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A Little History About Birding with a Camera

Updated on June 12, 2015
Sherry Thornburg profile image

Writer, photographer and birding enthusiast, Sherry Thornburg writes about birding and birding related topics.

Snowy Egrets Building a Nest

Snowy Egret passing a stick to his mate as she builds a nest.
Snowy Egret passing a stick to his mate as she builds a nest. | Source

Birding Behind a Camera

I go walking, in the shadows, of the forest, just looking for you birds. I go out walking in the forest looking for you-o-oo.

Insert the tune of a Pasty Cline favorite, and you can imagine me wandering my favorite birdwatching haunts in East Texas looking for seasonal bird movements.

I’ve got my Canon, and my long lens, and my beamer. Yes, I’m ready for you birds. I go out walking in the forest looking for you-o-oo.

You notice I don’t say, bird guide and field book. My bird guide is usually in the car or left at home. My field book is the camera in my hand. When I go birding, singing to myself as I trudge along familiar trails; I am documenting my bird sightings.

This isn’t a requirement of bird watching. I personally started doing this due to my less than perfect ID skills. I bag the birds in digital files, and then bring them home to compare to my guides. I then borrow the expertize of my on-line friends to ID any bird I am not sure of. Once a good ID is made, I add field notes following the what-when-where and what it was doing documentation style to go with the photos.

I developed this practice as my personal training method. It was a natural for me as I’ve been a photographer for over 20 years. After three years of studying guides and using this method, my skills have grown significantly, but in recent reading, I found that this direct evidence gathering hails back to old bird science methods that have long since been done away with in modern bird watching.

The Old Days of Discovery

I recently came by a book in one of my book store birding excursions. Scott Weidensaul wrote Of a Feather, a Brief History of American Birding. It sounded like an interesting read and it most certainly was as he described in detail the monumental job early American bird enthusiasts took on to make birding a science. In those early days, just finding out what this country contained sent people out into the wilds, braving harsh terrain, weather, disease, hostile Indians and unforgiving wild predators to catalog the mammals, reptiles, fish and every other walking, crawling and flying thing this country offered.

The cataloging was done by collecting samples, and not live ones. The creatures were shot, usually skinned and tanned or pickled in barrels of alcohol. As they could, the samples were shipped back east to the Smithsonian where specimens and reported observations were carefully studied and preserved. One laughs at the parts were the writer mentions the consternation of these explorers when specimens were ruined by rough woodsmen guides who drank down the preserving liquid when no one was looking. Funny, but you know the poor man with a barrel of ruined specimens didn’t think so. But in those days, that was the only way to document the previously unknown.

The cataloging of birds was done the same way, through the mussel of a shotgun. The bird was usually skinned with head and legs left attached and then preserved with an arsenic preparation and stuffed. Borax replaced arsenic in later years. It wasn’t until the later part of the 19th century along with the end of bird hunting to decorate ladies hats that this was ended. It wasn’t an easy transition either.

When the new Audubon Society sought the support of the American Ornithology Union to stop the carnage that bird and egg collecting was causing, their President, Charles Cory answered, “I don’t protect birds, I shoot them.” Such was the growing attitude of bird science when faced with the possibility of losing the right to collect specimens and eggs as they saw fit. Traditionalist bird scientists insisted on direct evidence, not recorded sightings. They complained bitterly as sighting based records began to (muddy) up the records, replacing specimen based evidence.

But the fight continued. Birders against massive specimen collecting called Opera glass fiends kept the mission going. There was a well-known story about one of the fiends, Ludlow Griscom, who described an argument he had with one of the old-timers.

An old shotgun ornithologist challenged Griscom to identify a warbler high in the treetops. A female Cape May, the young main said–a gutsy call, because this is a notoriously tricky bird to identify. Bang. The warbler falls; it is a Cape May. And that one? Bang–another correct identification. And bang another, until at last the doubting Thomas was convinced.

From: Of a Feather, pg. 183

As other doubting Thomas’s were convinced, and better binocular optics for long range sightings were made available, far fewer birds had to give their all in the name of science.

Stuffed Specimen from 1900s

Bobolink Skin at Royal Ontario Museum
Bobolink Skin at Royal Ontario Museum | Source

Pioneer Bird Photographers

Picture from Stanwood Wildlife Sactuary
Picture from Stanwood Wildlife Sactuary | Source
Photo of the Ox blind.  Light enough to carry, but not very roomy.
Photo of the Ox blind. Light enough to carry, but not very roomy. | Source
Image of the photographic gun which used glass plates for capturing its images.
Image of the photographic gun which used glass plates for capturing its images. | Source

And Then Came a Camera

But then the camera came around. A heavy Eastman beast on a tripod using 5x7 glass-plates is recorded as one of the first employed for recording birds in America. It was carried around through the boggy woods by Cordelia Stanwood, a naturalist of Maine (1859-1958). Starting in 1916, she photographed birds and nests in the field rather than bringing them home. Her photographs now reside in the State Library and her property, Birdsacre, is a public wildlife sanctuary expanded to cover 200 acres. To see her photography, visit this Stanwood Wildlife Sanctuary page.

A pioneering pair of photographers in England, Richard and Cherry Kearton, where true dare-devils. They began their work in England in the 1890s with another glass-plate box camera. They also documented nesting birds, but their specialty was creative bird blinds to do it from. Their most famous one was a hollow ox built by a taxidermist which they crawled into to wait for birds. They also tried to use a hollow sheep, but that blind was attacked too often by sheep dogs to be useful. They also created boulder blinds, rock walls and carried their camera 40 feet up trees to get their bird nesting shots. Read more in an article written by Jon Vidal here. Their book British Birds’ Nests, published in 1895 was likely the first bird book fully illustrated with photos.

One of the first stop action shots of a bird was taken by a French scientist Etienne-Jules Marey in the 1880s. He invented the photographic gun which used a rotating glass plate to take 12 consecutive pictures per second. The object was to see how a bird flies. His subject was a pelican.

These pioneers not only collected concrete evidence on birds and their life stories, but they proved that such evidence could be gathered without the need for a shotgun or other traumas to wild birds.

Final Word

It took many improvements in technology for film to be capable of gathering light and shutters to gain speed and lenses to gain the reach to capture birds in all their varied settings, but it happened; and then when color film came along . . . Woo hoo!

In the doing, we have come full circle and the science of birding has been able to have its cake and eat it too. Bird collecting can now be a less bloody exercise that can bring the reality of the beauty of birds to the wider public and document birds in a concrete way for science.

The vast beauty of bird study is that the professional and the enthusiast work hand in hand. As Mr. Weidensaul said, "in the early years, very few bird scientists were not also bird watchers who didn’t start out as hobbyist amateurs." Assisting them now are millions of bird watchers who turn citizen scientist to gather population observations during Christmas Bird Counts, bird banding, and help with other projects to learn about and protect birds.

I’m not a scientist by any means. I am one of the hobbyist amateurs with a camera who hopes one day to have something as concrete and of value to pass on as Cordelia Stanwood’s collection. So I continue in my quest to digitally bag every bird of the State of Texas, adding to the documentation and understanding of birds as a citizen scientist.

Happy Birding

© 2015 Sherry Thornburg


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