It's a challenge
Taking good photographs of birds is difficult. There are 870 bird species in South Africa and they are all attractive in their own way. It is wonderful to catch sight of a beautiful individual, and if you’re skilful enough, taking an exciting picture of one.
I love the challenge of photographing birds, and whenever I’m at a game reserve or even wandering around the countryside I try to take respectable birding photos.
I must confess however, that I find birding a little intimidating. Let me try to explain what I mean. Whenever you try to take a photo of a bird, most times it will be blurred, out of focus or just not there - I clicked too late, again. That is not a serious problem because after messing up for the 25th time you can just try again. No harm there.
If it is were easy, everyone would do it and there would be no fun trying to take special pics of birds. I am not afraid of taking a poor photograph – that is not the least bit intimidating – I am used to it. The real terror lies in the eviscerating comments made by serious birders. If you make an ornithological misidentification they will use your guts to make harnesses for their binoculars.
Do NOT confuse a fiscal shrike with a fiscal flycatcher or you shall be trolled mercilessly. Somehow it seems that birders are much more serious about their favourite pastime than those of us who look out for four-legged animals.
Quite often, I have seen bumper stickers that go something like this, “Don’t mind me, I’m bird watching”. I’ve never seen a sticker that directs other cars to drive by because, “I’m elephant watching”.
This probably has something to do with the fact that when one car slowly creeps up behind a stationery vehicle it is logical to try and discover what the occupants are looking at. Why has that car stopped? You attempt to work out what they have spotted by paying attention to where they are pointing their binoculars and then you look in the same direction (making allowance for parallax of course).
If you really can’t see what they are looking at it can mean one of three things:
1. Your angle is not right and a bush is probably in the way.
2. They’re looking at birds in the distance, too far for you to see.
3. They’re looking at the map trying to work out where they are.
Of course some people just stop at a random place and pretend they’re looking at a particular spot to trick the occupants of other cars.
How serious are bird watchers?
Watching birds is more complicated than observing four-legged animals. There are more subtleties to identifying birds. Male and females often have dissimilar colouring and there can be differences between juvenile and adult plumages. Beak shapes can mean you’re looking at a different species.
So just how serious can people be about bird watching?
In a partial answer to that question, let me quote Lynn Thomson who wrote in Birding with Yeats: A Mother’s Memoir that “Some people are very competitive in their birding. Maybe they'll die happy, having seen a thousand species before they die, but I'll die happy knowing I've spent all that quiet time being present.”
To show that you are serious about bird watching, you should buy a bird-watching logbook – “perfect for avian lovers”, says Amazon. Where else could you log your sightings?
You can purchase your 2022 bird calendar from Birdlife and you can download the BirdLasser App that allows you to compete against other birders for the most number of species in a calendar year.
There are dozens of bird clubs in South Africa, but Birdlife South Africa appears to be some sort of umbrella body.
You can join the South Africa Listers’ Club on the Birdlife.org.za site. It has a ’Birders Code of Ethics’ and encourages users to only use Birdlife South Africa’s accredited checklist. People submit their lists to the site but note that you have to log a minimum of 300 species before you can be included on their list.
Interestingly, it adds that birds both seen AND heard are eligible for your list. This means that if you heard a bird, but did not see it, you can still include it on your list. It also means that you have to get one of those apps that include birdcalls in their identification arsenal.
According to Birdlife there are 870 recorded bird species in the country and at the time of writing, none of the top listers for South Africa has breached the 800 mark - yet.
Taking photos of birds is challenging for several reasons. Firstly, avian movements are generally quite rapid so you need to use high shutter speeds to minimise blur. Often it is a good idea to photograph them as they are taking off or about to land. At these two points in their flights, they are not moving very fast horizontally, but the edges of their wings are flapping hard either to get lift or slow down.
Some of the most interesting photos I’ve seen were taken as the birds were about to grab a branch to settle down. They tend to fully extend their legs and curve their wings to get control thus making interesting shapes.
A second problem is that birds are shy and normally keep their distance from hopeful photographers. This means they are far away and do their best to stay that way. On my most recent visit to the Addo Elephant Park, two beautiful secretary birds were pecking away in the tall grass about two metres from the road-edge. By the time I picked up my camera and began to focus they were already moving away.
The third major challenge of bird photography is that they are small and don’t fill your viewfinder. Most often, they take up only a tiny fraction of your screen and look decidedly unimpressive. It is for this reason that serious bird photographers generally own large lenses and tripods. I am told that a 400mm lens is regarded as ‘entry level’ while the professionals prefer 600 – 1000mm behemoths.
This means that under most circumstances, it is easier to take a photo of an elephant than a swallow – but that does not mean you should not rise to the occasion. I am used to taking pictures of slow moving elephants that come right up to our car and most definitely fill my viewfinder.
So please consider my feelings when judging the photos in this newsletter. My attempts at bird photography are modest indeed, but that does not mean that I am not proud of them.
I sometimes post my wildlife photographs on Twitter and there really is no problem with the pictures of the animals, but often with the birds, I decline to identify them. I write something vague like – a beautiful water-bird or a raptor perched on a tree.
Yes, that’s a cop out, but I really want to post pictures of attractive birds even though I don’t particularly mind what species they are.
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