I have been a recreational bird watcher for about 20 years although I do less birdwatching these days than in the past.
In Australia, up to at least 1935, bird observers recorded their exploits by shooting birds with guns and laying out their carcasses on the ground after an expedition. This was accompanied by collecting “skins” and bird eggs: See the history by Robin (2001) *. Obviously this destructive activity led to a decline in populations. Eventually (and fortunately) “sighting” a bird became just that – you saw it and recorded the observation – indeed, sometimes “hearing” a bird was enough to declare an “observation”. Photographic records of bird nests and eggs began around 1900 but there were few photographs of birds because of the slowness and complexity of the photographic equipment. However there was some limited photography. Lessor Noddies were photographed in 1899 by A.J. Campbell – the earliest published bird photograph. Also photos were taken of the now extinct Paradise Parrot in the 1920s (Robin, p. 118). These days with the advent of digital photography, of high quality relatively inexpensive telephoto lens and with zero cost processing of photos “sighting” has often come to mean gaining a photograph of a species. Of course too, with a photo there are fewer arguments about whether a bird was actually seen.
Most bird watching clubs and societies (e.g. Birds Australia) have photography chapters and even chapters devoted to particular types of bird photography such as seabirds. I pursue this hobby myself in a limited casual way – I don’t have the patience and care of others who pursue this hobby and who are happy to spend days gaining a single shot. The quality of much of the amateur photography is extraordinary and the work of professionals, such as Varesvuo et al (2011)**, is a serious art form.
* A history is provided by Libby Robin, The Flight of the Emu: A Hundred Years of Australian Ornithology 1901-2001, Melbourne University Press, 2001.
** See Markus Varesvuo, Jari Peltomaki & Bence Mate, The Handbook of Bird Photography, Rocky Nook, Santa Barbara, 2011.