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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:

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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

Latest posts by Greg Neise (see all)

  • Brian Fox Ellis

    Greg, I agree wholeheartedly with your basic premise in this article. Photography is great but a camera in hand changes the way you view nature, birds and landscapes. When a new birder is in the field there is a wonderful learning curve of habitat, behavior, song and so much more than a photo can capture. BUT, as someone who portrays Audubon I take issue with your crass and glib attack with lines like “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.” Most of his birds look very much alive, though he did shoot them. Certainly they look much more alive than the static profiles that were and still are painted by most ‘scientific’ illustrators. A few look contorted, but if you have seen Great Blue Heron lunging towards its prey his image looks more real than most cameras can catch. The simple fact that he often included several specimens to highlight color variation says he knew much more about birds than a quick moment looking down the barrel of a gun would allow. I challenge ALL modern ornithologists to read his seven volume “Ornithological Biographies” where he puts forth thousands of details on bird behavior, migration, mating, nesting, eggs, diet, etc. Yes, he made about a dozen well-noted mistakes, but many of the mistakes he was accused of by his financial rival George Ord have since been proved correct, yet so-called ‘scholars’ still cite them without doing due diligence or even knowing the source of the false accusations or his financial interests in Wilson’s prints. Audubon’s dozen or so famous mistakes are a tiny portion of the 10,000 facts he got right. And most amazing is how much so called new science about birds are actually in Audubon’s writings and not new at all. I would be more than happy to set the record straight in a blog on ‘Birding with Audubon’.

    • Greg Neise

      I say, as you point out, “the birds themselves often look nothing like they do alive, in the field” …

      …and then you counter with, “Certainly they look much more alive than the static profiles that were and still are painted by most ‘scientific’ illustrators.”

      Which says nothing at all about how they appear when alive.

      Audubon’s paintings are amazing, and amazingly beautiful for what they are. No one is contesting that. But many, many of the poses and scenarios depicted in his outstanding art are fanciful to say the least, and do not look like the living bird.

    • Rick Wright

      Tell us more about the “financial” rivalry between Audubon and Ord.

      • Brian Fox Ellis

        IN a nutshell, Ord and a few other members of the Philadelphia Philosophical Society had invested in Alexander Wilson’s Birds of North America. When Wilson died before he finished they were afraid of losing their investment. Then Audubon comes along with better art so Ord led the way in attacking Audubon with a series of articles in both America and England to protect his investment. I do not know if Ord recovered his investment. Though I admire Wilson’s work we do know Audubon as the father of American ornithology so he won the popularity contest. Ord’s attacks were often just wrong, but what most bothers me is that modern scholars repeat them without knowing the context or double checking the facts.

        • Rick Wright

          That’s not how the publication of the American Ornithology was financed. Bradford assumed the expenses of publication on condition that Wilson enlist a minimum number of subscribers (was it 200?). I assume that later on Ord did indeed sink a bit of his own cash into the printing of the posthumous volumes (and the “Ord edition” of the 1820s), but that was not a matter of “investment” but of personal pride and pietas. Ord of all people didn’t need the money.
          I’d love to see some of the portraits you have made of Audubon; link?

  • Sheridan Coffey

    I routinely tell people if they want to be able to ID birds they need to put down their camera for a while. You don’t get to know birds unless you watch them move, feed, interact, etc. It takes time and effort. In the olden days when I started birding I was told to not look at the book, but to look at the bird, to take time to study it and then look at the book. It seemed counter-intuitive, but it did improve my skills. I know people worry that they won’t be able to get an ID on the bird without a photo and they are right; they probably will miss a lot of identifications. But guess what? NOBODY can ID all of the birds. That being said, maybe all they are interested in is taking nice photos. If that is what they want there is nothing wrong with that.

    • Greg Neise

      Right. As I said,

      “…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.”

  • As someone who only uses a camera (and a scope) to bird, I hear the scornful “put down that camera or you’ll never learn how to ID” all the time. It’s pretty demeaning to hear. The stereotype that people with a camera are social media glory seekers needs to die already. The idea that people using a camera are somehow not watching the birds and just watching for photos sounds like the sort of elitism that’s usually reserved for shoegazer bands.
    A camera is simply a tool, just like binoculars. There are pros and cons to both.

    • Greg Neise

      See my reply below.

  • Ted Floyd

    A contrarian perspective. (Fancy that!) I’ve been birding for 35+ years, photographing birds for 1+ year. In the 1+ year I’ve been taking pictures, my birding has gotten better, not worse. Often I’ll spend 10 minutes with a bird that, pre-photographer, I would have lingered with for only 10 seconds.

    Granted, the time spent photographing a bird is different from the time spent looking at a bird through binoculars or a scope. But you what’s coming next: The time spent looking at a bird through high-power optics is different from the time spent looking at a bird bare-naked. I favor all three approaches. It’s great to use binoculars, it’s great to use a camera, and it’s great, sometimes, to take it all off and go bare-naked.

    Back to cameras. When I spend time with a bird I’m trying to photograph, I learn cool stuff about the bird’s overall movements, how and where it forages, how it interacts with other birds, and so forth. And that’s just the stuff I learn in the field. When I get back home to the computer monitor, then I learn about molts and plumages and such. (And one of these decades, I’ll maybe even learn about my camera settings, haha.)

    I should say I am completely aligned with what I take to be Greg’s ur-premise, namely, that photography is changing how we bird. No question about that.

    • Ted Floyd

      By the way, Greg, I watched you that time you took 7 million photos of the Chicago redpolls. I’d say you were birding and learning even whilst you clicked to your heart’s content.

      • Greg Neise

        You’ll see by my response below that I don’t really disagree. But, using the redpolls I took 700 pictures of as an example, I *knew what I was taking pictures of* before I started shooting.

  • Greg Neise

    Both Ted Floyd and Jody S. are missing my point. I bird with a camera 100% of the time, and as Jody points out, it is just one of a birder’s tools.

    What I’m saying here (and thought that I had stated it pretty well) is that NEW birders who are focused more on getting the picture, rather than identifying the bird first are doing themselves, maybe, just a little bit of a disservice. Maybe. Afterall, we are having a discussion here.

    I base my opinion on the huge numbers of new birders who post very common, and very easily identified species, like a male American Redstart, and ask for help with identification. I can understand other common species that are harder to ID, like Palm Warbler or female Brown-headed Cowbird.

    But it just seems to me that a large number of people getting into birding via photography are kind of skipping the “birding” part of things.

    And I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad thing. Just that it’s a thing that’s happening, and I noticed it, so I wrote about it.

    • Liz Deluna Gordon

      If like to put forth that we don’t always know if someone didn’t know what the bird, such as your Redstart example, but simply want confirmation that they got the ID correct. Lots of times the birds that people ask about are tough birds to ID. I believe that sometimes people want to take pretty pictures of birds and this leads them to buying their first bird book. That said, we don’t know how much time went into getting that photo. We don’t know how much or how little money they give to conservation organizations or if they brushed their teeth before bed. We don’t know what books are on their shelves or if they have hearing loss. There simply isn’t enough information in a photo at times to even correctly ID the bird how do we read into that same photo that they aren’t spending enough time watching behavior?

      I do know that when someone wants to know What’s this bird? I happily tell them. It’s good practice for me.

  • Greg Neise

    Linda Maloney, in a comment about my post in the Birding California group, 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.

  • John Longhenry

    Excellent points Greg, well stated and “spot on” with many of your points. I started out as a photographer before I became a birder but love nothing better than to observe a bird’s behavior while taking photos as long as the bird stays around and I’m not seemingly interfering with that behavior. A few years back I had a couple of Black Scoters on Lake Shabbona that entertained me for hours and I learned so much watching as they dove for crayfish and systematically knocked off the legs and claws before swallowing it whole. I never would have learned about those behaviors just casually “birding” or “ticking” off a species that I had just seen. The same goes for the years that I observed Rockford’s Mississippi Kites and photographed them and their behaviors. I agree that maybe as birders we need to slow down and “smell the roses” so to speak; observe and learn about the behaviors, learn more about the various habitats they can be found in, etc. Thanks again for a very thought provoking article.

  • Scott D Hansen

    As a wander of open spaces who owns a canon I agree with the premise put forth. Even more shockingly I picked up David Sibley’s tome The Sibley Guide to Birds (East and West) as I felt I could use a reference to ask more guided questions on birding. Rather than ordering on Amazon I went to several book stores to seek out the 2nd print of the 2nd edition. I needed the darker print in this edition/print.

    I lucked out at an independent book store in Naperville. I also got a story that when checking out. The lady behind the counter, who lives just down the street from Fermilab, stated that when David Sibley speaks in the area he goes to Fermilab to explore. I told her I do too.
    Even if you don’t spot the bird your after or get the best shot:

    Here’s a short list of things you may have achieved while out and about you should be thankful for:
    Be in a meadow after the rain stops and watch the sun come out.
    Smell the woods after a short soak
    Sink your boots in the mud and dirty your pants.
    Splashed through a puddle
    Forge through a stream
    Brave the cold
    Listened to the ice ‘sing’ as it cracks and reforms on a lake,

    Enjoy the out of doors It won’t prevent you from enjoying a hike/walk if you forget the memory card once and again. Get out and scout an area.

    Perhaps the birds will be watching you.

  • Travis Ross

    “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.”

    That entire method is cart before the horse. Know what you are shooting pictures of first!

    Buy a field guide!

  • Cathy Sheeter

    I came into birding as a nature photographer not so long ago (about 3 years). When I was brand new to birding I would turn to my camera first to try and photograph a bird I saw, and then reach for my binoculars afterwords to get another look. Sometimes I didn’t have time to reach for my bins before the bird took off, but I had a photo or two that I could look at closely at home and come up with my ID. I could study the fine points of my photos for as long as I wanted at home. I could closely observe things like the nature of striping on the back, or if the supercillium was white or buff, was the tail square or forked., etc… When I was a very new birder I could not take in all of these fine details at a quick glance that my camera could capture; honestly a small brown bird bouncing around in a bush can be pretty overwhelming to a new birder…as your brain tries to process all of the needed info in three half obscured seconds….does it have a striped chest, or a striped back, were the stripes skinny or thick, what is the face pattern, is the supercillium lighter than the malar, was the throat white, did it have a malar line, was that bill pink or black, skinny or thick, did it have a spot on its chest, was the tail long or short, forked or square, is it dark brown or red brown, … ACK!! However, as my experience increased, I was able to more quickly get a feel for GISS as well as the fine details that I previously had to pick apart in a photo. Much like learning a foreign language, for me, I initially often needed to take the photo to translate it into an ID. I could compare my photo taken in the field against my “Birding to English dictionary” (aka field guide) and compare field marks. As I practiced this foreign language more (with time in the field and seeing/photographing more examples of the species) I slowly became more fluent in this birding language and all those fine details that had overwhelmed me before started to come together and I could translate more and more quickly these things into a correct ID in the field. As my skills progressed I increasingly found myself reaching for my binoculars first and camera second. But early on I think if I had only had my binoculars I would have at that time had to write off a huge number of ‘quick looks’ as unidentified birds. Instead I could look at my photos and study and learn the ID once I got home. Now I am by nature, a very visual person. I was also fortunate to have some great mentors early on in my time birding. By combining all f those things, plus carefully studying my photos, I feel like I became a better birder more quickly. But for me photography was a tremendous assistance to learning how to ID birds in the field when I didn’t know what they were.

    I have been fortunate to be able to travel internationally some since I have come into the obsession of birding, and you can bet I try to photograph every bird that at a quick glance I don’t recognize. And then I go back to camp and compare my photo to my field guide. Unfortunately my photographic memory hasn’t been perfected yet and when I am seeing lots of new birds it can be hard at the end of the day for me to remember specifics about an individual I saw six hours earlier (when I have seen 100 other birds that are unfamiliar). So when really some minor field marks might separate two species (for example Cisticollas in Tanzania??) a photo to me is an invaluable tool for me to be able to study at a later date and see those marks I would have missed without the photo, especially on birds I don’t know.

    So while I do agree that people should make an effort to try to make their own ID and buy a field guide, I don’t agree that you need to know what the bird is before you photograph it. For me their was and remains tremendous benefit from not knowing, but being able to critically look and study a photo as a tool for learning this foreign language of birding.

    • I am glad you wrote this reply Cathy because I was about to write something very similar. There is absolutely nothing wrong with relying heavily on a digital camera when you are first learning to bird. It is an extremely powerful tool and it is too bad that Audubon didn’t have one. He would not have needed to kill all those poor birds!
      There is a very important distinction to be made between lazy beginner birders with cameras and diligent beginner birders with cameras. Lazy birders post their photos and ask for IDs without doing their homework. Diligent birders enjoy the challenge of figuring out the puzzle on their own and learning as much as they can in the process. It is too easy to blame the tool. Blame the behaviors of the person. I think the simple response to the lazy beginner birds is “Don’t be lazy”! Buy some field guides, listen to bird calls and bird with experienced birders.
      I am glad I learned birding by shooting first. By doing the homework it was often the only chance I had to ID the bird. This technique did not ultimately ruin my ability to later remember field marks, learn bird calls or pick-up on bird behaviors. Again, for diligent birders these things are of interest. For lazy birders, not so much. Shooting first has yielded me local Illinois rarities like cave swallow and townsend’s solitaire. I am certain these would not be on my life list without a camera!

  • PJ

    The point may be that you forgot what it is to be a “new” birder.
    I started birding 3 years ago and I was starting from (very) scratch : it took me 45 minutes to identify my first picture of a robin !
    The first times out, it is very difficult to identify bird directly in the field. Very difficult.
    To be able to identify bird, I NEEDED to take pictures and then analyze them for hours with my guide to spot the distinctive details. I needed a still image to focus on, because in the field, most birds are always on the move, behind leaves, etc…
    And I was not a all good enough to tell a female finch vs a pine siskin vs a sparrow at first sight.
    Then I became more comfortable with the regular birds at my patch and I began pulling my binoculars first and then my camera (sometimes to help identify, sometimes for the pleasure of taking nice pictures).
    Now I always take my binoculars first and I can identify most of the birds right away.
    But to reach this very humble level of knowledge, I had to go thru a phase of being-a-new-birding-taking-pictures-of-all-I-could-find.

  • Liz Deluna Gordon

    Read the Birding Together column in the June 2016 issue of Birding magazine. It’s great.

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  • Jared Gorrell

    This is fascinating. I usually use my camera when birding- it’s useful for ID purposes, recording rare birds, and, yes, occasionally getting something worth sharing on Facebook. But you’re right. By focusing on the photos too much, we lose the value of behaviors and bird calls.

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