GOB 182 – Picture This…

This article first appeared on page 19 of Birdwatching Magazine May 2024

I created Fatbirder.com in 1997 when the internet was barely out of nappies. The last few weeks I’ve been updating the UK pages which I last did a complete revision of in 2018. A great deal has changed in six years, some for the better, but much for the worse… I’ll address that another time.

What has struck me most is the quality of bird photography. There have always been great photographers and great bird photos… I can give you the names of the top half a dozen from a decade ago… not any more because there must literally be thousands of excellent bird toggers out there, and maybe tens of thousands of competent ones.

A decade ago I used to regularly visit a local facebook sightings group to see ‘what was about’. There was the odd photo posted because someone was struggling with ID and wanted opinions. A year or two in and people were showing rarity pics and even their favourite shot of a long staying crowd pleaser… but the site was still predominantly about sightings. Go to that same site today and there might be a few people asking where the Waxwings have wander to, or where the White-tailed Eagle has landed for the night. However, you will be able to scroll down through the days postings of dozens and dozens of photos. Many will be a bit twee, cock Robins peering into the lens or Blue Tits with beaks full of someone’s beard bits. There will be a great many photos of Short-eared Owls… who doesn’t love a shortie? They will range in quality from pretty good to absolutely stunning. Here and there will be a blurred longshot with an ID query, but for the most part, that’s not what the page is all about. It’s a pin-up board of what someone once described as ‘bird porn’. The beautiful feathered bodies of wonderful avians.

Visit a hide and you will find the corners occupied by long-staying photographers. They will be taking hundreds of shots in the hour or two they stay. Back home they will be skimming through the one hundred and twenty pictures of that common Teal to see if they managed to capture the perfect pose or have lucked on an action shot of water sprayed from a lately dunked bill.

Don’t get me wrong, its amazing to see people who are fascinated not by rarity but by avian beauty. But here’s the thing. It’s the image that is important to them, not the individual or species itself. They are photographers, not birders. They may become birders or they may instead move on to another focus for their art. My son is a birder, he became a bird photographer, but is now a photographer of motor sport. He still loves birds and when birding will take pictures, but that’s because he’s a birder. He is interested in rarity, but more interested in his local patch and its preservation. He is deeply committed to conservation, because he is a birder.

I foresee the day when the interest in wildlife photography wanes, because crowded hides and competing shutter clicks begin to irritate and other interests for the lens take over.

Will those photographers have absorbed enough avian lore to tread carefully and pick up the country code in their wanderings. Its hard to say, as birds often hold sway because of their intrinsic beauty. Maybe ‘toggers’ are here to stay and will all champion ecology.

Whatever happens there is an undeniable legacy of a wonderful store of supremely beautiful bird photos for all us birders to enjoy.

Rant it out!