Red-naped Sapsuckers At The Nest Cavity

This is one of those situations that tempts unscrupulous photographers into unethical behaviors.

Two days ago I revisited the nest cavity in the Uinta Mountains where I photographed a pair of Red-naped Sapsuckers last year. Apparently that cavity isn’t being used this year but there’s a brand new cavity just a couple of feet away in a different tree and that one is occupied by sapsuckers. It may or may not be the same pair as last year (adults typically return to the breeding site of the previous year, often the same tree and sometimes the same cavity) .


1/2000, f/7.1, ISO 1000, Canon 7D, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM @ 360mm, not baited, set up or called in

Even at this high elevation they’re apparently already feeding chicks. Here one parent has arrived at the cavity with insects in its beak (and this time they may not be ants) as the other adult prepares to leave. Both parents brought food to the nest but at longer time intervals between trips than last year, probably because these chicks are younger and smaller.

This nest cavity is at a very inconvenient place on the tree for photography because of the shadows cast by leaves just out of frame at upper left. Because of the shadows I’m not happy with this shot but it’s the best one I was able to get. It’s very likely I won’t even return to this tree because my chances of getting images I like are negligible. That’s very frustrating but it’s just the way it is.

It wouldn’t take much to make this an almost ideal location for photographing the sapsackers at the cavity. All I’d have to do is clip two very small branches which would remove all the offending leaves and their shadows. But I won’t do that for the following reasons:

  • I consider myself to be a “nature” photographer and I don’t do setups. But more importantly:
  • To clip those small branches I’d have to get within inches of the nest. There are chicks in there and the parents would almost certainly see me do the nefarious deed and/or they’d notice the branches and leaves were gone. Some birds abandon both nests and chicks when they feel the safety and integrity of the nest site has been compromised and I just won’t take that chance.
  • Birds often choose nest locations for reasons we don’t fully understand. Perhaps those leaves provide shade, cover or camouflage and the sapsuckers chose this location on the tree to excavate their cavity partially for those reasons. There’s no way I’m cutting those branches.
  • And last but not least I like to sleep at night… 🙂


Sadly it’s common (very common) practice for unethical bird photographers to remove branches and leaves from around nests in order to give them “better” photos. At least these chicks in the cavity are protected from many predators and the sun but most nests don’t have that advantage. If the leaves/branches are removed chicks can (and often do) bake and die in the sun, they can be found by predators more easily and there’s the danger of the nests and chicks being abandoned by the parents because of the disturbance.

Obviously I didn’t post this image because it’s a great shot – instead I posted it to make a point. Altering nest sites for photography is an unethical and truly despicable practice and I’m just trying to help spread the word by explaining why since oftentimes those behaviors are done out if ignorance.

Knowing many of my regular readers as I do I’m aware that to some degree I’m preaching to the choir but I hope every little bit helps.




51 comments to Red-naped Sapsuckers At The Nest Cavity

  • Barby Anderson

    Wonderful beautiful birds Ron! I will never understand the poor ethics of others. We had our grandkids here yesterday and I explained that we had baby sparrows in 2 boxes with tiny babies, that we need to be very quiet and careful, to not come near the boxes so Mama and Papa will be able to get food to their babies. They understood and were very careful and Mama and Papa continued to feed the babies. If only these things were taught to kids then maybe as adults they would be kind and not do such things!

  • Shirley

    Personally I would rather see a few shadows on a picture than our precious birds being disturbed and upset…kudos to you Ron! And I do love this photo.

  • Gary Wilson

    Hi Ron,
    another excellent post – I concur totally with your thoughts. Your continuing insightful and astute observations and postings are an example to all of us.

  • Sandy Zelasko

    Thank you Ron for making this point. I came across a similar situation and purposely did not trim or disturb any foliage for the same reason. I did not get a good shot because of positioning but I am sleeping well at night. Your ethics rock!

    • Sandy, as you obviously know “missing” those much better images is very frustrating for the photographer but “the shot” is never worth potentially doing harm to birds.

  • Patty Chadwick

    In reviewing this image, the better I like the twigs and shadows…and how they make the setting look more!3-D and realistic—I like the patterns, but most of all, like the arching shadow that frames the peeking parent……A smarty pants baby sitter gave me a chocolate covered ant many years ago…some of the legs got stuck between my teeth…haven’t eaten an ant since …(have also given up voles)…..

  • Patty Chadwick

    Ron–your ethics aren’t just heeded by those of us who read your postings, but get passed on when we quote you…and then those we inform pass them on and, in turn, they pass them on, etc………………(remember the pebble in the pool analogy)……..

  • Louise

    Thank you, Ron, both for your beautiful photography and your high ethical standards.

  • Jean Haley

    I like the shot very much. It shows Mother Nature. Shadows of leaves, twigs etc. Oh, how awful hehe.

  • Even though I can’t sing I am definitely a card carrying member of this choir.
    I love the image, and the care and respect you show improves rather than detracts from it.
    Our male magpies swoop humans they feel are too close to their nests for a brief period each spring. They are noisy, and sometimes connect. Solution? Give them the space they need. And honour the care they show for their families.

  • Laura Culley

    As usual, I applaud your stellar ethics, Ron. As I mentioned in a response to Joanne, it doesn’t take much effort to honor the other species (the other cultures, if you will) that share this crazy spinning rock with us. All it takes is just a little bit of compassion that’s certainly not rocket surgery or brain science 🙂
    As for the shade, personally, I like it a LOT! Obviously from a behavioral perspective for all the factors you mentioned (prior planning on the part of the parents to protect their young), but also from a naturalist point of view. I could be wrong (that’s ALWAYS a possibility), but to me, the shaded bits add character and depth to the composition. It makes me feel that I’m there with you, experiencing this magical parenting moment in the REAL Great Out There, which is sometimes dirty and untidy. We humans seem to want everything to be tidy and manicured and that’s just not how Nature is. That’s just my opinion, worth exactly what you paid for it…LOL!

    • I’m always interested in your opinion, Laura – paid for or not!

      • Laura Culley

        I’m simply DELIGHTED to hear that Shannon has recovered so well! What a huge blessing for you, Shannon and your whole family!
        I also neglected to wish you a happy Father’s Day, but you already got that! Again, just delighted for you!

  • Betty Sturdevant

    I so admire your photography and didn’t notice the shadows until I read your description. You knowledge of the natural world is appreciated as well and keep on teaching. I learn something everyday from ready your blog. Have a peaceful and happy Father’s Day.

  • Patty Chadwick

    HAPPY FATHERS’ DAY, fathers!!!

  • Patty Chadwick

    I LOVE this shot…shadows, twigs and all! I especially like the shadows… Unfortunately, I know what you mean about liking to sleep at night. I have all the instincts and desires of a truly rotten person, but because I, oo, like to sleep at night, my damned conscience won’t let me follow through!!! Bummer!!! In you, I find this trait admirable…In myself, it’s a royal pain!

    • Marty K

      My imagination is now running wild, Patty! I could be a total rat too. 😉

    • Patty, I have a hard enough time sleeping when I have a CLEAR conscience. There’s no way I’m going to deliberately make it any worse!

      • Laura Culley

        Ain’t that the truth (sleeping with a clear conscience)! I’ve learned that somehow the energy (either positive or negative) that you put out into the world comes back to you like a boomerang! One way or another, it’s true that what goes around comes around. Personally, I’d like to avoid the negative stuff coming back at me…I don’t need the stress of dealing with it. Life is challenging enough as it is without inviting Murphy in for tea! 🙂

  • Jim Maloney

    To my artistic sensibility the shadows are a plus. Sure, too much just leads to a “darker” image, but as shown here they can form pleasing areas of contrast in a frame. We just need a way to get the birds to keep their eyes in the light. 😉

    • Jim, if I remember correctly this is just about the only shot I got where both birds had light in the eye. It isn’t easy getting it in two birds in all these shadows!

  • I’m glad that you are placing the interests of those birds above that of your own art—-I think the days have come when we humans will of necessity have to reframe our personal priorities in favor
    of choices-small and large-which might keep this world habitable for other species besides ourselves . Thanks for your choice, and for clearly enumerating the solid reasoning behind it.

    • Kris, saying “don’t do it” without explaining why just didn’t seem like it would get results so that’s why I included that list of reasons. Thanks for appreciating it.

  • Marty K

    Great message for Fathers’ Day, Ron! I agree with you 100% about leaving any nesting area the hell alone! How would a human parent feel if while out for a walk with baby, some stranger walked up to the pram and put the top down or took a blanket off just to take a better picture of the kid? You can bet that a fight would soon ensue and the photographer would get the worst of it! NO SHOT IS WORTH DISTURBING WILDLIFE! (OK, rant over. Ahem. Whew. *Straightens collar. Smooths hair. Jumps off soapbox*)

    On a more pleasant note, I actually like the way the branches and the shadows from the leaves frame the birds’ heads, allowing the light to really illuminate their faces and those red feathers. To me, it makes for a more interesting shot. Plus, I can see the parent inside the tree asking the other one, “What took you so long? I’ve been stuck inside the house with these kids for hours while you’re out gallivanting with your friends!” 😉

    Happy Fathers’ Day to all the dads out there, including those whose children have feathers, fur, or scales! 🙂

  • Susan Stone

    Continue to preach, choir or no! You never know when you might get the information to someone who is willing to overcome their ignorance. I never mind reading posts like this (also don’t mind seeing photos of Red-naped Sapsuckers…). And I applaud you for caring more about birds than about what you are able to photograph.

    • Thanks for the encouragement, Susan.

      Hundreds of people read my blog every day and few of them ever comment. I’m sure many of them are folks who just stumble across a post after googling a particular bird photo or subject so I’m confident that many novice bird photographers see what I’ve written. Whether it makes much difference or not I don’t know but I have to try…

  • Joanne OBrien

    This is a nice photograph of these birds – shadows or not. I’m glad you took it because it gives a close look into the life a species that I’ve never seen. Not every shot can be a masterpiece.
    I appreciate your ethics and like the thoughtful reminders, because as a beginner delving into the world of bird photography I have been running into similar situations . The other day while on vacation I was walking down the beach (Race Point in Provincetown) and got dive-bombed by a Least tern. (Where’s a pith helmet when you need it?) This bird was very persistent – even though where I was walking was quite distance from the cord barriers marking off bird nesting areas! It didn’t take me long to realize that this tern family had obviously not read the National Park’s signs and had deposited their eggs well outside the “designated” area. I quickly altered my walking path to suit us both. Of course I thought of you and your blogs when I did this. I’d like to think that I’d have done this instinctively, even if I wasn’t regular reader your blog and other articles on birding and ethics. But since I regularly read your educational posts the solution to the diving bird dilemma was a no-brainer and instantaneous. You do make a difference!

    • Laura Culley

      Joanne, I so appreciate your empathy for nesting birds. So many people just don’t get it, especially when it’s a raptor defending the immediate vicinity around their nest. Humans tend to use negative words like “attack” to describe the encounter, oblivious to the fact that the “attacking” raptor is a parent defending their children! How would WE react in a similar situation? Again, we’re far more alike than we are different and all it takes is a little compassion and empathy to grant other species (with whom we share this spinning rock) the right to raise their kids in a safe environment (what a concept!). It really doesn’t take much effort to change one’s path a little bit to remove the threat. It’s not like their kids take at least 20 years to mature, is it? Thank you!

    • What you said in your comment means a lot to me, Joanne! Thanks so much for taking the time to tell me the story…

  • Judy Gusick

    Still a good shot showing what’s going on vs a “portrait”. I agree with you ethics of not messing around near the nest even tho I do cuss twigs/leaves/shadows that seem to always be in the way once the trees have leaved out! Dominion over seems to be license to disrupt/destroy to many…………. Happy Father’s Day! How Shannon doing? Still progressing, I hope:)

    • Judy, Shannon is doing wonderfully! She’s pretty much her old self now and that’s unbelievable considering what happened to her and her initial prognosis. She sent me a video of her wishing me a Happy Father’s Day and I’ve already watched it a half-dozen times. What she said was so very thoughtful. Love that kid!

  • Dick Harlow


  • Great photo Ron. I did not really notice the branches much. I guess everyone has different tastes, however I kind of like the branches, it makes the photo seem more real, or wild. I like the shadows of the leaves and branches on the tree bark, and how the adult has to duck its head a bit to avoid the branch.

    • Doreen

      I agree with Ed. With the shadows there, I feel more like I’m actually there too, feeling the heat of the sun, hearing the leaves rustle as I look.

    • Ed, it isn’t so much the branches in the photo that bother me. It’s the shadows, especially those across the eye of one bird and across the back of the other.

  • Dick Harlow

    From my point of view, I agree, that is why I enjoy, appreciate and truly love your photography!
    Concern for wildlife seems to me to be at the discretion of most humans. Ignorance and whatever suits them seems to be the order of the day. Since their discretion is not mine I have had a tough time finding those that do appreciate nature for natures sake and will do whatever it takes to be responsible toward wildlife. It is a tough road to hoe. Thank you for your caring and sticking to your principles.
    Plus, it is rare that I see a photographic situation, scene (unless its landscape), that is perfect to my eye. I love the picture for what it shows regardless!
    Thanks for the post and for sharing!

  • Tying back branches temporarily is a more ethical option than cutting. Then release the branches when you’re done. Shooting on an overcast day will avoid the shadows (my option of choice in this kind of situation). Lastly, the smaller twig could be removed using Photoshop (I understand purists will not want to do that.) Just sayin’…

    • Marie, Tying back those branches would put me within inches of nest (twice if I’m going to “release them after I’m done) and I just don’t think it should be done. It would upset the parents and it would be nest disturbance. IMO nests should never, ever be approached that closely.