A view From the Bridge

The ornithological photographer

3Q: Todd Forsgren

Black-headed nightingale-thrush (Catharus mexicanus).

Black-headed nightingale-thrush (Catharus mexicanus).

Todd Forsgren

Many ornithologists use mist nets to capture birds briefly to collect key data or ring them before release. Photographer and birdwatcher Todd Forsgren has spent years working with researchers to freeze-frame those moments, now collected in Ornithological Photographs (Daylight Books).  He talks about the ethics of mist netting, the challenge of photographing hummingbirds, and upcoming projects such as photographing the lengths we go to to rescue critically endangered species.

Zeledon's antbird (Myrmeciza zeledonia)

Zeledon’s antbird (Myrmeciza zeledonia).

Todd Forsgren

Do you think mist netting is ethical?

I do. The moment birds spend in the net seems strange and perilous, but is an important contribution to the gathering of data that is incredibly valuable for conservation. Some people don’t like it as a practice, as there is a low incidence of mortality. In my view it is justified, especially since recent research suggests that incidents of injury are quite low due to rigorous oversight and training of ringers. Exponentially more damage is done per year by outdoor cats or office buildings with their lights left on overnight during migration, and climate change too. (For example, data from the North American Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) programme suggests that bird populations overall are declining, on average, by 1.77% per year.) I’m very proud to say that every bird I photographed was released by the ornithologists with status code 300 – meaning it flew off without any apparent harm. By contrast, John James Audubon and other early ornithological painters would shoot birds out of the sky to make their paintings.

How do you take these avian ‘portraits’, and which is your favourite?

Keel-billed toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus)

Keel-billed toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus).

Todd Forsgren

Basically, I very quickly create a photo studio around the bird. I have a white cloth as a background, which an assistant holds behind the bird, and a flash with a soft box on it, to create the right sort of lighting effect and to ‘freeze’ the bird’s motion. All the birds I’ve photographed have been caught in the course of scientific research, and I always defer to the scientist’s judgement: if a species is too sensitive or has been in the net for a while we don’t photograph it. As for a favourite, I think the keel-billed toucan is the most ostentatious of the images — it’s just so colourful and charismatic. I took the photo on a second trip to Costa Rica, on my second-to-last day there; we never managed to catch one on the first trip. The first worm-eating warbler I saw as a young birder was so vivid, that’s always been a special species for me. The hummingbirds are very frustrating to photograph because my depth of field is only an inch or so and they’re often fluttering around quite a bit. You’ve got to work really fast. So the three hummingbirds I photographed are also very special.

 What else are you working on?

I’m hoping to ramp up another project centring on wildlife, photographing the great lengths that humanity has gone to in order to alter or restore landscapes to keep critically endangered species alive. I’ve also been photographing US Geological Survey experimental forests in the American West, looking at the infrastructure and traces of scientists working in the landscape. I find that the alterations and evidence of scientific research can be very interesting in and of itself. For example, at H.J. Andrews and Cascade Head Experimental Forests, both in Oregon, researchers have set up long-term log decomposition studies that I’m following. But I also just had my first child, so I imagine I won’t be working on much other than that over the next few months.

Interview by Daniel Cressey, a reporter for Nature in London. He tweets at @DPCressey.


For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.


  1. rosario de leo

    rosario de leo said:

    hello from subtropical Mexico. i am glad i ran into your article as I was researching non harmful methods of trapping volatiles (both birds and bats) for my thesis on pollination. In my experience and field trips “Mist Nets” are harmful to birds, as the birds or bats try to escape once trapped and can produce suffocation and bird or epidermical damage. These nets must be left in place for many hours while the researcher (me!) stays away as to not scare the birds away. Upon my return I found many birds (and at night we did the same thing trying to capture frugivore bats) died in the intent of releasing them, especially with bats the damage is even worst considering that we have to use heavy leather gloves and pliers to try to release them after observatory measurement. We even tried a throw away type of netting we found here in Mexico (should any colleagues be interested in trying it we found it at http://guacamallas.com and it is much cheaper than mists nets) and it kind of works (honestly mist nets have a better trapping rate) but also the species we captured were damaged at the moment of impact as these types tend to be a bit stiffer and not give in as much. So my question is …what other methods exist to do this kind of work without damaging animals? And from an ethical stand point is research worth the suffering of sentient beings?

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  2. Todd Forgren

    Todd Forgren said:

    Hi Rosario… Mist-netting, when properly done, is the safest method I’ve heard of for catching wild birds (I’m less familiar with the technique in relation to bats). I’ve been with ornithologists for literally thousands of captures, and have seen less than ten net mortalities. It sounds like you have some issues with the protocol and materials used, and that might cause this higher rate of injury and death. I can put you in touch with some ornithologists working in Mexico who have extensive training and expertise. They can likely help you develop more proper techniques for this research method.

    As for you final question, I think that that is something that everyone who does research on animals must ask themselves: does the value of the data justify the means? In my mind, this technique has made incredible contributions to natural history and our understanding of bird populations and how to conserve them. And so yes, I do believe it is justified. But I also hope that my photographs serve as a monument to the individual birds too… Too often data becomes extremely abstract. I want my photographs to celebrate the technique while also making the most difficult part of it extremely concrete.