I believe that almost without exception, people take up nature photography because they find the natural world to be a fascinating, wonderful and beautiful place. Undoubtedly, to capture a little of that beauty and wonder on film is immensely satisfying. Along with this sense of wonder, most nature photographers automatically feel a deep respect for the natural world and would at all costs wish to avoid harming or disturbing their photographic subjects.
In recent years the standard of nature photography has improved tremendously. A picture that was outstanding ten or fifteen years ago would probably only be classed as 'good' or maybe just 'fair' today. Nature photography has become very competitive and there is always that temptation to push things a bit too far in order to obtain a striking new image. It is not only the professionals who experience competitive pressure. The standard of photography required to do well in salon exhibitions or the big photo competitions is now extremely high and so the serious amateur photographers feel this pressure as well. In the case of bird photography, photography at a nest is an area where pushing things too far can easily cause considerable damage.
The obvious cause for concern in nest photography is desertion by the parents due to the photographer's presence. Species vary greatly in their tolerance of hides and the comings and goings of a photographer. Some species are notoriously susceptible to desertion and should be left well alone. A good example is the bateleur which in addition to being endangered is very sensitive to disturbance at the nest. I believe that under no circumstance should bateleur be photographed at the nest. On a recent visit to Kalahari Gemsbok National Park I was very disappointed to learn that an experienced photographer who certainly should have known better, drove off road to photograph at a bateleur nest. Quite apart from it being a serious offence to leave the road in any National Park, I cannot imagine how anyone can justify the risk of causing disturbance to such a sensitive and endangered bird just to get a few pictures!
A less obvious but very real danger is predation of the chicks by other bird species or mammals such as mongooses. Many birds build their nests in dense vegetation for very good reasons: the cover hides the chicks as well as providing shade. The tying back or cutting away of vegetation, known as 'gardening', in order to get a clear view into the nest used to be an accepted practise but is very much frowned upon these days. The risk is particularly great here in Africa where there are so many opportunistic species looking for a tasty snack of nestlings. I believe that under no circumstances should a nest be 'gardened' - rather look for another that does allow a clear view for photography. On occasions I have checked out a dozen or more nests of the same species before finding one suitable for photography without the need for tampering.
Hides are, of course, essential for nest photography. It is important to habituate the birds to the hide by first erecting the hide some distance from the nest and then gradually moving it closer over a period of days. After each move, watch the hide from a distance with binoculars to check that the parents return confidently to the nest. If the birds show any signs of nervousness or unease, pack up the hide and leave them in peace. The final move of the hide into a position for photography should only be attempted after the chicks have hatched as the parental tie will be stronger. Also use your longest lens so that the hide can be kept as far away from the nest as possible. When photographing it is vital to have a friend walk with you to the hide and then to walk away so that the birds think there is no one in the hide. Watch from a distance first and only approach when the parents are away foraging. It is of course necessary to repeat this process in reverse when you want to leave.
Sometimes there are much better options than a traditional static hide. Some years ago I found a nesting colony of sacred ibis and black crowned night herons on a tiny island in a dam. To have set up a static hide on the island itself would have been unthinkable as it would have caused immense disturbance to the colony. By using a floating hide and taking over an hour to cover the 200m of open water to the island, I was able to sneak up on the colony without causing the slightest disruption. Taking frequent stops on the way to check that the birds were still at ease it seemed that my floating hide was accepted as a piece of drifting rubbish not worthy of a second glance. I must say it felt good to have got these pictures without any disturbance to the breeding colony.
In recent years I have limited my nest photography to common and confiding species such as weavers or from my vehicle on tourist roads in game reserves where the birds are used to the presence of cars. Although with a lot of time, care and sensitivity it is possible to take pictures at a nest without causing disturbance, I believe that there are other far more exciting photographic possibilities available today. With the exceptional quality of optics in modern super telephoto lenses and fast accurate autofocus, there are so many new challenges in photographing flight, feeding, courtship and other behaviour that these days I seldom take the risk, however slight, of photographing birds at their nests.
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Text and photographs © Nigel Dennis