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Wildlife Photography Ethics
A few weeks ago while out driving the back roads of Vermont, I came across a Bald Eagle, sitting on the ice about 40 yards off shore, eating the remains of an ice fisherman’s bounty. I pulled over to watch and snap a photo from my car. I had just shut the car off, when he noticed me, stopped eating, and flew away. No big deal, right? Well to some, disrupting the routine of a wild animal (an Eagle no less) in any way is a violation of wildlife ethics. A Google search of “wildlife photography ethics” delivered over 278,000 results, and after reading through some of the articles, the vast difference in opinions of what is and is not ethical behavior when photographing wildlife was simply overwhelming.
As an example, the following practices are considered by some to be unethical:
- Photographing birds attracted to a back yard feeder
- The use of camouflage or blinds
- Setting up in an area known to harbor wildlife
- Spishing or using vocalizations to draw song birds near
- Photographing around or near carcasses, road kill, etc.
Each photographer’s tolerance to what is right and what is wrong, is shaped by their past experiences and their own ethical standards. I have used all these practices during the course of photographing wildlife, and do not consider their use to be unethical.
All of us at one time or another have inadvertently spooked an animal, or misread a situation and moved too close to a subject, and what inevitably happens is you miss your opportunity because the subject either flies off or runs away. Human and wildlife interactions are bound to happen as our population increases and their habitat decreases.
Now That Spring Has Arrived…
I bring this subject up now, as spring has finally arrived in New England. Wildlife throughout the area such as loons, fox, and eagles, will be producing offspring which people love to photograph. Some of those photographers, professional or not, will cross the ethical line just to get the shot. And when that happens, we all suffer the consequences. When someone with a long lens (a “professional”) is seen acting unethically or irresponsibly, instantly everyone with a long lens is an unethical or irresponsible photographer in that person’s eye. Just try walking through the city parks in Montreal or Quebec during an owl irruption with a long lens on a tripod, and see what kind of reaction you get from the locals. You are instantly branded as a “baiter” because “all wildlife photographers bait owls.”
In recent weeks I have watched a woman chase a Snowy Owl from perch to perch through a field with a point and shoot camera, and watched a man with a large “professional size” lens jump up and down on an active fox den trying to scare the kits to come outside of the den so he could photograph them. If you are heading out to simply “get the shot,” and not to enjoy the experience and interaction that comes with experiencing the natural world, then you are more likely to compromise your own ethical standards to do so.
A Simple Reminder
Enjoy your time in the field, and savor the experience of spending time in their natural environment. In all of your interactions with wildlife, the primary concern must be the well-being of your subjects. Well known wildlife photographer Moose Peterson said it best, “No photograph is worth sacrificing the welfare of the subject.”
The North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) has an Ethics Resource page which I have found to be a very common sense approach to interacting with nature and fellow photographers. Follow these guidelines and you will never run afoul of the law or Mother Nature.
You can find the page at: http://www.naturephotographers.net/ethics.html
I hope to see you in the field!
~ John Vose
I frequently get questions regarding the wildlife images I post. In this week’s NEPG blog, I’d like to answer some of the most common questions.
1. How do you find the wildlife to photograph?
A famous photography quote implies if you want to get the shot, use an aperture of f/8 and “be there.” I find the second part of that quote to be the key. Most wildlife photographers will tell you that it takes a great deal of time and perseverance to capture the shots that you see posted. When I go out into the field, I plan on spending several hours at the location. Sometimes I’ll sit for hours before the subject appears. (Hunters can relate!) Very few people are fortunate enough to just happen upon a great image.
You need to do your homework, and learn as much as you can about your subject. This way you can anticipate where they will be, the routes they will travel, how they feed, or how they will react in a given situation. Use available resources. Many of my bird images are a result of scanning the local and regional birders listserves looking for subjects I would like to photograph. Once identified, I can drive right to the location where it has been seen and not waste hours searching on my own. This Eastern Screech Owl was found on the Newburyport MA birders listserve.
2. How do you get so close?
First of all, I’m a firm believer that knowledge of my subject matter will allow me to get as close as I can without disrupting or stressing the animal. When I head out into the field I always wear camo or neutral colored clothing. I have run into many photographers in the field dressed in jeans and a loud top lamenting that they just couldn’t get close enough before the subject spooked. I usually have camo netting with me to help conceal my presence, and I will use a pop up blind or tree stand if the situation allows.
It should go without saying that being quiet is imperative. If you sound like a stampeding herd as you walk through the woods, don’t expect to see anything. Also, turn your ringer off ! I missed a great bear shot when my phone rang as I was preparing to trip the shutter.
Whenever feasible, I use my car as a blind. Wildlife that will take flight the instant a person steps into view, will often tolerate the presence of a vehicle. I use a beanbag support for my lens and camouflage netting with a hole in the center hung over my window to further reduce my profile.
3. How do you take a sharp image?
Getting tack sharp images of wildlife is a constant battle. When people ask me this, the first question I always ask them is, “Do you use a tripod?” The answer most times is, “No.” In my view, a tripod is critical to taking sharp images, especially if using big glass (300mm or larger). Even when photographing loons, I use a tripod setup in my kayak to help stabilize the image. And when using a tripod, a cable release — especially when your subject is stationary — is essential to reducing vibrations.
Make sure to use a shutter speed of at least the reciprocal of your lens. This means if you’re shooting at 125mm, your shutter speed should be no less than 125. If you’re hand holding the camera, the rule of thumb is your shutter speed needs to be at least twice the focal length (125mm = minimum shutter speed of 250). Increase your ISO if necessary to get your shutter speed where it needs to be. Also, your aperture (f/stop) needs to be sufficient enough to render the entire subject in focus if that is your intent. I shoot the majority of my wildlife images at f/8.
Finally, take lots of shots!!! If your camera has the capability to take burst shots, use it! You may end up with lots of blurry images, but it will increase the likelihood of you capturing a sharp image.
I hope these tips help you capture more wildlife keepers!
~ John Vose
Jericho Hills Photography
Against All Odds, Loons survive
So far this summer, the wind, rain, and thunder storms have been difficult not only for our spirits in the North East, but for the hatching of our nesting loons. Despite the threat of rising water levels, many of the loons have successfully hatched. The pair I have been observing, hatched in the nick of time — temperature in the mid fifties, forceful winds, and a surge of constant battering waves could have wiped them out completely at any time. Their nest site was only two inches from the water at the peak of the floods. One day as I checked on them, an adult loon and then a second adult came around the island. As they swam closer, I could see two little chicks bobbing between them. The family swam on, staying close to each other, relocating to a nearby cove where they would raise their chicks. They made it against the odds.
Why do loons nest on the edge of lakes?
Loons have large bodies, making it cumbersome to walk on land. They build their nests on the edge of lakes for safety — should a predator appear they can quickly slip out of the nest into the water.
Downy Black Fluffy Balls
According to the Maine Audubon Society, “Newly hatched loon chicks are downy black fluffy balls that weigh roughly a quarter of a pound, the same as a stick of butter. They can swim right away, and will try to dive, though they have trouble staying under water for very long. They may feed themselves insects from the surface of the water but rely on their parents for food. By two weeks of age they gain about seven times their body weight. That’s like a baby growing to the size of a third grader in just fourteen days! ”
Why do loon chicks ride on their parents’ backs?
It’s chilly in early summer — water temperatures are not quite like July. Loon chicks cannot maintain their own body temperatures just yet, similar to human newborn humans.
They are not able to swim as fast as their parents — they need to stay close for survival. Parents will invite them under their wing when they need to move quickly away from danger.
Snapping turtles and big fish are threats to little chicks.
Bald Eagles can spot a meal a mile away, which is another reason for riding on the back. Loons are fierce fighters when they have to protect their young.
One day on the lake I was stunned to see chick #1 attack his sibling with a vengeance — pecking the top of his head with a gleam in his eye. When his parents surfaced he quickly changed his demeanor like he was an angel waiting for them. Chick #2 was a little dazed, but recovered quickly. I have not seen this before and since found out it’s fairly common. Just like in human families, loon brothers and sisters don’t always get along. The chick that hatches first generally is the bigger chick and what starts out as a tiny difference can quickly turn into a big advantage because the bigger (often the more aggressive one) can beg for more food from its parents. If the parents don’t catch enough food for both chicks, chances are the bigger chick will be the only one to survive.
It is a tough go for loons. Even if they stick close to their parents, the chance of chicks surviving through their first few weeks is quite low. Statistics say only 25% make it through the summer.
Symbol of the Northern Wilderness
I feel fortunate to be able to sit quietly in my kayak with my telephoto lens, at a distance from the loons (on a lake where many people kayak, so the loons are used to it) and watch them for hours. It is hard to describe the feeling like you are immersed in the loon’s world — truly a privilege. It has been said that no animal better symbolizes northern wilderness than the common loon, except perhaps moose!
Recently, on our Facebook page, one of the fans posted a question. It was worded something like this: “I desperately want to photograph owls. I have very limited time and live in Boston. Where can I go to photograph owls?”
The person writing the post already had these 3 strikes against them:
1: Owls. They are among the most difficult birds to find.
2: Limited time. This equals almost a 0% chance of finding any kind of wildlife, much less owls.
3: Living in a metro area. This is not conducive to finding owls in the wild.
Keys to Success
To be successful at any kind of wildlife photography you need 3 basic things:
1. Knowledge of your subject.
2. TIME to spend in the field.
3. Finding habitats that support the type of wildlife you’re looking for.
To that end I’ve decided to recount a typical safari I went on to get Bald Eagle pictures. If you think this is over the top I’m sure most of the Guild members who shoot wildlife will confirm that it’s what you have to do to be successful.
For 20 years now, on the weekend after Labor Day, I have been playing in a golf tournament in Maine. One of the birds of prey that I wanted better pictures of was the Bald Eagle. Here in Southern New England they are scarce. I did research and found that one of the largest concentrations of Bald Eagles is in the Lake Umbagog region in northern New Hampshire-Maine. I got out maps, researched Google map and satellite images, and decided where I was going.
I tacked 3 days on the front end of the golf trip and packed golf gear, photography gear, and kayak gear in my pickup and hit the road. I drove from Rhode Island, up through western Maine, through Grafton Notch to Errol, NH. I had talked my sister Judy, also a photographer in VT, into meeting me there. I got to Errol in the late afternoon. I couldn’t call her because I had lost cell service 50 miles back in Maine. I drove to the Androscoggin River where we planned on putting in. There was the familiar Toyota with VT plates and kayak — Judy was at the river. We scouted the river and planned our launch at first light.
Morning dawned clear but with heavy fog over the river. The date was Sept. 6, the temperature was 31 degrees. We drove the short distance to the river and prepared to launch. It was here that we met Fred. Fred lived in Errol and fished the river almost daily. We questioned Fred on where the eagles were, what we could expect, etc. His local knowledge proved invaluable in planning our day.
Where the Eagles Live
We kayaked up the Androscoggin, taking our time, looking for moose, eagles, and loons. When we reached the headwaters there was Fred, casting for bass at the mouth of the river. Sitting in a tall pine was a bald eagle. We photographed him from the kayaks, taking our time, lining up the shot to take advantage of the light. At some point the eagle swooped over the river and landed in another tree. We started to paddle across the river, anxious to get more pictures. As we passed Fred he said, “Don’t hurry. He’s not going anywhere because he wants this.” Fred then proceeded to lift a nice bass out of the water. He told us to take our time – he’d hold the fish until we got our shots. “I’d give it to him, but it’s a bass,” he said. “I’d give him a pickerel, but I won’t give him a bass.”
Striking a Pose
Eventually he released the bass and the eagle flew back across the river. It was here that he did something that gave us a shot that I haven’t seen in anyone else’s pictures — he posed. He struck the pose that you see on the back of every quarter — wings spread; looking regal. He held it for so long his wings drooped and he finally folded them in and flew off. We spent a total of about 6 hours in the kayaks that day. In the evening we went looking for moose without any luck.
One more Shot
The next morning, before I left, I took one more ride up Rt. 16 looking for moose. I found a spot on the Magalloway River with the morning fog accenting the sunrise. I stopped and took some shots. One of the pictures I took that morning took top honors in a juried art show the following summer.
I drove the long trip back to Sebago Lake and Frye Island for the start of the golf tournament. I switched from photography and kayak gear to golf spikes and clubs. By the time I got back home I had been gone for a week, had logged over 600 miles on the truck, kayaked the beginning of the Androscoggin River and Lake Umbagog, photographed eagles, and took a picture that would win an award. So the next time you see a wildlife shot that really grabs you, you can bet that the photographer, like me, went the extra mile — or two.
~ Butch Lombardi
Sometimes Mother Nature can be so cruel. Earlier this summer, a nesting pair of Common Loons (Gavia Immer) on a western NH lake lost 3 eggs to predation. Being a resilient pair, they had a second clutch and two of the eggs hatched on 7/24/12, with a report that the third egg was still being incubated. The concern with such a late hatching is that the chicks cannot begin to fly until about 11 weeks of age. That is pushing up against early November, and an early cold snap that ices up the lakes may trap them as they need a long distance of open water to get airborne.
On 7/26/12 I set out on the water at 5:30 a.m. in hopes of photographing the new family. It took quite a while to find them as they were at the far end of the lake. I was saddened to find only one chick with a parent. It appeared the second chick had died. I thought that perhaps the other adult was still on the nest, but a short while later an adult flew in, and joined the other in feeding the lone chick.