Thursday 11 February 2016

Birder or Photographer?

Be warned - this is a very different kind of blog post to the normal short & blunt text plus a few images that you usually see here. After reading Steve Waite’s post regarding his beginnings and development as a birder, I started to question what ‘makes me tick’ in this hobby. I spend nearly all my birding time on my patch; this is an area of 5km radius from Axmouth Bridge. I nearly always take some camera gear, and nearly always make an effort to get ‘that shot’ regardless of what the subject is. I have also been known to go on the occasional twitch, but never travelling particularly far. This is where the lines between birder and photographer become blurred for me; I won’t go on an off-patch twitch unless the bird is showing well enough for a decent photo. Does this imply that photography is my priority/passion?

Now for the patch.
I spend a great deal of time looking for scarcities or birds of interest on patch. In the peak migration periods I would go to Black Hole Marsh or Beer Head at first light most mornings, have a look around for an hour or so, and then head to the office for work. I was fortunate in my previous place of employment that I could pop out if another birder had found something of interest - I had a few patch ticks from midday trips from work (Kumlien’s Gull being a highlight - thanks Steve Waite). Also with office hours usually finishing at 17:00, there’d be just enough light to have another hour or so of birding (Spring/Autumn). The fact that I would spend as much time looking for birds as I could possibly squeeze into a day, really emphasises to me that I am first and foremost a birder, but with my interest being concentrated around the patch. There’s something incredibly satisfying about finding/seeing unexpected birds on patch. We have a great patch around the Axe, and a great network of birders, with most of them being generous with sharing information; I know there is one individual who has come to blows with a few birders (and many non-birders) but thankfully this poor attitude is not the norm here. It does happen a lot in birding though, it’s not difficult to find disagreements and bitchiness on social media such as BirdForum and Twitter. On the whole my fellow patch-ers are a great bunch and they add to the enjoyment of the hobby immensely.

The time that photography becomes more important to me is when there is a rarity on patch. Take the Baird’s Sandpiper on Black Hole Marsh in August 2015 as an example (see here). As it was a patch first the initial thing I had to do was see the bird and take a couple of snaps as a record. This was a fairly busy twitch for the reserve, so I then stepped aside to let other birders see it. I saw people come and go, all within a few minutes; they literally pop in the hide, see the bird, tick it off the list and then leave. Personally that type of birding does not appeal to me at all, but everyone handles their hobby differently and that’s perfectly fine. With this bird, I remained on site until near-darkness (can’t recall just how long this was, but it was many, many hours) to try and get a good photo of it. If the bird was to show well or come close, then I wanted to be there. This paid off with this particular bird; all other birders aside from myself and Dad had left the site as it became dull, yet I would stay there until it was too dark to see the bird any longer. With a quiet hide to ourselves, we were treated to point-blank views of the Baird’s Sandpiper. Yes, it was getting dark and that made photography difficult, but the closer views and subsequent pics made every single second of waiting worthwhile. 

I suppose this enthusiasm/determination to get the best photo I can (given the circumstances) of a locally unusual bird is verging on obsession. But ultimately a hobby is an obsession, isn’t it? It’s moments like this one with the Baird’s that I will never forget, and it’s the chance of another such experience that keeps me coming back to both birding & wildlife photography, at every possible opportunity.

Regarding the title of this post, I am first and foremost a patch BIRDER; but I’m one who strives to take the best photos possible if that special bird turns up…


  1. Your article is fascinating. Personally, I never think categories are useful. I know you love birds, I know you love photography, I know you are relentless in your task for perfection and that is all that matters to me. If you didn't follow your passion, then the rest of us would have less to consider and wonder at in our own lives. Carry on Tim White, please. Your work is greatly appreciated.

    1. Thank you Simon! Very unlike me to do a bit of writing rather than just pics and a few words ha. The post had good traffic so maybe I should try and balance the two...