Sunday 5 June 2016

Mystery Photo Competitions

For a blog devoted to bird ID from photographs it occurred to me that some of you might be a little confused by the content!

As birders, we all love a good challenge and there may be few things quite so challenging for a birder then to be asked to put a name to a difficult bird from a single photograph.  Not only do we need to possess a thorough knowledge of potential confusion species and their identification keys, but we may be required to consider confounding factors such as lighting, gestalt and size illusion.  This blog, for those still unclear, is devoted mainly to teasing out those confounding factors, and building a knowledge base and solutions around overcoming those problems.  So it's not a blog about ID as such, though as I have recently delved more into the area of gestalt I am finding myself trying my hand at some tough ID challenges from photographs (such as the mystery 'white-rumped' Swift from Dublin, 2002 eg. HERE),

Many a birder in Britain, Ireland and beyond cut their identification teeth with the Mystery Photo competitions and later the Monthly Marathon series of the journal British Birds.

The Mystery photographs series was unique.  It proved not just an enjoyable challenge for birders of all standards, it was also a great learning aid, which today provides an interesting insight into how identification was developing in Europe at the time.  As someone who myself developed my skills  as a birder at a reasonably slow pace, it always astonishes me how much information a new birder has at their fingertips.  The temptation to try and absorb all this vast ID information in a hurry must be hard to resist.  Consider for example the years of research crammed into a modern bible like the Collins Bird Guide (Svennson, Mullarney & Zetterstrom) or The Advanced Bird ID Handbook (Van Duivendijk).  Photographic guides have also evolved in the intervening years, the Crossley series perhaps the latest evolution.

The geek in me has started looking back at the old Mystery photographs competitions with a different perspective.  Many of these mystery photographs were actually pretty impossible challenges that coaxed us into reading on and learning insights from the experts.  Others were breaking ground and revealing ID tips which today we probably take for granted.  Plenty of them of course still catch me out.

It occurred to me recently that those who set modern mystery photo competitions must have a rather different approach to the architects of the early Mystery photographs competitions.  Needless to say all modern competitions involve digital images, many of which are published online so they can be analysed more forensically.  Typical modern competitions (eg. the Masters of Mystery competition run by Dutch Birding typically require birders to have recourse to the modern field guides.  Typically the bird is displayed in an awkward pose, partially displaying key identification criteria.  Most images tend to be pin sharp and high in resolution.  Unlike the photographic competitions of old, there is little margin for guesswork, less reliance on gestalt and certainly far less by way of confounding factors like lighting and shadow, film grain or defocus to get in the way.  Has the exercise become a little too sanitised, less enjoyable?   Or perhaps like everyone who looks back too far I am starting to show my age a bit?  Still, it would be nice to see a few more blurry and grainy competition images, aimed more at coaxing out those subconscious, less certain clues that birders embed deep in their brains while watching familiar species over hundreds and hundreds of hours of observation.  Less of the meticulous and more of the mystery please!

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