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Short-tailed Weasel at nest

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Short-tailed Weasel at nest

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Photo Comments

Donald E. Waite
2 years 1 month ago

On the 7 Juy 2020 Damon S. Calderwood photographed a Short-tailed Weasel killing the 3 babies of a pair of Wilson’s Warblers. The babies were a week old. Damon had set up 3-high-speed strobes at a safe distance around the nest and positioned himself on a chair in a blind 10-feet away. He fired the camera by remote cable.

Will Damon be praised or vilified by the birding community for his methods of doing bird photography? What I do know is that Damon has been photographing birds at the nest for 30 years with very good success. I read that biologists/scientists in California did a study on the success rate of Wilson’s Warblers 20 years ago. Ninety warbler nests were monitored and they learned that 30 nests were parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds while another 54 were preyed upon by various predatory vertebrates. According to the study, the success rate for the warblers was less than 10 %. I wonder how much of the predation was directly linked to the movements of the biologists/scientists doing the study.

For the record, Damon used high-speed strobes powered down 1/16 of the full strength and was thus able to take bursts of 2-3 frames at a time to catch the adults in full flight. The strobes likely fired at + / – 1/10,000 second. To see adult warblers in full flight go here:


Forty + years ago I met Glenn R. Ryder (in fact he was the very person that got me into bird photography in the first place (see my bio on the web site).


Glenn had been hired by the provincial government to find bird nests for a photographer to take pics for a 4-volume book ‘The Birds of British Columbia’. Anyway, through me, Damon met Glenn and they often went off looking for nests in Campbell Creek park in South Surrey. Glenn told Damon that he often spread pulverized mothballs around a nest with young to throw predators off the scent. (As God is my witness my wife bought mothballs for Damon but he forgot to use them with the Wilson’s Warblers.) Go here to read a biography on Glenn:


Damon Calderwood
2 years 1 month ago

One study on Wilson’s Warblers found that of 90 nests studied, only 16 fledged young successfully. That’s a nest failure rate of 82.22 percent. It’s hard to know if the Short-tailed Weasel found this nest following a human scent in the area (it is a public park with countless human scent trails), or if it just happened upon the nest, which is my strong suspicion, since the weasel first appeared from behind the nest, where I had never been or left scent, and I had never touched the nest either. When it first appeared, I yelled at it to stop and emerged from my blind, which did scare it away. However, it kept coming back every few minutes, so I knew it was futile to try to scare it, as it would return as soon as I walked away from the nest area. I just decided to let nature take its course and documented it in my photos.

As much as I hate to watch a predator attack a nest, I know that they need to eat too.

I have photographed and filmed more than 300 nests in the last 30 years, and I have only witnessed predators attacking a nest while I was present 3 times: the above Short-tailed Weasel, a Cooper’s Hawk attacking a Black-headed Grosbeak nest (not smell related, just likely a result of their keen eyesight and happening to be in the area), and a Gopher Snake attacking a pair of California Scrub-Jay chicks (which I prevented by emerging from my blind and grabbing the snake and taking it 150 meters away).

I also caught two predators attacking nests on video: a Cooper’s Hawk taking the last two chicks from a Cedar Waxwing nest which had started out with 5 chicks (when I saw that it had only two chicks left after a second check, I decided to film it with a video camera and caught the Hawk taking the young on video); I also caught a Common Garter snake on video taking one Brown-headed Cowbird chick and one Savannah Sparrow chick from a Savannah Sparrow nest.

I have photographed a total of 245 nests since 2003 and have seen 225 fledge successfully for a fledging rate of 91.8 %

Before that I filmed more than 45 nests on video, losing two to predators and one other to unknown causes and also assisted in the still photography of 25+ nests, losing only one (to ants, which killed the small chicks).

I think a responsible photographer’s presence is ultimately beneficial to the birds’ chances of fledging a nest successfully, as long as the photographer does a few things: uses a blind if the species is shy, introduces camera and tripods gradually and gently, backing off into the blind and allowing the birds to return to the nest to feed after setting any equipment up, minimizes smell in the area to prevent mammalian predators, does not disturb overhead vegetation cover to prevent avian predators, and if tying back any vegetation temporarily, puts everything back in place when leaving the area, and keeps setup and takedown time to only 5 minutes or less.

2 years 10 days ago

It is disgusting and disappointing to see these sorts of photos of birds at their nests. Nests clearly been ‘groomed’ by removing the vegetation the birds tried to hide their nests in to allow for a clear photo. Birds looking like deer in headlights when hit with the flash. Disgusting. I know you guys try to justify your actions to yourselves and others and almost seem to thrive on the negative attention. But it’s a shame. No surprise here this weasel found the nest helpfully uncovered by the photographers.

** Is this the viewpoint of photographers who don’t have the courage to identify themselves? – DEW
** About the same time someone put up a derogatory comment under the fictional Bart Simpson character Lionel Hutz but took it down almost immediately. The intention was to do as much damage as possible by putting up this post: https://www.castanet.net/news/Penticton/45183/Photographers-disturb-endangered-bird
For the record, I got out of any bird photography for 10 years after the criminal charges against Damon and I in 2007.
I got back into bird photography at nests after convincing myself that what I was doing was safe. – DEW

Charles M. Francis, Manager Wildlife Monitoring and Assessment, Canadian Wildlife Service
1 year 11 months ago

Predation is a relatively common outcome of many nesting attempts by migratory songbirds, be it natural predators such as weasels, or introduced predators such as feral or domestic cats. Carefully done nest photography has the potential to provide scientific evidence of some of these predators, and to provide a better understanding of their behaviour and which predators affect which species of birds. High quality photographs at nests can also be valuable to document many other scientific aspects of bird nesting behaviour such as the types of food the parents bring back to their chicks. Such photographs can also be valuable educational tools for supporting science and conservation. There is no reason to believe, in this case, that the presence of the photographer affected the predation risk, given that the weasel approached the nest from the opposite direction of the photographer. There is also no reason to believe that a high speed flash during daylight will have any negative impact on a bird’s vision, any more than it does to people who frequently get photographed by flash. Even with today’s advanced digital cameras, flash is important to provide sharp, high resolution photos within the reduced light of natural vegetation. Obviously, due diligence is needed in nest photography to minimize any extra risk to the nest, and to ensure that the photographs reflect the natural behaviour of the birds. Thus, anybody wishing to photograph birds at a nest must take all appropriate precautions to avoid causing any harm or disturbance to the birds.

Steven K. Pelton
1 year 11 months ago

Impressive data Damon. Kudos to you for keeping accurate records. Data like this supports your efforts and supports the Canadian Wildlife Service person’s comments. Without the data, you are wide open to criticism.

Another thing: the photos I got when I spent the day with Damon turned out poor. It is very, very dark inside the shrubs under a canopy of conifers.

I shot with available light – and despite it being a sunny day – my shutter speed was so low I had to crank the ISO. Well, we all know what happens under those circumstances.

I did get a couple of images that were decent of the bird and young but there was a lot of dappled sunlight in the field of view which detracted from the image quality.

Using flash was the only way to capture any images that day.

Richard (Rick) R. Howie
1 year 10 months ago

Very interesting remarks from Mr. Francis. I wonder where he was when you were being charged? I find Damon’s evidence compelling however I still fret over the notion of opening vegetation, even temporarily in order to expose the nest. But I have no data to corroborate my concerns.
My experience with weasels is that they are very tenacious when focused on their prey. The presence of humans in or out of a blind can do little to deter them.
A friend and I once had a weasel attack a young hare that was only a few metres from us. We removed the hare from its grasp a couple of times to test its tenacity and it returned repeatedly to continue the attack when we were only a metre away. It finally left with the screaming hare in its mouth and a good meal.