Birding, With or Without the Camera?

It may seem like a silly question to some, but it has become a big deal for me recently as I spend more and more time in the woods looking for birds. As my interest in both birds and photography grew by leaps and bounds last year, I started realizing that I needed a backpack just to carry all my gear when I went on even the shortest hikes. I began by always taking my camera and binoculars, and soon added an extra lens or two as I prepared for my outings. Here’s how my internal conversation often goes:

“Ok, binoculars, check. Camera, of course. Now, which lens? I’d love to take my big 400mm, but that means I should take the tripod too. Both far too heavy. Ok, I’ll just take the 55-250mm lens and get the best pics possible with that. Oh, and I know there will be some nice scenery out there, so I should also take at least one wider angle lens. Ok, so at a minimum I’ve got the binoculars, camera, and two lenses. And cell phone with birding app. Thank goodness I got that app so I don’t have to carry a field guide anymore…. Now where’s my water bottle? And bug spray?…..”

Exhibit A: I only had my 250mm with me today when I spotted this American Kestrel with a mouse hanging from its talons. This is a LIFER for me, and I was actually out looking for a Kestrel at another location before I saw this one as I was driving home. The photo is good enough for my records, but I SO wish I'd had the 400mm with me. (Click on the picture to see it bigger. Still blurry though)

So off I go to whatever park I’ve planned to visit that day. I load myself up with gear and head off onto the trails. I usually take lots of pictures of any “cool” birds I see, but am almost always disappointed in the quality of the photos with my 250mm lens. Birds are tiny things and they don’t usually let you get close enough for frame-worthy photos. And I end up spending more time dealing with the camera equipment than using the binoculars.

I’ve heard some people say that you’re not really birding if you take a camera along. I disagree, but I understand what they mean. If your real purpose is to study the birds, you don’t need a camera. You should spend more time watching them through your binoculars and learning their habits and songs. Some people even frown on excessive use of a birding app or field guide to look up species while you’re in the field. These purists think you should just take notes and do your researching after you’re back home. Whatever…to each his own… blah blah blah. I get too excited when I see a good bird; I wanna know what it is right then. And if I can’t figure it out then and there, well that’s where my camera comes in. I can take a picture to help me ID the bird once I get home.

But I have to admit, recently I’ve tried leaving the camera at home, just to see what difference it made. It’s definitely nicer to have less weight hanging on my shoulder. And it does let me focus more on watching the birds longer. But wouldn’t you know it, on a recent hike (without the camera) Eric and I found our first ever Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. And it was close enough and stayed still long enough that I would have had fantastic photos of it. If only I’d been willing to carry my camera that day.

This experiment has reminded me of what happens on a  day when you carry your umbrella around — it doesn’t rain, right? But leave that umbrella in the car and what happens? It rains. Same thing with the camera. If I carry the heavy 400mm on a hike, the birds remain hidden. But if I don’t have the camera, of course there will be a Bald Eagle sitting in a tree within camera range. Or a Pileated Woodpecker drilling a big hole in a tree, unobscured by any branches, showing a nice profile of that awesome pointy head. C’est la vie, I suppose.

Maybe I should just stick to flowers and other inanimate objects…..

(Hey, if any birders are reading this, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the camera issue.)

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2 Responses to Birding, With or Without the Camera?

  1. I have encountered your dilemma many times, and my response is that you should ALWAYS have the camera! Even I don’t always follow this rule, but I almost always regret it, for the same reasons you talk about. The day you don’t have it is the day the “once in a lifetime” picture opportunity happens.

    My standard hiking gear is camera with wide-angle zoom, 60mm macro, and 70-210 zoom, tripod, binoculars, and dog stuff. Cumbersome, but not miserable. I would have a longer lens, if I could afford it right now, but…. The lenses fit into a fanny pack with insect repellant, cell phone, knife, matches/lighter and compass. The biggest hassle of all is my 30 year old Gitzo tripod, but we’re old friends and I hardly notice her, except when she saves my photographic butt.

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