Role of the camera in birdwatching

on 29th April 2009

A new scientific paper, “The role of the camera in birdwatching in Singapore” has just been published in the on-lime journal, Nature in Singapore [2009, Vol. 2: 183-191 by Tsang, K. C., R. Subaraj & Y. C. Wee]. You can get a PDF copy of the paper HERE (#27).

Bird watching in Singapore will never be the same again – ever since bird photographer descended on the scene in early 2000s. The spectacular images of birds and their behaviour that photographers captured with their digital cameras (including those captured with conventional films) have three important impact on birdwatching…

Identifying birds
1. Cameras and images are showing up the weakness of the Records Committee (RC) of the Nature Society (Singapore)’s Bird Group. A number of records have been or need to be retracted due to re-examination of photographic evidence eg. mis-identification of a kentish plover (Charadrius alexandrinus) for a long-billed plover (C. placidus) and the questionable inclusion of the Western Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus) in the checklist. Well, we live and learn, after all, nobody is perfect! What of the others where no images are available?

2. With images as evidence, the RC cannot simply dismiss claims by birdwatchers of seeing unrecorded species as “lack of evidence”, as in the past. The Asian Emerald Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx maculatus) was recently accepted as a new record for Singapore – with photographic evidence, even though it took 23 months to do so.

3. An old image allowed the RC to claim that the first sighting of the Jerdon’s baza (Aviceda jerdoni) should be seven years earlier. It would have helped shore up the credibility of the RC had the old image been published before, rather than after, the claim in BirdingAsia was made. However, to date, the old photograph has yet to be published. So the claims is still ringing hollow… and is this science?

Food and feeding behaviour
1. Now we have proof of whatever species of birds we report taking specific foods. In the past we take the submitted observations in good faith. With images, we can even query whether the particular bird actually swallowed the food and if so, whether it eventually spit it out. Or whether the bird was actually treating the food as a plaything.

2. Crisp images edited using Denoise AI allow specialist biologists to identify the foods at their leisure. It is also possible to identify the plant or animal foods to the generic or even specific level.

3. Images allow us to know whether the bird bites, swallows or crush the foods; cast pellets later on…

Bird behaviour
1. Pollinating of mistletoe flowers by Blue-crowned Hanging Parrot (Loriculus galgulus) and Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker (Dicaeum cruentatum) when the birds applies slight pressure on the flower buds to get at the nectar. This is a split-second action, the significance of which is usually missed when viewed through the binoculars.

2. Keeping detailed records of breeding behaviour of Malaysian Plover (Charadrius peronii), Zebra Dove (Geopelia striata) and Little Tern (Sterna sumatrana) with photographic records.

Not all birdwatchers are convinced that the camera is here to stay. A few of the more progressive ones are now toting a camera when out in the field. But there are others who are feeling threatened… But why the need to feel threatened? After all, birdwatching is a pastime and if you are happy just looking at birds, so be it. Go out and have fun twitching.

KC Tsang, R Subaraj & YC Wee
April 2009
(Image of photographers at Bidadari by Lena Chow)

If you like this post please tap on the Like button at the left bottom of page. Any views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors/contributors, and are not endorsed by the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM, NUS) or its affiliated institutions. Readers are encouraged to use their discretion before making any decisions or judgements based on the information presented.

YC Wee

Dr Wee played a significant role as a green advocate in Singapore through his extensive involvement in various organizations and committees: as Secretary and Chairman for the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), and with the Nature Society (Singapore) as founding President (1978-1995). He has also served in the Nature Reserve Board (1987-1989), Nature Reserves Committee (1990-1996), National Council on the Environment/Singapore Environment Council (1992-1996), Work-Group on Nature Conservation (1992) and Inter-Varsity Council on the Environment (1995-1997). He is Patron of the Singapore Gardening Society and was appointed Honorary Museum Associate of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) in 2012. In 2005, Dr Wee started the Bird Ecology Study Group. With more than 6,000 entries, the website has become a valuable resource consulted by students, birdwatchers and researchers locally and internationally. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own, and do not represent those of LKCNHM, the National University of Singapore or its affiliated institutions.

Other posts by YC Wee

8 Responses

  1. Looking at the photograph of the bird watchers busy at `work’, I just wonder why camera manufactures do not have DSLR with `articulate’ LCD view finders. My Canon superzoom with such LCD allows me to take photos with the most comfortable posture, but of course the quality of the lens and resolution of the images cannot be compared to those of DSLR.

  2. I would say that for an ornithologist to not have a camera with them is a ludicrous idea and almost as important as binoculars and a field note book.

    modern digital cameras also – mostly – have a decent video function and some of the top DSLRs now produce incredible HD video. For general behaviour, nesting, social interactions (hierarchy, squabbles, mating, pairing…), methods of feeding etc., video footage can be invaluable.

    My swaro scope and digiscoping setup now goes with me wherever I go, and photos and video have become an integral part of my data collection. For the average ornithologist, a little point-and-shoot like the Nikon P6000 is ideal: small, light and takes great photos/video. My personal opinion is that a DSLR only really becomes worth while if you are either really in to taking beautiful photos, or you would like to do extra weight training.

    Thank you for yet another wonderful post!


  3. Thanks Dale. Most birdwatchers go into the field to just look at birds. For this, you need only a pair of binoculars. However, for the few who aspire to do more than just look, a camera makes a lot of difference. Of course for an ornithologist, a camera is a must.

  4. Camera come in handy when image recording is required or necesarry. However, my concerns is the using of flashlight by the so called ‘Bird Photographer’! With the flash extender, it caused more harm than good for the birds being photographed!

    I have a friend from Taiwan told me that using of flash in bird photography is a Big No No for them. You may take as meny photo as you like but not in an intrusive manner such as using of flash. Shouldn’t we also follow? Take photo as long as the condition is right (lighting) and stop when it is too dim.

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