New Code of Ethics Aims to Protect Israel's Birds From Nature Photographers

Document sets guidelines for wildlife photographers to avoid 'causing ongoing damage'

File photo: Migrating cranes rest on the Hula Lake Ornithology and Nature Park in northern Israel, December 7, 2016.
Baz Ratner/Reuters

Like people, animals also need privacy during sensitive times of their lives, especially during mating season, as in the case of nesting birds. Too often, this privacy is violated by eager nature photographers, whose number is increasing in Israel.

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To prevent such interruptions, a code of ethics for nature photographers who document birds has been drawn up which, among other things, calls to avoid being present while they are nesting.

Under the code, taking pictures of nesting birds is unacceptable and such photographs will not be accepted by online bird-watching forums or competitions. The code also calls on photographers to respect animals’ natural habitats, to avoid digressing from marked paths or riding in all-terrain vehicles into natural areas.

Photographers are also asked to avoid gathering in large groups, particularly near rare attractions like migrating birds that stop to eat or drink during their journey. "The presence of many photographers and bird-watchers in the same place causes ongoing damage," states the code.

The document also states that birds should not be fed, nor should their habitats be altered in any way to get a more interesting picture.

The code of ethics was prepared in cooperation with ornithologists at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. It will be presented for the first time next Monday at Tel Aviv University, during the 39th Bird-Watching Workshop that the SPNI organizes with the university.

"Photography is a positive activity that contributes to exposing the importance and beauty of nature to the general public," says Dan Alon, the head of SPNI’s Israel Ornithological Center. "But in recent years there has been a significant increase in the number of photographers in Israel, and there are instances in which their activity creates significant disturbance to animals, so the code of ethics was needed."

In one case, which Alon described as extreme, photographers blocked a nest of bee-eaters and put a stick on top of it. A bee-eater that came to the nesting site could not get in; instead, it sat on the stick and began to issue distress calls, which made for a more dramatic and interesting photograph.

In other cases, photographers would chase birds with their vehicles and exhaust them. The most routine but most problematic interruption, Alon says, is the tendency of photographers to approach nesting sites and disrupt the process of protecting and feeding chicks.

"There are people who don’t know they are causing damage," Alon says. "This code is aimed at helping them. It is common in many countries."

In addition to general recommendations, the code also includes specific restrictions. Photographers should not enter quarries from March to July, when some of them are used as nesting sites. Owls should not be photographed near the nesting boxes installed for them, and the rare Houbara bustard should not be photographed other than from the main roads during the first half of the year, so as to avoid harming the birds that are incubated and hatched on the ground during this period.

"The code imposes restrictions that I can definitely live with," says Moshe Cohen, a nature photographer and co-author of the document. "In the end, I do not want to be part of an activity that hurts something that I love and is important to me. It’s a translation of right and wrong into professional language. It’s not a division between good and bad photographers in terms of their relationship with nature, but a call to take responsibility."