By Bob Oberfelder
How good do your bird photos need to be? Yes, I know this is a topic for endless debate and it is a debate I constantly have with myself. This blog will NOT definitively answer this question, I am writing merely to define the issue a bit more clearly. It is important to decide what the purpose of your picture will be. If you want a crystal clear photo that can be made into a poster size print, you had better have first rate camera equipment, plenty of mega pixels, lots of time to engineer the perfect shot and good light so you can shoot with low ISO settings. This kind of perfection is available to only a few with the requisite time, money, interest and incentive. Now it is time to set realistic goals. Crisp 8X10 inch pictures are readily accessible with a decent camera (some point and shoot cameras will do just fine) a bit of skill finding the subject of choice, and decent light conditions to make an appealing photo. Many of us, myself included, are capable of achieving this level of success. The real purpose of this blog is to advocate for a different level of photographic success.
Many of us are competent birders for common species and for bright and distinctive spring plumages. The problem comes when you see something that is a rare bird, an immature bird, or a bird with a plumage that is between the plumages shown in the guidebooks. This is perhaps one of the most useful arenas in which to use photography. Photography can be used as a critical tool for improving your identification skills and for documenting rare or unusual species. For these objectives, first-rate photos are often not necessary (desirable, yes, essential, no.)
A recent trip to Mid Pines Road illustrates this point. This road is surrounded by North Carolina State University land and it often harbors rare and interesting species. (Mid Pines Road connects Wheeler Road and Tryon Road and it is near Historic Yates Mill County Park.) I spent a bit of time taking photos of the Wake Audubon Bird of the Year, the Field Sparrow and Horned Larks were present there as well. Neither of these species is particularly unusual for Mid Pines Road. I did, however, encounter a bird that was clearly a falcon, and I was uncertain about the identity of this bird. The most reasonable options for that area were an American Kestrel, a Merlin, or Peregrine Falcon. It was very far away, perhaps 1000 feet from where I was standing and I had no opportunity to get closer. I decided that the only option was to take some crummy pictures and forward them to my go-to local experts Erla Beegle and John Gerwin. A couple of crummy photos were enough for Erla and John to both proclaim it a Peregrine Falcon. This kind of photo may not be worth a thousand words, but you might be able to get a bird ID out of it. John says that it is often possible to identify a bird with one or more crummy photographs (good photos are always better) so he advocates taking pictures, even lousy ones, of unusual or hard to identify birds so you have a chance to identify them. This is an approach I have sometimes used and perhaps should use more often. It is a way to learn to identify challenging birds and may even be sufficient to document truly rare birds.