Indian Silverbill Indian Silverbill

Dynamics of Digital

Sun, Jan. 28, 2018
CAIRO - 28 January 2018: A new year and New Year resolutions, and I have but two. My first is to send in my monthly piece earlier but my editors know that I resolve that every year and will be having a quiet chuckle. Or not so quiet. My second is to make sense of and use my new camera. More than that—it is to actually open up the packaging, extract the thing from its bubble wrap and then make sense of and use my new camera.

This may seem utterly ridiculous. With depressing, and expensive, regularity a new i-thing is launched and the media is tsunamied by pictures of sleep-ridden geeks queuing round the block to get their hands on the latest version of their beloved gizmo packed with a zillion features that they will never use but are almost euphoric to pay out for. It is the parents who fund this tech fest that I feel most sorry for as bank balances drain to fund the must-have hardware.

Not me. My new camera has been gathering dust since my last travels but I am now dusting off said dust and will likewise try to dust off my techno-phobia and embrace the brave new world of my new camera. New Year—out with the old, in with the new.
I do so reluctantly. I admire photographers enormously and cannot possibly achieve the glossy heights of the professionals, and especially wildlife photographers—which is part of my problem.

Likewise I have no talent for music. I was forced to learn the piano in my youth and I hated it. My tutor was an elderly woman with a tiny dog that smelt like my socks and she had the charisma of a soggy bowl of overcooked molokhia. I had no talent for music and certainly not for the piano. My progress was such that at the end-of-term public concert held in the local school hall I played the same piece four years in a row. It was called “The Witch’s Ride” which I presumed was an anthem to my tutor. In my fourth year I also performed a duet with my younger sister. We never finished. So disgusted with my performance was she that midway through she just stood up and walked off stage. Thankfully because of that my parents stopped funding the piano. Sadly they swapped allegiance to the violin at which I was even worse.

I digress. I am not a photographer but I have got this fancy new camera which I need to use and need to know how to use. I will explain why later but first I will explain why I did not rip the packaging open in a fit of orgiastic excitement and try out my new toy asap.
Firstly and most importantly cameras hinder observation of the natural world. They undoubtedly enhance recording it but they hinder watching it. I have been on so many safaris where the cameras are out and everyone is going click, click, click or rather a digi click, click, click but they are not actually watching the animal in front of them. So sad.

This was brought home to me years ago when I was in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with wild Eastern Lowland Gorillas and then the famous Mountain Gorillas. It is a tale I have related a number of times but basically until I went to see the animals without the lens I could not claim to have truly experienced them, to have watched and encountered them. That and the fact that using a flash in photographing the gorillas, most of my pictures taken in the forest gloom of the Virunga Volcanoes were little more than blurs. The sketches I have are clear and crisp and I had to watch gorillas to make them.

That was in the dim and distant days of camera film and a trusty SLR. More recently in 2015 I was in Oman at a breeding beach of Green Turtles. It was near Sur in the southeast of the country and the female turtles come to shore to lay their eggs at night. In the reserve I and a small group of other visitors was escorted to a laying female. As she deposited her eggs all the i-pads, tablets and phone cameras came out to record the nascent event. “No flash photography” announced the ranger to mass disgruntlement. I was not disgruntled. I had my sketchpad and I watched and drew and watched some more. And I still have those sketches.

Which brings me to another reason why I do not embrace photography. I am not very good at it. In this media age we are buried, swathed, swamped and circled by the most incredible images of the natural world. The quantity of images is bewildering and the quality breathtaking. Just look at the BBC’s latest blockbuster Blue Planet II. Wildlife photography is an art in itself. The photographer has to be concerned about lighting, angle, focus, shade and depth of field. As a naturalist I want to concentrate on the animal.

I can remember in the Madikwe Reserve in South Africa on the border with Botswana I had a fleeting nocturnal encounter with African Wild Dogs. These were no baladi curs but one of Africa’s rarest predators. I grabbed my journal rather than my camera and managed a few quick sketches in the dark—scratchy charcoal lines made under enormous pressure in the African night. They are among my most precious drawings. I have never ever regretted grabbing the pencil in that instance rather than the camera.

That sketching becomes even more important when it morphs into illustration. In this digital age when a zillion images of virtually any animal on the planet can be accessed instantly, most field guides are still illustrated by hand-painted plates. Yes there are many photographic guides out there especially of the birds but the serious guide, the seminal guides, are still illustrated by paintings.

The reason is not just aesthetic—though give me a fine watercolor plate any day. What an artist can do is portray all, or at least most, of the salient features of a bird in one carefully crafted image. To take, pretty well at random, a Mourning Wheatear. This is a small desert chat found over much of the Sinai, Eastern Desert and parts of the Western Desert. It is largely black with a pale crown and nape and a white belly, rump, and tail the latter with a clear black tip. The much rarer Pied Wheatear is recorded here in winter and on passage. It is very similar but the base of the pale crown is much more angular, the vent has an orange tinge and the tail pattern is subtly different. To find a photograph of either bird that demonstrates all of these features would be difficult. To find such photographs of both birds would be much, much more so. But an artist can weave his or her magic.

So why after a thousand words of dissing photography is my camera not still in its bubble wrap? It is because photographs are now a necessity. I sit on the Egyptian Rarities Committee along with some of the region’s leading ornithologists. We review reports submitted by field observers of birds potentially new to Egypt or that are very rare. Once we have made our deliberations a new species or record may be added to the official list. Photographic evidence is now the most overwhelming support for such a record and without such support today new records are much less likely to be accepted. I need a good camera.

Just over a year ago—November 26, 2016 to be precise I spotted an Indian Silverbill in the gardens of the Hotel Auberge du Lac in Fayoum. I spotted it, noted it, had my field guide and photographed it on my mobile. The result, blown up massively, shows a grayish blur in a privet bush with a great white fuzzy blob on its backside. It is an Indian Silverbill. Have I seen an Indian Silverbill in Fayoum where it has never been recorded before? Yes. Would I accept it on the basis of this blur if it was submitted to the Egyptian Rarities Committee? Probably not.

I need a proper camera. Off with the bubble wrap! But the sketches go on.
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