Reflecting on Outcomes That Benefit Nobody

I read a disturbing story from Connecticut Audubon this morning.

A few weeks ago, a group of wildlife photographers was shooting a pair of adult oystercatchers and their baby on the Milford Point sandbar. The staff rangers at the site asked the photographers to move back and give the birds more space, but the photographers refused. After four hours of shooting, the baby oystercatcher died. An autopsy revealed it had died of starvation.

This case is extreme and unusual for sure. You’d be hard-pressed to find a wildlife photographer (even a very poorly-behaved one) who had ever witnessed a subject die on the spot, especially as a direct result of their activities, and especially of starvation. And even if you found one that had, that photographer would rightly push back regarding the lack of objective evidence that their behavior was the actual cause of death. Such an event is so uncommon (and inexperienced/poorly-behaved photographers so common) that it is reasonable to assume something was already wrong with this baby oystercatcher; that it was going to die regardless. Perhaps the photographer would concede that their photography hastened the awful outcome but didn’t necessarily cause it.

No one can prove it, either way, so we’ll never know for sure. But what we do know is that we have a rare and tragic event here, which gives us all a quiet moment to pause and reflect on what consequences our photography can have on our subjects, and ways we might strive to do better. I feel awful for those poor oystercatchers, those poor photographers, and the poor staff at Milford Point. This is an outcome nobody wanted, and nobody benefited from.

Two important but not often discussed facets of ethical wildlife photography jumped out when I heard this story.

The first point is that we should always heed staff and volunteers who work at the habitats where we shoot. We have to obey the signs, and we have to obey the people too. Sometimes we might disagree with them. Often they are half our age. And, usually, we know they can’t actually enforce anything. But they are the stewards and caretakers of our habitats and our animals. They typically log more hours than we do. They know things we don’t know. They see things we don’t see and things we can’t see. So photographers and habitat managers must be allies. We wildlife photographers must always respect the advice and authority of the people who manage the habitats and the animals we shoot. And when we can’t, we must find other habitats where we can. 

Regardless of the actual biological causes of the baby oystercatcher’s death, the photographers in this story are culpable by default, simply because they were warned of the possible adverse outcomes by the staff and chose to ignore the warnings. They accepted the responsibility when they made that decision. (And while it might seem reasonable to blame the staff for not doing more to stop them, remember these workers lack enforcement tools and are at risk of extreme verbal and even physical abuse from the public. They usually require the assistance of law enforcement which is mostly too little, too late.)

The second point is that wildlife photographers actually can (and do) contribute to the malnutrition and starvation of their animal subjects, and we need to become more aware of the problem. This problem is especially tragic because, in most cases, it is invisible, slow to develop, and challenging to quantify. While the events at Milford Point are an extreme and graphic example, even the most ethical photographers can be to blame, however unknowingly, for critically hindering the growth and development of wild animals. If you are a serious wildlife photographer interested in conservation and are long past the basic admonitions of “obey the fencing” and “don’t get too close,” this is an issue worthy of your serious study and attention.

In 2017 I wrote an article for Audubon.org with tips for ethically shooting nesting shorebirds. Half of the article was about my positive experiences using a blind. The other half was about how consequential our continual disruption of nesting birds can be to their overall health and survival by slowly starving them of valuable and irreplaceable calories at the most critical phase of their development.

At the time, I knew these were subtle issues for many photographers. Yet rereading the article today in light of this sad event, I’m glad this is out there and hope more photographers put foraging and feeding disturbance at the top of their ethical radar. It took me five years of tagging along with and photographing biologist Dr. Michelle Stantial as she trapped, weighed, and measured baby piping plovers on a wide variety of habitats to see it. But I saw it first hand. I now know it is real, and the realization has forever changed my photography and behavior. (Click here to read the original article.)

Audubon’s Guide to Ethical Bird Photography is the gold standard for advice on these topics. I am a proud contributor to it. Specifically, regarding the issue of nesting shorebirds, the Guide’s advice is to limit your time at the nest (which includes limiting your time around brooding, foraging families who have left their nests in search of food.) This advice remains a crucial strategy to avoid harming delicate subjects, and we can reasonably assume that the four-hour length of the shoot at Milford Point contributed to the death of the chick. 

I’ll expand on this advice by suggesting that we spend all that extra time we are now not shooting to get to know the staff and volunteers at our favorite habitats a little better. 

And, most importantly, to spend some time observing our favorite subjects with them from their broader, more welfare-focused perspective, particularly watching how, where, and when our subjects eat and forage. It is our subjects’ most important activity and critical to their survival in ways most of us (who don’t get to weigh them, band them, and study their survival) could appreciate. We can’t get the complete picture through the viewfinder. We have to really step back and watch.

Our shared interest in the long-term welfare of our favorite birds is our greatest strength. So let’s continue to work towards cooperation instead of conflict. There is always so much more to learn, and we can learn a lot from each other.

Our birds will benefit, and so will our photography.

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Did you know that NestStory was invented to help Dr. Michelle Stantial analyze the survival rates of endangered beach nesting birds with varying food sources and levels of disturbance? Today organizations everywhere are using NestStory to study these things and so much more. Please help fund the project with a small donation. There is so much learn. We need your help!

1 Comment

  1. Excellent topic, Jim.
    These are issues and topics that can never be revisited enough.
    I often feel that my camera is in conflict with my “welfare based” purpose. For me the camera came second to my binoculars. Even people with bins can be a risk. At least my and your pictures often serve to help especially when a close up view is needed that only a long lens and a computer can provide.
    It is a constant juggling act out there, though.
    The poor baby oyster catcher…

    Like

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