The future of birding

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by Gunnar on September 29, 2011 · 18 comments

in Birding North America

American Birding Association

When I was at the British Birdfair recently I talked to Jeff and Liz Gordon about the American Birding Association. Why is that, when apparently there are more birders than ever, membership organizations such as the ABA for birders have only 60% of members today compared to what they had at the membership peak some years ago?

Blame the internet!
Blame the information overload!
Blame stale organization!

The first two are surely to blame, and while the last reason may have something to do with the fall, it certainly does not have anything to do with how the organization has renewed itself over last year.  ABA is getting a very attractive facelift.  A dynamic blog, a good Facebook discussion group, and loads of positive activities, which are generating new faith in the organization. Jeff Gordon as the  new president of ABA  has been a great catalyst of inspiration of this current positive wind.

In spite of this, I am wondering if the traditional birding,  as we birders knows it, really has a huge future.  You know, the whole listing game and the finer art of bird identification.  Are big days or big years really that interesting to people in general? Can birding really become main stream, and will listing be interesting enough for masses of people?  The only thing regarding watching birds that seems to become main stream is Bird Feeding, and hard-line birders argue that Bird Feeding is not really birding.

Did you ever wonder why there are more hunters in the world than birders? Why are there more people interested in fishing than in birding?  For all I know, there are probably even more stamp-collectors than birders.

Maybe that is the point. Birding is just a collection of observations. At the end of the day, you only write down in a notebook (or insert in a database) your observations – and if you are really lucky, you can put a tick in check box in a yearlist or a lifelist or next to the bird’s name in the birdbook.

Take a look at yourself, and try to explain to a non-birder, that that is really exciting. A hunter or a fisherman at least gets a trophy. A stamp collector at least has the actual stamps. But YOU, what do YOU have?  You have a tick in a checklist!  Try to explain to the non-birder, that this really is more exciting than train spotting.

It doesn’t have to be this way, you know

“But hey you forgot something, Gunnar” , you may add. “What about bird photography?”

This is where I wanted it to go with the argument above. With a photo of the bird you do get a trophy at the end of the day. And you can share it on the internet. Sometimes , it seems to me that the prime grand purpose of the whole internet and especially Facebook is to simply share photographs of birds.

In spite that most of us birders today, in the age of the digital revolution, carry a camera at all times, it still does not have a central part when we explain birding to beginners.  How many books and manuals about birding aimed towards beginners actually explain in detail  what cameras to choose, what you can do with a mega zoom Point and Shoot camera, and how you can take great birdpictures with digiscoping, and that with a dSLR camera normal people can take bird photos like pros took 15 years ago just by trial and error, as no one has to spend money on film anymore.  In fact, when I look back at a coffee table books produced by  a “famous” Swedish photographer using Hasselblad camera, I notice that the photos are significantly below average compared to what I see on Facebook today by dedicated amateurs.

When I raised a point on my blog two years ago, that birders should try to lure the kids into birding by giving the kid a mega zoom Point and Shoot camera instead of binoculars (to start with), there was an outcry from several of my readers saying that only with binoculars can you develop the true skill as a bird watcher.

That is correct to some extent, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to convert someone and get him/her interested in birds. Photographing birds, and share the best shots on Facebook, would be far more interesting to a teenager than just watching birds and mark a list. Fortunately, there were also several  people that agreed with me.

There is a birdwatcher in all of us.

So what if we change the premises a little bit how to define a real birdwatcher, in spite that a lot of photographers never will become good birders. What is wrong with that?  Don’t we all know birders who never seem to become good birdwatchers and constantly make the same identification mistakes over and over again? That is not important!

The passion is the important part.  Passion for birds will conserve birds and their habitat – not identification skill. And passion for birds could become huge if the birders started  promoting birdwatching through the use of cameras.  If they did, there is no reason on earth why this new type of birdwatching could not become much larger than fishing and hunting practically everywhere.

So if ABA wants to get 10 times as many members as they have today, they should produce a free online downloadable 50 page guide to birding for beginners that would have central parts on how to photograph birds, and provide service on the internet where users can upload their photos of birds, that more experience birders help identify.  There could also be included some 30 common feeder birds and some tips how to get more birds in the garden. The guide would have links to online resources and to the ABA blog, Facebook page, and the Birding magazine sample.  I bet such a brochure could get a couple of million downloads.  Imagine later when ABA gets 1 million likes on their Facebook page. Within a year or two you should be able to at least get 5% of those as members of ABA.

I hear arguments when discussing on the ABA group, that the ABA should be for “real birders” and that those that are principally into photographing birds at the feeders are already taken care of by Audubon and special magazines directed to more general bird feeding.  They are not “proper” old school birders.
But birding needs recruitment, so why not try to recruit among those that already have shown an interest in birds by feeding or photographing them? Why not get out of the box, and start providing a service for everyone interested in birds, to become better birders?

The next generation birders.

If birding as we know it had not been invented yet, how do you think birding would look like in 10 years? Sounds like a silly statement, but I am not thinking of the US, but Peru where I live.

My company Kolibri Expeditions has become involved in a big challenge. Nov 2-6, 2011 we shall organize the first birding festival in Lima for Peruvians – AvistarPeru.  If you knew how many old school birders there are in Peru , you would think I was a fool for even trying to pull something like this off.  I could count “true” Peruvian birders (excluding biologists, foreigners and camera-birders) on my fingers, maybe adding a toe or two.

Yet, we expect to get around 10.000 visitors to the festival  at Parque Kennedy in Miraflores and around 500 or more people taking part in the excursions. That there is a latent interest in nature watching can be understood by the tremendous support we are receiving from the municipalities in Lima and Miraflores, as well as the press.  Just today, Aero Mexico wrote us telling us that they wanted to do reportage on Avistar in their online magazine which reaches around 1.5 million travelers.  The biggest newspaper in Peru El Comercio is one of our partners and is covering several of our stories reaching 300,000 unique vistors per month on their web-site.

We are announcing a bird photo competition for Peruvians in two categories. Point & Shoot and digital SLR. The prices are very fine binoculars and holidays at nature lodges.  If you come back to Peru in 10 years (or heck just come back next year, because Avistar Peru will be a yearly event), I bet you that perhaps there are still not so many “true” Peruvian birders (who would drop everything to twitch a Magellanic Penguin that just showed up at Paracas 230km south of Lima), but there would be 1000s of Peruvians who would learn about birds by photographing them, and who will travel to other places within Peru to photograph birds and other nature.

Why am I so sure? Because this has already happened in Costa Rica, Brazil, Thailand and Taiwan.  They are now thriving with local people interested in birds. Their protected areas areas are bursting with visitors – and the majority of the visitors are locals, not birders from overseas. The changes have been seen the last 10-15 years.

If all this is happening in countries where there has been little traditional birding from locals, there is no reason to believe that this is already happening in the US and in Europe.  The problem is that the traditional birders fail to recognize it as a resource, but rather see the effect as a nuisance. Those dSLR photographers are seen as totally incompetent and worthless as birders.  However, it would be silly if the birdwatching lobby did not try to get the photographers in line and include them.  If not, there is risk for birding clubs to continue to lose members.

Facebook, where such large number of people spends much time anyway, would be a fantastic place for resources for newbies. In fact I have created Spanish speaking groups for beginner birders in Lima and Peru. People post their photos and birders with some experience help them right. In line with this I just created a Facebook group called Birding School North America.

On Monday I will hold a talk about birding in general for the American Women’s Literary Club here in Lima about birding and the forth-coming AvistarPeru event.  One of the women is a birder. She is the one who invited me.

If I tell them all, to buy a pair of binoculars and start birding, the response will probably not reach  very far, but in contrast if I tell them to take photo of trying to take photos of birds and join the Facebook group Aves de Lima which is aimed towards beginners but have several good birders to help out, I am sure I shall get a much better response.

The future of birding

While maybe sounding a bit negative at the beginning of this post, I do think there is a great future for birding. The recruitment can be massive if  we open our minds. Most will get into photographing birds and other nature, but there shall also be a lot of people, who will develop excellent field skills and become interested in the finer art of bird identification both visually and by ear. And as for listing, I would be fooling myself if I’d say that it wouldn’t be important, and probably even grow as the wider birding concept becomes massive.
I for one am scheming to convince my family to go to Paracas this weekend for that Penguin.

Interested in hearing your comments below. Feel free to share this blog post and the Facebook resources for new birders  that I am mentioning.

TOP PHOTO: Peruvian Birders on excursion to Paraiso organized by CORBIDI after the presentation of the Spanish editions of Birds of Peru . Photo: Barbara J. Fraser.

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  • http://profiles.google.com/birdingisfun Robert Mortensen

    Well said Gunnar and excellent point.  Based on my experience with my own kids, they get way more excited about taking a photo of bird with my “nice” camera way more than they do about looking at a bird thru binoculars.  

    I disagree with you on one small point.  An ABA bird photo guide should not be 50 pages…who reads 50 pages of instructional-anything these days?!  I’d say, make it a one-page guide…okay maybe up to 5 pages if its full of beautiful eye-catching photography.  Photography may reduce the amount and quality of field identification, but bird photographers learn a ton about field identification while editing and studying their own photos.  I’ve met many great birder-photographers in the field that really knew their birds.

    • http://www.kolibriexpeditions.com/birdingperu/blog/ Gunnar Engblom

      Thanks for the comments Robert. I discussed the free ABA manual with Jeff and Liz at the birdfair. I am not sure they bought the concept. But the idea would be to make a pdf of perhaps 20-50 pages that gives you basics about birding for beginners. This should be birdfeeding and point-and-shoot centered from the beginning, than an introduction to local birdclubs, activities such as Back yard birding counts – and Christmas Bird Counts, finally some words on how to chose binoculars and a link to like American Birding Associations Facebook Page, and finally a statement. If you want to become a better birder – join ABA.
      There should also be a statement saying: You are allowed to copy this document, print it if you like and distribute it to as many people you want. You are not allowed to change any of its content.
      The idea is that people will download the documents to their Kindles, Ipad, tablets, phones, laptops and desktops. 5 pages would be too little I think. It needs to be the most valuable document a beginner birder ever read, that he will keep and treasure – and share with everyone he knows.
      Who should write this? ABA does not have the funds, right. I bet we could easily get 10-15 bloggers to put together the manifesto in no time. I know I am in to write a part. Maybe we could get Crossley to make a couple of Bird-table images for east, west, Florida, Texas/Arizona…

  • Don Gato

    Both the article and the replies down here are very interesting.
    Myself as a bird-photographer couldn’t agree more with you Gunnar…

    My daughter got her present today for her 9th birthday… and guess what?, it wasn’t a Barbie or make up (although I will eventually find myself coaxed into buying that as well by the girls anyway). She got a Nikon P500 and can’t wait to visit Laem Pak Bia this saturday and try it on waders from the car’s window!… There you go… Bird-Photography it really isn’t the future, but the present of birding…

    • http://www.kolibriexpeditions.com/birdingperu/blog/ Gunnar Engblom

      Well Alex, your daughter is very lucky to have you as her dad. The thing with the camera is that is not only for birds, she will enjoy doing a lot of different things with it. 

  • Javier Train

    Me ha gustado el artículo, pienso que si queremos conservar a las aves y a sus habitats tiene que haber afición en los paises, no solo vale con que vayamos birders extranjero a ver pájaros.

    Saludos y espero que tengais mucha suerte
    Javier Train Garcia
    Zaragoza- Spain

    • http://www.kolibriexpeditions.com/birdingperu/blog/ Gunnar Engblom

      Gracias Javier. Hay que construir el interes local. Eso es muy importante!

    • http://www.kolibriexpeditions.com/birdingperu/blog/ Gunnar Engblom

      Gracias Javier. Hay que construir el interes local. Eso es muy importante!

    • http://www.kolibriexpeditions.com/birdingperu/blog/ Gunnar Engblom

      Gracias Javier. Hay que construir el interes local. Eso es muy importante!

  • Alvan Buckley

    Great post.
    I started off birding with a camera at 18 years old. At that time I bought the camera just for something to do – the first trip I took was to the local botanical gardens and I ended up photographing woodpeckers for 5 hours.
    Now, I’m 21 and have a shelf full of birding books, scope, bins etc.. and of course the camera. But I consider myself a birder before a bird photographer.
    So, yes I do agree that “only binoculars can help you develop the true skill as a bird watcher” – but to become skillful you need to want to be skillful – and that want or passion started with photography for me!

    Oddly enough, at the beginning you seemed to suggest that birding may be moving away from listing and more towards the trophy prizes in photography. For me now, I rarely take my camera out and am always obsessed with finding a new bird for my patch list, country list, continent list or life list! And all the other lists that eBird creates for me! :)

    Anyway, great post :)
    Alvan
    http://www.alvanbuckley.blogspot.com

    • http://www.kolibriexpeditions.com/birdingperu/blog/ Gunnar Engblom

      Alvin,
      well I think that getting the masses to get interested in birds now that the technology is there, (no need even for binoculars and a field guide to get started – when you can take a photo (albeit poor most of the times) with a point and shoot camera or even a cell phone), opens the field for different directions to take next. Some get more serious about their photography others get more interested in their objects and make bird identification the most important part. The latter group could well end up becoming intense birdwatchers.

      Therefor, I believe we will see an overall increase of birdwatchers as we know them today, as well. But it seems to me that the fact that people today get into birds via photography has not yet become a strategy for recruitment to the birdclubs. They are missing the train….

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  • Dan

    “Did you ever wonder why there are more hunters in the world than birders? Why are there more people interested in fishing than in birding?” This is the answer to your own question.

    It is that way and has been that way for years and years because they have a vested interest in both. And that interest is in habitat conservation, organizational culture, money and a desire to maintain and keep both of those things alive. Birders care less, in the general sense. Yes, times are changing and there are many who are trying to make this differance but as a whole we are generations late. If you think taking some pictures will bring about change more power to you!

    If we as a group ie “birders” can muster the will to come together and make bird conservation as important as a fishing stream or deer managment then we got a shot.

    Dan
     

    • http://www.kolibriexpeditions.com/birdingperu/blog/ Gunnar Engblom

      Dan

      Maybe this is a challenge for ABA as well. First, birding needs to be more inclusive towards those who start with feeding birds or photography. Secondly, there should be more conservation. For instance, if the ABA were smart they’d find some good Non-Profit that works or wants to work with carbon offset and are interesting conserving tropical forest for birds (RainForest Partnership comes to mind) and makes a carbon calculator on the ABA website to see how much needs to be donated for making your birding carbon neutral.

      Anyway, will be working with the manual after Christmas, to see if it can become a viral free product.

      Gunnar

  • Keith F. Saylor

    Interesting article…

    “Why is that, when apparently there are more birders than ever, membership
    organizations such as the ABA for birders are having only 60% of members
    today compared to what they had at the membership peak some years ago?”

    I don’t think there are more “birders” than ever. I think there are more
    wild bird enthusiasts. There are more and more individuals who never have
    been or who no longer are birders and who manifest their deep love for and
    study of wild birds in contexts other than the culture of birding. Theirs
    is a different mindset and approach. Not better … just different. That is
    one reason why membership has dropped among organizations
    that promote the birding culture.

    Keith F. Saylor

    • http://www.kolibriexpeditions.com/birdingperu/blog Gunnar

      Keith, I think you may be on to something. Maybe, there should be more focus on sustainability and conservation entwined in the birding culture?

  • Keith F. Saylor

    Interesting article…

    “Why is that, when apparently there are more birders than ever, membership
    organizations such as the ABA for birders are having only 60% of members
    today compared to what they had at the membership peak some years ago?”

    I don’t think there are more “birders” than ever. I think there are more
    wild bird enthusiasts. There are more and more individuals who never have
    been or who no longer are birders and who manifest their deep love for and
    study of wild birds in contexts other than the culture of birding. Theirs
    is a different mindset and approach. Not better … just different. That is
    one reason why membership has dropped among organizations
    that promote the birding culture.

    Keith F. Saylor

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