Last Update: 11/19/2015 10:55:00 AM
Outside: Bird watching with a camera has advantages over the binocular
Outside By Mike Slater
I decide to try a photographic big year for a number of reasons:
I like looking at and photographing birds, so I would be out looking for them anyway.
It would also force me to look at common and less showy birds in a new way; I have taken very few pictures of house sparrows or rock pigeons.
I have a camera with a pretty good zoom lens that makes it possible to photograph more distant birds - a Nikon FZ-200. It's called a bridge camera because the lens isn't interchangeable but is otherwise similar in functionality to larger, heavier and more expensive digital SLR cameras.
I have heard some young people prefer birding with a camera to using binoculars, and I was curious as to how practical that is and whether I could do it if I wanted to.
A big year is an informal competition governed by the American Birding Association, in which birders compete to see how many birds they can identify within a specific time period.
For the last few years I have had a goal of seeing at least 80 percent of the species reported for Berks County, and this would just add to the enjoyment of achieving it. Using the total species reported on e-Bird (www.eBird.org) is an easy way to calculate progress. I know a few more species are usually seen by people who prefer not to report them there, but the eBird total is the simplest way for me to keep track.
I expected I would take some pictures I would like a lot; some real bird portraiture. I also expected I would take many that were mediocre at best but still show enough identifying features to put the correct name to the species with 100 percent confidence.
I usually see more than 200 species in Berks each year, and the county total reported on eBird is usually more than 250. But this was an experiment, and I had no idea how many I would get or how much effort I would really put into it. So far in 2015 there have been 231 species reported on eBird for Berks. I have seen 203 of them and acceptably photographed 160 species. A number of ducks were just too far away on the big lakes for me to get identifiable pictures of them, and some little birds just move too fast and hide in the leaves.
This priority of doing a photographic big year also would mean that I would be photographing birds wherever they were, whether they were in an unnatural place such as a bird feeder, perched on an electrical wire, or the roof of a building vs. my preference of a nice natural spot, like a tree branch. Birds really do live in our world, and they take advantage of the opportunities we offer them, so photographing them on a feeder is recognizing the reality of their lives. Taking pictures of bird feeders through windows can be very frustrating because of things such as dirty glass and reflections, but I did get many species that way.
Some species are impossible to tell apart by a picture alone but they can be easily separated by their vocalizations. The American crow and fish crow were the first species this year that required me to deal with this issue. They are almost identical in shape and color (black), and though fish crows are smaller on average, birders usually separate them by their call. The loud "caw" of American crows is much different than the soft, nasal "aah-ugh" of the fish crow. So I decided that since my camera can take videos with sound, I would just take videos of these confusing species while they were calling. It took me a little longer than I expected, but this worked in the end.
Even if my pictures aren't always as good as I would have liked, this is still making for an interesting collection of good scrapbook value as it brings up good memories while I look through them to prepare this series of articles.
Next week: Photographing gulls, terns, shorebirds and other interesting migrants.
Mike Slater is a naturalist who lives in Brecknock Township, where he is an active member of the Mengel Natural History Society of Berks County and the Muhlenberg Botanic Society of Lancaster. He is also a member of the Baird Ornithological Club. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.