The Pileated Woodpeckers of Quiet Waters Park

There’s been a bit of hubbub in the Annapolis area this past week. Hugh Vandervoort, a local Nature Photographer spends a lot of time in parks near Annapolis and discovered a nesting hole for a family of Pileated Woodpeckers.

Sharing his discovery on social media, this family of woodpeckers quickly became famous with other photographers. It didn’t take long before the onslaught of the bird photography paparazzi came in full force. For several days, up to 10 photographers surrounded the nest, all hoping for that NatGeo shot.

Birders began to shout out in protest, stating that it was causing the family distress and changing their behaviors. They alerted the park rangers who quickly posted several signs “Keep respectable distance and limit time on your visit.”

And so the dilemma of bird photography ethics begins. The North American Nature Photography Association provides ethical guidelines for wildlife and nature photography.

One of the primary things for a nature photographer is to become familiar with the habits and behaviors of their subject. This awareness will alert you to whether or not the subject is stressed with your presence. The birders claimed that these woodpeckers weren’t happy about so many photographers present at one time and were expressing their unhappiness.

As I wasn’t present at the time, whether or not this is true remains to be seen. But if it is indeed true, it concerns me that so many photographers were unaware of what their presence was causing to the woodpeckers. And if they did, they chose to ignore the bird’s distress and stayed to ‘get the shot.’

Several stayed for a long time, returning even the next day. It gets to the point that as a nature photographer you have to ask yourself “How many pictures do I really need?” All you need is one shot.

There have been other similar easy access wildlife captures recently in the area. Great Horned Owlets in Pennsylvania, fox kits in Delaware. Once the word gets out, the wildlife paparazzi quickly follows.

I have seen several times when photographers disrupted nest making and causing the bird to abandon their efforts and move elsewhere.

The parents of the woodpeckers clearly knew where they were establishing their nest hole, next to a busy paved walkway near the nature center. Many dog walkers, bikers, and park vehicles travel along the path.

Many animals are beginning to establish their homes near a busy lane where humans travel. Finding that the humans deter potential predators, they find comfort with our presence. Even in Africa where miles of miles of plains are available, many animals chose to be near the road.

This is the first generation of Pileated woodpeckers that have set up house near a human path. The fox and the owls have had generations grow up near humans and therefore are desensitized. The same as the animals in Tanzania on safari. These woodpeckers are a very shy bird and in the wild it’s difficult to get your eyes on them. Therefore they were more sensitive to the photographers presence.

It would have been good if the area nature photographers had coordinated efforts and taken shifts to reduce the number of photographers present at one time. At what point, do we as a nature photographer recognize that our need to get a photograph is less important than allowing wildlife their privacy.

When finding a nest, it’s wonderful to share our discovery so that others can enjoy it. Surely with these woodpeckers it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

It is our responsibility as nature photographers to be judicious with our visits to nesting wildlife. Limiting our time and pressure on the family is essential to the success of the young.

22 replies »

  1. Fabulous post Emily!! I’m watching a local woodpecker nest myself and have a good hiding spot from where I can watch them without disturbing the regular feeding. It’s on a very busy canal path though! The most agitated I have seen the adults was when there was a bird of prey in the area. Absolutely adore the photo πŸ˜€

    • Isn’t it funny how animals do that Sarah? I do know that if it’s a passing vehicle or person they don’t care. But stop and look at them? Game over !!’s a video, check it out. πŸ™‚

      • Ah, I saw a still from the video at the top of the post but have now watched it all πŸ™‚ Magical! They’re proper little punk woodpeckers aren’t they? Two of our species have the same colouring but not the punk hairdo πŸ˜‰ I have seen plenty of birds nest close to roads and pathways and I think you could well be right that they’ve cottoned on to people deterring predators! They seem to be comfortable with passers-by as they know that the silly people are so intent on their own business they haven’t seen what’s almost right in front of them. I find that if I put myself out of direct sight and keep very still they don’t get unnerved by my presence. I’ll check in on mine next week to see how they’re doing πŸ™‚

    • Thank you very much Tiny. Two photographers have complained about the noisy park vehicles that drive by the nest area. Saying that if they can do that, then their presence is fine. What the difference is, is when one stops and stares at a wild bird or animal, the animal notices and begin to become concerned. It takes a while for them to settle down to go back to their behavior. Sometimes they don’t.

  2. Great post Emily. Ethics and photographers is a topic close to my heart and I have been pondering about writing an article on this very subject. So well done on speaking out.

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