Saturday, May 12, 2012

There is more to birdwatching than just looking at birds.

A while back a friend said my camera was taking me away from “birdwatching” and into “bird photography”. I disagreed on the grounds that the camera was just an aid to the watching. With my eyes not showing me what her younger, super-human vision shows her I replied: “I want to have a photo of some of the birds I see. I want to learn more about the birds I see, not just look at them. I want to use the photos to help me broaden my knowledge of birds and maybe, just occasionally, find something that can be added to our overall knowledge about birds. So, it is still the birdwatching that drives me, not the photograph.”

Here is what I mean about seeing more when I birdwatch with a camera:

1) Early on, with my first dslr camera, I was trying to get a photo of an Eastern Whipbird. I sat hidden and waited for one to come to some birdseed that had been set out. The bird finally appeared and started feeding. As I watched and took photos I realised that the bird was only using its left foot to hold the seeds, never its right foot. I searched through the birding journals and found references to research on Eastern Whipbirds that suggested the same thing, but there were no photos.
Eastern Whipbird holding seed in left foot
2) Back in 2010 I saw a Satin Bowerbird that had moulted all its head feathers. I thought this strange but then the next day, 200 kms away, I found another one in the same condition. Now that was interesting. But then, when we were on Norfolk Island this year, many of the European Blackbirds were walking around with bare heads. Fascinating. I wonder if it is a normal moult or do these birds have a dietary deficiency?
Bald Satin Bowerbird
Bald Common Blackbird

3) In the sporting world, baseball for example, players are known to paint a black stripe on their cheekbone. It is meant to stop the glare of the sun reflecting off the cheek and interrupting their view of the ball, target, whatever. In birds though I am noticing a reverse strategy. Lots of bird species have either a row of white dots or a white line on or near the bottom eyelid. Now what on earth could be the reason for that?
Reed Warbler

Shy Heathwren

White-browed Scrubwren

Black Noddy

Brown Noddy

Australian Spotted Crake

4) Down in a wonderful coastal park in Victoria called Croajingolong there is a slope of heath-land overlooking Bass Strait where I know I can find Southern Emu-wrens. With the aid of my camera and some patience I now know that Southern Emu-wrens have whiskers like a cat, white dots below the eyes and yellow pads on the bottom of their feet. Now isn’t that fascinating!
Southern Emu-wren, female

5) At Werribee on the 29th April we found a lone Curlew Sandpiper. This is very late in the year for a Curlew Sandpiper to be around the Melbourne area and as the bird did not flush as we drove up to it and stopped I got a series of images over 4 minutes. We then drove quietly away and left the bird standing beside the track. When I put the pictures on the computer I could see that in every photo the bird’s eyes were clouded over, as if the nictitating membrane was stuck over them, or the bird was unwell. Could partial blindness be the reason the bird did not migrate with its fellows?
Curlew Sandpiper

And as I was in the process of writing these thoughts, I came across an item from the ABA blog in America. The author’s motivation is different from mine but his comments relate directly to what I am trying to say – there is more to birdwatching than just looking at birds. If you are interested, have a look at

Oh, and by the way, not that I would admit it to my friend, it is rather fun taking pictures of birds and taking the pictures has changed my birding trips, just a bit (smile).

All images © Jenny Spry not to be used without written permission


  1. Hi jen,I too came across that Curlew Sandpiper at WTP around the time you did.It did seem odd at the time and it is interesting to read what you revealed when reviewing your photo. Thanks

  2. I realize this entry is old, but I only just discovered your great blog. I'm new to birdwatching and I have always enjoyed taking pictures to document and share. I only have a point and shoot, nothing fancy, but I find that my little camera has come in super handy to help me identify birds.