Utah Birds, Utah Birding, and Utah Birders. Promoting the sharing of information, and the conservation of habitat for birds in Utah and elsewhere. We are a group of people who want to share what we know, and create a positive birding experience in Utah.


a blog by and for Utah Birders

Photography and bird identification

posted by Jerry Liguori at
on Thursday, December 16, 2010 

Equipment Advances:

Camera equipment has advanced in many ways in recent years, the biggest advancement has been in digital photography. Yes, film cameras can take beautiful photos, especially medium and large format landscapes and the like, but for overall image quality and usefulness regarding bird photography, particularly in-flight, digital equipment is far superior (see images on left). One of the most valuable features of digital photography is the ability to review images on-the-spot through the rear viewfinder. I remember having to wait at least 2 weeks to get a roll of slides back, only to be disappointed with the results. Nowadays, you can review your images instantly to get a feel for the exposure, contrast, sharpness, or composition. The ability to adjust tone, contrast, saturation, and sharpness on-the-spot as conditions change is another valuable option offered by the newer digital cameras. However, overdoing certain adjustments may result in a negative effect. High quality digital cameras also perform better in low light and at high ISO settings than film. Manufacturers try to make improvements each year regarding the precision of the auto-focus and other functions, and this is evident when comparing older model film or digital cameras to new models. Another advantage of digital images is that they are much easier to store and archive than are prints or slides. Some digital cameras offer video recording, and I'm sure most or all will in the future.

Just a note about shooting JPEG vs. RAW. The image size and resolution of JPEG (high quality setting) and RAW photos are the same (but the file size of a JPEG image is smaller). There are advantages to both settings, but the overall advantage of shooting JPEG is greater. This issue can be argued to death, as opinions differ, and alone is worthy of an entire article, which I don't have the energy or time for...but I have tested both settings and compared the results. On most cameras, there is an option to shoot both JPEG and RAW simultaneously, but there are drawbacks in doing so. I just don't prescribe to the theory of shooting RAW "just in case" because a strong enough case has not been made.

Field Observation:

I was a birder long before I took up photography. I studied birds intently and made mental and physical notes as often as I could. My only tools were my binoculars and a notepad....both of which I still carry today (and recommend every birder should). Before 1995, I conducted field jobs and hawk counts without ever taking a photograph, so, I can see how my own attitude and manner in which I study birds has changed from before owning a camera to after. The downside of taking pictures is that I pay much less attention to details of birds and more attention to capturing an image. Is this really a downfall? I don't believe so because I can point out specific details through photographs that would be impossible otherwise. I have used photography as a tool to improve my birding skills by seeing which specific traits in photographs can or can't be relied on in the field. I do find myself neglecting to look at birds altogether at times, and focused on photographing them only. I still enjoy watching birds (well, hawks that is), but I have different goals now than I used to, and these goals include photography in one way or another. It is possible that some new birders start off with a camera and may never truly learn how to observe bird behavior or distinguish vocalizations.

When it comes to a rare bird reported, the first thing people ask now is, and I find myself doing it, "where's the photo?" I think everyone expects to see photos accompanied with rare sightings since so many people walk around with cameras nowadays. It isn't possible to photograph every bird, and many people do not carry a camera around, so field notes are the only documentation available. Often, the better the observer, the better the field notes...but some descriptions just don't make sense. Even a poor photo can be valuable and clinch or negate an ID. On the other hand, a single photo is sometimes impossible to identify, and a description is the clincher to the ID. Regardless, there is no argument that a decent or good photo is much more reliable and identifiable than written notes. I have read perfectly detailed, in depth write-ups up qualified by "I am positive it was a such-and-such" only to see the photo (or photos) that proves the identification to be a mistake. I have also seen poorly written descriptions accompanied by an acceptable photo. These days, I can't write up a rare bird with any detail because I never study it long enough to take mental notes, instead I grab for my camera and say "see photos" in the write-up. This is a lame attitude but I own up to it. Either way, rarities are fun and have value but they are the least important aspect of birding when it comes to bird conservation.

The Internet:

Digitial photography and the internet go hand in hand. The internet is the greatest resource for sharing bird images, information, opinions, or shopping on-line for bird related materials. Years ago, the only way to see someone else's images was to have them in hand. Now, anyone can surf the net and view a multitude of images of any species. With this instant access to a myriad of images, one can compare plumages or traits of interest and learn specific aspects of birds at an accelerated rate. There are many sites devoted to birds and bird identification that are excellent learning tools. On-line sites such as Birds of North America (BNA) cover the identification, life history, vocalizations, subspecies specifics, nesting behavior, etc. for all species occurring in North America. eBird is another site that is unlike any other in that birders can enter their bird sightings into a managed, structured, formatted database. This database makes it easy for people to keep track of all their personal sightings, or view all sightings reported of certain species or area. Seasonal maps of distribution or trends of birds is available as well, along with a host of other functions.

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Blogger Tim Avery said...

Excellent post! I have to agree about the RAW vs JPG thing. I have shot in both and when it comes down to it, I can't even remember the last time I shot in RAW format. I also remember the days of having to wait 2 weeks to get pictures back--I was always shocked at what I thought I photographed versus what I ended up with. It's nice being able to instantly see, and make adjustments for better pictures.

As a tool for bird ID, I think that it is great for documenting rarities, and also for learning--I however do think there are quite a few lazy people who often take lots of pictures and instead of using the pictures they have to make an ID they rely on others to tell them what they photographed. When I started birding, I spent hours on end studying images and drawing of birds to learn the basic shapes, size, and details that would help me ID them in the field. Often this meant I knew what the bird looked like in a book long before I ever saw one--and so that when I did see one, there was no doubt in my mind what it was.

Lastly, I also believe a great photograph is way more valuable than a detailed description without a photograph. A photo shows what you saw. A description is often pieced together with lines out of field guides along with the vague actual memory of the sighting. I can tell you what I saw when I first saw a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher in Utah--but the photos show a lot more than what my description would tell you. That's not to say I don't think field notes are important. Combining photos with field notes will make you a better birder, and give a better documentation of what you saw.

December 17, 2010 at 9:52 AM  
Blogger Jeff Bilsky said...

Great post, Jerry. I agree with your comment: 'rarities are fun and have value but they are the least important aspect of birding when it comes to bird conservation.' Rarities such as Utah's recent Purple Sandpiper down south cause quite the stir; it would be nice if that amount of energy was also put into conservation. I suppose it's easier to chase a bird than to save it's habitat.

December 17, 2010 at 11:19 AM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...

Ironically, in the case of the Purple Sandpiper, if it weren't for the state putting the money towards building the reservoir, that habitat would never have existed, and conversely there never would have been a Purple Sandpiper found there. Prior to 2003 there was no lake or state park in that location.

I tend to believe that there are a lot of people working on bird conservation--more so that those chasing rarities. If you think about it, we could argue that maybe 50 people went to see the Purple Sandpiper. I would guess that in any given day in Utah there are more people than that working on habitat conservation. They probably aren't the same people, and that's understandable I guess. Birding is a hobby and chasing rarities is something that birders enjoy. Many of those also probably contribute to habitat conservation in one way or another.

Food for thought.

December 17, 2010 at 12:12 PM  
Blogger Jerry Liguori said...

I love this blog, I've already got a few ideas to put out there and love the feedback!


December 17, 2010 at 1:23 PM  
Blogger Jeff Bilsky said...

Good points, Tim. Conservation is crucially important and I'm advocating for the same amount of passion and energy to be directed towards it. In a lot of ways just the act of getting out there and reporting a sighting in itself can be an act of conservation. Putting information into ebird (http://ebird.org/content/ebird/) provides valuable information for conservationists as well.

December 17, 2010 at 3:32 PM  
Blogger Birding is Fun! said...

Interesting how when reporting a rare bird find the first question is "Where's the photo?" People want photo evidence now, even the rare bird review committees almost demand it before accepting the sighting. Now if you are known to be a good birder, people might trust you enough to go and see it, and they might get some photos to support you. Before I gained any respect in my birding world I had to prove everything with a photo or beg people to come confirm a sighting. Now that I have a camera, I go for the photo before I go for good field notes. That is risky and there are some birds that get away, but I feel like the effort for the photo helps me avoid the headaches and heartbreaks often associated with dealing with doubters and the local birding elite.

I tried RAW photography once and like the additional detail in the photo, but large format jpg works good enough for sharing and bird blogging.

December 22, 2010 at 3:59 PM  
Anonymous Jerry Liguori said...

Birding is fun:

Thanks for the comments!


December 22, 2010 at 7:41 PM  
Blogger deneb said...

I would really like to see (a photo of) an accipiter's breast that shows molting from hatch year plumage to adult plumage.....

p.s. love this blogsite.

May 2, 2011 at 1:55 PM  

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