Thursday, 14 February 2013

Of Monsters and Men

In response to 'No Photos' by Jonny Rankin.

A confession: I once flushed a bird. It was midweek, April, 2009, and I was Landguard searching for a bird that would’ve been a lifer. It hadn’t been seen since the middle of the day, and now it was late afternoon: overcast, an icy breeze had sprung up and there were only about four other birders out searching. I’d chosen to check the tip of the point when I was coming back around to face the observatory, when out of a hollow with long grass, completely out of my sight but just in front of me, the Hoopoe sprung out. For a split-second the dazzle camouflage of pink, black and white stripes really works, by which time it was over the next bush and lost to sight for another hour or so.

Did you spot the lie in that paragraph?

Of course I haven’t flushed one bird. I flush a Blackbird from the hedge by the front door of my flat every time I leave. I panic the pigeon on my bird feeder every time I open my bedroom blind or window. I give a pheasant pulmonary trouble every time I walk the local fields. It was a lie by omission of the word ‘rare’. I was birding/twitching at the time too: not photographing.
There's no problem when the bird pops up in front of you, blissfully unconcerned.
The birding ‘scene’ is a relatively small pond with not much in the way of right and wrong. Issues flare up, die down, and then reappear several months later once they’ve left everybody’s goldfish memories. One of the most regularly reoccurring is the issue of behaviour, which has been polarised into birders (us, real men) V.s photographers (them, monsters). For one of the most recent examples, see Jonny’s provocative blogpost, ‘No Photos’. And while I agree that there are more photos of the Aldeburgh Arctic Redpoll on the internet than there are of Jordan’s tits (it’s empirically true… probably) and we’re all bored of seeing them, this is an issue that could benefit from a bit less polarity.

I am a birder, foremost, photographer second. Except for when I wake up photographer foremost, birder second. It’s hard to take a side in an issue when you occupy and enjoy both sides. There is one things both sides can agree on though: causing unnecessary disturbance to wildlife is wrong. A photograph, as Jonny’s blogpost says, is not a necessary reason, but neither is getting a good view. I have never seen bad behaviour in the field from a photographer that I haven’t also seen a birder doing, and that includes getting too close to birds, trampling habitat, entering areas they shouldn’t be. I remember one particular instance of a footpath to a viewpoint by a military firing range and two birders stood all of five metres into the range, in nesting Woodlark habitat. I didn’t say anything at the time, perhaps I should’ve. In my defence, I was a shy spotty sixteen year old and nobody really takes kindly to being told off by a teenager.
A mildly controversial twitch.
The crux of the issue though is flushing: birders blame photographers for intentionally flushing birds to take photos, photographers protest their innocence. This is behaviour a lot of people report, less people have seen: I certainly haven’t. If it does happen (and I’m sure occasionally it must), it is idiotic. A flushed bird flies away, looks unnatural and makes a bad photograph and a bad photographer. I believe we’re guilty of making scapegoats of photographers though, and not examining our own behaviour; as if taking a photograph is a lesser act than merely looking, and thus easier to blame. It is ludicrous to imagine a situation in which a birder has never accidentally flushed a bird through ignorance or to get a better view (even if it’s just a pheasant). 

But also it does depend on how you interpret events. I was with Jonny at the Aldeburgh Arctic Redpoll twitch; an event that he has said a few times featured bad behaviour by photographers. I disagree. As the bird was refound, photographers and birders lined up together to look at the bush in which the bird was feeding. No photographer selfishly went closer than any birder and at no point did the bird – a famously confiding bird that perched on people’s scopes* – appear concerned, worried or generally affected by the behaviour of those present. I also have the idea that the Sparrowhawk present at the site was deterred from attempting to make a meal of the big white finch by the presence of the twitchers. Certainly it wasn’t the most edifying behaviour or the greatest example of field craft, but this doesn’t necessarily make it bad behaviour.

Let’s be reasonable about this: a few photographers give them all a bad name. Same for birders, twitchers, gamekeepers, and the rest of Homo sapiens. Internet rants might be cathartic but they serve only to unreasonably polarise the debate. Mutterings of a code of conduct for photographers** are reasonable if you apply it to birders and dog-walkers too: both are causes of disturbance. It is much better, and more productive to talk about this politely, in the field, where you see it happening, regardless of whether they’re a birder, photographer, dog-walker, etc.

* Edit: I found the photo to prove my point, although it wasn't quite as I remembered it...

**One further point: We’re all photographers now. At the last few twitches I’ve been at and hides I’ve been in, there’s always a bloke with a scope and an iPhone, snapping away, who’d never call himself a photographer.

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