Knowing the Limits

    There is always a lot of controversy over pushing the limits of a bird for a picture.  This is without a doubt one of the most important points to keep in mind as a photographer.  There is a huge line dividing “the perfect shot" and the welfare of the creatures we photograph.  After hearing the story of the Northern Hawk Owl in Washington, I like many others wanted to express my opinion.  

Red-tailed Hawk 3.jpg

    For those who don’t know, a Northern Hawk Owl was recently located on a farmer’s property in the state of Washington.  Being one of the least-studied birds in the entire world, and an especially uncommon sight in the lower 48 states, birders and photographers arrived in numbers to experience the elegant owl for themselves.  Days later, one of the frustrated property owners who was fed up over the paparazzi made it clear that no photos were allowed to be taken.  It was later that day that a photograph was released of the owl hanging dead from the tree, presumably from a gun-shot.  

    This isn’t the typical story of the bird being pushed, but rather the people.  I am not in any way condoning the slaying of the owl, but I do think it is also necessary to have respect for the people involved.  Not everyone gets the same rush of adrenaline as us bird enthusiasts do when something rare turns up.  Having experienced these mobs for a rarity myself, I can say that some people do indeed push the limits, and it is not okay.  

    Another important factor to keep in mind is getting too close.  Sometimes it is easy to forget that the subject in front of your lens is actually a living creature that can be starved, stressed and agitated.  Every year we hear heartbreaking stories such as this Northern Hawk Owl; even some much closer to home.  Each winter when the Snowy Owls come south, many of them turn up dead.  Conservationists claim that in many cases the birds starve to death.  The reasons?  I can’t name them all, but they almost always begin and end with people.  As beautiful and addicting as these creatures are, we have to remember that they are very much delicate and shouldn’t be pushed.  

    My favorite way to photograph birds is by waiting them out.  I have favorite locations all over the region where I can either sit in a blind, in camouflage, or in most cases my car, and wait for the birds to cruise by.  While out shooting Northern Harriers last month, there were multiple times when sitting in my car that the birds flew literally within yards of my face without even realizing I was there.  My car must really fit in!  Many great photographers will tell you that using the car as a blind is one of the most effective strategies for not only getting photos of the birds, but making sure not to disturb them as well.  Not to mention, it’s a little warmer when the wind isn’t whipping right through you!  

    Now, I would like to point out one more observation I’ve made over my time as a bird photographer.  If you get out in the field often enough, you are bound to run into awesome photo opportunities.  I know for a fact this happens to everyone.  Sooner or later an awesome bird will do something incredible right in front of your face, leaving you speechless.  These are the moments that keep me shooting.  Whether it’s your favorite bird, something you see every day or even a rarity, there will be a chance for that amazing shot.  So rather than forcing something that wasn’t meant to be, sit back and let it happen. Allowing nature to unfold in front of you isn’t just the best for the birds, it’s the best for your pictures, and the stories to tell about them.