Becoming a Better Birder ... For the Sake of Bird Photography – Part 1
By Matthew Studebaker
Like many bird photographers, I was first a bird watcher, or “birder”, as we like to be called. Birders enjoy the challenge of making difficult identifications, finding rare birds, and tallying large species lists organized by lifetime, year, month, state, etc. I became a birder at the age of 6, at which point I began keeping a life list and sketchbook recording field marks and general behavior.
By age 10 I had more or less memorized the Peterson field guide and got my first SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera from my uncle to record what I saw in the field. Having a strong background in birding has helped my bird photography immensely. It’s almost impossible to be an excellent bird photographer without having a broad knowledge of your subject matter. A big part of bird photography is simply being at the right place at the right time. Good birders know where the right place is, and when to show up. Improving your birding skills will also help you predict birds’ behavior so you can anticipate the action, know when to stop your approach, and how to manipulate the bird’s behavior to get the photo you want. You’ll better understand which birds are “high value species” and which ones are “trash birds” or invasive species. And perhaps most importantly, improving your birding skills will help you maintain sensitivity for the subject, making sure your behavior is doing no harm.
Here are several steps every bird photographer can take to become a better birder:
1. Buy and study a good field guide. I have always loved the classic Peterson Guide but also now equally love Ken Kaufmann’s Guides and Sibley’s Guides. Kaufman’s is the easiest to use, and Sibley’s has the most information, which is why some birders and bird photographers now say the Peterson guide is somewhat antiquated. In my opinion, the Audubon Society and National Geographic guides are both nice for supplemental information and a third opinion, but not for everyday use.
2. Hang out with birders who are better than you. Some photographers are bored to tears going on bird club outings (including me at times). Birders can stare at a spec of a bird in their scopes for hours at a time. But most of the time not only is spending time in the field with experienced birders interesting, but it can rapidly advance your knowledge of what to look for and how to find it.
Matthew Studebaker (Part 2 coming tomorrow)