Friday, 30 March 2018

The Birder vs. Photographer Issue

Back in September 1984 I took this photo of a Pectoral Sandpiper...

The location was Staines Res, on the drained N basin. My photographic kit was primitive in the extreme: a cheap, Russian, fully manual Zenit B coupled with a cheap, Russian, fully manual Helios 500mm mirror lens. That hefty lump of iron was mounted on my regular birding tripod, and getting this shot entailed climbing the reservoir fence, scuttling down the concrete apron, and slowly creeping up on the happily feeding Pec. Then I just waited, hunched and uncomfortable, as it moved towards me. I think I used a whole roll of film, but almost every shot has slightly blurred bits because the bird was either out of focus or moving too rapidly for the slow shutter speed to freeze. It was totally relaxed in my presence, and at times came too close.

If memory serves correctly, the only other person around that day was my old mate Ric, watching from the causeway. Eventually I'd used up my film and quietly withdrew, rejoining him there. I think it was the above photo that was subsequently published in the 1984 London Bird Report.

All good.

The following year, in late May, I found 2 Temminck's Stints at Staines, this time on the drained S basin. There was one other birder present and he let me put the news out via his carphone - a major novelty in 1985! At some point that day I was alone on the causeway, so tried to repeat my Pec Sand success with the stints. Over the fence, down the concrete apron and then a lot of creeping and crouching. It didn't work. The birds simply wouldn't play ball, and were never in a position where I could get ahead of them and so let them approach me. Eventually I gave up and retreated with a whole bunch of 10th-rate exposures. Rubbish.

Arriving back on the causeway I was instantly taken to task by a newly-arrived birder. "There's always some selfish photographer chasing the birds and spoiling it for everyone else!" he complained. My reaction was not good. After all, hadn't I just found these birds and put the news out so that the likes of him could come and see them? The ingratitude! But also, if I'm honest, I felt a large twinge of guilt that I'd been 'caught' in the act of trying to creep up and get very close to the birds and bag myself a frame-filler; I shouldn't really have done it with the likelihood of other birders turning up to twitch those Temminck's Stints. This unhealthy combination of emotions led me to respond in a shamefully immature way, and I gave him a right mouthful that he didn't deserve.

Recently a Snowy Owl in Norfolk has once again raised the birder vs. photographer issue. As you can see from the above, it is not new, and with the advent of internet forums and social media it often gets wide publicity these days. I think it is safe to say that it will never go away...

Actually, calling it something like 'the birder vs. photographer issue' misses the point, because they're not really against one another at all. Such a label is just a simplistic way of describing one of many, many scenarios in life where the differing needs of two or more interested parties bring potential for conflict. I'm sure the birder is perfectly happy for the photographer to get his 'superb image', as long as it doesn't interfere with the birder's 'crippling views'. And vice versa. But this will rarely happen, because in the real world the needs of each party don't allow it. The birder wants to get his views and then chat with his mates, and is happy to stand at scope range to do so. The photographer would be content to wait for the bird to come close while he crouches quietly, waiting, but knows it will never do so with all this racket going on. So he tries creeping up on it, gets yelled at, and later sees his face go viral in a 'name and shame' type post. Bad. The very next week he's sitting quietly in a hide with a few of his buddies, waiting for a bird to show. Three hours he waits. Suddenly, there it is! It's on view for about 30 seconds. He snaps away, tweaking his settings, desperate to get a good shot before it disappears. Success! That night, there he is again, his dodgy fizzog illustrating another cry of outrage. This time it's about photographers hogging the slots in hides. 'Name and shame', it says...

A couple of posts back I mentioned a preference for solitude. Alone, with my modest camera, I can creep up on birds whenever I choose. I can do it slowly, gradually, skilfully. Or I can throw caution to the wind and blunder up as inept as you like. If I flush the bird, who's to know? If I don't, well, great.


There's a lot to be said for it.


  1. Gav, I'm trying to remember if that Zenit came via me. I bought a Canon AE-1 in 1980, having had a Zenit for several years before then. I haven't the Zenit now, but I didn't lose or sell it.

    I remember you getting the picture of the Pec. We were both on the west side of the drained north basin. I stayed back a bit while you crept up on the bird with you appearing to use the tripod and camera to hide behind.
    It worked. I'm sure the bird was looking at me 40 yards away while you; using the illusion of having extra legs, appeared to be some kind of herbivore. The fact you never looked out from behind the lens helped too. Mind you, that fact meant you ignored all sorts of mud, slurry and water as you knee walked and shuffled along.

    A few years later after you, me Larry and ..., had seen the Gyr down at Bury Head, we ended up on a cliff top after a Least Sandpiper.
    You were trying for a picture there, but the bird was hiding behind a tussock with me looking at it, and you on the blind side, wondering where it was.
    I wish I had a picture of what I could see. It was of an absolute giant looming over the top of a tiny bird doing it's best to remain undetected.

    1. Can't remember for sure where I got the camera from, Ric, but it would have been 1979 or '80. The Least Sand was at Portscatho in Cornwall - 1986 I think - and I'm fairly sure our car-party included Roger Safford. Blimey, that was in my '75 Escort estate. A good day out... :)

  2. Yes of course, it wasn't Larry. It was Roger and a friend of his. If I recall, they had just come down from somewhere in Scotland.
    Your phone call alerting me to the news that we had to leave at mid-night to be in place before dawn, was around 4:00pm. I went straight to sleep, so had a full quota of kip before we left.
    We got a bit carried away on that outing. It was 7:30pm near Lands End when we thought that maybe we ought to head home - a mere 300 miles away, plus another 40 miles for a wrong turn.
    Just as well I had all that sleep. I was awake the whole time. Fun.

    1. Epic! Might have been John Herbert with us too? There are some twitches I look back and wonder why I bothered, but that Gyr Falcon was absolutely worth the effort. Unforgettable.

  3. It is currently somewhat de rigeur to abhor photographers, spurred on by internet bloodlust. It is a shame because the internet is all about photos really. I think the biggest problem is that there are too many photographers *and* birders, and not enough birdy places (either with rare or regular birds) so they all congregate in the same places. To witness a big twitch in the south of England is a vision of hell.

    Also an often misunderstood fact is that although camera lenses might resemble bazooka, they magnify far less than your average scope.

    I am all about alone for all the reasons you state and more besides.

    1. Jono, many thanks for your comment.

      It's easy to see why the birder/photographer situation at popular sites and popular birds can so frequently become strained, or deteriorate into outright animosity. At times it's the trespassing flusher who gets it in the neck, but mostly these days its the photographer. On occasion no doubt deservedly so. But what surprises me is that so many presumably put themselves through it on a regular basis, knowing they're likely to get stick. They must be incredibly thick-skinned. Or do they simply have zero imagination? After all, it is possible to create a scenario where not only are you able to enjoy a decent bird at your leisure, but also to get great images via a bit of patient fieldcraft. But there is a prerequisite for such a scenario. And it doesn't involve a crowd...