Photo-birding Serendipity

Dans les champs de l’observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.—Louis Pasteur

Photo-birding Rufous Hummingbird in Flight
Rufous Hummingbird in Flight, Franklin Mountains State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4c TC). High-speed synchronized flash.

Pasteur’s brilliant and famous expression above (“Chance favors the prepared mind” in streamlined English translation) is undoubtably one of life’s great truths. Ultimately, seeing a particular bird species or avian behavior is a matter of chance. In all the singular sightings of difficult-to-see species (Tropical Parula, Red-faced Warbler, Clay-colored Robin, Black Rail, etc) that I’ve made, I realize that had I been looking in a slightly different direction for a fraction of a second, I would have missed the bird entirely. But being in the right place at the right time to even have a possibility of making the observation in the first place is decidedly a matter of preparation (and effort), not chance.

Photo-birding Immature Golden-fronted Woodpecker with Giant Walkingstick, Estero Llano Grande State Park, Texas
Immature Golden-fronted Woodpecker Tearing Apart a Giant Walkingstick (Megaphasma dentricus), Estero Llano Grande State Park, Rio Grande Valley, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Photographing birds is even more subject to the vagaries of chance than simply seeing birds. A passing cloud, a wind gust, a stray blade of grass in front of the subject, stepping in a hole or ant nest, or getting stung in face by a nasty bug at the precise moment a shutter should have been activated can all doom a photo that, a fraction of a second before, held great promise. The fact that rare, unpredictable natural events can be captured at all is sometimes a matter of some amazement to me given the difficulty of the problem. I think, for example, that after thousands of hours of photo-birding I’ve seen birds eating walkingsticks a total of three times in my life, and, incredibly, I was able to photograph it each time! On the other hand, I’ve never captured a single decent image of some species of birds I’ve seen dozens of times!

Photo-birding Reddish Egret, Bryan Beach, Texas
Double Wing-fishing Reddish Egret with Beak Breaking the Surface, lagoon behind Bryan Beach, Texas. Surprisingly, to me at least, Reddish Egrets keep their eyes open during the impact with water. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

From time-to-time, I talk with photographers who have quit trying to photograph birds, or are at least considering quitting. They cite the difficulty and not getting any good results. What they seem to be hoping for is serendipity, or at least great good fortune. But after slogging through swamps and jungles, being pelted by rain and blasted by the sun from deserts to plains and mountain-tops, and shooting tens of thousands of images, I’ve started to doubt that serendipity or even good luck is much of a factor in photo-birding. I think that there are only drive and statistics. If you want some bird photos, then clear your calendar, break out the sunscreen and bug repellent, and get out there and photograph some birds (and enjoy the process)!

Photo-birding Gull with Needlefish, Hans and Pat Suter City Wildlife Park, Corpus Christi, Texas
Laughing Gull (Nonbreeding) with Needlefish, Hans and Pat Suter City Wildlife Park, Corpus Christi, Texas. Elisa recorded this interaction at dusk one Thanksgiving. I’ve never seen one of its kind again. I’ll keep looking. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2016 Christopher R. Cunningham and Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.