Source: Robert Burton

Manitobans are turning to the skies as interest in nature photography as a pandemic pastime gains popularity.

Robert Burton, who started the Facebook group Manitoba Birding- Bird and Wildlife Photography, said the number of group members has quadrupled since the pandemic began.

Starting with only a handful of people to attract like-minded individuals back in 2014, the group accumulated a total of 1329 members by March 12 of 2020.

"I remember hitting a thousand and thinking like that was some huge milestone, a thousand people interested in taking pictures of birds," said Burton. "Fast forward between March 13 and today, we went from that number to 5600."

Reasons for the increased numbers are numerous, with the most obvious being the pandemic, but when questioned, member responses were wide and varied. Some had a prior interest in birding, and others were using birding to help with homeschooling as a science component.

Source: Robert Burton

"It's a pretty wide variety between people who are just getting into it, people who have always been into it, people who have been using it for their kids, and people who are now looking outside their window more often than they normally did," said Burton.

"Anybody who's into hiking or trails, or anything outdoors, knows that all those activities have grown exponentially," he said. "I've gotten used to it, but I know back in March and April of 2020 I'd go out to my favourite haunts and go 'what are all these people doing here?'"

Despite the ubiquity of cellphone cameras, Burton said proper equipment is necessary to capture many of those great shots unless you are limiting yourself to taking pictures of friendly chickadees.

A rise in photography equipment sales has been felt by local camera stores since the pandemic began.

"It's been a pleasant surprise how busy it's been here," said Charles Shilliday, assistant manager of Don's Photo Main Street location.

He said sales of equipment essential to wildlife photography, like lenses and tripods, picked up when the pandemic began and haven't slowed. Shilliday couldn't attribute the rise in sales directly to nature photography but said the store's location lends itself to those interests being close to Kildonan Park, the Red River and Bird's Hill.

More people on the trails could be detrimental to bird watchers, but Burton said it has offered up a unique perspective on some otherwise unknown locations.

"All of a sudden there's these posts from Churchill, and The Pas, and Thompson, and Flin Flon and places you've never (heard of)," said Burton.

"To have someone wake up and take a picture of their front lawn and there's a pack of wolves or they had some arctic ptarmigans," he said. "I find that as a bird nerd very exciting."

Whether the newfound popularity will continue is something Burton hopes for, but in smaller numbers, so crowding isn't an issue on the trails.

"The more people who are enjoying wildlife and the outdoors, the more people who are invested in it and invested in protecting it."

When getting into the hobby, many newbies ask for prime watching locations but that goes against bird-watching etiquette, according to Burton. Coming from an intergenerational bird-watching family, he quoted his grandmother.

"You want to see birds? Take a chair and binoculars and go sit in the middle of anywhere, any forest bush or anywhere, just sit there and birds will show up."