Monday, September 22, 2014

Could the need to obtain a photo get in the way of Birding?

Something happened the other day while birding that prompted me to reflect on how I was applying myself in the field. I was out and about in Queens NY, looking for land birds when I picked up an interesting chip note. It was warbler sounding, almost like a Mourning Warbler. I remained quiet for a few minutes and then heard the chip note of a Common Yellowthroat. Standing quite still, I waited patiently until the Common Yellowthroat came into view. Knowing that was not the bird I heard, I continued to try and peer through the Mugwort brush to see what could be moving around and then took a few steps forward.

A bird that was not a Common Yellowthroat flew up and perched on a branch very close by and I immediately realized that I was looking at a Mourning Warbler. This was quite a good fall bird. But instead of observing the bird, I automatically reached for my camera and took a few photos before it dropped out of site. I waited to see if it would pop back up but like a typical Mourning Warbler, it was gone along with my opportunity to study it. I looked at the photo on my camera view finder and was satisfied with my initial ID. The bird was definitely a Mourning Warbler, likely a first Winter Bird. While I felt lucky to have at least gotten a "documentation" photo, I felt a bit torn about my actions. Should I have spent more time looking at the bird instead of trying to capture a photo?

Mourning Warbler
After some reflection on my actions, I concluded that I did not truly enjoy the moment I had with that bird. If you have read this far, you are possibly thinking, why did I reach for the camera. Well, just a few weeks ago, I tripped the eBird filters for a Mourning Warbler and my description sans photo apparently was not enough. If you are an eBird user, you might empathize with me. It is becoming the norm where photos of uncommon or rare birds, are becoming a "must" in order to have one's checklist approved.

This is a tough one and open to debate as I fully recognize the value of accompanying photos for the data in eBird to be of the highest quality. However, there is a drawback if this becomes the standard as the focus could very likely (IMHO) interfere with the art of learning good field observation, taking field notes or  take away the joy of just enjoying what is being seen.  My MOWA example, is one where I certainly felt pressured by this process to get a photo instead of enjoying the moment. Yeah sure, I was lucky to get a photo to look at and enjoy later but what if I had missed getting the shot. I would have missed both the image and the chance to enjoy "that" moment in the field.

It's a bit of a dilemma. The camera has become a valuable part of my getup and I have no plans on changing that but I may reevaluate "when" to get that photo. Of course, when it comes to a rare or uncommon bird more documentation, is always better. So what about you? Do you take a camera while out birding? Do you find it sometimes could get in the way of birding?

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Ashley Beolens said...

I've often debated this dilemma myself sometimes having the camera there gets in the way of actually watching the bird. I've yet to risk not taking the camera though, and I guess the buzz that comes with getting that one great shot kind of makes up for some of the moments missed, but I do force myself to put the camera down and just enjoy what I'm looking at once in a while.

John B. said...

I usually put a priority on visual observation. This is partly because my camera isn't ideal for bird photography but also because I feel that I learn more about the bird that way and end up more satisfied with the observation. Unfortunately it means that I often don't get a photo at all, which occasionally means that an eBird record will go unconfirmed.

A good written description ought to be sufficient for many of the birds that trip eBird filters (which may or may not reflect local bird abundance accurately). It's reasonable to require a photo for rare birds or birds that are well out of their normal range. It's another matter for uncommon but regular visitors like a Mourning Warbler.

Birdchaser said...

I stopped taking my camera every time I go birding and hurrying home to sit in front of this stupid computer to post on the list server and to e-bird. I got back to "watching every bird I see". Having more fun watching now.


Ashley, agreed. It is not easy and the temptation to focus on the shot instead of soaking in the moment can be hard to resist. On the flip side, the camera is invaluable to document a subject that you might want to study at a later time. I love it when I get to study the bird as well as getting the shots. I think pulling back at times can be very healthy in terms of managing expectations. Thanks for your feedback.


John, you are spot on! I too put priority on visual observation because I get more out of understanding my subjects. Hence, the reason I spend countless hours looking at our common birds.

Yes, a good written description should suffice. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Of course, "good written description" is open for debate depending on who is submitting and who might have to read the submission for approval. Thanks for your feedback.


Birdchaser, excellent comment! I used to do that and then got away from it. This year, I have made several adjustments to how I bird. It has resulted in less eBird checklists even though I am still birding as much even more.

This morning, I spent some time "watching" birds without the camera in tow. It felt good. Thanks for sharing your experience.

NickL said...

I disagree that the proposition is either study the bird or take a photo. You had only a few seconds to view the bird, but now that you got a picture you can examine it as long as you'd like. Skulking birds like Mournings don't usually give prolonged looks, but now you can study the one you saw forever!

Unknown said...

I experienced somewhat of the same thing Saturday. I was on a pelagic on Lake Erie, in western Ohio when we were treated to around 11 total Parasitic Jaegers. A couple were really good looks and very close to the boat. However, after I reflect on this experience, I feel that I tried taking pictures of the jaegers, more than watching them and enjoying the spectacular show of them chasing gulls! Once I got home, I looked and saw I took around 350 pics of the jaegers. Although someone else on the boat took around 1000, I still believe I took too many! Even though I watched the jaegers without taking pictures a couple times, I still feel I spent more time than watching them. A good lesson can be learned, and your post is spot on! There is a difference between being a bird watcher, and a bird photographer!
BTW, you can see a couple of my shots here:

Cheers and good birding!

Rick Wright said...

I bought a camera -- the first in my life -- after a comic scene with a mega-rarity at Patagonia Lake, where I ran up and down the trails looking for someone, anyone, who had a camera and knew how to use it.

I almost always take it birding with me now, and almost aways find that when I get home the quality of my experience has been in inverse proportion to the number pictures I've taken.

When I feel the "need" to get a photograph of a bird, it often winds up making me miss birding. You know, birding: looking for and at birds and thinking about them.

Unknown said...

Rick/Andrew: I could not agree more with this sentiment, and it holds true for much of life. It is almost impossible to document life while simultaneously living life, and now that I bring a camera birding I realize that all too well. I believe it's part of a very human desire to posses (the picture) rather than appreciate and experience (the sighting), to "get" the bird rather than to "see" the bird. But alas, there is a permanency in the photo that is alluring and solid, and as such I still bring the camera tho I know its dangers.


Nick, I agree with you, that the photo gives one a terrific opportunity to study the subject if the effort to get a photograph is successful. But what happens if the time you take to raise the camera, to find the subject and get that shot only to miss. What happens then?

That is one dilemma. In an ideal situation, we want both. We get to look, study and think about the bird plus get that all important documentation photo.

Thanks for your feedback.


Cole, it is funny you sited a pelagic trip to share your experience. On a recent NY pelagic, I almost got caught up in the trap of trying to focus on taking photos of Leach's and Band-rumped Storm Petrel.

Resisting the urge to only shoot photos, I found I enjoyed myself studying the birds and processing their different flight styles.

Sometimes, you just have to resist the urge.


Rick, that must have been quite the scene seeing you run up and down the trail :)

We are on the same page in understanding how important it is to manage ones expectations in not allowing the camera to get in the way. Not easy though.


Ethan, beautiful summary. You get it man! That's it right there, we know the danger in not living that moment but the allure of having that photo to look at after the moment is all too desirable.