I get asked this question a lot. Many people don’t realize that “birding” and “bird photography” are NOT the same thing. I know this may seem odd to some of you since you are probably saying to yourself “I take pictures when I go birding”! Well I also make bird images when I am out with other birders. However, when I attend outings with birders my intent is to learn about birds, not make images. I think that is really the difference between the two activities, what are your goals or intent when you arrive at your location? For me, the preparation and mindset I get into are different if my intent is bird photography and not birding.
The quest for great bird photography is not practical in a group with as many people as birding groups usually contain. My best bird images have been created when I am alone or with a very small group of photographers. This is true for several reasons. First, wildlife in general does not like large groups. In fact, if you look at the details of many “wildlife photography workshops” you will notice that most have a maximum participant size of 6. The reason is simple. It is very difficult to have 18 people sneak up on a bird or bear :-). Second, I have made some great friends in the birding world and as a group, I feel comfortable saying they are the nicest bunch of people I have ever met. But inevitably when you are in large groups of people, all with different agendas, trying to make sure someone doesn’t walk in front of your images or scare off your subject is just not practical. Alas, birders I know, hate sitting around at a perch that has perfect light waiting for a bird to land on it so a nut like me can photograph it ;-).
So how do I deal with these “issues”? Personally, I adjust my expectations for the group I am with. When I am with birders, I try to learn as much as I can and share information. I do not go out with the hope of making an image that I will sell or put in my portfolio. I save that for when I am with bird photographers or out on my own. The opposite is true when a birder friend wants to go with me to do some serious shooting. I share with them the process I go through before I visit a location and the plan for that days shooting. So far this approach has worked very well for me, allowing me to get the most out of both types of birding experiences.