Photographing Birds

With my new camera, a Nikon D-80, and telephoto lens, it’s become much more rewarding to take photographs of birds instead of simply observing them. In fact, during the last two birding trips I captured a few images that would even hold the interest of the biophobic. While I don’t have my camera out in the field with me all of the time, when the weather is fine and I see the opportunity for a good photograph or a photograph of a rare bird, I’ll take my camera out after a few seconds of observing the bird in my binoculars.

Firing away on the shutter, I might shoot over ten photographs of a bird, and, with luck, perhaps one will be worth keeping. Usually the photographs are not in focus because the shutter speed was too slow due to poor light conditions. Often the bird doesn’t cooperate, never turning its head in profile or facing the camera. Sometimes a leaf or a branch in the middle ground obscures an otherwise perfect shot, especially from inside the forest. This is the beauty of using a digital camera, of course: all these failed attempts can be erased with almost no cost. But from a birder’s perspective, all these deleted images represent time not spent actually observing the bird.

Take, for example, my recent and miraculous encounter with the Peruvian Antpitta, a bird so secretive and unknown that hardcore birders don’t even look for it in Ecuador. After witnessing the bird on two occasions within a span of ten minutes, I was positive of its identification and suspected that it might be nesting nearby. For the next hour, I stood with my camera held ready, suffering swarms of mosquitoes with the hopes of capturing a photograph. I didn’t see it again, of course, and if I had, it would have been a poor trade off to shoot a few dark and blurry pictures instead of observing it clearly for a third time.

Photographing birds forces birders to consider why they’re birding in the first place. For me, birding is a solitary experience, but it’s not necessarily a private one. When I bird for hours at a time all the while intensely aware of my surroundings, I experience a welcome obliteration of the self, often forgetting about thirst, hunger, and physical discomfort. Afterwards, though, I feel a powerful urge to communicate what I saw, creating meaning from my experiences by forming narratives with words and images. In a sense, then, good photographs of birds represent a fundamental duality in the act of birding; bad ones, I guess, make the point even more clearly.

September 30, 2008

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