You may have noticed that with digital cameras of all shapes and sizes becoming more and more affordable, a growing percentage of birders are arming themselves with impressive photography equipment in the field. It's not uncommon to see someone (like myself) dragging binoculars around their neck with a spotting scope over one shoulder and a digital SLR on the other. Many others carry a point-and-shoot in their pocket for digiscoping. This is a promising trend, as a greater proportion of rare and scarce birds are being documented. It certainly makes records committee evaluations that much easier!
But there is a healthy debate that is growing in the birding community. Some (many?) birder-photographers have adopted a 'shoot first, ask questions later' philosophy in the field. I have personally seen birders, without even trying to identify the bird with optics, immediately pull up their cameras and fire away as many shots as they can, with apparently little interest in watching the bird! This occurs most often with flybys, in which case the birder may never actually get a good look at the bird and would rather rely on photo analysis to make the identification. The question is...is this a good thing or a bad thing?
Well, depends on who you ask. The purist will answer that these birders themselves are losing out on perhaps the most crucial part of bird identification: studying the bird in the field. As a result, their skills, along with the knowledge that would accumulate from field experience, will be slow to develop or even regress if this habit is developed.
But if you were to ask the folks with the quick trigger fingers, you'll be told that 100% certain documentation via photograph is so important that it trumps watching the bird with your eyes. After all, you can prove that you had a Gray-breasted Martin fly by with a photograph, but you can't prove it with a sketch (subjectivity and human error are possible, you know...). Besides, you can observe certain details in still photographs that you can't appreciate when the bird is moving in real time.
Personally, I'm not sure which group I fall into. Both viewpoints are valid in their own way. I have only owned a digital SLR for about 6 months, but I still seem to consider getting photos secondary to studying the bird in real time. Still, I have strayed from this on a few occasions and reached straight for the camera...though often with less-than-stellar results, leaving me wishing that I had just watched the damn thing before it flew away.
I have also noticed that younger birders tend to fall into the 'shoot first' category more than older birders. This is likely a product of young birders growing up with easier access to affordable high-quality digital photography. But this age-related difference is not something I'm a big fan of. Less experienced (which often means young) birders should, in my opinion, be focusing more on honing their field identification skills than analyzing photos on a computer screen.
Then there's this interesting question. Let's say you're on an east coast pelagic trip and you spot a distant seabird naked eye, flying on the horizon. It's too far to ID without optical help so you don't know what it is at this point. Rather than study the bird with optics you grab your camera and fire off a few shots. You've lost the bird, but you got your photos. You look down on your camera's LCD screen and zoom in...to find a barely identifiable shot of a Cape Verde Shearwater. So...can you count it?? If you had pulled up your bins for a peek, you would have noticed a shearwater that resembled Cory's in many ways but was smaller, slimmer, with a thinner and slightly darker bill. You would have suspected Cape Verde Shearwater, gotten others on the bird, and had the captain attempt to chase it down immediately.
Or perhaps it's late November, and you're standing vigil at the Lighthouse Point Hawkwatch in New Haven, CT. A presumed Tree Swallow passes by. Normally you would have studied it using your bins and/or scope, but you want a couple shots of late migrating TRES to post to your blog that evening. Later that night, when you upload the images at home, you drop your glass of wine to the floor like Chazz Palminteri dropped that coffee mug in the scene at the end of The Usual Suspects....photos reveal that the swallow was in fact a Violet-green...first state record. It goes on the official state list, but does it go on yours? In the field you had no idea you were looking at a Violet-green Swallow. It was only ID'ed after the fact with a photo. Sure it was your photo, but still...
What do you do when you're confronted with a shoot-or-study situation? It can be such a difficult call. I'm not sure there's a right answer. It probably depends on the exact situation. What about counting a bird identified solely via photo that could have otherwise been identified in the field? If you have any thoughts, let us know in the Comments section below.