Some thoughts on bird photographers

posted in: Photography | 11

“I must confess that I am rather new to the world of birding and bird photography. Apart from all the interesting observations posted on the BESGroup blog, I owe much to individuals such as Subaraj, Gim Cheong, Dr Ho Hua Chew, Danny Lau, Con Foley and Doreen Ang for showing me how to hear and see what I would otherwise miss out, whether in the forest or out in open habitats.

“That said, I would like to share some observations of group behaviour (of humans not birds) seen in the wake of the recent excitement over the Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher (Cyex erithacus erithacus). In the first week of the sighting of the bird at its location by a popular jogging trail, I am glad to have enjoyed the company and knowledge of a number of photographers who also delighted in the other avian fauna of the general area, from rambunctious drongos and curious woodpeckers to the bevy of babblers, bulbuls and Siberian Blue Robins (Luscinia cyane) that descended to a nearby pool for their evening bath. All this activity kept everyone occupied and entertained before the elusive kingfisher finally made its appearance. I am told latecomers to the site even enjoyed the additional sight of Buffy Fish Owls (Ketupa ketupu) and Brown Hawk Owls (Ninox scutulata).

“After a week away from the reserves, I took the opportunity to drop by another location (1, 2) where an Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher had been regularly seen. A group of 8-9 other photographers were already at the site. As mentioned, I am fairly new to this scene and so consider myself not too attuned to the norms of the pursuit. So while awaiting the bird, I just watched what the others were doing, or wandered off on my own to see if I could find anything interesting. A little away from the hotspot, a few bulbuls were bathing in a part of the stream that flowed beneath a thicket of lianes and low shrubs. After they were done, a couple flew up towards the boardwalk, giving an opportunity for some shots of what I believe are Cream-vented Bulbuls (Pycnonotus simplex), an uncommon and nationally near-threatened resident (above left). There was also a colugo (Cynocephalus variegates) which someone spotted on a tree trunk (above right). I could also see in the stream below various small schooling fishes being stalked by a snakehead (Channa sp.).

“Returning to the group where I met a friend who had just arrived, I found that somebody had switched on an audio recording of what appeared to be amorphous jungle sounds and bird calls. I am not sure if this is akin to the practice of using bird calls to draw out certain birds, as the sound was to me like static that blurred out the ambient forest we were in. The kingfisher appeared at last but confined itself to a distant perch above a stream that afforded just one passable viewpoint, to which the photographers took turns to occupy and shoot their target. I understand that on other days, the bird had chosen quite prominent and photographically ideal perches, and some photographers were able to catch it in action feeding on freshwater prawns and small frogs. This time, the bird remained steadfastly at its far off perch. At some point, one of the photographers climbed over the boardwalk and positioned himself by a tree trunk about 4-5 m away from the bird, where he shot a few photos which I gather he was quite pleased with. I must say it was quite tempting to join him down there, as I was one of the few there unencumbered by a tripod. Some voices then asked the photographer who went down to try to flush the bird, probably hoping to get it to fly to a more amenable perch. There were suggestions of shaking a branch or palm leaf or even throwing things in the direction of the bird to get it to move.

“At that point and after some discussion, my friend and I decided it would be better to leave as we were not quite at ease with what was taking place. It was a fairly sizeable gathering, so you could say I was too birdlike (i.e. chicken) to voice out in the face of uneven group dynamics. My friend kindly dropped me off near the place where I sighted the earlier kingfisher which I thought would have been fairly deserted by this time. There were only five photographers (including myself) who waited for the bird. In the meantime, a Stork-billed Kingfisher (Halcyon capensis) (above) fished nearby, while the bulbuls, babblers and robins turned out in sequence.

“A surprise was a female Asian Paradise Flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi), which fluttered awhile around the kingfisher’s favourite perch (right). I did not know the other people there and as I was tired, I did not talk much to them. At some point, however, I saw one of the photographers descending into the vegetation with a pair of scissors. I asked him what he was doing and he replied that he wanted to remove a leaf blocking the view. I said he shouldn’t be doing that and he responded with ‘Why?’ But he returned to the boardwalk without completing his task and I decided against further conversation. A little later, a couple of fly fishermen came by and swung their rods almost at the spot where the kingfisher would perch. Fortunately, an elderly passer-by told them to stop, as this was not a designated fishing area, and they went off. The kingfisher showed up a little after sunset but personally I was no longer in the mind to shoot it as the evening’s observations had left me with uneasy feelings as to whether it would be wise to share such sightings with the community at large in the future.

“What do readers think?”

Marcus Ng
13th February 2009

Sometime in the early 2000s, a group of bird photographers approached the President of the Nature Society (Singapore) with an offer of revitalising the then dormant Photo Group. Unfortunately the photographers’ overture was spurned. Maybe birdwatchers then were uncomfortable sharing their turf and expertise with another group stalking birds. Be that as it may, the Nature Society missed it’s a golden opportunity to work closely with photographers and in the process share with these newcomers some of the birdwatchers’ field ethics, especially in stalking and photographing birds, accumulated through years of fieldwork. After all, the best of birdwatchers, with their deep concern for the welfare of birds, surely did not start off as angels in the field.

11 Responses

  1. Ashok Khosla

    Sorry to hear this Subaraj,

    Your story is quite similar to the incident we had here in the San Francisco bay are – as were the responses (i.e. no longer post locations publicly).

    I think the photographers who know better have to speak up. Otherwise one bad apple spoils it for everyone.

    I recently had to give my daughter a book about bully’s. One point in the book – when you see someone misbehaving, you can lead, follow, or be a bystander. Being a bystander gets you nowhere. If two photographers speak up to bad behaviour I think the message comes through. One photographer makes it sound like a personal fight. So send out the word to the photographers you trust that they have to agree to join with their friends and to speak up, and politely, respectfully, and firmly tell them.

    Another thing we do, when we see repeated incidents, is we spread the word to our friends. It’s amazing how fast a person stops bad behavior when they find out they are no longer receiving praise from their peers.

    Finally, a flickr group, or something like that is a good and cheap way to get started…

    For what it’s worth!

    Look forward to seeing other people’s point of view on the subject.


  2. Myron Tay

    I am a bird / nature photographer and I was with Marcus only for the 3 Feb sighting of the kingfisher (when there was only five photographers).

    As a photographer, I feel that the sustainability of the habitat in which the subjects of my photographs thrive is of paramount importance if I am concerned about making repeated trips to the area. I would not want to do anything that would jeopardise future photographers of the same photographic subjects but I may not know when I am doing so. As such, I believe that there should be some education that should go on in the ‘field’. I ask my fellow photographers to speak up when the situations arise as suggested by Ashok above.

    Having said that, different people have different ethics. Some may even question the use of flash in photographing subjects in the forests. In my actions, I stay guided by the following question: “Does the action threathen the availability of the subject to future generations of visitors?”. If it does, I should not be doing it.

  3. budak

    Hi Myron, I think the session we were at quite both quite fruitful and unintrusive. 🙂 I know it’s a rather grey area in some aspects, but to me, habitat modification (e.g. pruning in the forest, shifting of perches etc) seems to be prioritising the goal of a perfect shot over the integrity of the broader habitat even beyond the bird itself.

    That said, last week, I saw that the the lower half of part of the boardwalk railing at the first kingfisher site had been broken off and was lying on the shore of the reservoir. Whether or not this was due to photographers’ activities, or even deliberate or accidental human causes, I can’t say, but it’s something to note. And I hear also of a photographer attempting to use a frog to tempt another oriental dwarf kingfisher. Whether or not it was a local species or non-native (e.g. possibly the highly invasive American bullfrog), that was without doubt a highly irresponsible act.

  4. Alvin

    Hi Marcus, Budak

    I have seen some of these photographers in action at Singapore Botanic gardens during a recent craze over the Pitta. Initially I was surprised how and really admired these people as they knew where the favourite perch of the bird was located..

    Later, when i stayed a bit longer, i saw that one of the photographers actually bought a large can of worms and was placing these worms on the ground near that perch to lure the Pitta into the open for good shots..

    They also placed a stone at the area and worms on the stone to get the shots they wanted..

    I felt that this feeding of the while bird was overboard and such I left the area. The best part is that when a photography forum member ask him how he got such a good shot of the Pitta, he said he staked out the area in a hide and waited and waited for the bird to appear..

    From what Budak has said, looks like these same group of photographers are using the same trick to lure the kingfisher out…

    I find that these actions are horrible and unnatural.. 🙁

  5. Myron Tay

    Just a thought, Marcus – guess most of the stuff that is allowed / not allowed would be influenced very much by what the general consensus is on the subject. So speak up if you are not comfortable with certain behaviour and explain your rationale for your decision. We have to fight ignorance / carelessness / self-centredness / nastiness with education and an appeal to the common good i.e. for the good of future visitors / visits.

  6. yychong

    Hey Marcus, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think a lot of us are thinking like you too. Just that we are usually the ones that didn’t speak up and quietly leave the scene.

  7. Kennie Pan

    hi Marcus, sometimes in this world humanns are too selflish and do not care about the welfare of nature first just to get the shot they want. Will be difficult to change them until soemthing really happens.

  8. James Chong

    Think its very unfair to point finger at the person who laid the buffet for the bird but you took a shot of the bird too.
    I advise you remove the shots you toke and posted in flickr.
    Stop slapping yourself. It does not matter you toke the shot during the feeding or after. The bird was there because of the feeding.

    Dont feel so high and mighty and comment on others. You know who they are but you feel its fine to be part of their company, the people you commented to be lowly and selfish.
    It’s hard for them not to continue the shoot as there are NP staff & volunteery guide there taking the shot too.

    Such hypocrisy. Typical ‘bird talk’.

  9. dwarf snakehead

    […] bize for perspicuity … capelan bet compunction flywheel? Name (required) E-mail (will not be …Bird Ecology Study Group Some thoughts on bird photographers… (of humans not birds) seen in the wake of the recent excitement over the Oriental Dwarf […]

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