Is a picture really worth 1,000 words?

A very young immature yellow-crowned night heron photographed days ago at The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in New York. Doesn’t it look like Krazy Kat? CREDIT: Michael Givant

A black-crowned night heron photographed days ago at The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in New York. Check out the ripples in the water. CREDIT: Michael Givant

An immature yellow-crowned night heron photographed days ago at The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in New York. Note the lily pads in the water. CREDIT: Michael Givant

An immature yellow-crowned night heron photographed days ago at The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in New York. The bird looks like it’s walking on water. It is actually a piece of wood on which the bird is standing. CREDIT: Michael Givant

A snowy plover on Whitney Beach demonstrating why this bird is so hard to see. CREDIT: Michael Givant

A white ibis on Whitney Beach showing how it searches for food. CREDIT: Michael Givant

Two sanderlings on Whitney Beach checking things out. CREDIT: Michael Givant

Contributing Columnist

Until a year and a half ago I privately sneered at birders who photographed birds. Why photograph what you’ve seen? When an editor wanted a picture to go with an article of mine, I told them what to get. From my standpoint the 1,000 words I wrote were more important than a picture.

Two winters ago, on LBK, I wanted to photograph birds. Fully extending the zoom lens on my point-and-shoot digital camera, I clicked away. My motives were purely practical: I wanted my own pictures to go with my articles. My ability to get close to birds helped, and the results were surprisingly good. However the close-up capacity of a long lens wasn’t there.

Last year I decided to buy a longer lens. However I also wanted to travel light and didn’t want a lens as long as my arm. I settled on a digital point-and-shoot camera on which the lens was 30X, which seemed like more than enough to me. The results were quite good.

Last winter on LBK I got shots of turkey vultures, willets, red knots, sanderlings, royal terns, sandwich terns, oystercatchers, black skimmers and laughing gulls. Sometimes I would go out looking for a shot of a particular bird that I didn’t have, one of the habitués that could regularly be seen on the beach. Once I lucked into some snowy plovers and was able to get pics of these pale-as-sand, mercurial birds. However I also noticed something troubling: when I was photographing birds, I wasn’t birding. The two activities weren’t the same.

Birding is about viewing a bird for seconds or for minutes. It is about getting as close to them as one can without scaring them off, noting theirs colors and patterns, their size, contrasting their similarities and differences with other birds, and noting their behavior and their habitat. It’s about seeing and learning as much as you can about them and getting to know them. And that is an end in itself.

The oystercatcher is a bird that I’ve observed on Whitney Beach for the past two winters. I’ve gotten close to a number of oystercatchers and watched them at length. After noting their field marks I’ve watched them dig for and eat clamshells, learning a lot about how they use their prodigious red bills. I was quite surprised how close I could get to them while they were feeding and also learned that they frequently rested. I have more than enough excellent shots of that bird, in part because before attempting to photograph them I’d gotten to know them.

Bird photography is ultimately about getting a quality shot usable with an article. Once the bird is found, it is about getting close enough, getting good angles, waiting for the right moment. Some moments can be tense, especially the initial ones. My first shots are often not as close as I’d like for fear that the bird may fly and I want to get something before it does. At the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in New York, I’ve gotten my best results at a blind overlooking a pond where I’ve photographed immature and mature yellow-crowned night herons, mature black-crowned night herons and a snowy egret. Much of the time is about waiting for them to turn around or to offer a good profile. These “posing” birds are easiest to photograph but are time consuming.

I’ve also discovered a style of photographing that I like. I was looking at shots I’d taken of small sandpipers walking the beach among some seaweed. These images made me feel as I did when I saw the birds in their natural environment. It is that look and feel, which I try to incorporate into my photos.

Despite my protestations about not birding when I’m photographing, I’m getting to like it. After I select photos, I wonder which ones will be used with an article and anticipate seeing the finished product. Recently, when walking away from a bird that I’d photographed, I had the satisfaction of knowing that I had a number of images in the camera and the excitement of wondering what they’d look like. It was like holding a Christmas present before unwrapping it. The moment was delicious.

An editor in New York, for whom I occasionally write, went a long way to softening my protestations. She told me that a reader’s eye falls first on the picture, then the headline and then the story. In other words the photo’s the hook. Then she showed me the identical article I’d written, which was in two different newspapers with a different photo in each. One of the photos I expected to be there. It was my best in a sequence I’d taken.

What surprised me was the second photograph that, although good, was a throw-in. The bird, a mature yellow-crowned night heron, had power, strength and silently screamed to be known. It was a quality I hadn’t seen in the picture before. At that moment I became a believer. A picture is worth a thousand words. Even the old curmudgeon writer-craftsman in me grudgingly admits as much. However he’s having a hard time digesting it.

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