The Full Story
I am an Australian wildlife photographer, specialising in native birdlife.
I am a self-taught photographer. My interest in photography became a passion over ten years ago when I quit my legal job and began volunteer work with BirdLife WA. Since then, I have been working to produce images for use by conservation organisations across Australia (for free), as well as teaching the art and ethics of bird photography through workshops, talks and articles.
In 2018 I became the first Australian woman to win a category (Invertebrates: Behaviour) in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year, the world's foremost nature photography competition. My other major achievements include Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year (Portfolio Prize 2016) and Bird Photographer of the Year (Best Portfolio 2020, Silver Award Birds in Flight 2019 and Creative Prize 2018).
About this Website
When I first started raising the issue of ethics in bird photography
I remember the day my life changed. I had quit my job as a lawyer and was looking for something to do when someone suggested I volunteer at the local Birds Australia (now BirdLife Australia) office in Perth, Western Australia. The Community Education Committee was looking for someone with computing experience to help them prepare PowerPoint presentations.
After years in the legal world where who you worked for and how much you billed were the hallmarks of ‘success’, being welcomed into a room by people with nothing but compassion in their hearts for our feathered friends, and a motivation to save them, brought me back to the values of my childhood and the teachings of my parents. It was like coming home to The Shire after a journey through the dark corridors of Mordor.
Over the next couple of years, Rod Smith, John Blyth, Frank O’Connor and, particularly, Brice Wells, who started the Committee back in 2002, took me ‘under their wings’ and beyond the walls of my one pigeon universe into a whole new avian world full of wonder and delight, where there was not only more than one species of pigeon (there are in fact 20: see Chapter 6, ‘The Portrait Gallery’), but over 800 different bird species in Australia (and Frank had seen nearly all of them)! They would give me lists of bird species that they wanted to talk about, and I would spend hours preparing PowerPoint slides on topics such as Bushbirds, Migratory Waders, Endemics, the Wonder of Birds, Corvids, Kingfishers of the World, Raptor Migration, American bird Migrations, Waterbirds, Birds and Hollows and Birds of Conservation Significance (in 2013 alone, the Committee visited 34 schools and gave 39 talks to community groups).
However, it was Brice who taught me the greatest lesson of all: why we love birds. And it isn’t because you can get a nice photo of them, or so you can tick them off a list, but because they are weird, whacky and absolutely wonderful.
‘Birds are wonderful,’ Brice would begin every talk, whether at a nursing home or a school, and then proceed, with charm, to turn ‘birds’, in the minds of all present, into individual personalities full of life, wit and wisdom that deserved, not just our attention, but our respect, our admiration and, most importantly of all, our protection.
He described spinifex pigeons as looking like masked superheros (often adding ‘and anyway, who couldn’t love a bird with a pointy head?’), the flight of an azure kingfisher as being like a jewel cast across a billabong, the pheasant coucals who make a sound like ‘water draining down a plughole’ (and who don’t so much ‘land in’ as ‘crash into’ a bush) and the Major Mitchell cockatoos who would slide down corrugated iron roofs, then go back to the top and do it again. Why? Because they could!
Not all bird images are created equally.
In a world in which our nature is already under enormous pressure, in unprecedented levels, from the impacts of habitat destruction, encroaching urbanization, hunting, feral predators and climate change resulting in extreme weather and fire events, among others, the onus is on us as nature photographers to ensure that we minimize the impact we, ourselves, have on birdlife. The least we can do as photographers is not add ourselves to that list.
Not only has the need for species’ images (previously an arguably valid reason for some impactful behaviour) decreased, the number of photographers taking images has increased exponentially. When my dear friend, Michael Morcombe, author of several bird guides and many nature books, was taking images of birds in the 1960s, he knew of only 3 other bird photographers’ in the whole of Australia. Contrast this with today, where one Western Australian bird Facebook group increased from 200 members to over 14,000 in just a few years.
In the same way that habitat destruction can no longer be dealt with on a piecemeal basis, so, too, must photographers’ behavior be looked at in terms of its cumulative impact. The impact can be multiplied again when taking into account the rise of social media. Thus, not only are more people taking images, they are doing it more often in order to fulfill an insatiable desire for more likes and followers.
The first rule of bird photography should always be: do no harm.
So what kinds of things do these photographers do, you ask? Well, have you ever seen images of pretty birds sitting up on clear, picturesque branches and wondered how they got that ‘perfect’ shot, time after time?
Many of these photographers have used a technique called ‘call playback’. ‘Call playback’ is where taped bird calls are played to lure a particular species closer, possibly to a carefully placed photogenic branch. Visually, you can often see these birds in an agitated state (‘ideal’ photographically, especially if they raise their crests or call) as they are responding to what they think is an intruder in their territory, or worse, a predator. No photographer using call playback will ever get the image of the sand bathing grass wrens you see in this book, or the yawning parrot or the preening honeyeater: these are the behaviours of relaxed birds.
Recently, an experienced scientist working with endangered animals told me that they had shocked a bird photographer who was showing them pictures by being able to accurately identify which of the photos had been taken using call playback, and which had not.
Worse, though, is the ‘unseen’ impact. The playing of a competitor’s, or predator’s, call raises the bird’s stress hormones (as well as drawing the attention of actual potential predators). And stress can be a stealthy killer.
Most new photographers using call playback are doing so because they are ignorant of its potential detrimental effect on birds (even though the impact on the bird’s stress levels ought to be obvious), or that it’s illegal in most states of Australia (either by way of express legislation or implicitly as constituting a form of ‘harassment’ of native wildlife), and because they are being actively encouraged to do so by more experienced photographers for whom the ‘photo’ is everything.
Whilst researchers do sometimes use call playback in the course of their work, it is only with the express approval of an ethics committee, and even then only for a short period.
Contrast this caution with the approach of one of the most popular Australian bird photographers on social media who, among other ‘techniques’ for drawing birds in, openly lists ‘speakers’ (used to broadcast the call loudly and repeatedly) as an essential bird photography item. Yet another Australian photographer, popular on social media, was found deliberately using call playback near nesting birds in order to coax them out for a ‘clear shot’.
Other questionable behaviours of bird photographers include pinning live worms to branches, deliberately flushing birds for flight shots, sharing locations of rare or nesting birds and entering areas closed to the public or private land to get closer to nesting or rare birds (aside from the stress to the birds and damage done to vegetation, in Western Australia it is particularly important not to venture into restricted areas due to the risk of spreading dieback, Phytophthora cinnamomi, a fungus that has the potential to kill 40% of native plant species, including half of the endangered ones, in south-western Australia).
Whilst some techniques are not necessarily unethical, such as the feeding of birds (whilst prohibited in most of Australia, the feeding of birds is actually encouraged by birding authorities in Europe and North America: see Darryl Jones, The Birds at My Table, for a comprehensive analysis of the topic[i]), the use of live bait is not up for debate. The idea of killing one animal just to get an image of another is not just ethically, but morally, repugnant.
Still, not everyone who ‘professes to love nature’ seems to think so. In North America, for up to $3500 you can do workshops to get images of magnificent great grey owls pouncing on live mice (released by the workshop leader) in a snow covered field.
I once queried an image on social media of an owl about to catch a spot-lit mouse, asking whether the mouse had, in fact, been ‘tied down’. Another photographer replied, ‘No. You don’t need to tie them down because they tend to stay still under the lights.’
When challenged about their behavior, most photographers either deny it, or list one or more of a slew of justifications, none of which stands up to an independent application of scientific facts, experience or, indeed, just plain common sense (See the end of this chapter for a link to a website where the most common ‘justifications’ are discussed).
Tellingly, most leading modern bird photography competitions prohibit images taken using call playback or live bait, or which involve distressing or spooking an animal (deliberately). Some also specifically exclude nesting bird images and recently, images taken with drones as they have an enormous potential to stress wildlife, especially birds that spend the majority of their life with one wary eye to the sky.
I have no doubt that most of the bird photographers who engage in these activities, when asked, will say they love birds. The problem, however, is that they love their photos of the bird (and the adulation of others derived there-from) more.
Part of the problem is that new photographers are coming into the field thinking this is the ‘way it is done,’ a view often confirmed by social media where there is little to no accountability (or transparency).
The key to changing bird photographers’ behavior, and lessening its impact on our birdlife, is education and leading by example. In this book, I want to show people that you can practice low impact bird photography and still get beautiful (and popular) bird images.
None of the images in this book were taken using call playback, nor are there any photos of birds at nests, of flushed birds, of ‘farmed’ birds, using live bait, using flash at night (or at all. In fact I don’t even know how to use one), by going into restricted areas, and/or any other methods that deliberately disturb the birds. I call this ‘low impact’ photography as the mere presence of a human must have some effect. The question, then, is what other things you do, beyond being merely present, to manipulate the bird into a suitable photographic position.
There is hope. I have no doubt that most people want to do the right thing and, once a potential impact has been explained, will readily change. Take the message below, for example, which I received last year:
‘In the process of learning photography I've come across a lot of people/resources, but they seem to focus on perfect photos rather than the animal’s wellbeing. I've used calls [call playback] a few times and it allowed me to get a bird to sit right in front of me for a moment while I quickly snapped a photo.
But I've now realised it is more important to observe the beauty of the animals (which is how I first got into this hobby) and possibly miss out on a photo if it means they're not interfered with.
So basically I just wanted to thank you for showing that bird photography can be successful and fun while being ethical. Because this aligns my values with my passion and allows me to enjoy the birds whole heartedly.’
Unethical behavior will always occur, ‘unseen’. But the secret to making a difference is to focus on the change you can make, not on the people or behaviours you can’t always change.
[i] Jones D (2018), The Birds at my Table, NewSouth Publishing, Sydney.