Red Knot Research and Photography: Clashing or Cooperative?
by Bryce W. Robinson
I’ve written about the use of photography to aid in re-sighting banded birds before, but I’d like to return to the subject and explore fully the idea that metal bands and color tags “ruin” a beautiful photograph of a wild bird.
Observing the Red Knot – Calidris canutus on it’s breeding grounds in Alaska is meaningful. At least, it is meaningful to me.
In Alaska there exists a small portion of the Red Knot population that breeds in the interior highlands of the Seward Peninsula and portions of the North Slope tundra. Any satellite portion of the distribution of a given species interests me greatly. So, in planning my summer in Western Alaska, I put high on the list to find and experience the Alaskan breeding Red Knot, subspecies roselaari.
There are folks here on the peninsula engaged in a demographic study of this Calidrid. I haven’t been able to make contact with these researchers yet, but as far as I understand it in the small bird world here, the time is coming. I’m interested to hear their thoughts and ideas considering the species. Until then, I have only the knowledge of what I observe myself, and what I can read.
I found an individual the other morning, high on a hillside in the very western parts of mainland Alaska. Immediately I noticed the colored leg tag. As a young researcher, my resolve to photograph the bird strengthened with my desire to aid my peers with a “re-sight”. As you can see, I was successful to a degree. I came away with photos of the bird, and it’s identification tags.
The experience and resulting photos brought an issue to mind. Many bird photographers I have met and know dislike the identification jewelry because it tarnishes an otherwise natural and beautiful image. After capturing photos of the bird, I was left contemplating the idea.
I’d like to offer some of my thoughts as a young and aspiring ornithologist. As I’ve already stated, I love finding and photographing birds with color tags. To me, it is akin to trapping the bird and recording its location and identity, with the added benefit of no stress to the bird. Clean research! At least after the initial attachment of the tag.
On the other end are the photographers (I’m in part on this end as well, I confess) that are of the opinion that the tags diminish the quality of the images they are after. They work to capture natural images of birds, void of the tarnish of human interaction.
I’m sympathetic to the photographers view, but I believe that the proportion of individuals that we are able to outfit with these identification tags are minimal, and the chance of interacting with them again is remote. So, when a photographer has a subject that happens to have a tag, it ought to be viewed as fortuitous and an opportunity to learn about the bird and aid research efforts.
I photograph birds for many different reasons, but high on the list is to learning. Being something of an artist, I understand the drive to capture the most aesthetically pleasing image, but I propose instead a new avenue for the aesthetically driven. This is the art of bird study, to capture an image that is both beautiful and informative. This image would have the natural beauty and allure of the bird, but also the context of its interactions with humanity, holding in its information tag a history unique to the individual and the potential at snapshots of a story as beautiful as any image anyone could gather.
While living in Florida and photographing along the Gulf Coast I photographed and reported over two hundred banded Red Knots, one was at least 12 years old.
Oddly enough I have only a few images of Red Knots without bands.
For me; because Red Knots are in peril, I focused more on getting photographs of the banded Red Knots than I did the unbanded ones because I felt a sense of duty; even urgency, of getting the resighting information back to researchers as quickly as possible.
Now I am not a researcher, biologist or scientist, I am just a lowly bird photographer and for the Red Knots I wanted to make a difference. I am scared we will lose them if we don’t do something to help them now.
I loved finding out when & where those birds were banded, how old they were and if they had been resighted before I found them in my viewfinder again.
I report all the banded birds I find if I can read the tags, flags or bands and have done so for quite some time.
I like learning about the individual birds from the information that is sent back to me after reporting the bands.
I do find myself grumbling about the “jewelry” at times as a photographer though. For instance the Burrowing Owls on Antelope Island State Park where last summer between 60 to 70 birds were banded and some adults had telemetry units attached. I completely understand that western Burrowing Owls are in decline and that research needs to be done to study them and their migration patterns and I am for that.
But; there were a few burrows near the roads that could have been skipped so wildlife watchers, nature lovers and photographers could have gotten great views and images without the “bling”.
Additionally the owls at those burrows dispersed much earlier than they had in years past and I have to wonder if that was due to the disturbance caused by the banding operations.
I see it from both points of view.
PS, I even pulled out my excel file that has my Red Knot resightings on it to see if I had photographed your bird in Florida. No, I hadn’t seen & photographed it.
Great comment Mia. I’m sure your collection of banded Red Knot photos has done a great deal of good. I know both you and Ron have photographed banded birds many times and reported them when able.
You are definitely not a “lowly” bird photographer. You’re tip top! I look at everyone interested in the bird world as a team. You and Ron of course are team leaders in my book!
I’m glad you checked your spreadsheet. That would have been incredible. If I were to guess, I’d think the bird I photographed winters along the Pacific coast. I bet I could find out! Thanks for the thoughtful comment.
To put it bluntly I see banding as a necessary evil. I don’t like the stress and disruption the banding process puts on birds and I’m not fond of bands or telemetry in nature photography (an understatement). But until we come up with a better way of tracking them we have no choice if we’re going to do what we can for birds.
Thanks for the comment Ron. I completely understand your viewpoint. I myself feel conflicted at the added stress of banding birds, but as you so bluntly and adequately state, it is a necessary evil. Your thoughts are just the response I was looking for! Although we have discussed the topic a bit in the past, I thought it would be neat to revisit it in the context of the Red Knot.
As a duck hunter, I would think photographing a leg band would be akin to harvesting a banded waterfowl, a much sought after treasure and very fortunate.
And like you have already stated it aids in the research of that individual bird, and the species as a whole.
Thanks for the comment Dave. I know a lot of folks have an aversion to duck hunting, but duck hunting organizations are responsible for some very effective and necessary conservation work. As researchers, hunters, and photographers, we all have one thing in common, and that is the drive to ensure that these birds persist in the natural world.
From the feedback I’ve received thus far, it seems that the banded bird is also a sought after treasure and a very fortunate find for the bird photographer as well.
Thanks again for sharing your insight!
This is a nonsensical issue. CA 13% of Ruffa Red Knot are banded, thus leaving 87% unbanded and available for “pristine photographs”. I suspect the banding ratio for Roselaari is very similar, again leaving the vast majority available for pristine images. I have a greater concern for those photographers who press and disturb wild birds in an effort to capture the perfect image. Such are notorious for disturbing birds to obtain intimate images. Virtually all that has been learned about REKN migrations, stop-over sites, flight intervals, routes and wintering locations is a direct result of banding and tracking. Ditto many other banded species.
Thanks for the comment Patrick. The topic comes in light of a conversation I had with some birders the other day. Upon learning of my efforts to band Gyrfalcon nestlings, they pressured me to “leave some for the photographers”. I was taken aback for the reasons you’ve outlined. It is very difficult to impossible to saturate a population with bands, thus leaving no “un-tainted” birds. So is it a mute issue? Well, considering that such a low percentage of the population of GYRF make it to those in the lower 48, seeing that one bird that happens to be banded can be off-putting to many people. I think this is the mind-set from where their comment arose.
The viewpoint from many photography oriented birders is still valid. I would not label the issue nonsensical. Many photographers are responsible, and their concerns with banding are sensible. Many of these people have a job to do, just as researchers. It comes down to priorities, and when a conservation issue as dramatic as the ruffa REKN crisis arises, many photographers drop their personal agendas to aid in the effort. Mia’s comment to this post describe one instance where this was the case. I predict their are other similar stories.
In the end, it seems from the feedback I’ve received that those that are truly miffed by photographing banded birds are in the minority. Perhaps because most people interested in birds have at the very top of their priorities the conservation of the creatures they love. The banding effort is then a welcomed necessity.
Opening up a dialogue on the issue has certainly been enlightening. Thanks again for your input Patrick.
Seems this topic is growing tentacles and becoming more confusing all the time. Now I learn the “initial conversation” involved “birders” expressing their concerns to you re photographers’ interests. Now it is unclear if they were speaking for themselves as amateur photographers or speaking for unknown amateur of professional photographers? I find this most peculiar and then you raise an issue re professional photographers having a “job to do”. I can’t see how banded birds prevent professional photographers from doing their job whatever their specific contract requires. I very much doubt any professional photographer locates remote gyr sites on their own vs. depend on a professional guide or birding source to locate an active site. I’ve seen excellent articles on the Yukon Delta gyr population that employed images of banded and unbanded birds alike.
It is highly unlikely that bands would mar any photograph of a wild gyr given their heavily feathered legs that tend to cover the tarsus. And virtually all professional photographers use Photoshop to prep their images in one manner or another. Thus, any partially exposed standard band could easily be obscured/minimized in a photo.
All the foregoing seems a long diversion from the original image of a red knot with lime green flag and all associated discussions.
As with most topics, there are tentacles. I’ve had many discussions before with photographers on this issue, but only recently did I have the conversation with the birders, then photograph a banded Red Knot in the same day. Given that they had a 800 mm lens attached to a 2x teleconverter for their photographic equipment, I went ahead and made the assumption that they were speaking for themselves, and any other folks hoping to photograph a Gyrfalcon.
Those opposed to images of banded birds are both professional and amateur. Their “job to do” as I put it is their purpose. Forgive me for being colloquial. Every bird photographer has a purpose, whether personal or professional. This purpose can have benefits for the bird world. Many photographers strive to capture natural beauty void of human interaction. Whether or not one agrees with that purpose, it is a disruption when their subject is clad with metal and colored plastic.
Yes, a Gyr roused on a perch may obscure a band and eliminate the issue. But, this is a distraction from the photographers main point, and that is whether or not a band shows in a photograph. It very well can on a Gyrfalcon. I have many photos showing the entire tarsi, especially in flight.
Photoshop can do wonders, but many professional photographers are purists, and see that type of tinkering as unprofessional or morally wrong. There are entire forums discussing the topic.
I don’t think either of our comments are digressions from the original image. In fact, this type of discussion is just what I was hoping to see when I posted the article. I want to know what people think. Thanks for your input.