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Use Your Camera To ID Birds

Turn your digital camera into a birding ID tool, and see birds such as the Red-Tailed Hawk that much better.

Brian L. Sullivan

red-tailed hawk
A good-quality digital camera can allow you to see the colors of a Red-tailed Hawk.

I love Red-tailed Hawks. I know they’re common. Most people think "just another red-tail” when they see one, but to me, they represent the quintessential example of avian complexity. These widespread raptors exhibit strong geographical variation, both within and among described subspecies. They are polymorphic, with some subspecies ranging from ghostly white to completely black underneath.

The breeding range limits of the various subspecies remain poorly understood, especially in the northern Great Plains and boreal forest region, where intergrades that show characters of many subspecies leave observers scratching their heads. Then there’s the Harlan’s subspecies (Buteo jamaicensis harlani) — or species, a form whose taxonomy is an ongoing matter of debate. Given all of the above, I think I’ve made my case: There’s a lot more to Red-tailed Hawks than first meets the eye, and I spend a lot of my free time studying this species in the field.

My camera has become an indispensible piece of birding equipment — as important as, and sometimes more important than, my binocular. When I step into the field these days, my binocular, spotting scope and camera create a powerful combination. Over the past few years of research, I’ve taken roughly 15,000 photos of Red-tailed Hawks. In the process, I’ve learned how to use my camera as a birding and observational tool, and I’ve become a better and more careful birder while learning a lot about Red-tailed Hawks.

The Camera As A Birding Tool
Consider several reasons why taking photos can improve your ability to observe and understand birds. While birds are interesting because of their wildness, their behavior and their ability to fly, these same traits can make for challenging observation conditions.

Some birds perch prominently in the open or feed on tidal flats, generally tolerating human beings in close proximity. Others, however, are skulkers and provide only quick glimpses as they bounce around through dense vegetation. Still others are just plain wary, flying away as soon as we stop to look at them.

Cameras can capture birds in space and time, allowing you to examine fine details immediately by reviewing the photo on the camera. Most models have high-definition screens on the back now. The quick review of a photo can help you determine if the bird is typical or perhaps more interesting and worthy of pursuit and further study.

Observing Fine Details In Red Tails
By using my digital camera as an observation tool, I can see more detail on birds than I ever could through my binocular or spotting scope. Before using a camera, I tried to write notes on flying Red-tailed Hawks while struggling to see details of tail pattern and plumage through a spotting scope — two things that help distinguish the various subspecies. 

By using the camera to stop the bird in flight, I could examine the bird in greater detail. For instance, I took one image from an open car window when the Red-tailed Hawk flushed off a roadside post. With just one sharp image, I can see enough detail to confirm that this bird as a rather typical Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk, the identification stemming from its white-based, mottled grayish tail.

Cameras can capture birds in space and time, allowing you to examine fine details immediately by reviewing the photo on the camera.
Another image offers a classic example of a case where I couldn’t see the necessary detail through my binocular — but could see it in an image to review. Without close scrutiny, this bird could be passed off as a rather typical rufous-morph western Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis calurus), but this individual is interesting in many ways.

In the photo, I can see white flecking where the darker belly meets the more rufous breast, a good indicator of Harlan’s ancestry. Examination of the flight feathers reveals some clues about the bird’s age: The outer three primaries are retained from juvenile plumage, as are a few of the obviously shorter secondaries that lack broad dark tips. This indicates a bird is in its second year, having gone through one cycle of wing molt. Moreover, those outer three primaries are banded out to their tips — a classic Harlan’s field mark and very rare on a western.

A close look at the tail reveals a smudgy darker tip and wavy mottling throughout — another key Harlan’s characteristic. By examining plumage details, I can see that this is no ordinary western Red-tail; instead it is a Harlan’s or possibly an intergrade between Harlan’s and western. With the aid of the camera, I revealed something that might have slipped by unnoticed.

Documentation
An important and often unsung component of carrying a camera is the ability to document the birds seen in the field. It’s one thing to say you saw a rare bird; it’s something quite different to come back with your report and documentation in the form of photos.

With more birders now carrying digital cameras in the field and documenting what they see, we are learning lots of new information about the distribution of birds. In my job at eBird, I regularly see backyard birders submitting documentation of rare birds at their feeders, and it’s great to be able to archive those photographs with the bird records.

Observatio   ns that might have been blown off as "crazy” in the past are now frequently documented with photos. These provide tangible support for the observation and an archivable piece of documentation for future use.

A Caveat
Once you get hooked on digital photography, you might feel tempted to "shoot first and ask questions later.” This is a dangerous prospect for birders.

Single photos, or even a series of photos, can be prone to misinterpretation, the vagaries of lighting, exposure, shadow and, worst of all, bad or "creative” post-processing with software. A balance must be struck.

During a recent pelagic trip, many immature jaegers were migrating south. A colleague and I decided that one of us should look at each bird to get a field impression, while the other photographed the bird to examine the fine details. This approach worked well and helped us confirm the field identification on many individuals — and refute the ID on others.

Don’t let your field skills deteriorate because you forget to look at the birds and instead choose to simply photograph them. Use your binocular, spotting scope and camera together to gather all possible data from the bird.

While a camera is good at capturing detail, your observation of the bird in life will capture many important identification criteria such as general shape and impression, flight style, behavior and sounds. Adding a camera to your birding arsenal is a great step, but don’t forget to be a birder. 

25 Tips For Better Birding

Excerpt from WildBird Magazine, November/December 2011 issue, with permission from its publisher, I-5 Publishing LLC.


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Posted: April 17, 2013, 1:15 p.m. PDT

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Reader Comments
I go along with this. I have been watching birds for 40 years and have tried photographing them a few times but found the procedure so cumbersome and frustrating that I gave up and just used my binoculars.

However, I recently received a digital camera with a fantastic zoom lens as a present and have managed to get some really good pictures. I no longer end up with handful of scribbled notes and a faulty memory but a good record of what I saw.

Having said that, it is still important to put the camera aside from time to time and just watch the bird. After all, that´s what birdwatching is all about, isn´t?
John, International
Posted: 7/13/2014 5:16:12 AM
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