Bird recording – SCG
25th June 2021 Holbeck Ravine/below putting green
So, what’s in a name? Now, here are a couple of photos of one of our most ubiquitous summer visitors, a chiffchaff. Admittedly not a brilliant image but more about that later. “Chiffchaff” is a description of its rather penetrating song and because of this it has also become the bird’s name. “Zilpzalp” in German. Dutch “Tjiftjaf”. So, no doubt there, that’s what it sings, that’s what we’ll call it. Kittiwake, likewise, in English at least – though a bit trickier to spot as an utterance than the chiffchaff’s as those of us have no doubt discovered as we race past the Grand Hotel trying to avoid the birds’ shrieks and, well, that other stuff too. Our European friends – now who is it who so convincingly says that? – have other ideas about kittiwakes. Their naming doesn’t recognise the call but the number of toes the bird possesses. In German it’s called a “Dreizehenmöwe, in Dutch “Drieteenmeeuw” and the French have “mouette tridactyle”. So there you have it, the three-toed gull. Not nearly as much fun, is it?
Once more, what’s in a name? Vicki has very kindly referred to me as a “bird photography enthusiast”. This sounds pretty good even if it’s a bit on the generous side but I accept it’s essential accuracy in as far as I aspire to do nothing more than enjoy taking occasional photographs of birds. Some birds. Those few birds, in fact, that are prepared to keep still long enough for me to a) hunt them down in my viewfinder – far, far, far more difficult than those of us starting out in this sort of activity would have thought, b) focus on them, or more accurately, their eye (and have you ever noticed how small their eyes are! Tiddly tiny!!) and c) slam the shutter shut as fast as possible before they fly off their perch out of sheer boredom. It is not a relaxing way to spend time.
Real bird photographers, people like Scarborough’s Steve Race, for example https://www.steverace.com/portfolios, or my friend Phil, are a different breed and in a different league entirely. They really know their birds, they’re truly dedicated, they travel miles to find them, they have the right gear (yes, it can be expensive and big and heavy), their knowledge of fieldcraft is exemplary, and they’re above all patient. I fail pretty much completely in most if not all of these categories. There is, though, a key sixth category, a golden rule which must be obeyed at all costs, one which is an absolute prerequisite if one is ever to hope to be admitted to the august company of great bird photographers. And it is that your photograph should depict the bird’s eye at eye level. Yes. Eye level. Never mind if it’s hiding in a bush, flying upside down at 30,000 feet or 50 feet under water with a fish in its mouth. Eye level is the ticket for admittance to this club.
I have tried first steps to becoming a bird photographer but I see no great future ahead of me. Much has contributed to this failure, not least creaking joints, an aching back and Phil’s “eye-level” mantra. In fact, in a short-lived attempt to find a shortcut to fame and fortune I even tried moving, with the generous help of Photoshop, a great northern diver’s eye into a position a bit higher up on the side of its head in order to fulfil the necessary. Looking at the result though, (see below), made it clear that only somebody who had no idea of the concept “bird” could possibly be fooled. So there you go. In fact, even the word “enthusiast” sounds a bit of a stretch now, doesn’t it?
Now, what’s interesting that stands stock still, doesn’t have eyes and that I can photograph while reclining comfortably in a deckchair?