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This seems to be a topic that elicits an opinion from birders whether you are a seasoned pro or a beginner. There also doesn’t seem to be much in the way of a “grey” area; you are either for it or against it. Fortunately (for me), this blog is not being written to try to ‘convert’ anyone from one side or the other; it is just a brief dissertation of personal experiences (and, since I am writing this, it will by my personal experiences).
Before I begin, I will let you know that I am a bird photographer and I do wear camouflage clothing, including pants, shirt, gloves, mitts, hat, toque, and coat. Also, I have camouflage on my main lens.
I believe that the necessity to wear camouflage depends both on the type of birding you are doing and the location of your birding.
Type of Birding
There are 2 specific types of birding – watching and photographing.
Bird watchers typically have a good pair of binoculars, or a strong spotting scope, that they can use to find, observe, and identify the birds. Some will note in their book the bird they saw, whether it was male or female, in breeding plumage, where they saw it, etc… whereas others are just happy to be able to find and see the bird. Generally they do not stay in the same place a long time unless there are a large number of different birds there; they will observe and then move on. Also, and here is the salient point, they generally do not have to get very close to the bird. With the binoculars and spotting scopes, they can stay a fair distance away and still get some extraordinary views of their subject; they do not have to try to blend in with the surroundings; and bird watchers do not need to have the bird out in the open; then can identify it even if it is deep in the foliage. For bird watchers, then, camouflage is probably not necessary; they can get just a good a view without it.
Bird photographers, on the other hand, have a different raison d’être. They are trying to get as good a picture of the bird as possible and are not happy just to have seen the bird. A lot of photographers try to sell their pictures (writer included) and therefore need to get clear, clean shots of the bird in its’ natural environment, hopefully not distracted by the photographer. The picture always looks better if the bird is doing what comes naturally and not trying to hide or fly away because it was spooked. To do this, there is a necessity to try to hide from the bird and blend in with the surroundings. Birds see us differently than we do; to them we are a big, dark mass approaching, very unnerving and quite scary to a very small bird. What camouflage will do, besides allowing the photographer to blend in, is break up the big, dark mass into smaller pieces that does not frighten the bird (as much). Camouflage will not ‘hide’ the photographer, nor will it do too much if they are tromping through the bush and making a lot of noise (movement is still movement, no matter what you are wearing) but, if they are still enough it might allow the bird to come to the forefront and take some great pictures.
Location also will factor into whether camouflage is necessary. If you are out in the wilderness, or a conservation area, where there are generally not very many people, then camouflage could help. If, on the other hand, you are at a well attended park (such as Colonel Sam Smith Park or Humber Bay Park) the birds are a bit more acclimatized to humans and are more accessible.
I know photographers who swear by their camouflage, and I know photographers who swear that it is never needed. I also know watchers who wear camouflage and those who don’t. In the end, it is a personal choice; there is really no ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ way to do it. It is how you feel about it that matters.
Personally, I wear camouflage because I find that, where I do most of my birding, it does help me get closer to the birds and get better shots. I have done it with and without and prefer with.