Back in the era of Baird, Wilson and Audubon, it took a skilled marksman to study birds. Getting feathered carcasses in hand – via the barrel of a gun – was the accepted practice of the day for science. It wasn’t until quality viewing optics became available to the general public that the world drifted away from carrying firearms into the field and replaced them with binoculars and field guides. A similar change is taking place today.
Photography has been around a long time. At its beginning and for many decades after, it was a hobby laden with gear like tripods, lenses, dark rooms, light meters, flash bulbs and more. In addition, it took time to hone the skills required to make a photograph turn out just right.
Enter the digital age.
Today it’s as simple as pulling out a cellular phone and, with one tap, an image is instantly captured. Dickinson’s Jack Lefor is a highly artful photographer whose images are published in many places. In the 1990s, he was shooting with a 4 x 5-inch view camera, tirelessly honing his craft and producing sensational images.
“Now,” Lefor says, “digital does it for you. If it doesn’t, the processing software will.”
The ease with which virtually anyone can be considered at least a modestly accomplished photographer has created a sort of friction among nature viewers. In combination with the race to get one’s selfie or other photograph seen on social media, we have the elements of, at a minimum, a gray area of conflict between nature observers and nature photographers.
The organization most known among amateur bird watchers, the American Birding Association, maintains a do’s and don’ts bible called Principles of Birding Ethics. “In any conflict of interest between birds and birders, the welfare of the birds and their environment comes first,” it states. “To avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger, exercise restraint and caution during observation, photography…”
The ultimate risk, of course, is stressing wildlife to the point where things like nesting is abandoned or not even attempted. Or the subject simply moves on, depriving others from enjoying it.
This is where things get a little uncomfortable. In anxious attempts to get a glimpse of a rare bird – especially for the first time – birders occasionally skirt standards. “No Trespassing” signs, for instance, suddenly become mere background clutter to be ignored. I’m no angel. I’ve cut corners, too. Yet it does appear as if the current age of digital imagery has opened up the flood gates.
I heard from a friend who recently visited perhaps the No. 1 winter birding destination for northern species in the lower 48 states, Minnesota’s Sax-Zim Bog. Here, a couple of remote but well-known bird feeders attract species everyone comes to see like boreal chickadee and gray jay. At one, a woman pulled up and parked directly in front of the feeders and, for 20 minutes, photographed a boreal chickadee out her window while my friend’s vehicle was completely blocked from view.
There’s also the baiting controversy. Photographers, in an attempt to get that dramatic shot of the owl, will place pet store mice on the ground in hopes of capturing the action.
“I spend hours online and owls are a very popular subject,” says Lefor, adding, “You can tell which ones are baited.”
“The conflicts that have arisen since digital photography have definitely changed the way birding works,” says professional bird guide Erik Bruhnke of Naturally Avian Birding Tours and Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. Bruhnke, who splits his year between Duluth and the lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas, has a front-row seat to the actions (both good and bad) of clients.
“The drive to get the bigger and better picture seems to get the best of people,” Bruhnke says. “It overwhelms them at times, to the point where the well-being of the bird is not considered first.”
This clash is akin to supplemental feeding in a way. Even among experts, there is no consensus opinion whether a person should maintain bird feeders. Similarly, it seems, aggressively photographing birds (and wildlife in general) has its detractors and defenders.
We are still in the midst of a digital explosion; everyone has a camera today. The genie is out of the bottle, not to be returned. In most areas of our lives, we are left to wrestle with the boundaries that will define and guide our digital futures. It’s everywhere, even in bird photography. We may not be shooting them with birdshot so much anymore, but the craving to capture at least the essence of the animal is still very much alive.
Like one area birder recently confided to me, “I’m always trying to get that better shot.”
Corliss is a West Fargo native, avid birder and a North Dakota Game and Fish instructor.