I seriously doubt if the photographer was aiming at being published in Audubon.I also doubt if any of the Audubon caliber photographers started out with perfect shots. You've got to start at a place to reach somewhere. My point is, a little acknowledgment of an effort coupled with a gentler criticism helps far more than mere trashing.
Sometimes that can stall someone so he never reaches that obscure place of the"excellent", which is highly relative. I wouldn't want to do that to someone.
I have no idea of the photographer's aim. I don't really care.
I too doubt that Audubon
caliber photographers started that way. But somehow they manged to get over being a newbie snapshooter. That was likey by desire through work, practice and honest assessments of their work. And they are probably still working to learn and improve.
I certainly wasn't aware that suggesting a different crop (didn't even offer one as this has been previoudly identified as "I know best") or that the highlights were hot and distracting, were "mere trashing." If you do, I would just say you have never been really trashed.
If my comments are enough to stall his growth, I would say he is wat too sensitive to grow and/or just doesn't want to be any better. In the latter case, then he is just looking for a slap on the back.
Would "Good effort" be a better assessment? If so, then; Good effort.