When I first came up with the idea for this post, I used slightly stronger language, something to the effect of "Put Down the Freaking Camera and Look at the Gosh darn Bird." Fortunately, I re-thought that, but I am still thinking it.
You probably think I am anti-photography. Nothing could be further from the truth. I take photos. I take and post way too many photos. It is really enjoyable to get positive feedback on a photo of a bird. I also love looking at my pictures and remembering trips I have taken. So, why the negative title? Because I feel that photography has hurt my birding skills in some ways and I also feel it inhibits the progress of new birders. Let me tell you why.
When I was a new birder I remember more experienced people telling me to leave my field guide in the car. This seemed counterintuitive to me. If I didn't look at the book, how could I tell what the bird was? So this is what would happen-I would see a bird and grab the book, flipping through pages feverishly looking for a brown bird. I would look back up to see if the bird had a white throat and it would be gone. I would realize that I had missed all the important field marks. So, I started leaving the book in the car and made note of everything I could see on the bird. I also paid attention to how it moved, how it was shaped overall, it may sound weird, but how it felt. I started being able to say "Ok, this is a warbler," or "This is a sparrow." I didn't throw away the book. I spent hours pouring over it when I was at home. I didn't just look at the pictures, but I paid attention to the maps and actually read the text. It took time, but I improved.
How does this relate to taking photos? You may say, "But a picture captures the field marks better than my mind and it is easier to ID." Perhaps, but if you don't actually pay attention to what the bird is doing, how it moves, how it feeds, how it relates to other birds, you won't get to know the bird. It is kind of like the difference between a parent and a school photographer. You can tell who a child is by his photo, but do you know him? Would you recognize him in the mall, or running up to your car? I see a lot of new birders posting photos saying "What is this?" That is fine, but they are posting pictures of the same birds over and over. They don't seem to progress in learning that the dull winter warbler is an Orange-crowned, or that the hawk they see that doesn't look exactly like the photo in their one field guide is a Red-tailed. This is normal for a very new birder, but it seems to go on much too long in people who use a camera lens rather than binocular to look at birds.
I have even noticed this in my own birding. I sometimes pay way too much attention to getting a good shot, rather than enjoying and watching the bird. It takes time to get the exposure right, to set the correct ISO, to find the right composition. I have started to lose the ability to get a glimpse of a bird and narrow it down quickly to a small number of species, or even the exact bird. I am hating that, so, I am trying to take fewer photos. The only time I make a big effort is if it is a bird that needs documenting or it is flirting, daring me to take its picture. I don't want to regress. I want to really know the birds. I am a fairly experienced birder. So, if photography is an impairment to me, how much more an impairment is it to a newbie?
Birds are so worth knowing and loving. It is absolutely worth becoming a good birder. I wish I was better. I strongly encourage you to become a birder, not just a photographer. Spend 99% more time just looking at the birds, rather than photographing them, at least initially. You might miss a few IDs, but you will get to know the beauty of our avian co-inhabitants of this world. You will have fewer compliments on your camera skills, but you will have a wonderful relationship that will last your lifetime.