How to start birding. Intro 3.

Canon Powershot SX40

by Gunnar Engblom on September 12, 2012

How to inspire a kid to get interested in birds and nature.

Say you have kids and you really would like them to become more interested in nature, but they are more into to TV and computer games.  You are tearing your hair with the potato couch kid. You read some manuals about birding, which all invariably recommend getting a pair of binoculars first of all.  You got $350 to spend. (You are a rich parent just for this argument).

Scenario 1. Binoculars.

You spend 350 dollars on a pair of binoculars and then drag the kid outdoors and show him some birds. Maybe he says “wow”… maybe he says “drag”….but when summer camp comes, he has invariably most likely already forgotten to pack his binoculars.

Scenario 2. Point and Shoot Camera

You picked up THIS EBOOK (forthcoming) and decided to spend 350 dollars instead on a point and shoot mega zoom camera. You drag the kid outdoors, let him take photos of plants and bugs using the macro, and dragonflies, butterflies and birds using the 35x optic zoom.  Then you post some of the photos on Facebook or he posts them on his blog. Maybe you will find a local Facebook groups for birds or dragonflies which can tell you what the species they are. You are met with respect, in spite of having no experience of either birds, nor dragonflies – and you don’t own a field guide (yet). The experts on the group tell you the field marks you should look for to clinch the ID.
The kid says wow! How can they know all this? Another question to the Facebook group and you are recommended some field guides applicable to your area.

Comes summer camp and the camera is the first thing to be packed. In fact he’d have it in his hand the entire trip, documenting every detail. Sure, he probably won’t be thinking of shooting birds at all….but because he can,  he clicks off some shots of a bird sitting on top of a tree, and when he zooms in, he can see it is a raptor. He shows his friends and they share it on his blog. Hey, it would be kind of cool to know what kind of raptor it is. Mom asks the Facebook group again. Red-tailed Hawk. Other kids, see his pics and also want a point and shoot camera. They also want to learn about the nature around them.

It is easier
It is cooler
A photo is tangible – and observation is not.
It possible to share it
It is viral.

But is it really birding?

I have gotten a lot of comments from birders, that this is not really birding. And maybe they are right. By sending off the picture to Facebook or an online forum and get the ID this way is a bit lazy.

Per definition by American Birding Association:  A birder is a person who is actively pursuing the hobby or sport of birding. Birding  is a sport and/or hobby in which individuals enjoy the challenge of bird study, listing, or other general activities involving bird life. Critics say that people  photographing birds are not really observing.

But taking photographs of birds is a general activity involving bird life, isn’t it? With the new digital photography technique  it is far easier to get interested in birds via photography than with binoculars as demonstrated above. This is where I am going with this series.  Eventually, the kid will also want a pair of binoculars. Why? Because he likes  birds. And he would like to watch them when the photography conditions are not the best. Birding grows on you.

Maybe the definition of a birder will be change soon: Someone who is actively pursuing the hobby or sport of observing or photographing birds. The old school birders will protest. So be it!  Digital bird photography at all levels is here to stay. Some people will never become experts. But that is OK.

Jeff Gordon, president of the American Birding Association, said on my Facebook wall:

“Birders have often as a group been insular, though to be fair, they’ve often been marginalized. But part of my whole thesis about how I approach my job at the ABA is that we have to let go of the past, suck it up, and let our lights shine. Become less focused on ourselves and our own successes and failures and more concerned about building a bigger, more fun tent.

Should pursuing birds by photography be included in the word birding? Comments below please. And don’t forget to subscribe to email updates so you don’t miss any posts. Have a wonderful week full of birds.

Top Photo:  Canon SX40 HS (affiliate link): a highly recommended Point and Shoot Camera for $350 dollars. See Stephen Ingraham’s review. Stephen will be blogging about birding with Point and Shoot Cameras later in this series.


Gunnar  Engblom
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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Stephen Ingraham September 13, 2012 at 11:46 am

There are lots of bird photographers who are not birders. We see them everywhere we go these days. They are obstructions on the boardwalks of our favorite birding sites, they line the roads in caravans at National Wildlife Refuges, then chatter and clatter and generally GET IN THE WAY. We don’t like them. They don’t know a warbler from a wren, and they think anything bigger than crow in the air is a hawk…and that is best of them…most of them think it is a Eagle. I am being totally unfair here…but I am pretty sure I am expressing what most birders have thought at one time or another (generally after tripping over tripod legs on a boardwalk somewhere, or getting hit in the head with a 600mm lens).
On the other hand, if a person goes into the field with a camera, with the express intention of photographing and learning about birds, using the camera the way we use binoculars, and asking for help from other birders via the internet (just the way we consult field guides and ask the field trip leader how he/she “knew” is was a Worm-eating Warbler)…all in the name of being able to better id and appreciate birds…then, imho, that person has a right to call themselves a birder…and to be called one by “us”. 🙂


Gunnar Engblom September 14, 2012 at 9:01 am

Thanks Stephen.
Sure, at times one wonders. But it gives an opportunity for education. When I was a beginner, I mistook crows for hawks and thought herons were shorebirds. It should be OK to be a beginner. And maybe eventually, as it happened to me, beginners will become a birders. For some the beginner stage is much longer than for others. That is OK too.


okbookwoman September 13, 2012 at 3:46 pm

I find this blog’s premise fascinating, mostly because I’ve had these same conversations before! As a high school media specialist, I encountered almost the same naysayers who were adamantly against the incorporation of ebooks into our library collection (think Kindles, Nooks, as well as audiobooks). Was it really “reading?” Now, I look back and really can’t remember what format I used to experience a particular book–books I flipped actual paper pages, audiobooks I listened to, or virtual books I viewed on a small screen. I consider that I “read” them all! If someone asks me if I read such-and-so book, I don’t pause and say, “Well, I ACTUALLY didn’t read the book, I listened to it.”

I think we’ll look back on these disagreements about “true” birding in the same light. I say, use whatever tools we have to develop our birding skills and make better birders of us all!

And I definitely agree with you on young birders! We gave our own two boys decent binocs and field guides. It didn’t “take” on either. Had we gone the route of a camera w/ internet…? I think they might have been both become birders! They’re only in their thirties, maybe there’s STILL hope for them!


Gunnar Engblom January 2, 2013 at 7:38 pm

Sorry for the late reply here OKBookWOman. I had already replied, but for some reason it did not save.

Your testimony was very inspiring to me. I especially like the analogy with e-books and audio-books. That is brilliant. I have used it when talking to other people.
Still hope for your sons. Once the e-book is out, make sure to get them a copy.


Hugh September 16, 2012 at 9:31 am

I started birding years ago with binoculars, then added a film camera as a natural extension. These images added greatly to my enjoyment, aided in identifying the birds, and helped me share my enthusiasm.
I stopped actively birding for many years, and recently began again, aided by a DSLR.
I was quite surprised to hear that a controversy exists, as I have never run into a photographer as described by Stephen above. Still. there was an extended conversation on Bird.Net on the same subject, and most people agreed with the second paragraph of Stephen’s post. Some “Purists” didn’t agree, but fundamentalists are hard to convert, and easy to ignore.
I do post on Facebook, and I get a surprising amount of comments from my non-birding friends, some of whom may get into birding, and all of whom have a new interest in birds and nature.
I also Blog:
Ignorance and rudeness are here to stay, but people grow, and anyone taking pictures of birds and nature is probably OK in the long run.


Gunnar Engblom January 2, 2013 at 7:43 pm

I think, that the first type of photographers that Stephen mentions, are the ones that narrow-minded birders see. Yet, as you say Hugh, they may very well in fact be the second category. Birders just need to be a bit more inclusive.


David Graham January 4, 2013 at 6:30 pm

This is a fascinating discussion. I can certainly see why people get annoyed with the lazy folk who want someone to ID everything for them and who are inconsiderate in placing tripods. OTOH, we also get (rightly) annoyed with hard-core birders who play recordings until birds get so fatigued that they don’t respond any more. In prepping for an imminent Peru trip, I’ve once again been staggered by the digital resources that are now available: sites like the Internet Bird Collection and the Flickr World Field Guide, not to mention Avibase and xeno-canto, provide an incredible level of information that in many ways goes far beyond the field guides that I started out with. But what’s missing, I think, is a good way for the beginning to ID that mystery bird: when you think about it, most sites offer search by vernacular or scientific binomial and not a whole lot more. Has anyone thought about producing a digital key to birds? I’m thinking of an expert system that would lead the novice through the ID process one question at a time, until a conclusion was reached. Now *that* could be a great project! Anyone know if it’s been done, or at least considered?


Gunnar Engblom January 4, 2013 at 11:52 pm

Sibley’s Ipad app has a smart search. It asks for location and select from common birds if one wants to. Then it continues to ask for main color, for wingbars, for eyestripe, spotted breast etc. Then you can choose what the bird is doing or whether it is a water bird or for passerines if it has a stout or slender bill. Finally, one can indicate Thrush size, Robin Size, Duck size etc.
Finally, there is a limited number of birds to choose from.

I would think such a search on an app really does help the newbie to get on the right track.


Marianne Batchelder January 4, 2013 at 10:54 pm

If it is a camera or other technology that gets a kid interested, then by all means! Whatever lights that flame of curiosity. But if I might make a low tech suggestion in this digital age: a good old-fashioned field guide really isn’t a bad place to start, either. I say this because of a young birder I met last weekend.

I was birding a local hotspot on the northern California coast, a sheltered harbor known for sheltering a nice variety of seabirds. While we were there, a father and his two children (a boy probably around 10 and a younger girl) came up the pier. The father professed that he was a brand-new birder (yay!), but I was really amazed at the equal interest his kids showed in the birds, especially his son. The boy came proudly armed with a small pair of binocs and a Sibley Guide and immediately pointed out what most other visitors to the pier took as a very large seagull. It wasn’t though–it was “Al”, a Laysan Albatross (and local celebrity) who has been spending the past 19 winters in this small protected fishing harbor instead of in Hawaii (it is, to my knowledge, the only place outside of Hawaii where you can see a Laysan Albatross without worrying about seassickness). Educational opportunity: he and his sister learned a little bit about why Al is so special and we all got that warm and fuzzy feeling.

But what really charged the boy, though, was the game–the puzzle–of bird identification. He’d see a bird on the water and then go through his Sibley Guide looking for the right picture. He asked me what kind of birds were out there, and I got him on the right track, telling him that there were a couple different species of grebes. Then he immediately set out to figure out which species they were. A few minutes later, the boy proudly declared, “I saw a Clark’s Grebe!” I asked him to show me and he pointed to one of the birds on the water–and he was absolutely right. In a group of Western Grebes, I had already noted two Clark’s Grebes and he correctly pointed out one of them (NA birders will know that differentiating between Western and Clark’s Grebes is no easy task, especially in winter).

It reminded me of how I got started birding when I was that boy’s age. I didn’t have a camera or binoculars. I just had curiosity and parents who encouraged that curiosity. The first thing my parents gave me, which ultimately spurred my passion, was the 2nd Edition National Geographic Guide to Birds of America.


Gunnar Engblom January 4, 2013 at 11:38 pm

Great stories Marianne! Thanks for sharing them. I am not saying it would not be great to have a mentor. Someone to ask. Especially if the person has developed the interest. I was interested in birds since I was very little. But I had no-one to ask. I shot some ducks I did not recognize with a Kodak Instamatic when I was 10 on a auto-tour with my cousin and aunt in Europe 1970. Turned out they were park mallards. I couldn’t find them in the bird book we had at home.
Had I had someone to ask, someone who took me under his/her wings, I would have been a birder/naturalist then. Had there been internet, I would have been completely sucked up and communicating with others also interested in nature. But I already knew at the age of 10 that I was going to become a biologist when I grew up.

It took me until I was 21 before I got the first pair of binoculars. My mother had a pair of cheap 7×50 Regatta which she had bought for a boating holiday in the archipelago (without me). Boat season was over and my mom lent the bins to me.

I took the bins to the nearest woodland and saw my first male Green-Finches up close. Sparkbird and I was hooked. I was also old enough to find out there was a local nature conservancy group which I signed up to the next year. And I also signed up to Stockholm Ornithological Association (StOF). Both organised field trips. I was amazed to see how the leaders and many others in the group could name every bird we saw and every bird we heard.

Several years later, Stig Holmstedt, who was president of StOF then, asked me if I would like to organize a trip to Peru for StOF members.


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