I’ve been birding and photographing birds for more than twenty-five years now, with a few breaks here and there for graduate school and other life-changing events. Like all avid birders, I’ve always kept track of what birds I’ve seen and where and when I’ve seen them; I have life lists, state lists, county lists, yard lists – you get the idea. Recently I decided I also wanted to know how many different species of birds I have photographed over the years. I went through all my old slides, picked out the best one of each species I could find, and did the same with my digital photos. I tallied them all up and have determined that as of last month, I’ve photographed 475 species; #475 was a hard-to-photograph Saltmarsh Sparrow at Ragged Island Wildlife Management Area in Isle of Wight (photo above). It’s not a great photo, but it’s the best I could do and it’s good enough to document that I saw the bird and can verify its ID.
475 species photos is a pretty darn good number. Some of these are really good photos that I’m proud of (usually the ones you’ll see on my blog…), but I also have a mountain of what we call “record shots.” These are pictures of questionable quality but they do serve to verify your siting and identification of the bird. Most of the time birds do not sit still in good lighting and allow you to take a picture, so you just have to do the best you can with what the bird gives you, usually a split second to raise and focus your handheld camera while the bird is moving away from you into the shadows. If a species is common to your area, you have multiple opportunities to get a better photo. But if it’s a rare or out-of-place bird you’re trying to document, you might only get one chance in your lifetime to grab a photo.
I think the photo below must be my all-time bad “record” photo. An extremely rare bird called a Smew showed up in the middle of the Columbia River in Central Oregon in 1991, likely the only Smew I will ever see unless I go to Alaska or Russia. The Columbia is a very wide river, so this is as close as I could get to the bird – but I got my “record” shot! The Smew is the white bird in the middle of the other ducks. Pretty bad, huh?
Here’s another example of a situation where I could not get a good photo and had to settle for a record shot . Long-eared Owls are extremely difficult to find, even in places where they are relatively numerous. They are totally nocturnal and roost during the day in trees with heavy cover, right next to the tree trunk – in fact, they even “elongate” themselves when they feel they are in danger, making themselves skinnier and moving in tighter to the tree trunk, hoping to be more invisible. I have only seen two of these owls in my life, in heavy cover and impossible to photograph – but I did get my record shot:
Here’s another one. The Buff-breasted Flycatcher is a bird that you’ll only see in extreme southeastern Arizona (in the U.S.). I remember driving for miles into the higher elevations of the desolate Chiricahua Mountains searching for this species, and finally spotting one on her nest WAY high up in a tree. I snapped the best photo I could under the circumstances, and to this day this is the only Buff-breasted Flycatcher I’ve seen, and likely the only one I’ll ever photograph:
Last weekend a Ross’s Goose was reported in Cary, N.C. I have seen a number of these rare geese over the years, but they have typically been in a flock with other kinds of geese at least 100 yards away from me. The only photo I ever got of one (below) is a truly terrible photo, taken in the rain in Oregon with old camera equipment twenty years ago.
Several people have posted amazing, up-close gorgeous photos of the Cary goose, and I wanted to replace my terrible photo with one like theirs, so on my day off, I made the drive to Cary, about 3 ½ hours from Chesapeake (each way). By the time I got there, it was raining, and as it turned out, there was no goose to be seen.
I could entertain you with bad photo after bad photo, but I believe I’ll stop right here. The bottom line is that the opportunity to get a photo of a species I have not photographed before, or the chance to get a better photo of a species that I have previously photographed motivates me to get out of the house and go birding. It’s easy to stay at home and sit in the comfortable chair if you don’t think you’re likely to see anything new or “interesting” – but the opportunity to get a new or better photo drives me. I really want to replace some of the bad old photos, and if that goose returns to the pond in Cary, I’ll probably have to give chase.