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On Birding and Photography

When I started birding in the early 1970s, there were only a very, very few people taking pictures of wild birds. Eliot Porter, and his amazing nest-side portraits of warblers near his home in Ely, Minnesota, comes to mind. As does my mentor, Dr. William Beecher, who was probably the first birder to carry an extreme telephoto lens with him whenever he went birding. There was no digiscoping, because there was no “digi” – anything. One of the biggest birding thrills of the late 70s was when Richard Biss “photoscoped” the second Ross’s Gull found in the lower 48, through his Questar. T-shirts were made, and worn proudly. It was an analog and film world.

The author with Dr. William Beecher at the Calumet marshes, August 1979. Beecher's 1200mm Celestron lens on a gunstock was iconic. Photo by William Jarvis.

The author with Dr. William Beecher at the Calumet marshes, August 1979. Beecher’s 1200mm Celestron lens on a gunstock was iconic. Photo by William Jarvis.

In the 1980s, things remained more or less the same. There were a few professional wildlife photographers out there, but amateur photography was mostly landscape, still-life and portrait. I started my career as a wildlife and nature photographer in the late 80s, but it was a while before I could afford the equipment needed to try for wild birds. Things stayed more or less the same through the 1990s, and well into the new millennium.

Digital cameras were out there, but anything with more capability than a short-lens point-and-shoot was prohibitively expensive.  And then, in late 2007, all hell quietly broke loose. The Panasonic FZ series of cameras, with big-lens zoom capability, and effective stabilization, came to the attention of birders. It was now possible to take decent photos of birds–with a small camera, that a birder could carry easily, and a price tag about the same as a mid-range binoculars. But perhaps more important than the camera itself, is the cost (or lack of it) of the medium the pictures are captured and stored on.

I recently spent some time photographing two redpolls. I wanted to get as many angles and details as possible. Over the course of an hour, I took over 800 pictures of these birds. In 1998, that hour would have cost about $350.00 in film and processing. Today, twice that many frames are captured and stored to a flash card for $35.00.

Also about 2007-2009, birding forums and Facebook came on the scene, giving birders places to share the pictures they were taking, and … fast-forward to today. Almost every birder has a camera of some kind with them when they go out. It could be a Canon SLR and 100-400mm lens. Or a spotting scope and cell phone adapter.

The author photographing a vagrant Sage Thrasher. Photo by Jeff Skrentny.

The author photographing a vagrant Sage Thrasher with his Panasonic FZ50 in 2009. Photo by Jeff Skrentny.

On Facebook alone, there are hundreds of birding groups in the ABA area, with more being added each month. The ABA Rare Bird Alert has well over 10,000 members. Photos of vagrants are often posted there by the observer, in real-time, while they are watching the bird. Many local groups (state/province-wide, usually) have 5,000 or more members, and at least one state group has over 20,000 members. Add to that birders using Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, and eBird and we’re talking hundreds of thousands of people. And the #1 activity taking place in all of these is photo sharing.

And that has attracted a lot of new people to going outside and looking at birds with cameras. Facebook birding groups, which had resembled illustrated birding listservs, have begun to change into something else. Many people are posting pictures not for the purpose of illustrating their day out birding, but rather exhibit the photo itself. More like a camera club in many ways. A bulk of the comments are not about the bird in any way, but about the image: “beautiful capture!“, “nice composition“, “perfect lighting“, “beautiful bokeh!“… and so on.

It begs the question: is this birding?

Let’s set that aside for the moment.

Let’s talk a bit more about its manifestations and situations. First off, many more people appear to be getting interested in wild birds. Which is awesome.

One thing that’s happened which is kind of stunning, actually, is that pro-level, exotic-travel bird photography workshops have become very popular. Pros like Glenn Bartley, Todd Gustafson, and companies like Wildside are filling as many as they can put together. These are not easy, cheap trips–the average cost is $5000, and the participants often bring gear costing over $10,000. That’s a huge investment. To photograph wild birds. For fun. [And it gives me some hope for humanity.]

Another interesting thing that’s happening is photographers using birding groups and listservs to find out where potential subjects are. This usually pertains to owls, and most groups and lists have a policy of not divulging owl locations because of the flood of photographers that show up, often disturbing the birds. But there has also begun another “thing”–photographers chasing vagrants in order to “show off” their photos of rare birds in birding groups.

Some of the most active and lively groups on Facebook deal with identification. The ABA ID group (Hey ABA … What’s This Bird?) is where people can post pictures of birds they can’t identify for ABA staff and others to help with. A lot of the pictures are very common backyard birds, like American Goldfinch in basic plumage, which means there’s a lot of raw beginners. Right?

Or are there a lot of people who are out taking pictures, snap one of a bird, are somewhat curious about what it is and then ask on Facebook? Maybe once they get an answer, they’re satisfied until the next time they happen across a bird while taking pictures? Maybe… maybe, they’re not beginning birders at all, but rather, photographers that happen to take a picture of a bird once-in-awhile. Then ask a birding group for help identifying it. If most of the people using the group are like this… is it a birding group? Does it matter?

So, on the one hand, we have the Birds of Texas group, which is primarily a place for its 20,000 members to share their pictures of birds that were taken in Texas. Not a whole lot of emphasis or care is given to identification, escaped cage birds are treated the same as native species, and most often the discussion and emphasis is on photography (what ISO is that? What lens did you use?).

Talk amongst yerselves...

Talk amongst yerselves…

But on the other hand…

… let me direct your attention to the North American Gulls group. Here, nearly 4,000 people discuss the minutia of gull identification in ways that were simply not possible before digital photography, and the internet. A quick search of the group shows well over 100 discussions of the subterminal markings on the individual primary feathers of various gulls (with most being, unsurprisingly, Thayer’s, Kumlien’s and Slaty-backed). This is serious egghead territory that blurs the lines between birding and ornithology. The kinds of discussions taking place here (and in the European counterpart), and in other online forums–including this blog–are greatly enhancing our understanding of bird identification. But, the essence of it all is that we are discussing what we see in photographs of birds. It’s an incredible resource. When I was writing about the first record of Eurasian Sandwich Tern in the ABA area, I had only to go to Flickr, and search for “sandwich tern.” There are thousands of images, with most including date and location. Comparing the structure of the primary feathers in these photos led to a breakthrough in this very difficult identification.

In the August 2015 issue of Birding magazine, Pete Dunne writes:

Today’s cameras have opened the door to a revolution in bird identification—the second major instance in which technology has changed bird study. Consider that just over a century ago, the primary tool for bird study was the shotgun or fowling piece. Dedicated students of birds, called ornithologists, used shotguns to collect birds in the field so that their defining details could be noted. The shotgun was the stopaction device of that age. The bird in hand could be studied, identified, and then rendered into a study skin both for future study and as a means of securing verifiable evidence, one of the cornerstones of science.

Indeed.

Photography is as much a part of birding today as using binoculars, or a spotting scope. And even the most grumpy old curmudgeon complaining about the photographers, gets a thrill out of taking a good picture of a rare or interesting bird. But there’s also no doubt that photography has caused a large, and very rapid influx of people who …

…what? I was going to write, think of themselves as birders. Of course, if one self-identifies as a birder, then you are. It’s that simple.

The tangible take-away from birding has always been nebulous. Basically, it’s a list of experiences. For decades we’ve written down birds we see. To remember. We’ve written up birds we see. To prove it was what we think it was.

Now, we have this tangible, appreciable thing. A thing that we don’t just learn from, but also share. And it’s exciting. You know it is. When you come back from a successful twitch, the first thing on your mind is getting your best couple of pictures out there.

There have always been people who start out birding, then after a year or two, drop out. For lots of reasons. But often it’s because it can be overwhelming. Photography can be a bit of a stepping stone, where a person can interact with birders, without taking the full plunge. Just as some are aligning themselves into groups to discuss the mindbending minutia of gull identification, there are others–like the Texas group I mention above–that are aligning themselves as “birders light.” Out there, enjoying birds, but not worrying about the details too much.

But, does it matter?

No. It doesn’t. What matters is that we’re outside; interested in and spending time with the birds around us. Everything else will fall into place.

Photo by George Armistead.

Photo by George Armistead.

A bit more…

All of what I’ve said above is taking as accepted that photographers behave ethically in the field. That’s not always the case. But it’s not always the case with birders, either. Photographers and birders should be familiar with, and abide by, the ABA Code of Ethics. Encouragingly, other organizations have built on the long-established ABA code, creating guidelines for photographers.

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Greg Neise

Greg Neise

Web Development at American Birding Association
Greg Neise developed his interests in birds, photography and conservation as a youngster growing up in Chicago, across the street from Lincoln Park Zoo. At the age of 13, he worked alongside Dr. William S. Beecher, then Director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and a pioneering ornithologist, and learned to photograph wildlife, an interest that developed into a career supplying images for magazines, newspapers, institutions and books, including National Geographic (print, web and television), Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Boston Globe, Nature, Lincoln Park Zoo, Miami Zoo, Jacksonville Zoo, The Field Museum and a host of others. He has served as President of the Rainforest Conservation Fund, a volunteer organization dedicated to preserving the world's tropical rainforests. Greg is a web developer for the ABA, and of course, a fanatical birder.
Greg Neise

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  • Jennifer Rycenga

    Great essay, Greg! I’d add that this technological change in birding – accessible affordable photography for all – gives us additional avenues to participate in citizen-science, in a far richer way than the old specimen-shooting style, and more tangibly than in the binocular-and-list manner. With photo uploading on eBird, and virtual specimen photo-based data bases like iNaturalist, birders at all skill levels can instantly share their verifiable sightings in the form of Big Data.

  • Steve Holzman

    I was having this discussion earlier today. We’ve hit 1000 on the GOS FB page. There are no other birding FB pages in Georgia (statewide that is…there are regional Audubon pages, and a Rare Bird page). We have increasingly seen posts with just a pretty picture with no context. People just want to share their pretty bird picture. It’s really not what I had in mind when I created the page, but I don’t want to discourage anyone from sharing their love of birds (for whatever reason they love them). BUT….I also don’t want to turn off the longtime birders on the page that share sightings, interesting behavior, conservation issues, etc. It’s a fine line to walk. If the feed just gets covered up in photos you lose the more current or interesting (to me) posts. So….any advice?

    • Cyanocitta

      We are dealing with this ex post facto in the Minnesota Birding group. We’re up to over 2000 members, and while we’ve made it clear that photo-only posts (no context at all) need more info, and that multiple photos need to go in the comments, our reports of “good” birds (yes, I said it) are getting swallowed. They don’t get “liked” as much, they don’t receive as many comments, and they drift down the feed. Many of the more “serious” birders (those interested in ID and in bird phenomena beyond just an image) have abandoned the page. We didn’t want that.

      But I bring it up for you because we, too, were very hesitant to crack down on photo posts when we started. The newbs get their feelings hurt, and that’s not fun for moderators, and it’s also exciting and a bit addictive to see the page growing, and to see the enthusiasm of new birders.

      My advice is to go harda** right away. Don’t let your page become something you don’t want. The first time is the best time to do it right – we’re debating among the moderators starting another spillover group to get the page back to where we want to be. I know this has just happened in one form in the WIsconsin groups as well. Once you have several thousand members it becomes hard to enforce things just because of the sheer numbers.

      The second piece is alluded to above as well. Start a “backyard” photo group right away, so you have a community to direct those other new birders to if they aren’t interested in the Kirtland’s Warbler post because it doesn’t have any photos.

      The thing about not killing all the photos is that sometimes someone new or inexperienced finds something great. We have had a number of Western Tanagers, Varied Thrushes, and even a Clark’s Nutcracker come up because a newer birder posted the photo.

      It’s definitely a fine line. Good luck.

      Jesse Ellis

      • Chris Rurik

        I think this is great advice. The CFO Facebook group just went through a very similar process (photos must contain context, put additional photos in the comments, etc.) and while it hurt some feelings, it is beginning to result in a much more informative feed.

    • Dave Hart

      The Carolina Birders FB group faced the same issue and dealt with it by setting up a separate page, the Carolina Birders Photo Sharing Group. People who just want to share photos do it there, and people who want to discuss sightings, rarities, IDs, and other birding issues do it at the original site. It took a little bit of education and the occasional reminder, but — and one of the admins can correct me if I’m wrong about this — it seems to work quite well.

  • Yojimbot

    well put together essay. I think that no matter how you come at birding whether from the pure birding side or the photography side, you will end up somewhere in the middle. The exception are the bird hounds who trample vegetation, wreck sand dunes or otherwise harass birds in their pursuit.

  • Amar Ayyash

    Very much enjoyed this piece, Greg. I think gull ID is advancing for this very reason! I agree wholeheartedly that it would be extremely difficult to make the assessments we make without quality still images.

  • Ted Floyd

    Seems like there are two key questions here: (1) Is it birding? and (2) Is it good?

    I’m with Greg on #1. If a person self-identifies as a birder, then that person is a birder. Same way with baseball fans, say, and libertarians; you are what you say are. Thus, to answer the big question in Pete Dunne’s essay: Yes, it is birding; yes, we are still birders; yes, we moderns bird with cameras.

    As to #2, I think it’s wonderful that cameras are connecting people with birds in way that, let’s be honest about it, binoculars and scopes often do not. Especially kids, in my experience. Here are two recent photos, which, in my opinion, provide a definitive answer to #2.

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