My early days as a serious birder hold no memories of me or any companion with a camera. Cameras were anchors. My friends, for the most part, were interested in moving out, getting on with it.
Much has changed in the past decade. Digital cameras today reign ubiquitously.
Many birders have become photographers. Many thousands of people considered non-birders are taking photos of birds. Are they photographers or birders? Does it matter?
I bought my first 35mm camera when I was 20 years old. My first telephoto lens, essential for bird photography, came a decade later. I was a birder throughout, just never using the camera for birds.
I went to Alaska four times, and all of our other must-visit birding states — California, Texas, Arizona and Florida — several times. I reached my goal for a life-list number. All of this happened without a camera.
Cameras then required film and costly and lengthy processing. I didn't think the results were worth the money or the wait.
The events of my life and those of photography didn't match well. I was born too soon. If my mother had waited for me until she was in her 40s, (late 40s!) I would have come to photography age about when digital arrived. If only.
Cost barriers collapse
Greg Neise writes a birding blog for the American Birding Association (http:blog.aba.org/author/greg-neise). He recently described his advance from birder to professional bird photographer. His progress was slowed by camera equipment availability and cost.
"Digital was out there [early days, the '90s into the new millennium]," he writes, "but anything with more capability than a short-lens point-and-shoot camera was prohibitively expensive.
"And then," he writes, "in late 2007 all hell quietly broke loose."
Neise describes the arrival of a small Panasonic digital camera that accepted long, zoom lenses and offered image stabilization. Plus, you didn't need film. Your computer did the processing. One-time investments, and cost disappeared as an issue.
Improvements in cameras, lenses and cost arrived weekly.
Neise was hooked, as was I.
Neise recently took 800 photos of two redpolls, seeking a perfect image. Why not? His only investment was time doing something he loves.
I rarely return from a birding excursion without hundreds of images. Why not?
Photos become integral
Neise and I are hardly alone. There are hundreds of online birding forums, thousands of Facebook pages displaying bird photos. The ABA e-mail rare-bird alert has more than 10,000 members, many of them posting photos, some in real time.
Minnesota has an excellent website maintained by the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union (mou.mn), plus hundreds of birder Facebook pages. Photos abound. Texas has an online group of 20,000 members, primarily a place, Neise says, for members to share photos.
Some of those people want to show off, others have questions about the species in the photo.
If interest in birds defines a birder, all of these people qualify. "Photography is as much a part of birding today as using binoculars or a spotting scope," Neise wrote.
Basically, birding is a list of experiences. Lists on paper or photos, it's all the same. "The tangible takeaway from birding has always been nebulous," Neise said.
Bottom line: Photography has been and will be a big boost for birding.
Read Jim Williams' birding blog at startribune.com/wingnut.