I always carry my telephoto camera with me, or almost always. I’m convinced that other birders who are interested in having their potentially rare sightings believed by others should also always have a camera with them. Even a cellphone camera is better than nothing and sometimes is perfect for what is needed.
If you have ever seen a rare bird and reported it without submitting a photo, you know how hard it usually is to get anyone to believe your sighting, whether you are a beginner or an acknowledged advanced birder. I don’t think the reviewers (e.g., state records committees or ebird reviewers) automatically believe that you are lying when you submit a rare bird report. They do know, however, that it is very easy for birders to sincerely, but erroneously, believe they saw something that they did not see. A photo can clear away all the doubts. I think that if birders are honest with themselves, they know that there have been times that they were convinced of the identity of a bird that they saw and then realized, perhaps upon taking a photo or upon seeing someone else’s photo or upon getting a better look at the bird, that they were very wrong! It happens. We see something. It looks exactly, or nearly like a particular species, and our mind snaps to a conclusion. The more we’ve birded, the more our conclusion is likely to be correct, but all birders are fallible. Really. In fact, some of the best bird misidentification stories that I’ve heard have been told by well-known expert birders, about themselves.
So, when I do a big year (as during every other year), that big camera goes with me. Partly it is just to document the birds for my own records, to let me look back over the pictures and remember my year. But it is also partly a way for me to “prove” to others, sometimes bird record committees or ebird reviewers, that what I say I saw I did indeed see. And yes, sometimes it is to bring reality into my records and reports, to help me realize that what I thought I saw was incorrect.
Carrying a camera, however, does not give birders an excuse to not look carefully at the birds and try to see their field marks and identify them before looking at the pictures. The pictures cannot capture all the field marks, usually cannot show the behavioral details or hear (unless it’s video) the songs and calls, and usually cannot convey exactly where the bird was found or how long it was there. Birders who want to be better birders and want to be out birding still need to be bird-watchers, not just bird-photographers (that’s a whole different batch of people generally). While photographs usually are extremely valuable in documenting bird sightings, bird record committees typically require much more information, a write-up of details seen on the bird and details of what the bird was doing and what it sounded like, if anything. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but more than a thousand words-worth is required for bird documentation.
A final word about carrying a camera – remember to use it. I don’t know how many times I’ve excitedly stared at a bird until it flew away, only to realize that I had not even touched my camera the whole time. Even if your pictures are terrible, having a picture can make the difference between being sure of what you saw and having your sighting be doubted by others and by yourself. And sometimes, the picture can turn out wonderfully and give you a great remembrance, and documentation, of the sighting.
And one more final word – remember to charge your camera batteries. After I wrote most of this post, I went to our weekly Canyon Lake bird survey in Rapid City, but was unable to take pictures because my camera battery was dead and my extra battery was at home. Not good.