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Bird photography and birding, what is the difference?

Peter and Diane Hart

According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service around 45 million Americans are birders, so it’s a pretty good bet that you have an idea of what birders do:  They wander across fields, along shorelines and through woods, peering frequently through some optical device or other, and—increasingly—tapping away on their phones to record sightings. So don’t bird photographers do pretty much the same thing?  Except, of course, their “optical device” is a camera with a lens long enough to be mistaken for a bazooka? Surprisingly, while both activities occur in the same sorts of places and both involve birds, they are quite different and not entirely compatible with each other.  The differences stem from the different objectives of the participants. Birders typically are interested in hearing and seeing birds, getting as good a look as possible, and moving on down the trail to look for the next bird. Bird photographers, by contrast, typically want to capture a definitive photograph of an individual bird as a representative of its species.  If it’s an American Robin, say, we want a photo that captures the essence of what it means to be that species, and we’d like to do that in a graphically appealing, even riveting, fashion.  That can take much more time than checking off a sighting on a species list.  Fig 1. (above) Can you spot the difference between the birders and the bird photographer?

This secretive Wrentit (below) provides an example. We listened to this guy for about 30 minutes near the end of Leonard’s Bridge before he showed himself prominently enough to be photographed in good light.

Wrentit at Jasper Ridge

Fig 2. Wrentit, Chamaea fasciata

Documenting the bird diversity at Jasper Ridge

Approximately 200 bird species have been recorded at Jasper Ridge over the past century.  That’s 20% of all species known to occur in North America north of Mexico, which itself is an indicator of the remarkable variety and ecological significance of Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve habitats. The rich avifauna biodiversity inspired us to create photographic documentation and resource for others of the avifauna in their natural habitats within JRBP.  We therefore need quite a bit more than one or two nice shots of the common and rare species. For each species, we need to capture its variability along multiple dimensions: Differences in age, gender (for dimorphic species), seasonal plumage, and pose, for starters. Perhaps most interesting—and most challenging photographically—is showing varieties of behavior:  territorial displays, courtship, feeding the young, hunting or carrying prey, or mobbing intruding birds, as examples. With an increased interest in avifauna at JRBP, building and growing the Birds Photo Gallery supports the mission of JRBP as a resource for teaching, research and docent training, and as a tool for promoting conservation.

Unexpected surprises in the Birds of Jasper Ridge Photo Gallery

The high quality of (most of) the photos has paid off in occasionally surprising ways.  This photo of a Red-tailed Hawk, for example, was identified by raptor expert Brian Sullivan of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as the abieticola, or Northern, sub-species, of Red-tailed Hawk, the first ever documented occurrence of this sub-species in California. And this Wilson’s Warbler was photographed in enough detail to determine the full numerical code on the band that was previously placed by David Tattoni at a Leonard’s Bridge location.

Red-tailed hawk, Abieticola sub-species and Wilson's warbler

Fig. 3. Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis, abieticola sub-species and Wilson's Warbler, Cardinella pusilla

The Birds of Jasper Ridge Photo Gallery welcomes your input

People generally find bird photos appealing, but our project goal is scientific and educational, not esthetic.  Accordingly, we have developed a set of project-appropriate curatorial guidelines for posting photos in the gallery.  If you would like to contribute a photo or ten, particularly of JRBP rarities, please get in touch with us and we’ll be happy, for openers, to send you these guidelines.  Equally, we welcome all comments and questions about the Birds of Jasper Ridge Photo Gallery


Peter and Diane HartDiane and Peter Hart are adult-onset birders who expanded their interest some five years ago to include bird photography. 

Diane can be reached at, Peter at 

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Direct link to JR bird photos