by Anne Townsend
Thanks to the New York Institute of Photography for the use of this article.
Getting Close to Birds in the Wild
Last month, in Bird Photography, we offered you some tips on how to use a blind to photograph wild birds. On the flip side of that discussion is a reminder that the fundamental method for tracking your feathered friends involves, very simply, a pair of feet, a lot of patience, and an understanding of bird behavior. Here are a few guidelines you may want to follow:
- Be quiet.
- Minimize your presence by keeping a low profile, staying behind foliage or visual barriers as much as possible, and wearing camouflage or other appropriately subdued colors.
- Prepare your gear before you get out there so you're not fumbling noisily about for a new roll of film while the birds fly away.
- Try to stay downwind from the bird so that any noise you make is not blown in the direction of your subject. Contrary to what turkey hunters will tell you, most birds can't smell, so scent should not be much of a problem.
- Move slowly, keeping sudden movements to a minimum.
- Try to act as uninterested in the bird as possible; for example, don't head straight for it, which may make it nervous. Approaching the bird properly, zigzagging toward it, and keeping your eyes averted whenever possible–all of these strategies will reduce the chance that the bird is going to fly off as you advance toward it.
Wondering how to tell whether you've been spotted? John Townsend, a South Carolina botanist and expert birdwatcher who carves waterfowl decoys in his spare time, explained to us that "if a bird is ready to take off, it'll either turn its head sideways or raise its head up, as though it were straightening its posture, indicating that it senses something. This is why you wouldn't want to carve a duck decoy holding its head way up. That would communicate to the incoming waterfowl that they should stay away, that something's not right."
And John offered another suggestion for fooling the birds without a blind: Use the sun.
"I was out one day watching the ducks and I had positioned myself so that the sun, which was setting, was right behind me. It was going down at such an angle that the birds couldn't see me clearly at all. I probably wasn't more than a silhouette to them, and as a consequence they flew right over me. It looked like they were going to land on my head, they were that close."
NYI student Amrita Osborne didn't need to use a blind to capture this Great Blue Heron with her Minolta camera on a beach near Cape Canaveral, Florida. Instead she just used some of the suggestions we offered above to get close to her subject. She sat near the bird for over an hour, observing it, taking photos now and then, moving occasionally to try new angles, and playing with the exposure. "It was fun!" she wrote of her stakeout. Amrita was using a 135 mm lens and shooting with Kodacolor 100 ISO film at a shutter speed of 1/125 and an aperture set at f/8.
If you're getting as close as Amrita, you may be wondering whether your automatic rewind or shutter is going to startle the birds. Good thinking. It's very possible that all of the sounds our newfangled cameras make–and, unless you're using a Leica, the sound of the shutters in our old-fashioned ones–will be loud enough to frighten some birds. Here's a suggestion offered by one of our student photographers for dealing with the problem: If you're approaching a bird on foot, start pressing the shutter release at a distance, so that the bird will become accustomed to the sound as you approach. If you're in a blind, well, not much you can do, but if you can use a camera with a manual rewind and advance instead of automatic, that would certainly be preferable. The same student hinted that he had some luck muffling the sound of the automatic rewind by draping his camera with a heavy sweater. Canon cameras, by the way, are wonderfully quiet, so if you're using one, noise won't be an issue.
Getting close, of course, is more than stalking effectively or knowing how to use a blind; to get close it helps to be familiar with the best spots for observing and photographing birds. If you're positioned along a migratory route, you're in luck. Take the Cape May Bird Observatory in New Jersey, for example. When hawks migrate south along the Atlantic Coast, they follow the coastline, which gets narrower and narrower, gradually funneling them toward this tiny half-mile wide sliver of beach at Cape May. An expert birdwatcher we know who traveled there at the end of September to take a look reported that "the hawks were hungry from their trip south so there was lots of carnage."
"It's probably one of the few places where you could go knowing you'll have a chance to photograph a hawk catching and consuming its prey," he told us. "And I was there for only about an hour and fifteen minutes, but it was enough to see one Peregrine Falcon (though the people working there said they had already seen fifteen that day), around 20 to 30 Kestrels, several Ospreys, some Sharp-shinned Hawks, Merlins, and even a few Bald Eagles."
No absence of photographic opportunities, in other words.
The Need to Understand Bird Behavior
The task of approaching birds or staking them out like private investigators necessitates that we understand their likes and dislikes, and be able to anticipate their different forms of behavior: When and what a bird feeds on, what certain gestures of the wing or head express, what different sounds mean, what the bird might do next. The ability to anticipate the next move a bird makes based on its current behavior is an extremely useful talent that should be cultivated by every bird photographer. If you understand the pattern of a bird's behavior, you'll know when to have your camera ready.
Given John Townsend's twenty-something years of observing birds, we asked him to describe a situation in which knowing a bird's behavior would help you to get a good photograph.
"It's hard to get a good look at the young in a nest," John offered, "because you don't want to get too close and the young know to stay hidden. But when the young sense that mama is on her way back with food, they'll start to make noise and their heads will pop into view as they beg. This is probably one of the few times you can actually get a photo of the babies in the nest–when they're begging for food."
On a tamer note, NYI student Diana Kidd has discovered that an American Crow will fly to her back porch to eat whenever Diana whistles for it. This photo of Diana's backyard crow was published with her explanation in the October 2000 issue of Birder's World magazine.
"If nuts, cheese, and dry dog food are offered together, the birds tend to collect only one type of food in their beak at a time," wrote Diana. "The crow pictured here will actually collect one particular shape of dry dog food, choosing from about four shapes that are combined in the brand we use."
To learn more information about bird behavior, read guidebooks and bird magazines–they're plenty of them out there (see our suggested list of resources below). Go bird-watching on an excursion sponsored by a local nature society. Or participate in the annual Christmas Bird Count, (read our article on it here), organized across the country by the Audubon Society. Watch what the birds do in your backyard, in a city park, down near the river or oceanfront–or, in the case of these swans photographed by NYI student Anthony Alicata, while hanging out on the local golf course.
Even though photographing birds requires a decisiveness and quickness that may seem antithetical to composition, a good bird photographer should always be attentive to the bits and pieces of tree, lake or sky that share the frame with the main subject. Branches can be a problem, or a background that is too cluttered or too close in color to the bird's plumage. If you have a backyard that could provide a suitable habitat, you will have a greater opportunity–through the careful placement of feeders and perches–to control these variables. And since the best light often occurs during the first few hours after sunrise and before sunset, the convenience of the backyard may be particularly appealing to many of you.
Did we forget anything?
Yes, well, we didn't forget exactly, we just decided to save the best for last. This photograph of a Great Egret was taken by NYI student Sam Stia, and we think it epitomizes not only the qualities of good bird photography, but the three NYI guidelines.
Guideline 1: Know your subject.
In other words, know what you want to photograph. Of the entire three-dimensional scene in front of you, what part of that scene do you want to try to translate into the two-dimensional medium of film? Sam honed in on this graceful egret in order to capture the bird–a feathery Narcissus–peering at its own reflection.
Guideline 2: Focus attention on your subject.
Here's where background can really come in handy. The black of the water in which the egret is standing serves to emphasize the white of the bird, producing a delightful yin-yang effect–the one color pulling, the other pushing, with harmonious results.
Guideline 3: Simplify
Sam used his viewfinder to crop any extraneous elements from the image of the bird and its reflection, producing a publication-ready slide. Our eye is therefore more readily drawn into consideration of the shape and form of the egret, which suggests, to this viewer at least, a kind of calligraphy. Does it matter that the bird's legs are not visible? While in some cases, the answer would be yes, here it's a decided no. With the dark legs blending into the dark background, the line between animal and reflection is blurred and a more abstract and interesting image emerges.
One last thing...
We recommend taking a look at the photos in some of the books and magazines listed below. It's always a good idea–especially if you're interested in pursuing bird photography professionally and want to improve your work–to research the market and know what kind of images are selected most often for publication. You may also want to explore individual magazine submission policies; some smaller nature magazines and regional wildlife magazines welcome "amateur" photo submissions. And who knows–maybe your masterful, freeze-frame, color-saturated photo of that hummingbird visiting your backyard feeder will be the next photo-of-the-month on the Birder's World Web site.
The Art of Bird Photography: The Complete Guide to Professional Field Techniques
by Arthur Morris
Bird Photography, Pure and Simple
by Arthur Morris
The Field Guide to Photographing Birds by Allen Rokach and Anne Millman
Photography Outdoors: A Field Guide for Travel and Adventure Photographers by Mark Gardner and Art Wolfe
The Art of Photographing Nature by Art Wolfe and Martha Hil
Birder's World: www.birdersworld.com
(invites submissions to a photo of the month contest; the winning image is published on the Web site)
Regional wildlife magazines, like South Carolina Wildlife or Florida Wildlife and Nature
National Geographic: www.nationalgeographic.com
Bird Watcher's Digest: www.birdwatchersdigest.com
Outdoor Photographer: www.outdoorphotographer.com
Birding (bimonthly magazine published by American Birding Association)
Sites of interest
National Audubon Society: www.audubon.org
American Birding Association: www.americanbirding.org
VIREO at www.acnatsci.org/vireo describes itself as "the world's most comprehensive collection of bird photographs" and the site encourages talented photographers to contact them regarding their work.
Birding Hotspots: www.camacdonald.com/birding
North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA): www.nanpa.org
Compare your images to an extensive gallery of bird photos by Peter LaTourette at www.birdphotography.com.