Traditional Barred Owl Shot
Doing Right By Nature - TZ True
While living in Florida, my husband and I were excited by reports of a pair of Eastern Screech Owls nesting by the boardwalk at Green Cay Wetlands and Nature Center. My husband was a ranger at Big Cypress National Preserve and I worked for the Florida National Parks Association, so we waited until we had time off to visit the area and see these usually elusive birds. We saw the owls; however, the experience was tainted and the photo opportunities limited because of the actions of one unethical photographer.
As I understand it, a photographer decided that his pictures would look better without the dead palm leaves around the nest. He hopped the boardwalk railing and started removing the branches. As you can imagine, this invasion greatly stressed the nesting owls. Disturbing nesting birds often forces them to find a new location that may negatively affect the success of this breeding season and the next. Additionally, those dead leaves helped to hide the nest and would provide shelter and perching options for the young when newly fledged.
Appropriately, following this incident, the park staff created a sturdy trellis-like blind that operated as a barricade to prevent others from bothering the birds. Visitors could see the owls through the trellis, but photography was nearly impossible (which is why you are looking at barred owls on this page instead of a stellar screech owl shot.)
Some photography books, especially guides to photographing wildflowers, suggest removing unwanted vegetation like spent blooms. I am surprised and appalled by the recommendation. Dead flowers are the seed heads that produce the next generation and feed the birds and other wildlife. Removing them eliminates generations of flowers.
It is time to reinvent our definition of beauty. Wild areas are wild! They are tangled, interwoven, layered and glorious! Butterfly orchids only grow on dead branches. Red-cockaded woodpeckers will only nest in diseased pines. Wrens love a brush pile. Death and decay nourish the living, wild things that draw our eye. Everyone wants the subject of their photo to be out in the open in great light surrounded by pretty green blooming plants. While that pose does make for a traditionally lovely picture, your wild subject is exposed and possibly in peril. Embrace the chaos! - better yet, frame it!
One of my favorite pictures is the Barred Owl photo found on my “about me” page and hanging in my living room as shown here. Last spring, as I approached a brushy part of a woodland path, two young barred owls flew off into the woods. The adult, however, kept her eyes on me. I took some of the usual shots. Then I picked up my camera, trying to make as few movements as possible, and began walking by her on the path. I watched her peripherally and saw her peeking at me from around the trees. I knew that this was my shot. I stopped, slowly set down the camera, did not change my focal length even though she was a bit close, and snapped the shot. The trees are blurred on the edges and she is partially hidden behind them and that is what I love about it. I thought about brightening her face, but decided against it and left the natural, dappled light as it fell. I have lovely shots of this bird out in the open, but it is this half hidden view that speaks to me. The best shot isn’t always the one without the dead leaves, trees or tangled growth. As photographers, we should seek the best angle, the shot with a little mystery and with natural charm, and work with nature, not against it.
To read more about ethical practices, I recommend the Audubon’s Guide to Ethical Bird Photography https://www.audubon.org/get-outside/audubons-guide-ethical-bird-photography. It offers great advice for all wildlife photography and includes helpful guidelines for photographing nesting birds.
Also, remember that usually, on federal lands, which include national parks, seashores and refuges, you are not allowed to move or remove anything. You cannot take seeds, wildflowers, shells, bark, branches, rocks, fossils, wildlife, or any other native flora or fauna. There are some exceptions, but generally, it is just not a good idea to disturb the natural ecosystem. Leave only footprints and take only ethical photos!