Many thanks to the awesome and irrepressible Georgina for inviting me to speak on a topic that is so dear to my heart and so vital for the wellbeing of our wildlife.
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of birds. I was born in a caravan, in a field, and my earliest memories include my dad using a matchstick to splint a sparrow’s broken leg and my mum talking to magpies. I was hyperactive, constantly racing around and climbing trees but if birds turned up I’d freeze and watch with a wonderment that still nurtures my spirit. I often see sights so beautiful that I forget to press the shutter button. I call those missed shots ‘heart photos’ and the best thing about them is that they’re always perfectly focused.
Another good thing about ‘heart photos’ is that they don’t cause harm and that is vital for our bird life and our peace of mind. I’ll share my thoughts about ways we can photograph birds without inadvertently causing harm.
As a lifelong birder, and contributor to the New Atlas of Australian Birds, I’ve spent so many hours watching birds behaving naturally that I find it upsetting to see photographs of birds that are clearly agitated. Fluffed up fairywrens and other bush birds, staring defiantly at a lens invariably get showered with social media ‘likes’ when they are almost certainly distressed. Maybe they’ve been called in, or they’re protecting their territory or nest.
Nest photography is insanely easy as the subjects are practically captive, but it risks nest viability in several ways. Sometimes photographers ‘garden’ to remove distracting vegetation which reveals the nest to watchful ravens and other predators; dead-end tracks are great leads for foxes and cats; and sometimes the stress of constant intrusion from photographers can result in a nest being abandoned. Parent birds should be foraging for their nestlings and scanning for predators, not worrying about people, many of whom are genuinely distraught when a nest fails, often without realising they may have inadvertently caused the failure.
Playing recorded bird calls to lure birds into the open has become increasingly common but remains controversial. It’s banned in some places and its impact seems to depend on how, when and where it is used. Most concern relates to playback being used too loudly, too often, during breeding seasons and with vulnerable species. Playback disrupts natural behaviours and male birds can lose dominance, and associated breeding opportunities, when they prove incapable of deterring these phantom rivals. Playback can also bother other birders; it should be used judiciously, quietly and briefly, or preferably not at all.
Baiting, providing food, to attract birds can impact their health unless the food is scientifically balanced and feeding stations are properly cleaned to avoid spreading diseases such as Aspergillosis, and Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease. Psittacosis (a rare but serious illness) can affect humans, while Aspergillosis affects humans and birds. The use of live creatures as bait is sickening and although the images might have a wow factor, photographs of birds foraging naturally depict the raw beauty of the natural world in memorable and meaningful ways. I was thrilled to capture the sunburst of pollen that floated momentarily above a New Holland Honeyeater’s head.
I’ve read that it’s impossible to be a serious bird photographer without using a flash. I disagree, totally. Flashes can disturb diurnal and nocturnal birds, often creating flat images, while unobtrusive natural lighting can be nuanced and beautiful. I’ve seen photographers fire repeated flashes at bowerbirds and be jubilant despite the disturbed bird leaving the bower without placing its ornament. I’ve seen flashes from a kilometre away that were so bright I assumed they were police cameras, only to find they were photographers aiming at nesting Crimson Chats; they had no idea their flashes were so startling. Using natural light gives the flexibility to be creative and capture dramatic shots like the Brown Thornbill that landed in a sunbeam.
Deliberately Flushing Birds
Flushed birds use extreme amounts of energy to run or fly to safety, and no bird photographer needs more shots of feathery bottoms. Yet I constantly see birds being stalked. Patience is best, either the birds will come to you or they won’t. If they don’t you’ve enjoyed watching them without disturbing them and if they do approach you it’s a great opportunity for a fabulous shot. One of my most enthralling experiences was lying on the sand watching a distant family of endangered Hooded Plovers. After a couple of hours, and many March fly bites, the hoodies suddenly raced towards me. I had to remember everything I’d ever learned about bird photography to capture these tiny, speedy birds in their world of sand and seaweed.
Although it’s excellent to supply fresh water, and possibly appropriate supplementary food, I urge photographers not to photograph birds on days of extreme heat. Birds need to safely drink and forage without the risk of being flushed and falling, exhausted, from the sky.
Most of us would never deliberately harm birds, so let’s promote ethical bird photography whenever and wherever we can. Let’s lead by example in the field, let’s ask admins and competition organisers to ban nest shots, let’s not ‘like’ shots of distressed, obviously flashed or nesting birds. If we remember that the birds are always more important than the image we’ll all feel better for it, especially the birds.
Kim Wormald (EFIAP/g, GMAPS) is an ethical wildlife photographer with a deep love of, and respect, for nature. Kim’s images have received national and international awards, including Gold Medals and a coveted FIAP Blue Badge. She was a finalist for three consecutive years in AGNPOTY and listed in the International Who’s Who of Nature Photographers. She has judged state, national and international competitions but more important than any of this is her conviction that the subject is always more important than the photograph. Kim loves knowing that her framed prints bring joy to fellow nature-lovers, and that her images are widely used for conservation purposes.
Facebook: KimWormaldLirralirra + Ethical Bird Photography group