Why photograph birds? This is a question I am sometimes asked, though usually by non-birders. An obvious answer is that it is always satisfying to get an in-focus, well-composed image of a bird in an appropriate habitat, and that is often my immediate motive – though for me there is a good deal more to it than that.
As an academic (an engineer, now long since retired), I used to put aside an hour or so at the end of each week to visit various libraries on campus to scan through the recent publications on the lookout for papers of interest for my engineering research; but, ever since I was a small boy, I had held an interest in birds. One Friday in the main library, I chanced upon a row of bound journals – British Birds! Thereafter, I made a point of passing the BB shelf every few weeks or so to scan through the latest issue or browse the back catalogue.
On one of those visits, I found a paper from 1976, illustrated with rather good black-and-white photographs by Brian and Sheila Bottomley, entitled ‘Waders, water and mud’ (Brit. Birds 69: 155). Coincidentally, at about that time, I had been wader-watching on the coastal mudflats close to my home in Kent, and had been totally confused by the birds I had seen. They all, to me at the time, looked rather similar and I had struggled to identify them. A few months later, there was a letter in response to the Bottomleys’ paper from Clive Minton (Brit. Birds 69: 514–515), who ‘was somewhat disappointed that, in the accompanying captions and text, the opportunity was missed to point out the juvenile plumage characteristics so clearly shown by most of the birds’. That comment brought home how much could be learnt from good-quality photographs, particularly in this case regarding the birds’ plumage.
Fast forward a couple of years and I was equipped with a camera and a telephoto lens, mostly taking black-and-white images, developed and printed myself, along with the occasional colour-transparency film. I didn’t reach the standard of the Bottomleys’ images but I learnt a great deal about both bird photography and waders, my interest in the latter rapidly becoming the passion that I retain to this day. I also learnt how to use a small portable hide for wader photography, minimising disturbance by introducing the hide a day or so before I intended to use it. This is something that is much less easy to do these days!
I concentrated initially on building up a collection of portraits of the different wader species in their various plumages. I quickly discovered that, to get decent portraits of birds, you had to spend a good deal of time simply watching them, predicting if they would come close enough to be photographed. This, naturally, led to observing the waders’ behaviour, not just their likely appearance in front of the hide but also other aspects of their life. Feeding waders, for example, exhibit many different methods to obtain their prey, picking from the surface of the ground, probing in mud, sometimes wading in quite deep water, on other occasions taking insects, sometimes even attempting to catch them in flight. My photographs would, with a little luck, show unexpected details – such as the manner in which the bill tip is flexed to capture the prey items (Brit. Birds 95: 395–397). Knowing that waders use their mandible flexibility when feeding, I thought it likely that they would also use this rhynchokinesis when preening – but getting that photo (plate 377) took a while!
I enjoy photographs that enable plumages of the same species, or individuals of different species, to be compared side by side. A sort of ‘field-guide image’, such as the two Common Snipes Gallinago gallinago in plate 378 that are lined up for direct comparison between the two age classes. Similarly, the redshanks in plate 379 provide comparison between Common Redshank Tringa totanus and Spotted Redstank T. erythropus. This photograph also illustrates the fact that waders can swim rather well when they need to.
A wide range of bird species include worms as part of their diet when the opportunity arises. Plate 380 shows a Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola extracting a worm. Large raptors, too, will feed on worms, such as the Common Buzzard Buteo buteo (plate 381), pulling carefully so as to be able to extract the complete worm.
A major advantage for photographers interested in bird behaviour came with the advent of digital cameras. In the days of film, I remember taking 40 rolls of colour transparency film on a safari to Kenya and by day three or four realising, to my horror, that I had used a good proportion of them, having already taken 900–1,000 images; I immediately started to ration myself. There is no problem with storing this number of images on a digital camera. Indeed, it is not difficult to take this number of images within a couple of minutes! That does mean it will take quite a time to sort the images subsequently, but this, for me, is outweighed by the advantage of being able to see details that fewer frames would not show.
As a non-ringer who doesn’t see the details that one can with birds in the hand, I have learnt many things from photographs that I probably would not have noticed by just watching through binoculars or a telescope. Several years ago, for example, I photographed a couple of Long-tailed Tits Aegithalos caudatus that conveniently, if briefly, perched side by side. Looking at the images later, on my computer screen, I noticed that the adult had a yellow orbital ring, the juvenile a red one (plate 382). This was not something of which I had previously been aware.
Though I enjoy taking well-composed bird photographs as much as any nature photographer, I get a particular buzz from images that teach me something, and that goes a long way to explain why I take bird photographs.
Richard Chandler has been involved with British Birds since 1980, initially as a Photographic Consultant then as a Director of BB 2000 Ltd from 2000 to 2005 and a Trustee of the British Birds Charitable Trust from 2000 to 2008. He is a member of the BB Editorial Panel, having joined in 1988.