Day 305: Birder or Photographer?

A karmic ploy turns up a great bird, but no photo.

November 1, 2015: Kaeng Krachan National Park, Thailand — I believe that photographs don’t exist unless you take them, which means you can never miss a photo. Right? You might pass up an opportunity, but the photograph itself is just an abstract idea before you snap it. There are an infinite number of possible photographs to be captured at any given instant, and the photographer, like any other artist, must create the image.

Which is a philosophical way of explaining why I sometimes don’t carry my camera while birding. Once in a while, it’s nice to just look at birds without the pressure to document them. A camera changes the dynamicyou literally see the world through a different lens, and it can distance you from what you’re looking at. When I carry only my binoculars, I spend more time studying birds rather than snapping at them.

The birding culture in Asia is markedly different from that in Western countries: Most bird enthusiasts here are photographers foremost, unsatisfied with any sighting unless it results in a good image. I’ve seen more bazooka-sized lenses in Asia than anywhere else this year. I have birded with a couple of people who, every time we found something interesting, would practically shout at me to “Take a picture! Take a picture!” as if clicking a photo were the ultimate mark of appreciation.

Don’t get me wrongI’ve taken many thousands of photos on this trip, and my Leica V-Lux is almost always hanging off one shoulder, ready for action. This afternoon, though, when Par, Tui, Nang and I stopped at a bird blind near the entrance to Kaeng Krachan National Park, I left the camera in the car. I’d carried it all morning in hopes of photographing a Spoon-billed Sandpiper (darned bird was seen hours before we arrived, argh) and figured we needed some extra karma to spot something interesting. As everyone knows, you find the coolest stuff when you leave your camera behind.

The karmic ploy worked beautifully. Minutes after we sat down inside the blind, which faced a small puddle in the forest, a pair of Scaly-breasted Partridges walked into the open, followed by a pair of Siberian Blue Robins. Then the star of the day appeared: A Red-legged Crake materialized next to the puddle, waded in, and took a leisurely bath! As it splashed around, I soaked in every feather through my binocular view. If I’d had my camera, I could have taken a nice shot; but I didn’t, so, strictly speaking, that particular photograph never existed at all.

New birds today: 7

Year list: 5068


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