Ethical Birding & Photography

There are a number of dos and don’ts that should be considered when interacting with birds in any country and birding in Australia is no different.

As most people are aware, many species of the bird are easy disturbed when nesting. Some sitting birds abandon their eggs or young and feign injury in an attempt to lure intruders away from the nesting site, some spread themselves out, crouch down and remain motionless in an attempt to stay undetected, a few species, such as the Masked Lapwing Vanellus miles or the Australian Magpie Gymnorhina tibicen, dive-bomb intruders that stray too close to the nesting site or larger territory, others simply abandon the nest and wait from a distance until the danger has passed and some may even just sit tight and allow the observer to approach within a short distance. 

When photographing birds, it is important to research the species you may encounter or set out specifically to photograph. Is the species sensitive to disturbance or does it have highly camouflaged nests or chicks? You could be having a devastating effect on the breeding success of a species by just spending time in an area trying to get the perfect shot. For species like Osprey Pandion haliaetus and White-bellied Sea Eagle Haliaeetus leucogaster, disturbance during the breeding season can cause abandonment of nests and breeding sites, and in parts of their range, these species are already in major decline. Resident shorebirds like the Hooded Plover Thinornis cucullatus and Beach Stone-curlew Esacus magnirostris are highly sensitive to disturbance during the breeding season and could well have a hidden nest or chicks that you are unaware of – your presence could be keeping them from incubating or the chicks from coming out and feeding, leading to mortality of the eggs and chicks. Furthermore, the camouflaged eggs and chicks could be crushed as you move through the area following the adult bird for a photograph, or your attention to the adult bird could attract a predator. Migratory shorebirds are also easily disturbed and this takes its toll on their critical energetic balances required for migration and breeding.

How can you avoid such impacts? 

  • Find out which months of the year these species are breeding
  • Do not approach coastal raptors, resident shorebirds or nesting terns in the breeding season – they could have a nest or chicks that you are unaware of
  • If you know these birds are nesting or have chicks, avoid these birds during this time
  • Find out the flushing distances of migratory species ( and ensure you maintain a buffer distance

Todays birders have easy access to recorded bird calls, many of which are available on mobile apps or are stored on mobile phones. While the use of callback using these calls is often an easy way of making a resident bird respond verbally or even make itself visible, the use of these recorded calls should be avoided wherever possible, and there are some areas where the use of calls is prohibited, due to their potential negative impact on valuable scientific field monitoring studies. If you are going to use recorded calls in areas where it is allowed, make sure you:

  • keep the volume low (people often play the call on their devices at the loudest volume they can, which must sound like a jet aircraft engine to a small bird);
  • make sure you are in the right habitat for the bird you are looking for;
  • conceal yourself when playing the call (the best chance of the bird responding is if it thinks the call is from another bird of the same species);
  • play the call in short bursts only (don’t assume that the call you have on your device is from the same region as the one you are birding in); and,
  • wait patiently for a response (some birds try and investigate the source of the call before responding, or their response may not be heard due to repeated playing of recorded sound).

Flushing of ground-dwelling birds or intentionally disturbing arboreal species should also be avoided. While these species may well be difficult to see while concealed in the undergrowth or amongst foliage, disturbing them while feeding, making them unnecessarily use valuable energy or exposing them to potential risks and possible predation can have disastrous effects on the individual birds and the local population of the species, as well as damaging the habitat in which they live.

 Most birders, and bird photographers alike, love birding simply for the joy of seeing the birds in a natural setting and engaging in natural behaviours, and enjoy the opportunity to study or photograph the birds in detail, as opposed to getting a fleeting glimpse of the tail feathers of a frightened bird flying rapidly in the opposite direction. Respect, patience and better birding skills will help make your birding adventures memorable for all the right reasons, and assist in safeguarding the future of our feathered friends so that the next generation of birders can share in the same joy. 

Sadly, some photographers will do just about anything to get the shot they are after, but if we all take a ‘common sense’ and respectful approach to wildlife photography, our images (and our reputations) will gain greater respect, and our actions will not negatively impact the survival of our wild subjects. Above all, the welfare of the subject is more
important than getting the photo.

In order to minimise our impact on wildlife when photographing them:

  • Be patient! Don’t force an animal to do something.
  • Photograph animals from a safe distance. If your subject starts acting in an unnatural way or shows any sign of stress, you’re too close. Move further back or leave altogether.
  • Never approach nests or dens during the breeding season.
  • Treat the habitat with the same regard that you have for the animals themselves. Don’t break open hollow logs after a subject and, if you move a rock or log – put it back gently.
  • Don’t handle wildlife! (unless you have a permit to do so).
  • Always respect local cultures and customs.

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