BB eye: Photography is transforming British birdwatching

Published on 15 August 2017 in Editorials

By Paul Jepson

One Sunday last July I strolled down to the hide at RSPB Otmoor, one of my local birding patches in Oxfordshire. Five years ago I might have entered an empty hide. Not anymore. The place was packed with bird photographers, happily chatting as they waited patiently for the shot.

Photo-birders at Otmoor, Oxfordshire, August 2016. Paul Jepson

The make-up of British birdwatching is undergoing a transformation. Scope-carrying birders have been joined by big-lens bird photographers. Over the last three years I have been engaging bird photographers in conversations to learn more about their motivations and birdwatching practices. These conversations have helped me to position my ‘birder’ mode of birdwatching and caused me to reflect on the history and future of birdwatching as a hobby and vocation.

Birding is a mode of birdwatching characterised by a focus on bird finding, rarities and listing. It emerged during the 1960s and 1970s from interactions between trends in ornithology and wider society. The rise of field ornithology in the 1950s led to the establishment of a network of bird observatories and recorders and the idea that birdwatching could contribute to the study of bird migration and population trends. This was an era when teenagers had time to fill and purposeful hobbies were encouraged. There was a good chance that a teenager showing an interest in birds would be gifted an affordable pair of Zeiss binoculars (from the DDR) along with a field guide and told to get out of the house! Roaming around searching for the species in the books and ticking them off was the obvious thing to do. It developed bird-finding skills, a sense of avian scarcity and a desire to visit destinations where new species could be added to one’s list.

At the same time, broadcasters were increasing the amount of nature programming and aligning it with aspirational lifestyles and exotic travel in a bid to encourage people to switch from black-and-white to colour TV. All this went hand in hand with the optimism of the 1960s counter-culture (and later punk) and the appearance of a better-educated, more confident youth with an interest in freedom, justice, personal fulfilment and a willingness to embrace unconventional lifestyles.

As a cultural force, birding was at its peak in the 1970s and 80s. An eclectic mix of birders from around the country convened at ‘meccas’ such as Cley and Scilly, where they discussed reputations, shared stories, planned trips and developed a sense of fraternity and common purpose, all given identity with an ‘insider’ birder jargon. Birders created the bird-tour industry, founded bird information services and magazines, played a key role in the development of international bird conservation and introduced the term ‘twitcher’ into popular culture.

Photo-birders at Otmoor, Oxfordshire, August 2016. Paul Jepson


Over the decades the practices, discourses and norms of birding – and by extension birdwatching – have become more formalised. We observe birds at distance and have collectively agreed to put bird welfare first and suppress conversations about rare breeding birds. Birders travel to see birds reported by bird information services, keep to designated trails and respect landowner wishes. Our birdwatching media publishes material on a relatively narrow set of topics (sightings, identification, birding sites, population trends and conservation status) and carries editorials framed by the views and agendas of establishment figures and conservation organisations.

Birding had youthful origins but it has become institutionalised and settled. The language of dipping, gripping, stringers, cripplers, value and phasing is fading. The birder start-ups of the 1980s – the information services, bird-tour companies, clubs (e.g. OBC, ABC and NBC) and conservation programmes – are ageing.

Mingling with, and now sometimes outnumbering, birders is a new type of birdwatcher – the bird photographer. Bird photographers have been around since the days of Cherry Kearton (1871–1940) and Eric Hosking (1909–1991) but birds are tricky subjects to photograph and the cost of equipment, film and processing traditionally limited the numbers of bird photographers. All this changed with the rise of digital photography. Film became obsolete, the shift from mechanised to electronic camera bodies enabled an array of new models with advanced capabilities, and the internet and social media made it easy to curate, publish, share and discuss photos. Once the initial outlay has been made on equipment, bird photographers can shoot away to their hearts content at little cost. As a result, their chances of getting a satisfying shot have increased massively, and with this comes the possibility of learning the craft of bird photography and finding a rewarding and engaging hobby. In short, birds can be photographed with an ease that was unimaginable little more than a decade ago.

In my efforts to understand the practices and motivations of bird photographers, I found that two questions opened up insightful conservations. These were ‘What do you do with the photos you take?’ and ‘Were you a birdwatcher or photographer first?’

Responses to these questions revealed five common modes of bird photography. The first two are extensions of birding, which I call photo-identification and photo-listing. Birders are increasingly carrying cameras to capture photos as an aid to identification, especially of groups which are difficult to identify, and as a means of verifying a rarity find should they be lucky enough to come across one. Some photo-listers are twitchers who are starting over again, others are new to birdwatching and have embraced the practice of listing because it offers a focus and purpose for their photography.

A third mode of bird photography is akin to butterfly- or egg-collecting. I’ve met many photo-collectors who are working to complete quality collections of the different plumages of each British species or of their favourite groups.

The fourth mode is amateur photography with birds as subject. This practice is all about composition, pose and lighting and any bird will do, although some species are clearly more photogenic than others – the Robin Erithacus rubecula and Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis, for example. A fifth mode, which may be a subset of the above, is photo-trophy hunting, which is motivated by the desire to capture a classic shot of an iconic species, for example a diving Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis or lekking Black Grouse Tetrao tetrix. I have also met bird photographers who do nothing with their photos and told me that they buy a new memory card when one is full. These are photo-hunters.

Bird photography appears to be giving new expression to older ways of engaging with birds, in particular bird trapping (many bird photographers bait an area or perch), bird hunting and egg-collecting. These were all popular forms of purposeful birdwatching with rich knowledge practices that faded away during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as wild bird populations declined and British society came to view the persecution of wild birds as unacceptable. Digital photography captures, shoots and collects birds but transforms them into data rather than a corpse (or an eggshell). Therefore, it is reinstating these practices alongside the practices of observation that were at the heart of twentieth-century birdwatching.

Photo-birders on the Farne Islands, Northumberland, May 2013. Paul Jepson

The more I talk with bird photographers, the more I come to realise the depth and richness of engagement with birds that a digital ‘upgrade’ of these older practices brings. As a young birder I was taught to observe a new or unfamiliar bird carefully, to note and sketch its identification features, write up my notes and dutifully submit records to the county recorder. I was taught about birding sites and etiquette, a little on how to read the weather and something about how to ‘work’ a landscape to find birds. Birding has massively enriched my life, but as a pastime I have found it lacking in three respects: it doesn’t promote prolonged engagement with an individual bird; a birding excursion generates few follow-up evening activities; and it provides few entry points to my wider interests in society, the arts, and politics.

Bird photography in its various guises seems to offer a more prolonged, expansive and perhaps sociable form of birdwatching. Some bird photographers told me how they engage with an individual bird for extended periods of time in an effort to learn its movements and foraging patterns and predict where it might appear in shot of their heavy tripods and cameras. Others talked more about the digital image and the pleasure they found after the event editing the image and/or sharing and discussing it on Facebook or Flickr, seeing it published on a birding blog or building those photo collections.

Importantly, the bird photo communicates something meaningful about our birdwatching hobby to others. Tell a friend the names of good birds seen over a weekend and their eyes will probably glaze over; show them photos and there is more likely to be interest, comments of admiration and even the occasional ‘cool’ comment. In our increasingly visual culture, those who add nature photos to the mix are appreciated.

Bird photography also seems to promote sociality among birdwatchers. In the days before bird alert services, birders had to network hard to get the gen. The ‘owt about?’ greeting prompted conversations and the grapevine helped forge friendships. The advent of pagers, apps and texts has undermined the need for birder-to-birder communication and British reticence has reasserted its deadening presence. I am beginning to wonder whether the big lens fulfils a similar role to a dog in that it advertises common interests and experiences and offers something for strangers to chat about without the need to get too personal. In addition, the common practice of sharing bird photos via Facebook or on birding blogs (where they are credited) means that many bird photographers meeting for the first time will have pre-introduced themselves.

For me, the rise of bird photography and the sight of so many new people out birdwatching is heartening. I believe that bird photography has widespread appeal as a hobby and I predict that many more people will take up the pastime and new bird-related knowledge practices will emerge along with new enterprises. Given this, the birding community will need to adapt to a future where their way of birdwatching may be one of many. And the managers of nature reserves and other natural areas will need to rethink visitor strategies to accommodate this new mode of birdwatching.

In my experience, birders and bird photographers are generally getting along just fine. Some birders grumble that photographers flush and disturb birds and don’t abide by their etiquette when larger groups assemble for a rarity or spectacle. However, on the whole each is enriching the other. Many birders are also photographers and birders offer bird photographers information and outlets for publishing photos. Photographers contribute photos to these outlets and always seem to have a fully framed shot to share of a bird that a birder has struggled to see well.

In my view, the problem and opportunity lies with our birdwatching infrastructure, which has been built up over the decades to serve birders – observation via binoculars and telescopes. Bird photographers operate with different equipment and have different objectives. They want to get closer to birds and get shots at lower or different angles than is possible from a conventional bird hide or trail. They are less concerned with scanning and picking birds up and more concerned with the bird subject and its setting.

The changing make-up and identity of British birdwatching suggests a need for new thinking and investment in visitor facilities, and not just hides and trails. Bird photography is part of the socio-technological assembly that is shaping futures. If birdwatching is to be a cultural force in the twenty-first century, our bird reserves will need to embrace developments and directions in digital technologies.

The rift between Spurn birders and the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust prompted me to think about how trends in birdwatching, technology and society might be combined to modernise birdwatching along with visitor engagement and financing. In brief, the YWT lost a focused point of visitor engagement and an important income stream when a 2013 tidal surge broke the road down to the Spurn peninsula. It is constructing a new visitor and training centre, part-funded by the Humber Gateway offshore windfarm, as a means to engage visitors with the Spurn environment and generate income for the Trust from new members, car parking, a café, Unimog safaris and events. Nature tourism may also stimulate the local economy. Local birders object that the centre will destroy a location important to their engagement with this iconic birding landscape and residents worry about the increased traffic.

My thought experiment imagines a system of pay-for nature hides with an observation tower, like the one in Muritz National Park outside Berlin, as its centre piece. Birding has a strong ‘nature as a public good’ mentality. While many bird photographers agree with this principle, they are also willing to pay for entry to the facilities and special places that enable them to get the shot they desire. Nature hides are popping up across Britain and 2017 hide day rates are £75 for the opportunity to photograph Common Kestrels Falco tinnunculus, £99 for Kingfishers and £150 for Black Grouse.

The Kilnsea/Spurn landscape has outstanding bird photography assets in the form of its wader roosts and migrant and passage birds. Photographers are likely to pay good money to get close to Spurn’s bird spectacles and specialities. The Unimog could be used for photo-safaris and the community’s growing population of retired birders could supplement their pensions with photo-bird guiding. The observation tower would provide a panoramic view of the dynamic Spurn peninsula and a world-leading viz-mig facility. It could carry communication and wifi masts opening opportunities for Spurn to become an innovator in technology-empowered nature interpretation and a mecca for new nature-based enterprises. Visitors would pay (and probably queue) to climb the tower and revel in the photos they can capture and share with their smartphones.

Bird photography represents more than a new investment case and income stream for our cash-strapped reserves: it offers the opportunity for birdwatching to forge a new identity and shape new visions for bird conservation, public engagement and nature-based economies.

If we are bold and open to change, the future of British birdwatching is bright.

Paul Jepson

Paul Jepson directs Oxford University’s MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation & Management and is a Senior Research Fellow with the Smith School of Enterprise & the Environment. He is a former director of the BirdLife International Indonesia Programme and the Oriental Bird Club.