Bald Eagle Photography Ethics
Bald eagle leaving the trees in Prince William County, Virginia.
MAY 26, 2014 BY by Bradley Caricofe, Filed: Bald Eagle Photography
Wildlife photographers generally consider their activities to be non-consumptive, that is they do not harvest wildlife like hunters, trappers and fishermen. But photographers can take a toll of their subjects, causing increased stress and even death. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that the welfare of the wildlife is more important than the photograph. – Photographing Wildlife in Alaska, by John M. Wright and Paul D. Arneson (1980)
This passage applies to bald eagle photography with special importance. Bald eagles have a reputation for being skittish around humans, and as any eagle photographer will tell you, one of the biggest challenges they face is getting close to these raptors for excellent, “frame-filling” shots.

Although no longer on the endangered species list, bald eagles are protected by federal laws such as the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act disallows the “taking” of bald eagles or the “disturbing” of bald eagle parts of any kind (to include nesting and egg materials). Violation of this act can result in fines of up to $100,000 and imprisonment for one year for a first offense; a second offense may be tried as a felony.

Regardless of the protections afforded these birds by federal law, wildlife photographers should view themselves as stewards of the environment, and work toward incorporating practices into their fieldcraft that will allow for the successful photography of these amazing creatures without causing them stress or harm.

Some things to take into account while attempting to photograph bald eagles:

  • Bald eagles need their strength for hunting; this is especially important in winter months when ice may suppress their food sources. Try to refrain from intentionally making a bald eagle fly or leave their perch.

  • If a park ranger or law enforcement officer sees you doing something that they perceive as harassment of a bald eagle, they may cite or arrest you under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

  • Use strategy and your best judgment when attempting to photograph an active bald eagle nest. Approaching the tree too closely can easily result in a fine or arrest. Use long telephoto lenses and devise a plan for how you are going to photograph nest activity without disturbing the birds. Photography from a vehicle or blind is often an excellent solution, but also must be used with some caution.

  • If you want to get great bald eagle shots, study their daily habits and feeding patterns, and exercise patience. Try to put yourself near areas they frequent, and consider using blinds or other camoflauge to conceal your presence (can be very difficult).

  • Never try to get a bald eagle photo “at any cost”. Disturbing nesting areas can cause bald eagle pairs to abandon the nest and their babies, ensuring the death of their nestlings.
Photographing bald eagles and other wildlife can be an incredibly fun and rewarding experience. With a little planning you will get better images and prevent stress for the animals.

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