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The changing face of birdwatching

  • Written by  Paul Jepson
  • Published in Geophoto
The changing face of birdwatching Alexsvirid/Shutterstock
26 Oct
British birdwatching is undergoing a transformation: in the last decade telescope-carrying birders have been joined by growing numbers of long-lens bird-photographers. Paul Jepson, from the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford, finds that a new era of British birdwatching may be upon us

Birding is a mode of birdwatching characterised by a focus on bird-finding, identification and listing. It emerged half-a century ago facilitated by affordable high-quality binoculars and a better road network, and became established with the appearance of high-quality field telescopes and the rise of rare bird information services in the 1980s.

I was a student during birding’s heyday in the 1980s: one of many who collected their grant checks, hitched to the Isles of Scilly, chased rarities, and were back in class before anyone noticed. Birding was youthful and adventurous: birders created the bird tour industry, provided much of the data upon which international bird conservation is founded and introduced the term ‘twitcher’ into popular culture.

So what of bird-photography? Is it an extension of birding or a new and distinct mode of birdwatching that may shape the future?

In 2005 I published an article titled Natural History Remastered in the journal British Wildlife. In this I argued that the digital photo can be prepared, shared and discussed in much the same way as the natural history specimen of old. As a consequence, digital technologies are giving new expression to old cultural practices of engaging with nature.

With these thoughts in mind I have been engaging bird-photographers in conversations about their practices and motivations. I quickly homed in on two questions that generated interesting insight, namely ‘what do you do with the photos you take?’ and ‘were you a bird-watcher or photographer first?’

IMG 3830Bird photographers fit various different categories (Image: Paul Jepson)

A preliminary typology of British bird-photographers

Responses to these questions suggest that practices of bird-photography, and to an extent bird-photographers, fall into six general types.

The first is photo-identification. A digital photograph is a valuable identification aid especially when learning a new avifauna or developing competencies in difficult to identify groups such as juvenile gulls. Many birders now carry a ‘digi-scope’ adaptor or bridge camera along with their binoculars and telescopes. For those skilled or lucky enough to find a rarity, even a poor photo is better than a field notebook sketch in terms of checking an identification or providing evidence of a sighting.

A second is photo-listing, which replicates the twitcher’s desire to see as many different species as possible in a particular place or in a given time. National and county life- and year-lists are the most popular. Some photo-listers are twitchers who have decided to start over again. One such ‘re-lister’ remarked that the appearance in the UK of a species he’d not already seen was now a rare occurrence and his memories of past rarities were fading. Photo-listing seemed less ephemeral. However, many photo-listers are new to bird-watching and have embraced the practice of listing because it give the pastime a focus and purpose.

The third bird-photography practice is akin to butterfly collecting. In ‘tile’ view, file-management programs such as Windows Explorer have the appearance of a specimen draw. I’ve met many bird-photographers who are working to complete quality collections of the different plumages and/or classic behaviours of groups of species. For the Victorian butterfly collector every field excursion held the prospect of accruing a new morph or a better quality specimen. The same is true for the photo-collector.

Amateur bird photography is my fourth type. Mike Gurral of Outdoor Magazine describes amateur photographers as ‘people striving to perfect the practice of picture-taking’. Many people with an interest in photography are getting into birds because it gets them out-of-doors, the equipment is available and there are masses of inspiring amateur bird photos on the web. This practice adopts the conventions of art and is all about composition, pose, lighting and so-forth. Any avian subject will do, although some bird species are more photogenic than others – swans, barn owls, and robins for instance.

My fifth type is trophy-hunting. This may be a variant of the last type but the motivation here is to taking impressive photos of iconic species and their behaviours: a regal golden eagle, diving kingfisher or lekking capercaillie. Pay-to-use nature-hides for ‘classic’ species are popping up all over the country. They are carefully located for backdrop and often baited to attract the target species. There is probably something of the trophy-hunter in every bird-photographer: indeed when an iconic rarity such as a red-flanked bluetail turns up, bird-photographers appear in force.

My sixth and final type is perhaps the most intriguing. In January 2013, I approached three guys dressed in camouflage gear photographing a rare Lesser Yellowlegs with top of the range photography kit. When I asked what they did with their photos the response was ‘Nothing. When a memory card is full we just buy another.’ I have discussed this type of bird-photography with many other photographers whose simple and consistent response is ‘it’s the hunting instinct’. These are photo-hunters, those who find satisfaction tracking down their quarry and getting the shot.

shutterstock 225594067State of the art equipment is now commonplace in birdwatching circles (Image: Shutterstock)

Digitally enhanced birdwatching

As I have come to know bird-photographers, I have come to realise bird-photography in its various guises enhances birdwatching.

Marsh Lane Nature Reserve in the West Midlands is the focus for an active community of local patch photo-birdwatchers. One of their company explained how bird-photography had transformed their passion. The area has a stable avifauna so conventional birdwatching visits quickly became humdrum and rarely produced anything new to talk about. In contrast bird-photography holds the promise that every visit could result in a better photo of a familiar species leading to a sense of achievement and something to share and discuss with others.

This spring I chatted with a ‘serious’ twitcher and photographer who had twitched the mega-rare black-billed cuckoo on North Uist. He told me how his camera deepened and extended his engagement with a rare bird. To get a good photo he needed to tune into how it was feeding and moving in the habitat so he could predict where it would appear. This requires a different level of skill to simply getting good views through binoculars or a telescope, which is what I do. Birding is akin to stalking but photo-birding seems to require the aptitudes of the angler.

Photography is central to the design and development of social media and Web 2.0. Blogs, Facebook and photo-sharing platforms such as Flickr are integral to the pastime. They create repositories to share, discuss and show-off photos and sightings thereby building friendship groups and community and broadening the appeal of birdwatching. Blogs, in particular, also create connections between bird-photographers and birders. Birding being older is better organised and there are well-established county and site blogs reporting recent sightings. Many bird-photographers contribute their photos adding significantly to the visual appeal of these blogs.

Farne PhotographersPhotographers flock to the Farne Islands (Image: Paul Jepson)

The big lens as an asset

In 2014 I took a day-trip to the Farne Isles to experience the fabulous seabird colonies with my family. On our boat were four French bird-photographers with expensive 600mm Cannon lens. I asked the warden about his experiences of the rise of bird-photography and he recounted a day the previous summer when 100 photographers got off a single boat, remarking ‘I saw a million pounds worth of photography equipment land on the island!’

In the south of England the most popular set up among bird-photographers costs £11,000 new: 600mm lens (£8,500), camera body (£1,500 upwards) and tripod (£450). The bird-photographers I meet are not high rollers: most are regular people doing regular jobs. My academic salary is not bad but I can’t imagine investing that amount in my hobby.

One late summer evening – a quiet time for birds – I met a professional landscape photographer for whom bird photography was a hobby. He was good enough to talk through how this costly equipment was seemingly affordable to regular Brits. His analysis was a good one.

Many highly paid professionals seeking a retirement hobby are attracted to the idea of bird photography and buy new. They quickly find that getting a photo requires much more than the equipment. Realising this, they enrol on bird-photography courses but many still lose heart and sell or trade in their equipment. As a result there is a regular supply of second-hand wildlife lenses and, like high-end cars initial depreciation is substantial. A one-owner 600mm lens can be bought for £5,000.

Unlike camera bodies, where significantly better new models appear each year, lens technology is mature. New models of these lenses appear infrequently and improvements are small. As a result, once second-hand these lenses hold their value. If looked after they can be sold for not much less than their purchase price.

Many people told me that they had bought their lens from a redundancy settlement, pension lump sum, or small inheritance. In this era of near zero interest rates it makes sense to invest in an asset that generates life quality returns.

DA37F62B A3A9 42E2 AA22 E24462DC3EF2Some bird photographers carry equipment worth thousands of pounds (Image: Paul Jepson)

Looking ahead

I am convinced that the number of bird-photographers is rising steadily and will continue to do so. During the mid-19th century natural history reached craze proportions with an estimated 120,000 participants. This was when our population was around 22 million – a third of what it is now.

Based on my conversations, bird-photography is combining photography with both the old cultural practices of collection and hunting, and with the newer practices of birding and the affordances of digital technologies. As such it appeals to a wide range of nature-minded people.

Given that an entry-point bridge camera retails for just £350, bird-photography seems set to become a major recreational pastime. This is presenting new challenges and opportunities for the birdwatching fraternity, the managers of natural areas reserves, the outdoor recreation industry and for the science of ornithology and nature conservation.

Over the decades birders have developed a strong voluntary code of conduct to govern their behaviour, particularly in relation to disturbing birds, keeping secret the location of rare breeding, birds and respecting the rights and privacy of landowners. New entrant bird-photographers are unaware of these informal rules and understandably want to get close for a shot. This is leading to some ill feeling that will hopefully work itself out as the relationship between birders and bird-photographers matures.

More tangibly, reserve managers will need to re-think and redesign their visitor infrastructure, and in particular their trail systems and hides, in response to the rise of photo-birding. The conventional bird-hide is designed and located for long distance viewing using telescopes. Bird-photographers need hides that are closer to the birds and with a lower angle of view.

Bird-photographers seem more willing than birders to spend on their hobby. Their increasing number represents an opportunity for the photography and leisure business but also for conservation organisations who desperately need to find new sources of revenue to finance the management of their reserves. Few UK bird reserves have an entry fee and no one would pay to use a bird-hide. In contrast bird-photographers will happily pay good money to spend a day in a photo-hide that promises a special shot.

Bird photography is broadening public engagement with birds. An established pastime is becoming refreshed and refashioned. This has to be a good thing. New bird-watching practices, icons, ‘Meccas’, and networks are taking form and with this a new case for protecting and restoring our bird populations should surely emerge.

The Science Bit
One dimension that seems missing from bird-photography is the link with science. The first popular book on watching birds, authored by James Fisher in 1940, presented bird-watching as a purposeful scientific pastime and for decades teachers conveyed this ethos to any pupils showing an interest in birds. Organisations, such as the British Trust for Ornithology (est. 1932), mobilised birdwatchers to submit their observations and have built up large datasets leading to the publication of landmark bird atlases and supporting sophisticated modelling of the relationship between environmental change and bird populations. The birder generation fanned out across the world in search of new species but also fed their observations back to BirdLife International who used their knowledge to assess the extinction risk of all bird species; a feat that contributed enormously to the effectiveness of international conservation policy. Bird-photographers can and do submit their observations, but as yet little thought has been given to the scientific use and value of ‘digital bird specimens’.

Paul Jepson is a course director of the MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.

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