At the most fundamental level, photography can be extremely useful in identifying birds. After all, birds do not always stay put long enough to make and confirm an identification. But if you get a photo, you can take your time to make sure you have the right identification. I usually toss these photos out if their only use to me is identification, with one exception. If it's the only photo I have of a species, I'll keep it as what I call a "placeholder" photo; it holds the place of a good photograph of the species. I found the Louisiana Waterthrush below at Mead Gardens, and it's my only photo of the species. When I found this bird, it stayed there only for a couple seconds before it flew off. I was so glad to have taken this photo of the bird so that I could more clearly see the white supercilium. And since I'm colorblind, it was nice to show this photo to someone with proper color vision to tell me that the rear flanks were buffy in color (I simply can't see it).
Also, back-lit and side-lit birds can be difficult to identify in the field. When a bird is back-lit, your eyes often cannot perceive colors or details, but with a camera, you can overexpose the shot to capture details you could not otherwise see with your eyes, binoculars or scope. I found the Merlin below at Marl Bed Flats near my home. It was side-lit, and with my eyes, the bird was pretty dark. I knew it was a small falcon, but Kestrels are much more common here. So I over-exposed this shot by 1 stop so that I could clearly see that in fact I was looking at a Merlin.
But be careful. Photography can also obscure some field marks, especially those that are behavioral. For instance, one way to tell the difference between probing dowitchers is to look at their backs. Probing Long-billed Dowitchers have a hunched back look, as if the bird "swallowed a grapefruit." But photographs of dowitchers stop the motion of the bird's probing, and it may just capture a Long-billed Dowitcher without that trait or a Short-billed Dowitcher with it. So while photography for identification is extremely helpful, some field marks are best seen in the field.
Beyond merely helping identify a bird, photography can be extremely useful for documenting a bird's presence. Obviously this assumes a certain level of honesty on the part of a photographer, but photos can be extremely helpful. For instance, we see many Palm Warblers in Central Florida over the winter, but most of them are of the "western" variety. Eastern or "yellow" Palm Warblers are much more unusual. So when I see one, I always like to document their presence with a photo if I can.
Of course, documentation is very helpful for vagrants and rare birds. A couple days ago I rode my daughter's bike around the northeast section of Lake Apopka to look for a Brown-crested Flycatcher a friend of mine had seen there. When I found it, I took many photos. The background is cluttered, and there's a tree limb covering part of the tail, but I was happy to show the photographs of the bird anyway.
I'm not just interested in seeing birds, I'm also interested in bird behavior. I find their behavior fascinating. And as a photographer, I love for my photographs to be interpretive of that behavior. "Bird on a stick" photos can be wonderful, and I'm always happy to come home with one, especially a well-positioned bird with a clean background and simple composition. But when a photo also interprets the bird's behavior and place in its environment, well, that's when I start to get pretty excited about bird photography. I found this Loggerhead Shrike at Viera Wetlands back in 2011. Shrikes impale their prey for at least three reasons: (1) they store their food for later, (2) over time the toxins in insects like lubber grasshoppers degrade so they don't become sick. And (3) lacking talons, they use barbed wire to hold their prey in place so that it can be consumed. So I was ecstatic to see this shrike catch a grasshopper, impale it on barbed wire, rip off its legs, and then consume it in just a couple minutes.
4. Artistic Expression
Art is a difficult idea to define, and there are many different ways people define it, but I suspect we can all agree that art is the product of creativity that expresses something beautifully. I'm not one to divorce art from documentation or interpretation. Art can take many different forms and serve a variety of different purposes, so I accept that journalistic photographs can be just as artistic as fine art paintings. But whenever I go out into the field, my hope is to come home with something that has artistic quality to it. For me this means paying attention to form, color, composition, exposure, lighting, sharpness, angle of view, etc. to create a photograph that I would love to hang on my wall as a work of art.
|Black-bellied Whistling Duck|