A bird's-eye view

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This may be something that might surprise you. Then again, it may not. As my career in outdoors writing and photography in general has grown over the last five years, it has dawned on me just how popular the simple act of bird-watching is. Many of the professional photographers I associate with in the commercial and sports side of the profession use their skills to capture images of our airborne friends as a hobby within their profession.

Now don’t get me wrong, I knew wildlife in general can be a fun side passion for a photographer. I just didn’t realize exactly how dedicated these same photographers that grumble over how little they get paid for some specific assignment are to be photographing some rare or even fairly common feathered target.

Bird watching is no longer just for the stereotypical retired male with earth-toned shorts, belt and shirt with a wide-brimmed straw hat and dark-colored socks pulled up to slightly below the kneecap. No, bird watching has caught on with every segment that can be separated into segments for polling purposes.

In fact, last year, in one survey it was determined that one-third of those between 16 and 25 years of age participate in birding. To me at least, that is an incredible find. Add in another survey that found bird watching is the 15th most participated in outdoors activity, and you can see that it is an impressive statistic.

One reason it may be increasing in popularity is bird watching is transforming to bird photography. The ease in which digital cameras can be used, with no recurring costs such as film and processing, has made the activity accessible for all with something to show for it other than a check mark and date in an Audubon book on bird species.

While birds are plentiful virtually everywhere, the passion is great enough for people to travel across the country or even to other countries in pursuit of avian species. Of course, like all activities, especially outdoors activities, there are some great and not-so-great stories. For instance, a needle-tailed swift was spotted in some remote island territory in Britain a few years ago. Or maybe it was Scotland. Or maybe it was Scotland, but Scotland is considered part of Britain, so it is both. Anyway, that is beside the point. 

A needle-tailed swift was spotted on this island, a sight that is so rare that one had only been spotted eight times over 170 years. Because of this fact, bird-watchers flooded the area to catch a glimpse and a shot of the swift. Unfortunately, shortly after all the people arrived, they were witnesses of an even rarer sight. The needle-tailed swift was unaware of a wind turbine and in a Don Quixote type of maneuver, flew into the whirring blades and became a pile of feathers.

Then there is the story that came out a couple of years ago in which a group of watchers went on a 10-day tour. While traversing Nepal, a bird that resembles a common finch that had been splatted with multi-colored paintballs, was spotted. Of course, it wasn’t targeted by youth while playing army, it was just the bird’s natural colors. It also was considered extinct for nearly 180 years. Yet, there it was in plain sight.

Personally, just last weekend, on a trip to the Everglades, I can attest there were more people with long camouflaged lenses attached to camera bodies than people hiking or paddling around. While this may seem weird to those that are focused on hunting, fishing, hiking, paddling and camping, this could be one of the saving graces for our future generations.