If you’re here, you likely love birds, wildlife, and nature too. Great! Let’s go outside, take pictures, tell everyone how amazing nature is and…and…and…!
Hold up. How we observe, engage with, and photograph wildlife and nature matters, for us and, most importantly, for wildlife and nature. None of us are perfect, but, for me, birding or photographing ethically means respectfully and with the intention to cause no harm. It’s a continuing process of educating myself, considering the consequences of my actions, and doing better when I learn something new.
To help us all do better by nature, here are some considerations and best practices I find helpful.
Respect Wildlife and Cause No Harm
Audubon has an excellent Guide to Ethical Bird Photography and Videography, and the American Birding Association has a Code of Birding Ethics. There’s more to consider when you delve into specifics, but I’d sum it up as: respect birds, wildlife, and their habitats; don’t cause stress or harm; and don’t break the law or be a jerk.
Respect birds and other wildlife and their habitats
- Keep your distance—If a bird flies away or an animal changes its behavior, you’re too close.
- Don’t stress an animal—That includes not making birds fly. It wastes their energy and, again, causes stress.
- Don’t let your actions put an animal at risk—Be especially careful not to disturb nesting birds. Except for home bird feeders, don’t feed wildlife, which will then associate humans with food.
- Keep cats inside, please—In the U.S., house cats kill 2.4 billion birds every year. Every year!
Respect the law and rights of others
- Know and follow local laws—For example, unlike most states, Maine operates under an implied permission structure, meaning that if land is not posted, it is legal to use the land.
- Ask permission—Despite that rule above, the unwritten rule is to always ask permission before entering private property. Using private land without permission puts everyone’s access at risk.
- Respect posted signs—This means you. Yes, it would only take a second and would be an amazing picture, but that “stay out” sign is there for a reason.
- Follow minimum distance rules—Be aware of different rules and distances for different species, and even individual birds. If your presence makes a bird change its behavior, you’re too close.
- Be a courteous visitor—Not everyone loves a flock of birders or photographers showing up in their community. Support local businesses and organizations, if you can, and give back to places you visit.
Leave No Trace
When we hear “Leave No Trace,” we may think of hiking and camping, not birding and nature photography. But regardless of activity—bagging mountain peaks or birds (figuratively), carrying backpacking gear or camera gear—LNT applies when we go outside, whether to the local park, eBird Hotspot, or the backcountry.
Below is a general LNT overview. Beyond that, it’s on each of us to be responsible outdoors people and familiarize ourselves with the 7 Leave No Trace Principles and research guidelines specific to our areas and habitats.
- Be prepared—What prepared means depends on many factors, like distance, terrain, season. At the bare minimum, look at a map and make a plan beforehand. Bring that map, some water and snacks, and appropriate footwear and clothing. Tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll return.
- Stay on trails—Even if your feet get wet or muddy. Stay off trails entirely if they’re closed or if you’d cause damage, such as during mud season. Trail builders work hard. Don’t destroy their efforts, or the land and vegetation, with your footsteps.
- Dispose of waste properly—This includes human and pet waste. We wrote a riveting Human Waste Disposal in the Backcountry article over at Trailspace years ago, and it remains ever popular and essential.
- Leave what you find—That includes feathers and nests, due to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Also, that cool rock or shell. But you can take a picture with you.
- Respect wildlife—That bird or bison is not a prop for your photo opp. It’s a living thing, existing in the world. Be its advocate, from a safe and respectful distance.
- Be considerate of others—Avoid excessive noise, control pets (if they’re allowed), treat others with courtesy and kindness.
Pretty bird. Pretty flower. Pretty sunset. Like. Like. Like. It’s easy to scroll mindlessly through nature pictures on social media. However, how we observe, engage with, and share nature matters online too.
Does posting a pic add anything to the conservation conversation? How can I promote and embody environmental advocacy as an imperfect person? What’s the best way to get others to care, and act, without sounding preachy? I think about questions like these often when I consider sharing a picture. Unfortunately, the answers can feel ambiguous.
However, I believe sharing environmental experiences and concerns are opportunities for positive impact. Here are some ways I try to increase the positive through words and photos:
- Include context—Mention LNT and ethical practices in content and captions, such as if you observed a bird from a blind or vehicle, or if the photo has a lot of zoom and cropping. Check that your images and words match your intention.
- Educate—Demonstrate and share tips and information that are helpful and encouraging to others.
- Consider consequences—Be mindful of when, how, and if you share info about sensitive species and lands.
- Acknowledge and promote stewardship—Recognize the people and organizations that historically have stewarded the places you photograph and enjoy. For example, Maine’s land and water is the home of the Wabanaki, or “People of the Dawnland.” My local land trust is 7 Lakes Alliance. Who stewards the lands and waters you visit?
- Promote accessibility—The outdoors is for all. Be inclusive, not a gatekeeper. The world needs more engaged, educated advocates. Welcome someone in.
- Join those already doing important work and amplify their voices.
In 2022, I spent some time trying to see a rare Steller’s Sea Eagle that showed up on the Maine coast, well outside of its usual Russian and Japanese locations. The ridiculousness of waiting around to see one bird did not escape me, nor did the ethical questions around many people (myself included), traveling to see one bird, in a small coastal area.
Amid this conundrum, I felt an ethical responsibility to support organizations that advocate for and protect wildlife and nature in the area where I’d waited for this bird. So, I made donations In Honor of the Steller’s Sea Eagle to Maine Audubon, which was fielding a lot of Steller’s questions while educating more folks, and to Boothbay Region Land Trust, on whose property I’d hung out one afternoon and seen a memorable sunset, though no eagle. Recently, I sent in a donation after visiting Connecticut Audubon‘s Coastal Center for the first time.
Budgets and financial needs are highly personal. Money should not decide who can visit public lands and access the outdoors, and donations are not substitutes for courtesy and respect. However, I’ve begun challenging myself to think more broadly of financial support of lands I regularly visit and appreciate as part of the price of free, public admission. So, if you can:
- Become a member—If you can afford to do so, support a few key organizations whose values and priorities align with yours. Know that non-profits appreciate members at all levels.
- Drop some cash in a trailhead donation box—Even a few dollars will help maintain that trail or property you’re visiting.
- Share an organization’s mission and programs—Support needn’t be money. You can support organizations with your voice by sharing their work and issues within your own networks and platforms.
- Share your time and skills—Volunteers are essential for stewardship, and a variety of skills are needed. It’s not all trail work.
Be Inspired and (Positively) Influenced
Don’t rely on algorithms to feed you inspiring nature photos. Find conservation- and environmentally-minded photographers doing the work and follow and support them. Not only will you see amazing pictures, and learn about their subjects, you might learn how the photographer created that photograph, as well as their values, practices, and mindset.
Here are some folks I admire and learn from. Follow them and others on Instagram, visit their websites, or sign up for their newsletters directly if they have one.
- Melissa Groo—I love how Groo makes conservation and ethics part of the photography conversation, while speaking to people of all ability levels. When she says how to do something more ethically, I listen. You can read her personal Statement of Ethics.
- Cristina “Mitty” Mittermeier—An incredible photographer and conservationist, Mittermeier is also the founder of the International League of Conservation Photographers. Her photos often highlight Indigenous people and their connections to the land.
- Paul Nicklen—I heard photographer/filmmaker/marine biologist Nicklen speak at a Conservation Alliance event more than a decade ago and have been hooked on his polar and oceanic images, words, and conservation mission since.
- Impact: The Conservation Photography Podcast–Not photos, but a podcast by Jaymi Heimbuch on telling conservation-minded photography stories. You don’t need to be a professional (I’m not) to get something out of it.
- International League of Conservation Photographers—ILCP members commit to maintaining the highest ethical standards and pledge to not only engage in professional and ethical behavior, but also advance ethical thinking, lead by example, and encourage others to commit to ethical photography and filmmaking. You can read the iLCP Ethical Guidelines and Practical Considerations.
- The folks at your local land trust, environmental, and community organizations doing cool stuff.
I know. I know. All of this is a lot to consider (see picture caption above). It can feel overwhelming trying to get it right or wondering if you got it right. But, at its simplest, ethical birding and nature photography come down to respect. Respect for land, respect for water, respect for wildlife, respect for other people.
I pulled these guidelines together not to lecture anyone, but to remind myself of what matters while out in nature or trying to get a certain shot. None of us are perfect; I know I don’t always get it right. However, we can learn and move forward. We can go forth with respectful intention. We can make meaningful connections and photographs. We can be advocates for birds, wildlife, and nature through our words, photos, and deeds.
I’ll be out there trying, doing my own imperfect best. Because nature needs us.
by Alicia MacLeay