Birds, Bird Watching and Bird Photography   1 comment

Ever since my first year college I’ve had an on-again, off-again love affair with birds.  My geology professor was also a biologist and really really knew his birds.  So he taught a nights/weekends class that met one evening per week, with a field trip every Saturday.  Boy I learned a lot about birds: how to identify them, where you could find the various types, and their conservation issues.

A nearly mature American bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) fluffs his wings at the top of a tree in Oregon.

We went to the Oregon coast and saw pelicans, puffins, oystercatchers and more.  We went to local wetlands for song birds & water birds.  We went to nearby forests for thrushes and woodpeckers, and to the (semi-arid) east side of the mountains for raptors & open-country birds like larks.  Since I had recently arrived in Oregon from the east coast, it was also a great opportunity to see some gorgeous places.  If I count the geologic field trips I took with that guy, he was my main tour guide to Oregon that first year.  We even drove to Death Valley over Spring Break for a combined geology/ecology trip, and that was my first time in a true desert.

At that time I had a Peterson Field Guide (to Western U.S. birds), and that well-used book is still knocking around here somewhere.  I learned to call the activity of going out looking for birds, identifying them along the way, as “birding”.  I immediately started using the new term, and of course it made it sound much less geeky, or nerdy, than calling it “bird watching”.  Since then, I’ve met ornithologists who have enormous disdain for the term “birding”, and they insist on calling it “bird watching”.  They have other terms for various work activities, such as banding, habitat survey, etc., but they want no part in a virtual admission of their nerdiness by using a more cool term for what they do.

The thing I grew to love about birding was the way it forced me to slow down.  I was young, strong and constantly amped up in those days.  I wanted to climb every mountain, as they say, and at a fast pace.  But success seeing birds can only be gained while doing a super-slow stroll, stopping often to peer into the trees for a flash of color.  When you do get a beautifully illuminated view of a colorful oriole or bright warbler, so perfect you can count feathers, you feel a real elation.  You wouldn’t think it’s true, but it is.

After some years of never picking up a bird guide, and rarely looking at one through binoculars, I got a seasonal job as a biological field worker.  My job was to go out into the forest in the wee hours of morning and set up at a predetermined station exactly one hour before sunrise.  Then I would spend two hours looking up and listening for endangered marbled murrelets. These are plump seabirds that look like flying cigars when they pass overhead and make a high-pitched kee kee sound.  You (rarely) see them starting in springtime when they are flying between the sea and their inland nest to feed their young.  They nest on the broad, mossy branches of large old-growth firs, spruces, and (in northern California) redwoods.


A common bird along Africa’s waterways, the darter (Anhinga rufa ) is also known as the “snake bird” because of its sinuous neck.

A common but beautiful bird in Southern Africa, the Cape glossy starling (Lamprotornis nitens) displays irridescent feathers.

I would be back at the house we rented by 9 a.m. at the latest, and immediately crash for a few more hours, sleeping until just past noon.  Then I’d get up and sit outside at a picnic table and write up my notes.  I had a small tape recorder where I would dictate notes during the survey.  This was so I could keep my eyes on the sky.  We also went out on day-long habitat surveys, and this was an incredibly fun thing to be paid for.  Exploring the forest, looking for big trees near to a convenient opening in the forest canopy.  One unofficial criterion for a good survey site was a soft forest floor, for lying back during the survey.  My partner did not lie down, for fear of falling asleep.  But the way my neck felt after only one survey made me try it. To my surprise, I never got sleepy.  Must have been the full thermos of coffee I had with me.

There were a few great wildlife sightings.  Of course we saw many owls, and deer.  I got to the point of being able to predict when each species of bird would start singing.  Good old robins, believe it or not, are usually first to sing in the darkness.  I became good at identifying birds by their calls.  We did some surveys in the North Cascades of Washington, and it is there that I saw my first cougar.  The sun had not risen yet, and I had to look twice to make sure.  But there he was, standing next to a large stump looking off at something.  I went for my camera and he heard that (of course).  He turned, saw me and simply disappeared, all in one motion.  He vanished just like the proverbial ghost.



A reddish egret (Egretta rufescens) stands at Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in Mexico.

So years have passed and I am now a serious photographer.  I went to Central America a couple years ago, and while in Honduras I went out one morning with a naturalist on a bird watching hike.  We saw a total of 75 different species in one morning!  This was by far the most species I had ever seen in one day.  On that trip, where I visited every single Central American country, I got a few good pictures of birds.  Probably my best was the great currasow, a large and spectacular ground-dwelling bird.  He just stepped out into a clearing in the jungle at the Mayan ruins of Tikal, in Guatemala, posing for his picture.

Despite the fact my photography naturally tended toward nature, I didn’t think about birds.  I did not buy a huge lens, and concentrated instead on landscapes, culture and travel.  I traveled to places where tourists are taken to see animals, and I even hired guides sometimes.  Invariably, I would soon realize that the showcase animals were thin on the ground while the birds were plentiful.  An example: in visiting a reserve in India, I saw a huge paw print but no tiger.  But the birds? Stunning diversity.  In Borneo I worked hard to see my one single wild orangutan (semi-wild ones are easy at feeding stations).  The birds? Amazing.   So I used binoculars to capture memories, and did not attempt any serious wildlife photography.  This was because of my relatively short lenses.  Despite this, I managed to get a few good bird shots.





At McBride’s Camp along the Kafue River in the eponymous national park, a black-backed barbet (Lybius minor) calls for some more to eat.

An African hornbill perches over my campsite at Makgadikgadi Pans National Park in Botswana.

But then last year I went to Africa, and bought a 400mm lens for wildlife.  Combined with my crop-sensor camera and 1.4 extender, that gave me from 600 to 900mm of focal length.  The extender lowered quality somewhat, so I did not use that very much.  I came back with some nice shots of mammals: giraffe, lion, zebra, antelope, elephant, rhino, you name it.  I was never after bird pictures, always 4-legged critters, and in particular I was hot for big cats.  But now I’ve had time to fully evaluate those shots.  You know which one National Geographic accepted for their stock collection? Yep, a bird.  I have a good number of stunning shots of Africa’s birds.

So the moral of the story is, no matter how much I might ignore it, I have an affinity for birds.  They are certainly the most accessible wildlife out there it’s true.  But there is more to this.  I have virtually ignored birds for years at a stretch.  But they always keep “bringin’ me back in” (as the mobster said). I have my favorite geology prof. to thank.  Because that Spring term in college, all those years ago, imprinted on me a true love of bird watching.  And yes, I said bird watching, not birding.  I don’t have thick glasses with masking tape over the bridge.  But if I did, I wouldn’t mind, I’m secure in myself, haha.  So just buy a bird guide, sling those binoculars around your neck and get out there!  You have new (feathered) friends waiting.



Maribou storks perch in a dead tree above a carcass as the sun goes down at Savute Marsh, in Chobe National Park, Botswana.

One response to “Birds, Bird Watching and Bird Photography

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  1. The picture of the Maribou storiks is amazing, love the variety of poses in the clean silhouettes.

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