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Crossing the Rubicon

Back in the April 2015 issue of Birding, there appears a beautiful and remarkable photo of a slam-dunk Black-and-white Warbler. Essayist Tony Leukering explains why it’s this-and-that age and such-and-such sex, but ID of the bird at the species level simply isn’t at issue. The bird is a patently obvious Black-and-white Warbler.

Photo by Sam Galick.

Photo by Sam Galick.

Not only that, it’s an entirely “normal” Black-and-white Warbler, engaged in the entirely routine activity of flying from one place to another. What could be more typical, more perfectly avian, than the sight of a bird flying through the blue sky?

Here’s the deal: Through a combination of photographer Sam Galick’s adroitness and his camera’s technology, the bird in the photo appears in a way that no human eye-brain complex can perceive. And that’s attracted the notice of Pete Dunne and Don Freiday.

Freiday praises essayist Leukering and photographer Galick for their fine work, but also says:

The proper way to test our skills on Galick’s Black-and-white Warbler photo is to have someone hang the April 2015 issue of Birding out the window of their car while they drive by at 35 mph, at least 40 yards away, possibly backlit by the rising sun.

And Dunne, equally enthusiastic about Leukering and Galick, asks:

But is this field identification? It is most certainly bird identification, but doesn’t it bring bird study full circle and back to collecting specimens and identifying birds after the fact?


No question about it, today’s birders are aided and abetted by cameras–and, increasingly, digital audio recorders–that permit “after the fact” IDs. We discussed this at length a few months ago at the ABA’s group page on Facebook. I saw it in action earlier this year at the marvelous Valentine’s Day Gull Frolic in Chicago: click first, ID later. And, increasingly, I do it myself: In the past few days, I’ve ID’d flight calls from spectrograms of recordings I made; I’ve corrected bad IDs based on photos I’ve taken; and I’ve gotten accurate counts (for eBird) by review of photos of large flocks.

Pete Dunne and Don Freiday are inarguably right that there’s been a major change in how we ID birds. Here’s my question to you: Is this a good thing?


Note: For a limited time, Dunne’s and Freiday’s commentaries, published in the August 2015 Birding, are publicly available. Please click here [PDF download] to read their commentaries.

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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

Latest posts by Ted Floyd (see all)

  • Jim

    What is the right question to ask might be a better place to start. Ted suggests that the right question is, “Is this a good thing?” Obviously, it is a great thing for science. The more birds we can correctly identify and the better we can identify birds, the better. It gives us more data and better data. I doubt that anyone will argue that this is good for science.
    However, birding is not just science. It is also a sport. It is sometimes billed as the most popular outdoor participant sport in the US. I don’t know if that is true, but there are certainly tens of millions involved in it this way from the causal feeder watcher to organized teams doing big days and world series of birding. We are blessed (I think) to be living in a time when a large number of birders trained themselves with nothing more advanced than good optics and a field guide (could we call this the Peterson Age of Birding?). They have honed their ID skills to the maximum, achieving a mix of knowledge and habits that are a tribute to their love for birds. I’m what I consider a good birder, but often enough I go on a walk with people whose skills seem magical to me – real marvels – that make me see that birding is really a sport when done with nothing more than optics and a guide (not that most on the highest levels need one – but on lower levels like my own, who like to get out by ourselves and need to ID things we only see in migration, or likely rarities). You finish with satisfaction of knowing a good percentage of what you have seen.
    I wonder how much Peterson-style birding will appeal to future generations. I have already started to run into the attitude that “if you don’t have a photo of it you didn’t see it,” mostly in younger people. I am often asked why I don’t take pictures and mostly its because I’m content to see the bird. I don’t need to show photos of it to people who didn’t think it worthwhile to take the walk, and I don’t really enjoy photos of a bird I’ve seen as much as going out and seeing a live bird. Younger people today seem to need to document their lives, taking photos of everything, now that it is possible, with their phones. it spills over into the field where you see a lot more cameras than before. I don’t mind that people want to take photos, but when I see a camera instead of binoculars, I don’t think of the person as a birder – maybe a personal prejudice – but as a photographer. Binoculars are more immediate, it think, speaking from ignorance as a person who doesn’t take photos. I enjoy the bird in the field while the photographer enjoys the bird at home. I feel like I have more of a contact with the bird than a photographer does. I’m not trying to say that my way is better, only that I like it more – which means it is good for me, and might not be what other people prefer. That’s fine.
    Perhaps this would be a good place to mention that these new kinds of birding are also more expensive, making birding a more exclusive sport. I already have several thousands of dollars worth of optical equipment. I cant afford to start spending more on cameras and lenses. Photography is not a reality in my economic range. I’ve tried a little digiscoping and perhaps that is something I could do with equipment I already have. I also have looked into equipment for audio identification of night-migrating birds which is mostly not in my range. Does the new birding threaten to make an outdoor sport that has always had to fight the image of being exclusive even more exclusive? If you can’t afford the gear, too bad, you can’t participate.
    I wonder how many younger people equipped with the latest gear will spend time to hone their ID skills in the field. It seems like they will prefer to take their photos and leave ID for examination of the photos at home. I’m sure there will always be some who enjoy the challenge of field ID, but I fear that number will shrink and those who are skilled in field ID will be less skilled on the average than birders today. Maybe we are at the end of a golden age of bird identification – the Peterson Age – when the average birder needed good field ID skills because there was no other way. I think birding as a pastime and sport will shrink while birding as a hobby that is done more and more on the computer will grow. Maybe that will be a new ‘golden age’ of bird identification bringing in a lot more birders who wouldn’t have participated the old way. All I can say is that I prefer birding in the field with optics and not camera, but as I get older, maybe the day will come when the only birding I can do will be with a microphone on the roof and me at the computer and I will like that too, because I will get to be in contact with birds, although not in the way I like best.

    • Jim

      Sorry, that should be “I doubt that anyone would argue that this is NOT good for science.”

      • Ted Floyd

        Good thoughts, Jim. One thing I’ve been wondering about a fair bit: Is there really any evidence that taking photos (and making audios) is actually making us worse at field ID? I sure see that asserted in a lot of venues and by a lot of people. But what’s the evidence? (I’m not saying you’re saying that. I’m just genuinely curious if there’s evidence that gadgets are making us worse at field ID.)

        The other day, I identified two creatures “after the fact.” One was a butterfly, Danaus gilippus; the other was a grasshopper, Arphia pseudonietana. But here’s the deal: The next time I’m in the field, I’ll be able to ID them while I’m actually in the field. So taking photos (butterfly) and making audios (grasshopper) has made be more, not less, aware of what I’m seeing in the field.

        • Ted Floyd

          I oughtta say: Top, Danaus gilippus, The Queen (a Monarch lookalike), Washington County, Colorado, Oct. 10; bottom, Arphia pseudonietana, Northern Red-winged Grasshopper, Washington County, Colorado, Oct. 10 (that is the waveform function of its crepitation).

          • Ted Floyd

            Hmm… Top suddenly became bottom, and bottom suddenly became top. The mysteries of WordPress…

    • john lofgreen

      I remember when we birders were encouraged to make field sketches of unfamiliar birds to enhance our ability to correctly identify a species. That is still a good practice but taking a photo is so much easier. On another note, superzoom, or bridge cameras cost a fraction of dslr’s and are great for documenting bird sightings. I have both a good dslr with a mega lens and a cheap superzoom, (Fujifilm HS-50). I use the cheap camera about 90% of the time. It is so much more versatile and light weight.

      • Brooke McDonald

        Taking a photo and making a drawing are different skills with different outcomes. Until I sketched out the goldfinches, I did not realize that the wings are the best way to ID the different species. Taking a picture of the birds would not create this kind of connection.

        • Ted Floyd

          Agreed, Brooke, that “[t]aking a photo and making a drawing are different skills with different outcomes.” For me, I haveta say, taking a picture is what led to a personal goldfinch breakthrough:

          As you say, different outcomes. Both are worthwhile.

        • Ted Floyd

          These are for you, Brooke… 🙂

          (Photographed practically side-by-side, Boulder County, Colorado, USA, this Sunday morning, Oct. 18.)

      • Ted Floyd

        Totally agree with you about these “superzoom” cameras: inexpensive, as you say; lightweight; and ridiculously versatile. Here are two recent images from my Canon SX50. First is a distant Merlin this morning, Oct. 15, Boulder County, Colorado; second is a close-up Purple Tiger Beetle, Yuma County, Colorado, Oct. 10, 2015. Just lo-rez here, per WordPress guidelines. You can also do astronomy, scenics, people, anything. With these “superzoom” cameras, who needs the mega lenses? Heck, do you really even need binoculars anymore??

        • john lofgreen

          Great photos. I am not sure about your Canon SX50, but my Fujifilm HS 50 features manual focus and zoom which are pretty much essential features for getting good photos of birds among branches etc.

          • Ted Floyd

            Correct, manual focus and zoom on the Canon SX50. Plus a couple dozen other buttons I don’t understand. One of these days I’ll get Bill Schmoker to explain it all to me, haha.

    • Don Freiday

      As to “if you don’t have a photo, you didn’t see it,” I am compelled to share a blog about that: . And to say, in an act of either bravery or insanity, I submitted to the NJ bird records committee a sight record of a Kirtland’s Warbler, a potential state first record, with one corroborating observer and no photos, AND we saw it in morning flight for only a few seconds. My write-up on that bird is at , and, as I say in the write up, I don’t know for sure if this sighting is good enough for a first state record. Great comment!

      • Ted Floyd

        Let’s consider the converse of what Don is saying: records submitted without any written details. In my mind, such records are at least as problematic as those without any “physical” support, e.g., a photo.

        Sure, Don’s seen-in-flight-only, didn’t-get-a-photo, not-on-the-New-Jersey-list Kirtland’s Warbler might not pass muster with certain records committee members. But it goes both ways. A crippling photo of a Kirtland’s Warbler against a glorious blue sky, with no supporting details, is, in my mind, even more problematic. For starters: Was the bird even photo’d in New Jersey? I’m serious. And then what about all the stuff you can’t see in the photo: the bird’s flight call and other vocalizations; field marks noticed but not apparent in the photo; behavior, behavior, behavior; the weather and other elements of context; the observers’ prior experience with Kirtland’s Warbler and in-flight ID; etc., etc. All that stuff matters.

        I’m not here to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I’m all for documenting rarities with “physical” evidence like photos and audio. But I think words have to be a part of any accepted record.

        It’s ironic, isn’t it? The triumph of the Griscom-Peterson-McCaskie revolution was persuading the scientific establishment that careful field study and thorough written descriptions might complement the ornithological record. But now we’re arguing for a return to “What’s hit is history / What’s missed is mystery”??

        For sure, take pix and make audios. But also write stuff down.

        Don, I’d vote for your Kirtland’s, just as a show of support for your chutzpah… 🙂

        • Don Freiday

          Well, thanks Ted! The only think that makes the KIWA worth consideration is that Glen Davis, the official morning flight counter at Cape May, and I identified it independently and wrote it up separately without exchanging information.

  • Ronhelio

    Personally I’m mixed about the (over-) reliance on photography. I feel as though a photo has become necessary when it comes to birding – which I also find annoying. I do understand how photos are beneficial (to the identification process and documentation), but I also differentiate between birding and doing science.

    Also on a personal level I used to do quite a bit of photography. One thing is that I never made the leap from film to digital. But I also found that I wasn’t quite so good at multi-tasking as other birders. I frequently see birders loaded down with bins, scope, tripod, camera, lenses, guides, parabolic dish, microphones, recorders… and I’m okay with just my 10X42s. What I learned long ago, and I haven’t changed my opinion on, is that I can either look at birds or photograph them, but not both.

    And like Don Freiday, I have always likened birding to botanizing at 60 mph. On my last pelagic trip I was shown jaw-dropping pictures in extraordinary detail of birds I battled mightily to catch field marks of, and I’ll admit to being more than a little bit jealous, but I’ve never once thought to put down the binoculars in place of a camera.

    • Anders Peltomaa

      When my birding interest, as a child from back home in Sweden, kicked back in in 2006/7 I only used my binoculars. Then I got in to photography for a handful of years, but in the last couple of years I have more often left my camera at home and started enjoy watching the birds with my naked eye or through binoculars.

      Recently I saw my lifer Black-capped Petrel (5) on a pelagic out of Brooklyn, and I have not a single photo of any one of them.

      There are birds that I have seen that I wished that I had photos of, but my gut feeling is that going through the learning process how to make a field identification is essential to becoming a better birder. However, I am in complete awe of Sam Galick’s flight id skills, and how he and others get those incredible in-flight shots of warblers I have no idea!

  • Tristan McKee

    In the field, most serious birders are practicing science and sport simultaneously, especially with the organized data collection that eBird makes possible. We are all bird navigation fanatics, obsessed with pin-pointing where a bird came from and how it got here, and especially with finding the novelties within this pursuit. There is certainly an increase in accuracy of bird ID that come from being able to examine it after shooting it with a camera or gun. But our time to devote to birding is limited. I would argue that this increase in accuracy is approximately counterbalanced by a significant DECREASE in the number of birds accurately identified due to decreased attention to distant birds and decreased skill levels of birders. Members of the Peterson School are constantly focused on birds flying 1-15 miles away and small “seep” notes in the treetops, while modern birders often ignore things beyond the reach of their cameras. While Peterson School birders probably make more mistakes by sheer count, the percentage of birds they correctly ID is probably not all that different, because the actual number of birds identified is higher. Every moment spent examining your screen or at home reviewing photos is a moment that could have been spent detecting more birds and taking in their variations and attributes.

    That said, we all come to a compromise between learning and documenting, and the ideal seems to be birding in pairs or groups with people that fall at various levels of the photo-age spectrum. I certainly enjoy the merits of both.

  • Jamie Huskins

    I have found that a lot of people who photograph first and ID later don’t spend enough time observing the bird, and often try to identify birds from photos that do not have the proper angle or lighting to show important field marks. They also don’t pay enough attention to other important ID clues such as voice, habits and habitat. These things are often easy to notice in the field, but not so easy to recall later at home when you realize they could be the key to a proper ID.

    • Judith Sanborn

      Jamie, I’d like to put out another view. People bird for different reasons and may not be interested in your style of birding. It’s great to put forth different insights into how to make a good ID, but not so great to judge others because they don’t follow your rules.

  • Mike Patterson

    Busy, busy, busy…

    I just posted an essay this morning on the topic of post-processed digital birding as it relates to a bird my camera saw and I did not see this past weekend…

  • Judith Sanborn

    Good thing for your? I can’t fathom you need to pour over a picture to make an ID, or to listen to a tape for that matter. Collectively? I think there isn’t a collective answer to this question. For me? Yes. I absolutely love taking the picture then going home and spending hours, sometimes days, trying to make the right ID. I’m not a competitive birder so my goal isn’t to reach some number, nor is it to beat everyone to the punch in the field. I just take a great delight in birds, at home or in the field. I love to watch you, and others, make the call after hearing the first peep or glimpsing a brief view. Everyone is different, but we can all celebrate our collective fascination with birds. Just saying.

  • Ted Floyd

    ABA Member Bob Augustine has asked me to post the following:


    Can you stare at something? Yes. It is an act of will, involving a system that is mostly automatic. If you stare at a black spot on a wall, it will soon disappear. This is called habituation. The eye gets tired of repeating the same old message.

    Fortunately, we have evolved a system that largely prevents this from happening. Tiny, quick, short movements of the eye prevent an image from lingering too long on one spot. The “blind spot” we all have where the optic nerve enters the retina is avoided as well. These fast, jerky movements are called saccades.

    Here’s the thing: You can learn to control these movements and put them to use. Run a saccade across the flight path of a bird and you get in effect a freeze frame image in which you can see details that would otherwise be just a blur. Saccades are very fast, like a many-frames-per-second movie camera. They are fast enough to stop the motion of a flying bird at close range.

    To gain control of saccades you mostly just have to will it. It’s biofeedback. It’s like blinking. It happens all the time automatically, but you can also make it happen. Now
    that you know that this is possible, order your brain to make it happen on demand.

    Experiment. Try not only perpendicular movements but also following movements. There’s a lot of speed there to work with, and practice makes perfect. You’ll need it to get the timing right.

    Bob Augustine
    Rockville, Maryland


    • Jim

      Yes! I have noticed that if I try to look at a bird by scanning across its flight-path rather than trying to follow it at speed, I can get some pretty clear images, ‘freeze-frames’ if you will. Like your description, they seem to be momentary images where I have ‘frozen’ the movement of the bird somehow. Reading people describing unidentifiable blurs above made me wonder if it was only my imagination that I was getting something clear. Thanks for this post. I will continue to try to develop my technique.

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