Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Is Digital Photography Blurring the art of Birdwatching in Sri Lanka?

Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka [FOGSL] is completing 40 years of Conservation "Together for Birds and People" in  2016 / 2017 . This achievement was commemorated with the BirdLife Asia Council and the BirdLife International Global Council meeting up in Sri Lanka. A highlight of these events was the Bird Fair at the Thalawathugoda Wetland Sanctuary on Sunday the 20th November 2016. Much of the FOGSL’s pioneers and the present membership and the general public was at the venue braving the inclement weather making the occasion a well-attended and a successful one which included expatriate birdwatchers.

Picture courtesy - Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka - Public Group  Facebook

I was there with my bird friendly buddy Wilson Kulasuriya and met with two pioneer FOGSL founder members. We represent the early membership of FOGSL and were of the old school of birdwatchers in Thalawathugoda that day. The following day photographs of us in discussion was posted in social media captioning “Friends make life a lot more fun. So here's to the crap we talk............”

Yes we did talk crap….but it was more based on the subject on birdwatching and we did question as to, if the birdwatcher today did really enjoy watching birds the way we did then? For it keeps us amused to this day seeing the same bird over and over again. It was a time when resources were scares; field glasses being an expensive piece of equipment but the techniques that were derived for birdwatching itself was to be exciting and interesting.

Much of the locals that frequented the venue that day did not carry binoculars or a spotting scope but almost all of them had a camera with them. A few did carry extremely expensive cameras while most others did carry a simple point and shoot digital camera which wouldn’t be of any use on a bird sitting a few meters across the waterway.

In comparison all the expatriate birders did carry field glasses and a field guide of the common birds in Sri Lanka that was available for sale at the Bird Fair………..but some of them did carry expensive cameras alongside their field glasses as well.

This was a clear sign of the impact of posting bird photographs on social media that has had on the general public and the confusion of the new birdwatcher over photography and birdwatching.

The origins of Birdwatching

The four seasons, spring, summer, autumn and winter in the temperate zone did have an impact on the fauna and flora in the region. This seasonal change in the climate also had a significant effect on humans as well. As a result, man started to observe these changes of the climate in relation to the behavior of the fauna and flora that had adopted to these changes by instinct.

Spring as the name suggests is the time that the flora gets into new foliage and flower for fruiting. It is in this time that the insects are busy pollinating the flowers aiding fruiting. Birds and other animals contribute to the propagation and the distribution of the seed by consuming the fruit as fodder and dispersing the seed away from the parent plants.

In line with this new seasonal abundance in food, the birds and other animals take advantage in breed their own kind. The breeding season for birds commences with the selection of a prospective partner followed by nest building. It’s time to nurture the young before the next seasonal change when all these food resources would be gone. Most birds being omnivorous exploit on the increase of the insect population which is a good source of high energy protein for the young fledglings.

Summer following spring the fledglings are now young birds going about following and imitating the parent birds learning the instincts of survival from them.

Come autumn or more commonly known as the fall, flora takes to change once again preparing for the cold winter that is to follow. Flora starts to shed its foliage. This is a signal for the birds and other animals to get ready for the harsh winter to follow. Many of the juvenile birds are now strong and fit to brave the oncoming the winter. Some would fly away to warmer lands in the south closer to the tropics while some would brave the winter.

In the winter the snowfall makes the habitat to change to a glow of white. The hedgehog the foxes and many other mammals go into hiding. They are hibernating. Most birds have left the habitat. Those that stay over have stopped singing and are inactive conserving their energy to survive the harsh climate.

This change in seasons created curiosity on humans living in these regions. Science was yet to understand these changes with the positioning of planet earth traversing around the sun. It was not until the end of the eighteenth century that migration as an explanation for the winter disappearance of birds from northern climes was accepted.

The bird migration did create new social cultures in humans in these two regions. There was people in the tropics waiting for the ducks, geese and other song birds to come in the winter. They were thought as god’s wishes in providing a seasonal food source for those in the tropics.

The birds that braved the winter has changed plumage color to avoid predation. New birds have come over to these temperate zones from the colder Arctic regions. Again it was thought to be god’s wishes that changed the birds in the habitat. A classic example is that the Robin in the garden would be changed to a Redstart [a bird similar in size and had orange color as in a Robin] people thought it was gods wish to change the birds in winter. It was only that the Robin has gone south and the Redstart too has come down south to take the place of the Robin.

Picture courtesy- Ragnar Kinzelbach Source: http://www.springalive.net/
It was not until 1822 when a White Stork was discovered in Germany, with an arrow in its neck. This stork had flown all the way to Germany with an arrow in its neck and the arrow was traced to central Africa. This is how bird migration was scientifically understood. Until then people thought the Barn Swallows turned into mice, or birds flew to the moon or other such crazy things. Germany has recorded 25 such arrow stork known as ‘Pfeilstorch’ says, Ragnar Kinzelbach of University of Rostock, Rostock, Germany where one such stork is preserved as an exhibit.

So it was basically during this time that people started noting and recording of the birds coming in and disappearing. They started to note the change in the plumage during the breeding season and before the disappearance in the winter. The breeding season needed the males to be colorful in order to attract a prospective female, while in the migration needed extra energy and the plumage turned into drab color when the genetics would take way the extra color which is now conserved as energy and suits the tropical habitat preventing predation.

Thus commenced man’s interest in birds which eventually turned in to a pastime or hobby known as Birdwatching. 

Origins of Birdwatching in Sri Lanka

Birdwatching was not a pastime that existed in this country until the Colonial British came over and started documenting the Natural History in this region. The period of 1840 -1880 was the time that the knowledge of the county’s avifauna was firmly established by four persons. They were Robert Templeton, an Iris surgeon in the Royal Artillery, Edward Frederick Kelaart born in the island to German and Dutch parents, Edgar Leopold Layard an Englishman and William Vincent Legge, an Australian artillery officer. Of them Templeton, Layard and Legge were specimen collectors. Templeton collected specimens for Edward Blyth, the curator of the Royal Asiatic Society’s Museum in Calcutta, and a major figure in developing ornithology in India and Ceylon as was called then. Kellaart did study the whole of the natural history on the region with the aid of the specimens collected by others.

The most significant of these four was Capt. William Vincent Legge, who devoted all his spare time to birds and the result being the comprehensive documentation of the birds in the country “A History of the Birds of Ceylon (1880),".  This book is a standout among the nineteenth century ornithological publications, as it is a descriptive one compared to the systematically situated ornithological writings of the others during this period.

However the significant ornithologist of the first half of the twentieth century in Sri Lanka was William Watt Addison Phillips an English tea planter. He came to the island in 1911 and stayed until 1957. His great care and perseverance in collecting specimens, and his broad ranging knowledge of the mammalian and the avian fauna, made way to identify and name several new species.

So it is evident that even in this country the earliest form of bird identification was related to specimen collection where the skins were preserved by taxidermy and it was big business as these skins ended up as collector items with a high price tags. It was only after the amendment to the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance in the 1960 s, did it outlaw the shooting of any wild bird on the island, excepting for ducks for a limited period during the year as game birds. And so did the specimen collection come to an end. However even this concession is done away with today and if a museum or a university is in need of a bird specimen, permission would be granted only to the discretion of the Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation who will issue a permit in this regard.

Thus ended the period of shot gun ornithology in this country. 

Bird organizations in Sri Lanka

The first organization for Birds and Ornithology in the country was originated as the Ceylon Bird Club in the year 1943 with seven members that including G. M. Henry and W.W.A. Phillips; the two foremost ornithologists of Sri Lanka. Both Henry and Phillips did their own publications and are reference books on the subject to this day. The club became the stage for the English expatriate naturalist and the membership never exceeded over twelve people in the early days. This situation changed by the 1950 s with much of the British leaving the country. The first local member to be invited to join the club was E.B. Wikramanayake who was introduced by Phillip himself before he left the country.

The Ceylon Bird Club continues to this day with its local membership but prefers to maintain its restrictive membership policy just as then.

This restraint on its membership policy did lead to the founding of a second bird organization in the country the “Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka” (FOGSL) in 1976 in the University of Colombo.

Impact of Digital Photography on Birds

Wildlife Photography

Wildlife photography is as old as birdwatching in the world. The invention of the Single Lens Reflex Camera [SLR] with interchangeable lenses in the mid 1960 s revolutionized wildlife photography the world over. However it was the interchangeable telephoto lenses that were produced as optional accessories for the SLR cameras that had a fixed focal length which amused and enabled the wildlife enthusiast to get his distant subjects on to the celluloid film in his new camera. These lenses just as they were very advantages in the field did have its draw back as well. If your subject was in a close range position one had to run away from the subject in order to get the animal into the frame of the film in the camera. If was fun to see people backing away from elephants then, in order to get them in full into the frame.

It was not until the invention of the auto / manual focus zoom lenses which could vary the focal length and the angle of view as well, did wildlife photography become popular and open up a new era in the world of Natural History.

In 1999 Nikon of Japan introduced the Nikon D1; the first digital SLR camera with 2.74 megapixels, with an introductory price tag under $ 6,000 which was affordable to many, did wildlife photography go viral.

Bird photography in Sri Lanka

Bird photography was not possible to many in this country even with the first SLR camera being introduced in the 1960 s.  However it could be said without any doubt that the father of bird photography in Sri Lanka is none other than Dr. T. S. U. de Zilva, who made bird photography his pastime and passion. He ran a prospective medical practice in Kurunegala, which also financed his pastime.

Restricted with the fixed focal length lenses of the 1960 s, he published a wide range of photographs of the birds in the wetlands of Mannar and Chilaw.  Long range camera shooting was favorable in these locations with the extra lighting that was needed for the telephoto lens.

Picture courtesy - M.A. Pushpa Kumara Sunday Times

Known as the “ge aran ena mahaththaya” meaning the person who comes with his house. He carried his bird hides done of canvas and jute, and ventured into the remotest countryside to photo record nesting behavior of rare birds. It would take hours for him to install the hides elevating him to be in line with the bird and would sit for days inside them to get his prize photo. The only record of the very rare Broad-billed Roller nesting has still not been recorded since his record 40 years ago. This was not the digital era then and colour film processing was not heard of in the country. All his exposures were on positive colour slides that was very costly and was processed outside the country.

Dr T S U de Zilva had completed his task of bird photography with his limited resources and equipment by the time the DSLR came in the country in 1999. He had done much photo recording of bird behavior then when compared to what is taking place now in the most viral way. However it must be noted that he discontinued his habit of photographing nesting behavior of birds when it was to be reprehended in line with the general practice of ethical birdwatching that were to be introduced lately. The in-depth advent into science did need the restriction of man’s intervention with breeding birds and in divulging of habitats of critically endangered and rare birds. 

Social Media and Digital Photography the Changing Face of Birdwatching

Today the tripod carrying birdwatcher is joined by the long lens caring bird-photographer. This decade has brought about a significant change in the world of birdwatching and its effects are felt even in Sri Lanka.

Birding as it is preferred to be called today adding the auditory factor in identifying them is the art of locating birds and identifying them and listed for science and reference. A pastime developed over 50 years ago, and it is questionable if it is practiced the same way today.

Much has been the concern on the ever increasing bird-photographer in relation to birding in the western world, and it has come under research. It is time that a study is undertaken to identify and analyze the Sri Lankan bird photographer in relation to birding and to take the best use of his input in to the science of ornithology in the country.

The two basic questions that any old school birder would have for the new class of birder cum bird-photographer would be….

  • Were you a birder first?  or a photographer first?
  • What do you do with these photographs?

Based on research done in the west which is applicable to this country as well it is noted that there are six types of photographers that have been identified of the lot that mingle with birdwatching.

  1. The first is the photo-identification type. A digital photograph is a very a valuable source of information for identification and would aid in learning new avifauna by developing analytical comparisons in identifying juveniles in groups of shore birds etc. Therefore many a birder today is equipped with a Digi-scope. An adapter camera that could be fitted to a spotting scope. Even a poor quality picture would give much information, compared to a field sketch in terms of identification and evidence of justification on a sighting.
  2. The second is the photo-listing type. This is the replicate of a Twitcher.  One who would travel a long distances to see a rare bird that would then be ticked or accounted on a list. There are those who now list birds in photographs and it is noted that most of the British twitchers have started all over again to list them in a photo list.  Photo-listing a country list takes a long time unlike a visual list. However, many photo listers are new to bird-watching and have embraced the practice of listing because it gives them an opportunity for photography as a pastime.
  3. The third bird-photography practice is a photo-collector. More like in to butterfly collecting. These are the type that keep collecting quality collections of birds in different plumages and unique behaviour of species in courtship etc. Just as the butterfly collector who kept on collecting the same species to replace the old one for colour fading etc. This type would keep collecting photos of the same species every time one is encountered.
  4.  Amateur bird photographer is the fourth type. Amateur photographers are people striving to perfect the practice of picture taking. Many people with an interest in photography are getting into birds because birds occur everywhere and the photographing equipment is affordable. The Web is full of inspiring photographs for the armature to take as samples. As many birds are photogenic, one can practice the art of composition, pose and lighting by experimenting with them.
  5. The fifth is the trophy-hunter type. This is a dangerous type. A variant of the armature but is for taking impressive photos of iconic species. A diving kingfisher, a sea eagle catching a large fish while on flight. He would pay anything for a hide on a classic species. Would even lure bird to preferred background by baiting. Such bird-photographers are aggressive and would appear in locations by force.
  6.  The sixth is perhaps the most intriguing, the photo hunter. These are the ones who adorn in camouflage gear and travel around the country photographing birds with top of the range photography kits. Ask them what they do with the photos they would response as Nothing. When a memory card is full they just buy another. This is the hunting instinct of these photo-hunters, who would be satisfied with tracking down their quest and getting the shot.

Getting too close to birds either to watch or to photograph is never encouraged. This owl is stressed by disturbing its day roost. It is sad to note that this is happening in Sinharaja very often now mainly due to photography and guaranteed sightings .

Enhancement through Social Media 

Photography is the key ingredient to the design and development of social media. Facebook and photo sharing platforms like Flickr are essential to this pastime. They have turned out to be storehouses in sharing and discussing and even showing off ones photos. They buildup friendship and grouping for broadening the appeal for bird photographing and bird watching. Thus the social media would respond better, contributing with photos that add value significantly to the visual appeal of many of the blogs on birding.

Looking Ahead

The number of bird-photographers is rising steadily and will continue throughout. However over the decades birders have developed a strong voluntary code of conduct that govern their behaviour particularly in relation to disturbing birds. The need to keep secret the location of rare breeding birds. The need to respect the rights and privacy of landowners etc. But the new entrant bird-photographers are unaware of these informal rules and understandably want to get close to the bird for a close up shot. This is leading to some ill feeling between the old birder and the new bird-photographer. There needs to be better relationship between birders and bird-photographers in getting in the same wavelength on such matters concerned.

Concerns of Science

One dimension that seems missing in bird-photography is the link with science. As discussed, Birdwatching is related to the science of ornithology. The approach to identifying a bird species in the field is according to a scientific method. The birding generations across the world did go in search of new species but also fed their observations back to BirdLife International who in return used their knowledge to assess the extinction risk of bird species. This was an accomplishment that contributed immensely to the effectiveness of the international conservation policy.

However Bird-photographers should also be able to submit their observations to the science of conservation. But it is questionable as to whether even a little thought has been given to the scientific usage of these valuable ‘digital bird specimens’ that are retained in social websites and in personal computers the world over.

The author was present at Fort Kearney State Park Nebraska to watch Sandhill Cranes roost on its back migration to Alaska. Over 200 birders and photographers came on this bridge almost 2 hours before the birds, to watch this event that is possible for a limited period every March.........it was amazing to see everybody talking in hush voices through self-discipline and abiding by the restrictions laid down by the park..........Note the signage on the bridge is again for the occasional eccentric birder and the photographer....

The Local Bird Photographer 

Based on the above cross section of bird photographers the number of locals that fall in to the first two groups are a few of the professional bird guides and a few other who have stared as birdwatchers and who has had a knack for the outdoors and engage in photography as a hobby as well. The much preferred piece of equipment of these two groups would be the camera attached digi-scope as the unit could be used either way.

However the second category, the twitching type seem to override the first and is not encouraged at all. It is noted that the trend of rushing and amassing to rare bird sightings is taking place in a very disturbing and ad-hock manner by them. This was seen when a Forest Eagle Owl nesting at Singaraja was posted in social media, which should not have been permitted in that page. These twicher type photographer flooded the vicinity to such an extent that the adults almost abandoned the nest. It is general ethics that nest sites should not be photographed and more over its location divulged, in the case of rare and important birds. This is a clear indication of ignorance of bird knowledge and their behavior by the bird-photographer.

This same behavior was also seen when a very unusual winter visitor, a Blue and White Flycatcher did appear in Sinharaja and was posted in social media.

Twitching or going after birds is therefore not encouraged though it is the most commonly happening practice all over. The impact of it is to be seen in the very delicate habitats as Sinharaja and other such rainforests where endemism is high. Almost all the identified day roosts of the Endemic Owls and the Frogmouth are on barren ground with no undergrowth, devoid of vegetation due to so much foot traffic as almost everyone visiting is with a camera and are guided for photography with hardly any scientific interpretation of the forest explained to the visitor by the so called forest guides.

The amateur photographer is the one that should be taken care of in molding them to blend with the scientific knowledge of birdwatching. It is noted that this lot is increasing in a very high speed as many of the young today are attracted to social media websites and get attracted to bird photography. They keep on stuffing the web pages with bird photos with no account of location where the bird was seen or dates etc. This is the type that needs to be educated and made aware of the importance of birds and the need for its conservation linked with ornithology. 

The trophy hunter and the photo hunter in this country is not that very much active I feel but there are cases where unethical practices in luring rare birds by baiting taking place around the rainforest areas for photographers. A locality around Sinharaja is known to lure the Sri Lanka Spur Fowl in this manner.

The author has had his own experience once being a member of a birding group in Mannar. It was so intriguing to see the photographers waiting patiently till everyone else had had a view of a flock of Flamingo in the saltern through viewing aids. Then the question was asked, have everyone had enough seeing the Flamingos? And they started to stalk up to the birds. But the birds seeing them approach did push away from them, leaving the rich feeding ground. One would say this is fair by the birdwatcher …….but it is also a clear indication that the photographer not respecting the welfare of the bird which should be the priority.

It is time that the birding organizations in the country think about this in a very serious way and draw up a set of guidelines in par with those for the birdwatcher in relation to the photographer. For it is no point in brushing aside them to be different to the birdwatcher. The impact that the digital lens has against conventional birdwatching is immense and mighty.

However the administrators managing these social websites has a very big responsibility on them in allowing these postings on the web. They need to familiarize themselves with the internationally accepted guidelines on publishing of bird information in the media. Should nesting behavior be it photographic or video be allowed on the web? Should locations and habitats of rare migrants and critically endangered species be divulged in the web? This is food for thought and to be researched in this country now.

Finally it could be concluded in saying thus, birdwatching has come a long way, from killing them for their skins for the specimen collector………. to observing them with purpose built optical instruments for leisure…….and now  back again to the hunting era, shooting them with digital cameras?

Some noteworthy incidents of Bird-photography in the Local Social Media

This photograph came in social media as captioned “the mystery bird”…..most possibly posted by an amateur photographer. This is a classic example of how photography could be used in identification when it is complicated. It has a comparison of a known species to the unknown. The stance of a Staling or a Myna, but no guide book would show a bird of this plumage. Most juvenile birds are not illustrated. This is a first winter of juvenile Rosy Staling ….

Picture courtesy - Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka - Public Group  Facebook

Another unusual bird, where photography did help in identifying a first winter juvenile of a Golden Oriole sighted and identified by a FOGSL member.

Picture courtesy - Enoka Priyadarshani Kudavidanage, Facebook page

This is an example of a case where the picture of the bird on the left [Grey-bellied Cuckoo] was posted in social media identified as the bird on the right [Juvenile Sirkeer Malkoha]. The posting said the bird was so identified by two of Sri Lanka’s most eminent personalities on birds which did embarrass them two and other birders as well. The author did get in touch with the person concerned and managed to resolve the matter by posting these two pictures explaining the mix up.

But it is sad to note that the person concerned, also a very proficient conservationist said goodbye to his habit of birding as a result. However this again is a classic example of trying to identify birds through photographs only. Even though today’s photography is of very high digital technology, it has its own flaws with the equipment not in its proper settings. Both these photos seem to enhance more on the bluish grey. The otherwise brown coloration of the Sirkeer on the right is shown to be in a bluish tint of grey. This is why field notes are as important in identification even with the highest photographic technology possible.

Picture courtesy - Srilal Miththapala

Efforts in make best use of Bird-photography with Birdwatching

People have been looking at the aspect of combining birdwatching with bird-photography to make the best use of the millions of photographs that are available with individuals and in web sites.

The Merlin Bird Identification Application developed by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology is a very versatile software application which is available free to be downloaded from the internet and most App stores. Currently it is done for all birds in North America including Canada and part of the northern most islands in the region and is being extended to the Mexico region as well.

It is a blend of the science of bird identification techniques used with bird photographs as in a photographic guide to the bird in the region.


One needs to enter only a set of basic criteria of the bird into the App in your Smart Phone. The date from a drop down calendar, the location the township again from a dropdown in alphabetic order, the size of the bird based on the scaled silhouette of four known birds and their in-between, three colours of the bird from a given colour pallet, if the bird was in on the ground, on a tree or in water.

Picture courtesy - merlin.allaboutbirds.org/download/ 
All this data fed into the app, it would give a series of bird pictures that would qualify your bird with the name both scientific and general. One could now identify you unknown bird while you see the bird and a picture of it in your Smart Phone to compare with. However this App has out done the need to carry a bird guide and one is with your bird at the touch of a finger. 

It’s time that such versatile means to blend science with photography bringing about a good and healthy relationship within the birding community.   

The general Guidelines on ethical bird-watching that needs to be applied to the photographer as well

Promote the welfare of birds and their environment

• Support the protection of birds and their habitat
• Avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger
• Avoid using methods such as flushing, spotlighting and call playback, particularly during nesting season when birds may be called off incubation duties, or even abandon the nest altogether
• Be aware of the impact photography can have on birds - avoid lingering around nests or core territories for long periods and limit the use of artificial light
• Avoid handling birds
• Report rare bird sightings to conservation authorities and consider the well-being of the bird before making this knowledge more publicly available
• Stay on roads, trails, and paths where they exist- avoid leaving litter along a birding trail and otherwise keep habitat disturbance to a minimum

Respect the law and the rights of others

• Do not enter private property without the owner’s explicit permission
• Follow all laws, rules, and regulations governing use of roads and public areas
• Consider and respect the rights of landholders
• Practice common courtesy in interactions with other people

Group Birding Ethics

• Lead by example and know your audience – encourage others to employ ethical birding practices
• Report bird sightings – all data are useful to bird conservation and wherever possible, should be reported to ornithological databases in the country example Universities, Natural History Museums, etc. [in Sri Lanka, FOGSL ]
• Impart knowledge – share what you know about birds and their habitats
• Get involved – encourage birders to engage local communities and get involved in conservation initiatives at their favourite birding locations
• Consider the birds – always put the health and wellbeing of birds first- consider the impact you as an individual and the group are having on birds and their environment

The views expressed here are limited to those of the author and should not be interpreted  as those of the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka or any such organization for birds.


  1. Very interesting and thought provoking piece ... thanks for enlighten us on this not-so-discussed area of recreational birding

  2. Interesting article- thanks for sharing

  3. Udaya KarunaratneApril 13, 2017 at 9:11 PM

    Folks get carried away with taking the perfect picture... but in the process forget to "watch"... which is what "bird watching" is essentially about.

  4. Although I agree with the comments I would also like to say that as a lay person who does not have a great knowledge of birds. I have to say I learn a LOT from the photos and names etc posted on the FOGSL site - so thank you to those who do it as it does have value to create awareness!! Of course it does not mean I endorse it being done without following the correct guidelines and ethics