These days it is unusual for any bird rarity to not be accompanied by a mobile ornithological paparazzi. From the boys (they mostly are boys) with the big lenses to the boys (they mostly are boys) with the bridge cameras. There might even be some retro snappers with their compact cameras jammed up against the eye-pieces of their telescopes. And they too will be mostly boys.
Billions of pixels will have gone to make up the tens of thousands of images that will have been created at the altar of the recent ‘big’ rarity, the Desert Warbler in Northumberland. And many - many - of these images will have been let loose into the public domain via Twitter, What’sApp groups and blogs. Most of them will be of an exceptional quality.
It wasn’t long ago that such saturation of high quality images of rarities was unheard of. When I started birding in the mid-1970s there were but a handful of rarity photographers and some of them were still shooting in black-and-white. A lot of the equipment being used was, compared to what is available today, limiting. This created a world in which the images that were released for public consumption tended to be few in number and modest in quality. Some of them became iconic. The graininess, colour imbalance and subtle blurred edges of the birds that characterised many of these images bestowed upon them a mystery. They were other-worldly. Created a myth that these birds were unobtainable, things you could but dream of. Like a Yeti or the Loch Ness Monster...
And now we have images that leave nothing - absolutely nothing - to the imagination. Pin-sharp. Colour rendering that is accurate. Feather tracts, emarginations, barbs and wing formulae open for forensic examination. From every angle possible. In different lighting. At different times of day. This is true of the Northumberland Desert Warbler, quite a few of the recent Blyth’s Reed Warblers, one or two Red-footed Falcons and many of this Summer’s Rose-coloured Starlings. Close-ups that suggest the photographer must have been getting intimate with the bird to obtain such shots. These pictures almost seem intrusive.
I know I will be in a minority here, but some of the wonder of the bird, and it’s rarity, is lost when the photography is this... pornographic? That seems too strong a word but I cannot find the right one at the moment. When you strip away the mystique and expose the detail then the wonder evaporates. Of course, these images are great educational tools, much cherished by the rare bird records committees and fawned over by the travelling twitching circus. Many of the photographers have spent thousands of pounds on their equipment and put a lot of effort into honing field skills and gaining the know-how to obtain such top-notch results. But - dare I say it - such close-ups lack soul. They can appear cold and insensitive. There is no art involved. They become diagrams, like something from a biological text book.
All of the rare birds mentioned above have had some truly artistic photographs taken of them. A flock of a hundred Common Starlings in flight with one shocking-pink interloper a visual disturbance within them. A Red-foot on a sunlit hunting mission above the sweeping South Downs. The Desert Warbler, beady eye shining through a gap in the leaves. All of them giving so much more than just the rarity they depict but all still capturing the wonder of the bird. It can be done.
One of my birding acquaintances suggested that they don’t feel the need to travel and see these birds once they have been exposed to so many ‘in-your-face’ images. I also believe that, inadvertently, these photographs are casting the birds as consumer goods, to be catalogued, processed and then moved on. But that’s a subject for another post.