers wanting to learn about the photography of birds at nest. It would maybe be a 20 hour course offered by a “nest” bird photographer in conjunction with a scientist. The permit would require that the photographer advise the Canadian Wildlife Service their whereabouts when photographing a nesting bird. It would also require the photographer to submit their best six low  resolution images (6″ x 9″ @ 100 dpi) along with field notes to the CWS at the end of the season. These images (or video clip) might just provide information previously unknown to science.

Perhaps down the road I might even get a request from a serious bird photographer that would like to go out in the woods with me. They might be in for a great surprise!

Ethics of Bird Photography2020-03-26T14:18:21-07:00