It’s not a bad photographer, it’s a bad person

This seems to come up about once a year among the birders — bad behavior by a bird photographer. I wrote up my thoughts on this, since I live in all three worlds (birder, photographer of birds, and list admin to both), and decided I’d turn it into a blog post so I can point to it next time this comes up.

The reality is this: bad behavior is bad behavior, and I’ve seen bad behavior by both birders and photographers. I’ve turned birders into the rangers for going off trail. I’ve also done the same with photographers. My favorite “what are you THINKING moment” here was a photog up on the bluffs above Fitzgerald out in Moss Beach, where they went over the fence and ten feet DOWN the bluff to take a picture of a flower.

If you’ve been in that area, you know why I just stood and watched until he came back up safely. Did I mention it to him? no. Why? I’ve found people like this rarely are interested in constructive feedback (and I’m not always in a mood to be constructive!), and honestly, I have no authority. But I do have no qualms about reporting people to rangers and letting them deal with it. Note that since I have a camera, the ranger has evidence of the act, and on more than one occasion has chatted with the person back in the parking lot…

The biggest problem I think both birders and bird photographers run into these days are off-leash dogs and their owners. That one’s a real tough issue. I don’t consider “off leash” to be a problem per-se, but many dogs are a lot less under control than the owner wants to believe, and many of these dogs are being allow to chase birds in restricted habitats. We won’t even go into the ones that don’t bother cleaning up after their animals…

Of course, the core problem here is that as a society, many people feel the rules don’t apply to them, and don’t care as long as they don’t get caught. Or don’t care even if they do get caught, given the abusive reaction some of them have to the rangers and cops who call them on it.. It’s the “what I want is the only thing that matters” mentality. Fortunately, this is really rare in birding circles — just not rare enough.

Here is the scenario: birders chase a reported rarity and congregate to see it once the word gets out. Many photographers are also birders but carry with them digital cameras, big lenses and the desire to get photos. As birders like to accumulate birds on their lists, photographers like to accumulate photos. Nothing wrong with either on the surface. The issues are politeness around other people, and potential disturbance to the bird. If the result is scaring off the bird then others won’t have the opportunity to see it

It goes both ways here. I’ve had situations where I’ve been working a location for a significant period of time, camera on tripod, keeping quiet and letting a specific posture or behavior develop, only to have a birder come tromping up through the brush making enough noise to flush every bird in the time zone. I’ve had them walk up and proceed to stand directly behind the tree in my camera view, ruining the shot. I’ve had them come up and stand directly in front of me — usually oblivious, but occasionally they just don’t care what anyone else thinks.

I had one birder who, after coming up to check out the bird I was trying to photograph, consciously flush the birds when he was done — and smirk at me on the way out. He’s lucky I valued my tripod more than I valued beating some sense into him.

There are bad photographers. There are bad birders. The focus should be on bad behavior, not on one class of person or the other.

I live with feet in all three buckets here: birder, bird photographer, and list owner. There ARE huge differences in behavior and attitude between birding and photographing birds, and they can conflict. 99% of the time, though, if the birders and the photographers just work at it and communicate, everyone can be happy. On lists, it’s important to set ground rules and understand what the primary reason the list exists — and then discourage users that don’t work within that.

In the field, it comes down to cooperation and communication. Someone who gets on a bird first should be given the opportunity to watch it without it being flushed; people who come in later need to hang back and have some patience rather than plow in and ruin it for everyone by flushing a bird. On the other hand — the person doing the watching needs to be sensitive to others who are waiting for them and bring them in as soon as they reasonably can and “not be greedy”.

Note that I specifically leave the camera out of this, either group could be the camera person and either group be the birder. Birders fixed on a bird and oblivious to all around them are fairly common, you don’t need a camera to tune out the universe. A few people skills work for both groups.

Now, on the list, it can be trickier. I’ll be the first to admit I love passing around good shots of what I’ve seen. On a birding-centric list like SBB, there’s some tolerance for that, but it’s easy to overdo it. My PERSONAL policy for dealing with this is this: the birds have to be local to the group; they have to be timely; I post links to rarities or to one or two representative photos and beyond that suggest they look at my flickr for the rest. I try to be sensitive to the fact that the list is about birding, and the photography is documentary to the birding, not the reason for the list, so I try to keep it relevant and subdued. For other birding centric lists, setting written policies that spell that out will reduce the fighting that can happen ON list. (as someone who sometimes has to break up these disagreements on SBB, I’ve tried to set an example and hold myself to a conservative standard. I sometimes fail, but I’m learning…)

It might be worth hashing it out a bit on list, or polling the members and asking them to comment privately, and then set a policy based on that feedback. If it’s a small problem, grabbing a consensus and formalizing it will keep it small, and help everyone understand what’s acceptable. Not having a policy is where trouble lies, because members get upset and start defining policy on the fly, and the fights over who’s setting policy tend to be a lot worse than the fight that led to the meta-fight…

What I’d suggest is focussing on the bad behavior, not on whether it’s birders vs. bird photographers. Like Steve, I have no problem removing someone from a list if they are found to be chronic abusers of the environment or their fellow birders. Fortunately, I haven’t had to. Unfortunately, the last three cases I can think (on various lists I’m on) of where abuse issues have come up have all involved photographers, but four of the last five times I’ve had conflicts in the field have been by birders, not photographers; I think the camera geeks get noted because there’s a perception (not completely false) that “they aren’t birders” — actually we’re many times both.

As list owner you have NO control whatsoever when it comes to stupidity or bad behavior out in the field, and so requests to “do something” can be frustrating”.

Actually, to some degree you do. You have the power of expulsion from the list, and you have the power of public chastisement and censure. Neither of which should be used trivially, but sometimes, it can be considered (and threatened). Just as a thought. Now with a list like SBB, which is informally but tightly tied to the county Audubon, I wouldn’t consider doing something like that without consulting with them.

And sometimes that’s the best option; many times these people are known within the birding and/or photo groups. and many times, if you ask the right person, someone who knows them well will take them aside and “have a little talk”. And “things get fixed” without there ever being any formal action or fight. So it’s never bad to spend time learning who the various people are and knowing who you can bring in if you need advice or — a little help with something. getting the right thought in the right ear is sometimes the best way to take a little thing and keeping it from festering and becoming a big one. Especially if the problem is one of naivete or obliviousness. Nothing is going to solve those smirks, though, except a tripod to the temple… but I’d hate to dent a good tripod…