Thursday, January 04, 2007

Some thoughts on Digiscoping...

Sanderlings I chose to watch and not photograph!

Ernie Mastroianni wrote an excellent article on the basics of digiscoping, appearing in the current issue of Birder's World magazine. Here are a few additional thoughts on my approach to the balance of birding and digiscoping in the context of a comment in Laura Erickson's blog post on the same article.

After going crazy-nutzo with digiscoping the first year or two, I've nestled into a pattern of deliberate digiscoping runs during the second half of May for spring warblers, flycatchers and other songbirds, and then again late September and the first half of October for sparrows, fall warblers and sometimes shorebirds. Digiscoping on sunny days greatly increases chances for success, saving more time for studying birds on overcast days, or times I simply don't want to digiscope (it happens a lot!). Naturally, there will be exceptions as they come long, but most of the time I don't haul my digiscoping setup to the field because I dislike carrying it around so much!

The more experiences accumulated watching and appreciating birds, I feel the better photographer I've become in anticipating their behavior, where they're going to be and when. It's no wonder (to me) that some of the best bird photographers in the world are also avid birders. While exploring the landscape and habitat in various lighting, I'll consider spots for potential natural outdoor studios (though I often never get back to them and keep returning to old favorites). As mentioned in the article, there's a small point on a habitat edge in Pheasant Branch where I've recorded over 90 bird species, mostly during spring and fall migration. A surprising number of birds in my gallery were photographed at that spot, especially sparrows. I've found my greatest successes come from returning to such productive spots during spring and fall migration.

Digiscoping is only one dimension of my interest in birds, and is generally an avocation of solitude. If it is in any sense a competition, it's only with myself as personal escapism. But I also enjoy the social aspect of birding – organized field trips or a spontaneous gathering of birders, friends and colleagues, meeting at Pheasant Branch or Nine Springs before or after work sharing a glimpse at a Hooded Warbler or a spinning Wilson's Phalarope. Generally, it's not practical to digiscope when in a group, plus there's much to learn from birders who have been at it longer - I would hate to miss out on a tip or bit of wisdom.

Thinking back to the Black-throated Blue Warbler that Dottie Johnson found last fall, if I would have tried to sprint back to my car to fetch my digiscoping equipment, in all likelihood would have missed one of the most amazing displays of warbler foraging behavior I've ever observed. If I've said it once I've said it a thousand times, “Gee, if only I had my digiscoping gear along!” Watching birds and sharing those experience with other birders has always been just as fun and interesting than photographing them, sometimes more so. There is memory, which is sometimes even better than a high quality photograph.

A birder I know asked me why I lack images of bird rarities reported around Wisconsin over past five years. My response was a bit tautological, “The bird in front of my lens is the one I photograph.” By the end of 2007 there will be new bird images added to my gallery – I wonder which ones they'll be? I can predict more images of Yellow-rumped Warblers, Palm Warblers, Lincoln's Sparrows and White-throated Sparrows - ones that come relatively easy because they're common during migration. Since I started digiscoping in 2002, there have always been opportunities that I've either encountered by chance, or helped to create, but always striving to minimize my impact on birds.

Now to the point: Posting a link to Ernie's article on her blog, Laura Erickson of wrote a nice compliment regarding my work, but one comment sort of perplexed me. Laura wrote, "I try to make my pictures as good as I can, but I'm much more interested in experiencing birds than in setting up photo ops, which is why you'll see a lot more professional photos by the more serious experts than you will by me."

When you see a lot more professional photos by more serious experts, then I suppose her comment implies such photographers are less interested in having more bird experiences, or at least missing out on something. I'll not deny digiscoping can be time consuming, but that's why I bring my binoculars along - there's always something else to watch while waiting for something to happen.

Nobody can deny Laura's passion and love of birds – she's the only one who knows what she feels and experiences, but I disagree spending time to photograph birds must decrease or diminish experiences with them. If anything, watching a few birds or one, for a long time in hopes of getting a good picture has provided me ample opportunity to closely study and experience bird behavior. She's digiscoped more bird species than I have, so it isn't for lack of getting out there and trying! I don't know about you, but I think her work is excellent.

As I mentioned before, I digiscoped far less in 2006 than in any previous year, and yet I think the quality of my digiscoping continues to improve. So, why is that? Indeed, regardless of your level of commitment to birding or digiscoping, you can have it both ways.

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