By Frank Gallagher, NANPA Blog Coordinator
A drone, flying over prohibited territory in Southern California, crashed in the middle of a nesting colony of elegant terns, frightening the seabirds and causing them to abandon 1,500 or more eggs, as reported by AP and New York Times. Although this species is not endangered and, in the long term, will probably not be threatened by a loss of this magnitude, it is a troubling reminder of the harm careless or uncaring individuals can do to nature. And of the responsibility we have to be ethical nature photographers.
The Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve consists of 1,300 acres of coastal marsh, dunes and seabird nesting islands surrounded by the city of Huntington Beach and a public state beach. It is home to hundreds of species of plants and animals, including 23 endangered species. In April, elegant terns migrate from Central and South America to Bolsa Chica and two other sites in California to nest and raise chicks. The drone crashed in the middle of a sandy nesting island, scaring away thousands of the birds who, officials believe, saw the drone as a potential predator.
Drones, bikes, and dogs are all prohibited in the reserve and the owner of the drone, if identified, could face criminal charges. The May 13 incident wasn’t even the first drone crash in the reserve. Just two days earlier another drone had gone down in Bolsa Chica and nesting birds were disrupted by people trying to retrieve it. In addition, California Department of Fish and Wildlife officials stated that there have been increasing incidents of dogs roaming free, signs and fences being damaged, graffiti and trash left behind, and both plants and animals being taken from the reserve.
For all the interesting images they can capture, drones can all too easily frighten wildlife, damage vegetation, and disrupt the natural behaviors of animals. Those are some of the reasons drones are prohibited in many areas, such as national parks, many state parks, near airports, and over other sensitive areas. The FAA requires certification to fly a drone over 0.55 pounds in weight, so people should know better. But you may still see drones in these places, flown by people who honestly don’t know or just don’t care.
Recklessly flying drones is hardly the only example of people behaving badly. We’ve written repeatedly (here, here, and here) about Instagrammers trampling sensitive areas, disturbing wild animals, damaging property, and endangering themselves in the quest for the perfect selfie.
Nor is it solely an American problem. The Irish Examiner reported on problems people, especially photographers, were causing in nesting seabird colonies. In Ireland, it’s illegal to disturb nesting birds but people still approach too closely, scaring off the avian parents and alerting predators to nest locations.
Our first responsibility is to be ethical nature photographers and follow NANPA’s Ethical Field Practices. Among other things, that means we do not distress wildlife or their habitats—the wellness of the subject always comes first. It means that we learn the rules and laws of the locations we visit and learn the patterns of animal behavior we want to observe and photograph. It means that we’re good role models, both as photographers and citizens. That we encourage ethical behavior in others but may also need to report inappropriate actions to authorities.
We can also educate, whether through our photos, workshops, presentations, articles, and social media, or simply by our example. One opportunity photographers don’t take advantage of often enough is the captions they apply to their images. Jennifer Leigh Warner, chair of NANPA’s Ethics Committee, explored how to write captions that can educate viewers about appropriate, ethical photography as well as about the subjects of the photos.
Many nature photographers try to educate and inspire viewers to value and protect the species, landscapes, locations, and environments we love. We can also educate and inspire others to behave ethically in nature. Think about that the next time you’re out in the field, writing an article, crafting a presentation, or captioning your photos. And, if you see something, say something.