Friday, August 7, 2009

Justification for Digital vs. Mental Birding Recollection

Note: I composed this for a special e-mailing list server on birding. I also want to share it with my birding blogger friends.

Today Judy and I met a couple birders using a scope at Robert Long Park. While we were talking (and they pointed me at a Spotted Sandpiper I had missed), I mentioned that I normally shoot first and look the pics later on the computer with bird books in hand. The woman then asked, "Is your name Bob?” I replied, “Yes it is”!

Yes, I know! If I can be recognized by my habit, I must be rather different in the birding world. Many of you have told me! Use the binocs and quit with the camera stuff if you want to learn birds!

(Anyway, I was pleased the birder liked my posted pics and my blog, even though she does not post on the list. I hope there are more silent aficionados out there!).

I just thought I would mention to you birders tonight that I am “part-way converted”, or at least approaching it. Earlier this week, I actually cleaned up and put my 40+ year old 7x50’s in the trunk. Actually, they have always been in - and mostly unused - my Jimmy all this time, but now we usually drive Judy’s more fuel-efficient car so I just cleaned and moved them over. (I think I mentioned somewhere along the line that I had just about worn out my tabbed West Coast Peterson Guide in “the old days”). As a biologist, I used the binocs frequently on the West Coast! Watch for birds: “Hey! There are fish in them there waters”! – or, “even just to look at birds” anyway – Yes, I need to find my field records to help document my “life list”!. (I especially loved the very common willets! Pretty and interesting – now, it just fascinates me that I am trying to learn shorebirds again! The black & white of flying Killdeer remind me of willets in a way!) (Yeah, yeah, I know – it was only a few months ago I asked you guys about my lousy pics of these Killdeer things at Holland Ponds (hey! it’s been four decades!) – and, no, I am not embarrassed! I appreciated it and obviously learned something!) I know their sound now (or think so – does any other bird make a Killdeer sound) and I like the black and white and rufous/orange rump of the flying Killdeer. Once I figure how to do a “strap-thing” where cam and binocs are both available, I will probably start “packing” the binocs.


1) “Back then”, film was very expensive. I had a good Nikon camera with a Nikon main 55 mm lens and reasonable Vivitar 70-200 tele, and loved photography, but would rarely ever “waste” a pic on birds. I shot mostly “places” – and maybe a few people – and “specimens” (seaweeds). And, I was a “starving grad student” for so long! I just could not afford it! (BTW: a “brag moment”. I was lucky (and respected enough) in the “old days”, that I was allowed to check out and shoot some pics of an 1840 hand-colored Russian (probably the only copy in existence) publication of seaweeds. A UM professor just published many of my pics this year! Really, really cool!!!)

2) Now, “film” is cheap! I digitally shoot over 200 or more pics on a normal birding walk, and hope I get something (anything) decent! Often it’s frustrating, and I delete maybe 75% of them, but generally have enough left to refresh my mind, or for my records, or sometimes even something decent to print or share. I guess I am still infatuated with “collecting”, but now do it digitally. It also provides me with the same thrill as “catch and release” fishing when I was into bass tournaments in Michigan. Just different!

3) I recently read an interesting article about digital images vs. mental images (I think it was in Wired magazine). Basically, mental images are burned onto your mental “hard drive”. You will have them there forever (I think…). They are more vivid! You can probably recall them in an instant! And, everything I capture digitally, has to be “post-processed” (i.e., “Photoshop-ed”), stored, cataloged, and later located again on a whim. It is really a lot of work! My mental images may live as long as I.

So, one bottom line is to get a high quality video cam to capture movements? Another is to rely on my mind (it’s mine forever!). Another is to just keep doing.

It still leaves the question about my mental hard drive vs. a digital (possibly transitory technology based on the Wired article – like, remember 8-tracks and LPs?) thing, but the mind records “action” rather than “stills”, and even the digital format of videos seems to be in doubt.

The possibility is to give up cameras, and just personally savor, store and replay in my own mind. Certainly my mental “video editor” is much more interesting than any Adobe product! And, the quality of memories will just keep getting better and better over time! Like: Back when I was a kid, I caught a fish that was longer than my leg! “How long was it?” Well, just measure my leg. That’s how big it was! Oh, I guess there is a bit of leg-pulling here (my leg was smaller then…), but that is what memories are for! They just keep getting better and better! Our memories grow with us!

Today, the Robert Long couple allowed us to look thru their scope at a Kingfisher perched on a snag a long ways off. I had already shot it, and knew it was a Kingfisher, and duly recorded it. It is the first time that Judy had ever looked thru a scope (she was impressed!), and my first time in decades (I was impressed as well! Thanks!!!). I distinctly saw the Kingfisher moving its head back and forth! Wow! It was a true revelation! He was moving, twitching, looking around! (So, what’s the big deal?) Yes, actually it was! I can replay this mental video whenever I want! I have my lousy still pics (deleted 10 of 12) on my card, but seeing the thing moving and looking around was really impressionable! It was in 3-D! I remember it now!

Yes, Birders, I proved your point!!! 3-D is better! Better vision, better for behavioral notes, and so on … just better! And yet, here is my mental picture of the Kingfisher from today (it’s a really cool mental picture!) I want to share with you:

Yes, my point! I cannot share it.

(Hey! Does anyone have an old scope left from when you upgraded? I want one!!!) And, no, for right now I will not put down the camera, but I know that I also want to carry a scope to see life in 3-D, and I have nice AA-battery powered Nikon point-and-shoot I think will work with it to get my 2-D sharing pics; (and yes, Jerry’s postings and blog have pointed me in the direction of digiscoping!) The main difference is that when I take my pics with the scope, I will be able to continue to watch the bird turn its head – or do whatever birds “do” thru the process, and at a far longer (“unspooky”) distance than now!

On the other hand, with my present technology, I seem to be learning at a reasonable pace. I still do not feel I have time in the field to see a bird, flip thru my field guide, and come up with a guess, then look back at the long gone bird to verify the primary characteristics (“Peterson arrows”) that I missed the first time.

I have learned so many new birds this year! I can now make a reasonable Michigan bird list quite well (at least 27 species I know “for sure” at Long today – 2 more to “process”), and I know when the bird might be new. (I say “mostly” because I just learned (thanks, Mike) that a Killdeer is a plover. Indeed! There are many more “killdeer things” that warrant focus and attention. Well, that is my current learning pattern. I think once I am more comfortable with field characteristics, I will add other optics for recording mental images in addition to my digital computer ones.

So, (I am writing before I download and “post-process” my pics from today), I just asked myself - and share with you - “What do I remember from today?”

1) I remember the Kingfisher (thru the scope) turning its head (3-D!);

2) I remember the sharing of fellow birders (Judy and I always remember each time fellow birders have shared tips with us!);

3) I remember shooting dozens of pics of the cormorants (unafraid) sitting on snags directly in front of us;

4) I remember the wren singing its head off by the bridge and never letting us see it for long;

5) I remember the “dog guy” was not there when we were;

6) I remember that I actually “saw” the Red Headed Woodpecker today and did not know it (I reviewed my pics on the cam on our return home, and what I had thought was the Kingfisher a “mile away” (yes, I shoot, shoot, shoot!) actually was the Red Head in a different spot!;

7) I remember that Judy and I enjoyed the great lunch she packed while sitting in the picnic shelter watching for shore birds.

8) And, no, I mostly do not remember my shots from today until I freeze them as “processed” pics. At that time they will join my other memories in the mental hard drive. Most interesting!

I think I also will drop this e-mail to you birders into my blog, but wanted to share with you guys first. You inspire me!

Many birders have responded to my “silly questions” (by now you should know that there are never really any “silly questions” – think in larger context here – and having seen others respond to mine you should be unafraid to post your own!), and my requests for ID’s (yes, even for lousy pics – Hey! if it is possible to ID a lousy pic by “Gestalt”, so far so good, and more power to you! I hope to get to that ability again myself - but now for birds! If the pic is really too lousy, and you said so, more power to you as well – in all cases, you have pointed me to at least a family of birds, and I have read up on that family and know what to look for next time!)

BTW: if I have not mentioned it before, I often write as much (possible more?) for myself than for the people with whom I share my writings. (Hence “rambles”?) If you have read so far, I applaud and thank you.


“Dr. Bob”

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