In the desire to get the perfect shot, some photographers push the limits, too close for comfort or, jeopardizing the wildlife they adore. Can’t we all just get along?

The defendant enters a plea of guilty to count one, violating the Endangered Species Act, which carries a maximum sentence of 1 year imprisonment, a fine of $100,000, a term of supervised release of not more than one year, and a special assessment of $25 due on the date of sentencing.

—United States of America v. Jim Neiger

So reads the plea agreement signed on January 29, 2014, by Florida nature photographer James Neiger. Four years earlier Neiger had visited Lake Tohopekaliga, on the border of Kissimmee, Florida, where his business, Flight School Photography, is located. He was guiding a group of shutterbugs paying roughly $300 per person, per day, for the chance to take close-ups of the Snail Kite, a species so rare that a recent survey showed the population has fallen from 3,000 to about 700 in the span of only 10 years.

Unfortunately for Neiger, his tour group wasn’t alone: A U.S. Geological Survey researcher was watching as Neiger drove his pontoon boat between an active Snail Kite nest and a Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission sign stating, “Stay Back. Endangered Snail Kites Nesting,” and wedged the boat into the reeds.

Documents obtained through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act report that the researcher witnessed the Snail Kites fleeing from the nest as the photo group clicked pictures of them in flight. He testified that he confronted Neiger, telling him that his group was too close to the kites (well inside the 500-foot legal boundary), and that a year later, on eight days between January and May, he saw Neiger at it again. Then, on February 20, he caught Neiger on video harassing a nesting female Snail Kite for nearly two hours.

Neiger wouldn’t return phone calls or emails to talk about what happened, but he pleaded guilty to knowingly and unlawfully “taking” an endangered species. (Under the Endangered Species Act, the term “take” means to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct).

The court ruled that Neiger’s actions had interfered with breeding, causing the Snail Kites to abandon the nest, likely leaving their chicks to starve. In exchange for getting to keep his camera, pontoon boat, and motor, Neiger (whose images have appeared several times in the top 100 selections from past Audubon photo contests) paid a $9,000 fine and was sentenced to two years’ probation, with special conditions.

They included that he not photograph Snail Kites or guide others to do so during the probation period; refrain from using any photographs taken of Snail Kites on Lake Tohopekaliga during February and April of 2011; submit a formal apology to a birding magazine or similar periodical that covers ornithological photography; and perform 25 hours of community service.

If Neiger ever issued that apology, we can’t find it. But his day in court provides a rare window onto the ethical front lines of nature photography. In the age of Instagram, everyone’s a photographer—and photographers love birds (as do magazines, including this one!). But sometimes we love them too much. 

Too Close for Comfort
Biologist Ann Paul is charged with protecting birds on Alafia Bank. She’s advocating for a buffer zone that would extend at least 100 feet from the high tide mark in hopes of preventing the further decline of Reddish Egrets and giving all the birds more breathing room. Photo: Melissa Lyttle

One foggy monday morning in late February, Ann Paul and Mark Rachal rendezvoused at the Williams Park boat ramp, near Tampa, Florida. Falling into their usual routine, they tossed bags and buckets of gear into a 20-foot Bay Rider emblazoned with a red Audubon insignia matching the arm patches on their shirts. They tightened their ball caps and zipped up their jackets, then set out into the Alafia River and past the Mosaic phosphate plant.  

The scene, with smokestacks and a mammoth conveyer belt looming over the water, isn’t exactly postcard material. But “the birds don’t give a crap about that,” Paul said. And there are birds in abundance here—more than 16 species, including Roseate Spoonbills, Reddish Egrets, White Ibis, and American Oystercatchers. Many of them nest and roost on what’s known as the Alafia Bank, a manmade string of dredge spoils, now covered with mangroves, that date to when the river channel was first widened in the 1930s to allow shipping traffic to pass to and from the fertilizer plant.

Dressed head to foot in khaki, with a toothy smile, sea-blown blond hair, and small gold hoop earrings, the 65-year-old Paul is a fervent conservationist (who happens to know that her Prius can zip along smoothly at 100 miles per hour). As an Audubon warden, she’s also the latest in a long line of biologists dating back to the early 1900s who have made it their mission to protect the birds of South Florida.

Back at the turn of the 19th century, the wardens were risking their lives—several were murdered—fending off plume hunters. The “crackers,” as the poachers were called, hauled heron pelts by the hundreds of thousands, used the birds for target practice, and raided White Ibis nests to steal their chicks, which they plucked and boiled to make a traditional “curlew purlew” stew served over rice at Fourth of July picnics.

Today the threats are decidedly tamer—not some guy with a rifle but recreational boaters, sunbathers, fishermen, birders, and nature photographers. “It has a cumulative effect,” Paul said. “It’s not just one person out there; it can be an onslaught at times.”

As the Tampa Bay regional coordinator for Audubon Florida, she works closely with Rachal, the Coastal Islands Sanctuary manager, to oversee nearly 30 bird islands, including the Richard T. Paul Sanctuary, named for her late husband, a longtime conservationist with the organization. On their patrols, Paul and Rachal have seen it all, from nude sunbathers to a would-be groom who had a helicopter drop him and his sweetheart on one of the islands so he could pop the question.

They spend most of their time surveying activities around the islands, posting No Trespassing signs, and managing the habitat. And sometimes, after all that effort, they get genuinely pissed off when people just go ahead and do whatever they damn well please.

Barriers, while essential, carry the risk of telling photographers, “Hey, there’s something interesting over here!” Melissa Lyttle
Barriers, while essential, carry the risk of telling photographers, “Hey, there’s something interesting over here!” Photo: Melissa Lyttle

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