It used to be that binoculars defined a birder — binoculars, comfortable shoes and a Peterson field guide.

Not any more. The picture now includes cameras.

Digital photography has changed many pursuits, perhaps none more obviously than birding.

It’s not unusual today to see birders without binoculars or spotting scopes, historically the two pieces of essential and defining equipment. These people are using cameras instead.

And no one is going to invite you over for a slide show of his or her best bird pictures. Today, they’ll give you a show on their phone, not only their best, but all of them. Next, you might get the address of their personal photo website where you can find dozens if not hundreds of images.

You might think of them as photographers. They won’t deny that, but at the same time they staunchly defend themselves as birders, too.

What defines a birder?

Questions asked of members of a local birding e-mail list brought dozens of responses. Almost all were enthusiastically positive about the fun and benefits cameras offer birders.

There also were comments about straying from the traditional basis of birding — careful fieldwork that can build a lifetime store of birding knowledge.

I say the definition of birder begins with pleasure. It doesn’t matter how you see or identify birds. If you’re having fun out there, you’re a birder. Many local birders agree with that.

“I consider myself both,” wrote Matt Stratmoen of Savage. “I started out as a hobby photographer looking for new subjects, and have since taken a keen interest in birding. I’m not sure if I would have found the joys of birding if it weren’t for photography.”

Stratmoen carries only a camera. He says it has enough resolution, so he can take a picture in the field and enlarge the image then and there to usually make an ID.

“I don’t think you need any equipment to be a birder,” wrote Tony Mitchell of Duluth, “but if you have something that makes it more fun, easier, or better in anyway, great.”

Derek Bakken of Spirit Lake, Iowa, formerly of Minneapolis, agrees. “Anyone out looking at birds is a birder whether they have a camera, binoculars or are just out walking and listening to bird song.”

“Technology does not define us,” wrote local birder Scott Slocum. “Our interest does.”

Cameras help with identification, he said, and make it simple to share the interest in birds.

Liz Stanley of Bloomington uses binoculars more often than her camera, she wrote. She sees an advantage to the camera, however.

“One thing I’ve always liked about bird photography is that it usually requires more patience and time spent observing a bird” than do binoculars or spotting scopes, Stanley said.

There are those who disagree with that, at least in part.

Getting the whole picture

“I think that folks concentrating on photography will miss many birds because some views are brief, fleeting, in difficult habitats, and for many reasons not conducive to a good photograph,” wrote Sid Stivland of Plymouth.

“I learned to ID birds in the field, on the spot, often at a glance. It was a hard-won skill that continues to grow every year,” wrote Jim Ryan of St. Paul. Buying and using a camera did not change his mind.

“I believe you’re either a photographer who focuses on birds or a birder who takes pictures of birds. Your interest and skills will slant one way or the other,” he said.

“I think there is often too much emphasis on the photography side of things,” wrote Jon Swanson of Edina. “Photographers get involved [with birds] before understanding the subject and birding ethics. This is where problems have started.”

And there have been problems. Most complaints come from birders who believe some photographers don’t know or ignore the ethical standards many birders use to govern their birding behavior. For example, a handful of photographers harassed snowy owls this past winter by baiting them with live and fake mice to bring them closer for photos.

There are many websites devoted to bird photography (see accompanying list). Perhaps the American Birding Association code of ethics ( could be posted on such sites to acquaint photographers (and birders) with behavior that puts birds first, before good looks or good photos.


Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at Join his conversation about birds at