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21st Century Audubons

By John Syme - The White House Historical Association, Public Domain

John James Audubon, by John Syme – The White House Historical Association, Public Domain.

John James Audubon walked the woods, fields, and mountains of our ABA area, with a muzzle-loading shotgun in hand, looking for birds. Birding, if you will. He would come across a flock of small passerines–warblers, perhaps–and a report would echo through the wilderness. The sand or grit in his barrel would fly, and the birds would drop out of the trees or sky. He would then pick up the carcasses to see what he got. Sometimes, it was stuff he already had, which would be discarded. Sometimes it would be something sought-after, or new. He would then render a painting based on the corpse in hand.

Today, birders walk the woods with Canons instead of shotguns. They see movement in the trees, or in the sky. A tantalizing shape in the viewfinder … and FIRE!

With the CF card filled like a hunter’s bag, the birder heads home to load their take into the computer … and then jump on Facebook to find out what they got pictures of.

I recently wrote about how photography is changing the realm of birding, and since then–just a few of months ago!–the numbers continue to build at an amazing pace. Every day, a dozen or more people ask to join the ABA group, “Hey ABA, What’s This Bird?“, where we will identify photographs of birds people post. We’ll get dozens of requests each day from people asking for help identifying birds they have photographed.

After one of the best birding weekends this spring in my home state of Illinois, I took a look at what was happening on the listserv, vs the Illinois Birding Network on Facebook. There were easily twice as many posts on Facebook as there were on the listserv. The difference? You can share pictures on Facebook. And on Instagram. And on Twitter.

Picture sharing on Facebook has become the new “sightings report” in American birding. Indeed, state and ABA Area rarities are posted to the ABA RBA group so quickly, that the news there often beats local listservs and NARBA.

Up until recently, birders who wanted to share what they found with the greater community of birders, sent an email to their local listserv–and still do, of course. But now, it’s just as easy to share the day’s take in a Facebook group. The Birds of Texas group has over 22,000 members, and receives more than 200 posts each day–99% of them sharing photos.

Birders at Magee Marsh, OH. Photo by Debora Sneden Novak.

Birders at Magee Marsh, OH. Photo by Debora Sneden Novak.

Compare that with the ABA discussion group, where photo-sharing is discouraged (we have another group for that), and birding discussion–such as conservation issues, bird-finding, equipment, guides, etc.–is the main focus. With over 7,000 members, that group has less than one post per day. It’s pretty clear what birders want to share … and it’s not conversation or ideas. It’s pictures.

A few months ago I wrote about what I call “birders light”, whose interest is more in getting and sharing the photo than anything else:

…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.

I still think that’s true. And I still think that the many, many people sharing pictures of very very common species, and asking for help identifying them, are little different from the absolute newbie on a field trip. But there is a difference, and it makes me just a little concerned for the future of the fieldcraft of birding.

In the field, a new birder gets walked through the identification with the bird in front of them, and takes in the gestalt, whether they realize it or not. When they are watching a flock of mostly Yellow-rumped Warblers, and a Palm Warbler comes front-and-center, it’s not the the colors of the bird that first jumps out as being different; it’s the slimmer shape and the tail-pumping behavior. These kinds of things tend to get overlooked when the main job is keeping the subject in the viewfinder, and on the autofocus crosshairs.

Audubon’s paintings show an amazing attention to plumage details. But the birds themselves often look nothing like they do alive, in the field … because he rarely observed them for more than a moment along the barrel of his gun.

The essence of birding fieldcraft is identification of wild birds in the field. This requires getting to know the birds you’re observing–how they move, behave, sound and … “feel”. Veteran birders–who like myself, never go birding without a camera–still reach for the binoculars first. It would serve new birders well if they used their binoculars for a bit too, and spent some time soaking in the gestalt and nuance of the birds they are trying to photograph.

UPDATE: Linda Maloney, in a comment about my post in the Birding California group on Facebook, hit the nail I’m aiming at square on the head:

I think you bring up some important and timely issues in your thoughtful article that are relevant to digital photography in general, as well as birding as a burgeoning subculture. When everything is a camera, and everyone a photographer, it is easy to trade “likes” on social media for real experiences. As in your birding example, in which a person is not learning about common birds when overfocused on “getting the shot”, this study of students at a museum showed ‘subjects were less able to recognize the objects they had photographed compared to those they had only looked at.

Here is an Independent UK article about the study she mentions: http://ind.pn/1U8UNOX

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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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