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!


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