When is watching wildlife harmful to wildlife?

There have been a few times recently where I’ve had to make a decision on whether to share wonderful wildlife news, or hold back and keep it to myself. Mainly to protect the wildlife from disturbance or harm.

In August for example, we finally released some very exciting footage of barn owls using one of the nest boxes we installed last year. The footage was from February! Do you know how hard it was for me to sit on that exciting news all these months? Very! Once we had confirmed footage from the early breeding season, we stopped checking and left them to get on with it. Releasing the footage once the breeding season was over so as not to have a rush of people down to catch a glimpse at a delicate time when they were prone to depart.

As it happens, someone did catch wind of there being activity at the box, and we don’t believe this pair of barn owls bred successfully due to disturbance. Not only that but the interested humans scaled the tree with a ladder and took our trail camera, so we have lost all our footage for the season. I can only hope the camera is our only loss, and they didn’t also take barn owl eggs or chicks! The only silver lining is that a pair of kestrels may have nested in the box later in the season.

The ranger team found a new badger sett location which we’ve staked out with remote trail cameras, and confirmed an active, healthy badger clan living within. Bringing our total number of known established badger setts in Ealing to three (and a few other locations TBC). But we’re always super secretive and never disclose locations of badgers as they are so prone to persecution. There was after all an incident some 12 years ago where badgers were dug out of a sett in Ealing, presumably for fighting/baiting with dogs.

Our newest resident Ealing peregrine falcons, Freddie and Dusty, chose a pretty public place to roost for all to see. Right above the A&E entrance of Ealing Hospital! So even though they are a schedule 1 protected species, we thought it best to go public in a big way and put it to the public to name the pair! The more eyes on them the better, and the less likely they are to be disturbed or persecuted. It’s worked at many peregrine nest sites up and down the country so hopefully next year we’ll have them breeding on the hospital and we can all enjoy watching. Peregrines are not exactly popular with the racing pigeon fraternity, in case you were wondering what the exact threat is to this species.

Tiercel or male falcon (photo: Rachael Webb)

We’ve had a pair of Hobbys nesting in one of our local parks, a migratory smaller cousin of the peregrine falcon. Apologies to anyone who asked me where they were to go see or photograph them and I refused. They are very secretive at the nest, and the more people that know about them and go see them, the more likely they were to have left or perhaps not used the nest site again this time next year.

Word gets around, one person tells one other person, passers by take an interest in all these people watching a particular tree. And before you know it the Hobbys spook and depart because their top secret location is now receiving daily visitors to have a nosy. It’s not to keep it a secret for only a few to enjoy, it’s to keep the Hobbys safe and happy so we can enjoy them in our skies above Ealing each summer.

Hobby nest (from a great distance)

It’s a delicate balance between showcasing and promoting our wildlife, encouraging people to get out and explore, and stepping too far into the realms of disturbing wildlife or affecting its safety. So it’s been on my mind for a while to write about watching wildlife responsibly.

This last week when a very rare migratory bird called a Wryneck appeared on Warren Farm, there was great excitement from birders, twitchers, photographers and general wildlife enthusiasts alike. All flocking to see this ultra rare and super camouflaged woodpecker, with less than 300 of its kind arriving briefly on our shores each Autumn on their migration route from breeding grounds in Scandinavia to wintering grounds in Africa.

Wryneck by Kish Woolmore

I went and saw the bird myself, the day it was reported when it evaded me and the day after when I saw it in full view several times. And I must admit that it was wonderful to witness so many people show up to revel at its beauty and rarity, and take real delight in seeing such an amazing little bird.

I did have one or two moments of unease however when the bird flew off and the assembled watchers all merrily followed it. Could we be disturbing it from feeding up efficiently? Is it worried about all these people? Could we be affecting its ability to make the onward leg of its epic journey by preventing it from feeding?

It didn’t seem at all perturbed when I was there to be honest. But I’ve had one or two concerned watchers get in touch to tell me that some of the people attending to see the Wryneck haven’t always behaved in a responsible way that’s in the best interests of the bird.

Wryneck by Kish Woolmore

I’ll hand over here to ‘Perry Vale’, who details an account of what they saw, and some top tips for responsible wildlife watching and photography. And I’d urge anyone going to see the Wryneck, or any other sensitive species of wildlife to ask yourself if your behaviour is in the interests of that animal’s welfare, or getting a great photo or view for yourself. It’s a fine balance. Over to ‘Perry Vale’:

The interests of birds and wildlife come first

I sometimes see incidents of wildlife disturbance being carried out in ignorance but also by people who simply should know better.

I recently went to a well known and much cherished wildlife site in Ealing to try and photograph a scarce passage migrant bird that had arrived a few days earlier, probably on its way to central Africa from Scandinavia for the winter. The bird had decided to stay in the warmer weather to rest and feed up before continuing its journey. Its presence was publicised on various birding social media platforms and when I arrived at the normally very quiet site there were several birders and photographers present hoping to see it with several more arriving. It’s normally a shy bird and it took quite a while for it to be found where it was skulking in, apparently, one of its favourite trees.

There was a little rush towards the tree which sent the bird flying into some dense bushes and undergrowth. The assembly moved around to the new area and after a fair bit of waiting, an audio recording of the bird was played to try lure it out of hiding. The recording sounded more like an alarm call to me rather than its song – and in any case the bird is likely not to be singing whilst migrating because it’s not holding territory or looking for a mate. The bird flew from the bushes into a more open area, but was hidden on the ground in long grass and vegetation.

After more waiting the patience of the birders – interestingly not the two or three photographers – was stretched and they decided to flush the bird by doubling behind it and walking in a slow line as if they were beaters on a grouse shoot. The bird was duly flushed and flew into a tree where it was seen nicely. I got on the bird and lined up my tripod-mounted camera and long lens when one of the birders stood two yards in front of me. When I moved to one side, so did he. When the bird flew off after thirty seconds or so he supposed that I had got some great pictures of the back of his head.

The bird flew to a more distant tree and then dropped down into the bushes and undergrowth. The birders congratulated themselves on the good views and how the wait was worthwhile and began to drift off having got their ticks. Two or three birders stayed and I moved to the area where it flew to. After another wait those birders moved off to another part of the site. I remained, stood still and quiet and eventually the bird flew from hiding and settled on a perch in good light, and in full view. I was perhaps thirty metres away and got onto the bird almost straight away, getting some photographs before it flew off and I left it in peace.

When I go to the Highlands of Scotland for photography I hire a wildlife guide to take me to places where my target species are likely to be – he has notebooks and diaries that cover over thirty years of time spent in Scotland and elsewhere. In many ways he is my mentor for wildlife photography, fieldcraft and the ethics of the countryside. One of his principles is to allow the subject to arrive and depart of its own free will.

A birdwatcher’s code has been produced by a partnership of several organisations involved with wildlife and whilst quite specific to birds can be extended and adapted to all areas of observing the natural world on the ‘don’t trample that orchid’ principle’. I urge you to follow, or at least be sympathetic, to the code:

Birds respond to people in many ways, depending on the species, location and time of year. Disturbance can keep birds from their nests, leaving chicks hungry or enabling predators to take eggs or young. During cold weather or when migrants have just made a long flight, repeatedly flushing birds can mean they use up vital energy that they need for feeding. Intentional or reckless disturbance of some species at or near the nest is illegal in Britain. Whether your particular interest is photography, ringing, sound-recording or birdwatching, remember that the interests of the bird must always come first.

Avoid going too close to birds or disturbing their habitats – if a bird flies away or makes repeated alarm calls, you’re too close. And if it leaves, you won’t get a good view.

Stay on roads and paths where they exist and avoid disturbing habitat used by birds.

Think about your fieldcraft. Disturbance is not just about going too close – a flock of wading birds on the foreshore can be disturbed from a mile away if you stand on the seawall.

Repeatedly playing a recording of birdsong or calls to encourage a bird to respond can divert a territorial bird from other important duties, such as feeding its young. Never use playback to attract a species during its breeding season.”


Wryneck by Nigel Bewley

So there you have it folks, I don’t think any well meaning nature enthusiast can stand over the behaviours described above. Yes, people may get excited, yes people may not realise that their one action that disturbs a sensitive wildlife species doesn’t add up as part of all the other disturbance incidents caused by others. And maybe some people just don’t give a damn as long as they get that tick on their bird list, or a beautiful photo. But please, I urge anyone that sees this type of behaviour in the field in future to call it out and explain why it’s just not on!

I welcome comments and discussion below.

Dr Sean McCormack BSc (Hons), MVB, MRCVS

Founder and Chair, Ealing Wildlife Group

4 Comments

  1. Michael Mac

    In early August, in a south-east London park I came across a hobbies nest with 3 young in a very public place, with benches near the base of the tree and daily interference from kids playing loud music on the benches, groups sunbathing and picnicking below the tree. Yet the hobbies chose to nest there and successfully fledged 3 young.

    • Sean McCormack

      That’s brilliant! But knowing they are usually a shy species around the nest we aren’t going to invite crowds to come observe ours and risk them deserting.

  2. James William Scott

    Some nasties there deliberately getting in your way for one and the worse of the lot disturbing your Barn Owl family trying to breed I hope you’ve CCTV footage of those thuckers to share with the Police thenthey’ll be in big trouble.

    • Sean McCormack

      Sadly we don’t, it was a remote battery operated camera out in a field and mounted up a tree. No chance. The culprits were spotted with a ladder but the observer assumed it was us doing some maintenance and only reported it much later.

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