What is Ethical Wildlife Watching?

Ethical Wildlife Watching is the pretty simple idea that the welfare of wildlife and the natural world must always come first. Whether this is ensuring minimal disturbance to a species during observation, or simply making sure that the habitat we visit remains untouched and undamaged, these are basic principals that we base all of our encounters, tours, writings, and conservation on.

1. Wildlife Welfare

It is best to consider yourself a guest when in the natural world. Ensure that you are causing minimal disruption to all species whether you are a photographer, sound recordist, animal watcher, artist, or even just a nature lover walking at the local park with a pair of second-hand binoculars. It is particularly important to adopt these principles during breeding seasons, when in the vicinity of nests/hollows/burrows/etc, and during particularly difficult parts of the year (freezing winter, hot summers, in heavy rains/winds, after impactful natural events/etc).

2. Playback & Spotlighting

Playback and spotlighting are typically contentious issues amongst wildlife watchers. For us, the point remains simple – if the wildlife or habitat is affected negatively by a behaviour, we do not do it, nor encourage it. When spotlighting, we recommend adopting the following techniques. If it is safe to do so, try walking in the dark, using your ears and the light provided by moon and stars to detect wildlife. This approach is not only more beneficial for nocturnal species but will aid observers in locating wildlife more successfully given the lack of disturbance to the area. When using light, we recommend a low light with a red filter, which can be easily made with cellophane and a rubber band. When using white/yellow light, please use a very wide and weak beam – we recommend only using this to observe scenery or picking up distant eye shine.

3. Habitat Protection

As already alluded to, habitat protection is a fundamental when it comes to wildlife conservation across the world. It goes without saying that everything from an acre of land to single rotting stump can make the difference to a species thriving or just surviving. Considering this, we ensure that when in the field we leave only footprints and take only memories (or photos). We highly reject the behaviour of those who prune plant life in order to get better shots/views, leave walking trails and damage undergrowth, and other related activities. Always remember, that even the most unassuming rock or twig can be home to someone.

4. Sharing Information

Sharing information is vital for the encouragement and education for people appreciating the wonders of the natural world. However, it is always worth considering the impact that sharing your sightings may have on the species observed and/or local habitat. For example, will reporting a rare bird result in birdwatchers harassing/disturbing the bird? Will advertising a seal that has come to rest on a beach impact its time there?

5. Access & Sites

Sometimes wildlife appear in places that we cannot easily access. If this includes private property, under no circumstances should you enter the land without permission. Similarly, if permission is granted, the conditions under which it is granted must be obeyed and always respected – this can sometimes include limited access, supervised access, or the restriction of no photography. If a site such as a national park or reserve requires permits or has restricted access hours, these must also always be adhered to. Poor behaviour can sometimes result in wildlife watchers receiving a bad reputation and losing access to certain areas and sites altogether.

6. Respect

If you spend time out in the field (and to a greater extend online), you are going to run into other people who also love nature and wildlife. Try to always show respect and have consideration to their views, no matter how similar (or not) that may be. Remember, that we are all bought together by the same passion and respect for the nature world. If you notice others using techniques such as flushing, baiting, aggressive playback or spotlighting, or similar activities that may disturb wildlife or damage habitat, try to be diplomatic and approach with an educational mindset, rather than a confrontational one. Similarly, if you observe behaviours by members of the public that appear detrimental, try to be considerate, yet firm. If you believe the problem to be of a serious nature than incidental, you may wish to consider informing the local rangers, police, or the appropriate authorities.

7. Wildlife Watching Abroad

Wildlife is found and appreciated across the globe. However, it is important to remember that when visiting an unfamiliar site, state, country, or culture, you understand the local customs, respects, and laws of the area. Sometimes this can be as simple as learning a few local phrases (“Chào buổi sáng”, “gracias por su ayuda”, “ich bin ein Vogelbeobachter”) – we have a resource page on international wildlife watching lingo we recommend checking out. Other occasions it can be as important as making sure you have up-to-date visa details, are complying with local laws that may be different to your own, are aware of any site/park entrance requirements such as access times, playback/spotlighting restrictions, or entrance fees, and even which side of the road to drive on.

Our Owl Policy:

With everything from owls to gliders, bandicoots to carnivorous snails, geckos to burrowing frogs, and many many more, Australia is home to an extraordinary collection of unique and wonderful nocturnal wildlife. For us here at Treeswift Wildlife & Nature (Australia), we are privileged to regularly encounter a large variety of these wonderful animals on our tours and events. And whilst it is always an honour to be able to show and teach people about these animals in the wild, sharing our sightings online on forums such as eBird and across social media has increasingly become a risk for the welfare of these animals.

Species at the forefront of this issue are Australia’s owls, particularly the larger wet forest species such as Powerful Owl, Greater Sooty Owl, and Masked Owl – possibly the three most-requested species on our private tours.

In keeping with our commitment to Ethical Wildlife Watching, conservation and education, Treeswift Wildlife & Nature has made the decision to no longer publish the exact sites or locations of our owl sightings on forums such as eBird and iNaturalist. Instead, we have made a commitment to work with conservation groups such as Deakin University Powerful Owl Project and other organisations and will instead log our owl records with these groups and in broader LGA and unspecified locations.

Why are we doing this? As Melissa Groo once wrote in her article about Being a Responsible Bird Photographer in the Social Media Age: “Before broadcasting the presence of a bird that might attract a lot of attention, think through the potential for disturbance to the bird, its surroundings, and to other people in the area. Owls are a perfect example. Because owls are typically so elusive, when word spreads of a sighting, a crush of visitors can occur. Though individual visits may seem benign, the cumulative effects must be considered—and not just to the bird, but to the ecosystem as well.”

For our guests that use eBird, don’t worry you’re not going to miss out on logging these records! We will be sharing a general LGA list and our usual site lists along the way. Please note, that we may wait a period of time as an extra precaution for the owls safety.

Moving forward, we look forward to continuing our work in conservation and education and ensuring that wildlife watchers will be able to enjoy these magnificent animals in the wild for many generations still to come.