This is the third of a series discussing bird photography.
I’ve already discussed various ways we can outfit ourselves to do bird photography in the wild, but it is also important to explore two much easier ways to do birding that are not so gear-centric or subject to wild elements. My wife and I do a lot of shooting of birds right off our deck into our own backyard. It is a ridiculously easy and enjoyable way to get some great bird photos. While the subjects will be limited to what you have in your area, it can be surprising just how many different types of birds there can be in a single neighborhood. We also often frequent zoos and aviaries, where we can see exotic birds in a more relaxing manner and requiring less specialized gear. The photographic opportunities are not always as great, but for many people bird photography is as much about the bird as it is about the photography. One other major difference in these settings is that they are in controlled environments, meaning there is far less unpredictability involved than in the wild sort of bird photography I discussed in my last post. In my backyard, I control the setting and the types of birds I will attract depending on the feeders I use. Getting super close can reveal great feather detail about the birds that is much harder to capture in more open environments.
Backyard Birding:We live in a small townhouse in the middle of typical suburbia. While that’s admittedly not the ideal environment for birding, our backyard opens into a small wooded area, and we have set up three to four different types of feeders (depending on the season) and a bird bath on our second-story deck. At any time throughout the year we will have nearly two dozen species frequenting our deck on a daily, and sometimes hourly, basis. The result is ample opportunity for convenient and fun bird photography right from our back window, all year long. Because some of the species migrate, perhaps a quarter of the clientele for our feeders varies somewhat by season. That, coupled with the changing colors of our backyard foliage, have made for some of our favorite shooting experiences.
Over the several years we have been doing this, we have noticed growing populations of almost all of the birds, as they have come to recognize our area as a good location and have flourished in the area. House Finches, House Sparrows, Tufted Titmice, Black-Capped Chickadees, Carolina Wrens, American Robins, Mourning Doves, White-Breasted Nuthatches, American Goldfinches, Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, Downy Woodpeckers and Red-Bellied Woodpeckers are all permanent residents. Red-Winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, White-Throated Sparrows, Chipping Sparrows and Fox Sparrows have regularly come in the Winter and Spring. We’ve seen the progression as the Spring chicks are fed and come into their own throughout the Summer, as well as the occasional new visitor that we hadn’t seen the year before. Starting in 2014, Common Starlings, Dark-Eyed Juncos and Ruby-Crowned Kinglets started frequenting our backyard in the winter months, whereas in the two years before that, there were none. We’ve also had rare visitations, such as a Green Heron, Yellow Warbler, and Eastern Bluebird — all of whom we have only spotted once. A few times, we’ve seen Catbirds, Northern Flickers, and even an occasional Coopers Hawk looking to pick off one of our guests for a quick meal. We’ve also annually attracted a single female Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, who comes back every Spring and stays through Summer, but has persistently chased off any other Hummingbirds (which is not always something Hummingbirds do, as one of our friends frequently has several who come to feed together without fighting). Some birds, like Starlings, Jays and Blackbirds, are considered pests, but we haven’t minded them being around.Because the feeders and the trees are so close (about 5 feet from the bird bath, 8-9 feet from the feeders, and 10-15 feet from where they like to perch in the trees), the 40-150mm Pro happens to be a perfect focal length for our situation. Whether or not that would be true for your situation I can’t say, and this closeness actually is primarily due to the limited space we have in our back — the deck being really the only option. Having the feeders a little further away from the house is actually recommended for the sake of the birds’ comfort level and to make it less likely for them to accidentally fly into the window and potentially kill them. I will say that in three years we have had two such incidents that we know of, and both times the victim shook it off and flew away. I think one of them would have happened regardless, as it didn’t occur near the feeders. We do keep the blinds closed so the birds can see there is something solid there and avoid them. It also helps mask our presence, as they do keep an eye on us through the window. The birds have eventually gotten more used to our close proximity, but most of them still don’t trust humans enough to be out on the deck with them (though even that seems to be changing with a few of the braver, or hungrier, ones – such as our Black-capped Chickadees). We even put the hummingbird feeder right in front of the window, which allows us to get within inches of her if we are still, and she has never had any problems. But then, she is a much more controlled flier than other birds. You will notice most of these shots were taken in the fall and winter. We actually shoot all year-round, but the most fun to be had is when the weather is cold and the leaves are bare. The birds are much easier to see, and they tend to hang around the feeder in large numbers all day long, depending on the source of nutritional energy to stay warm. Spring is also nice, because the flowering trees create a beautiful backdrop, while there are still no leaves to obscure the view. Spring is also mating season; the males’ plumage becomes more vibrant and their behavior becomes more active. Autumn is another great time, with the fiery orange and yellows of the leaves making a warm environment, and a number of berries also start to appear. Midsummer, however, is the least effective time to bird. The birds are hot and require less food, so they nap in the shade in the midday and so only regularly come to feed in the early morning and evening, when it is cooler. The thick canopy of leaves, though, is the real problem. We can usually hear them, but not see them. In fact, we tend not to do as much bird photography of any kind in the heart of summer because of the difficulty of getting an unobscured shot. Maintenance requires daily keeping the deck, feeders and bath clean, as well as occasional replenishing the food and water (more frequent in the cold months, as the birds must eat more to keep warm, or to prepare for migration), and occasionally cleaning the windows so that we can shoot out of them with minimal loss of clarity. Cleaning is important to prevent diseases, and our local birding stores (where we purchased our feeders) actually offer to clean feeders as a free service. Another aspect of keeping a bath is keeping it from freezing in the winter with the use of a heater. Birds are in need of fresh, unfrozen water in the winter more than any other time, but I have to say that we have not had much luck in this regard. Even though our bath has a built-in heater, the heat it puts out doesn’t seem strong enough to keep the water from freezing over.
Another issue is choosing the right kind of feeder and the type of food it is made for. Different types of food require different types of feeders, and attract different types of birds. Smaller birds like finches prefer nyjer, while slightly larger birds (such as sparrows) like sunflower seeds. It seems like almost all of them (but especially the larger birds) love peanuts. Suet, a sticky block of high energy food, is best in the winter when it doesn’t melt and the birds need the extra energy it provides. In the summer months, a special concoction of nectar is used for our hummingbird feeder, and we change out the nectar regularly to keep it fresh. Another distinction among feeders is whether it is made for perching or clinging birds. Birds who are used to perching, such as finches and cardinals, can have a hard time getting food without a peg or ring to stand on and sized to their bodies. We have both a perching feeder for seed mixtures and a clinging feeder made for peanuts. Clinging birds, such as nuthatches and woodpeckers, don’t require pegs or rings to stand on; they just hold onto the side mesh. However, once our perching birds learned how delicious peanuts are, they quickly learned to cling as well. Fruit is needed to attract birds like Orioles. We have not yet done this, and as a result have never seen a wild Oriole, but are considering ways to do it that are not messy, such as using a bowl of jelly. There are also feeders made for birds who prefer to eat from the ground, such as robins, doves and fox sparrows. These are essentially just platforms, and while you can put whatever you want in them, typically dried worms works well, and squirrels won’t eat it. We don’t have one of these types of feeders, however, because we didn’t see a need to. Birds are messy eaters, and a lot of the seeds ends up falling to the grass below. As a result, we actually have two areas of birding activity – one high in the trees and the deck, and the other on the ground underneath. At the bottom, many of the ground feeding birds will pick up through the grass for seeds dropped from above.Our biggest nemeses are the squirrels, who use their Spider Man agility and Einstein intelligence to infiltrate whatever defenses we put up and gobble up as much bird food as they can. But, even that battle can be a source of entertainment. We don’t own feeders that spin and fling the squirrel off, especially considering how high the feeders are and the possibility that such a fall could kill the squirrel. We use a spicy variety of suet that squirrels supposedly don’t like (birds, on the other hand, cannot detect spiciness), but some of them acquired a taste for it anyway. There are feeders with large cages around them that allow the birds to get in, but not the squirrels, and while these are probably the most effective, we don’t use them because they interfere with our sight lines, and the larger birds can’t get in. What we do use are spring weighted feeders that close when a certain amount of weight bears down on them. Birds (as long as they are not too big) can land on them and get food, but a squirrel’s weight is too much. The larger squirrels figured out how to defeat these as well. By standing on the deck posts and stretching out so that only their front paws are on the feeder, the weight is not enough to close the feeder. We even tried putting thorny plants on the posts to keep them from standing there, but they were able to maneuver their lithe bodies around them and still get the food. They used one paw to hold onto the shepherd hooks used to suspend the feeders while they leaned over the ledge, so we put a slippery substance designed to foil a squirrel’s ability to climb poles. But the squirrels licked the substance off and carried on. Literally, these guys are like Delta Squadron of the animal kingdom. I admit, however, that they are too cute for our battle with them to be anything other than half-hearted. We sometimes leave out trays of seeds in the winter, which both the squirrels and the birds can get at easily. There is a certain amount of planning in setting up feeders in the backyard. The type and placement of the feeders as well as perches for the birds allows you to control your sight lines, backgrounds, and even the predictable paths the birds take between the perches and the feeders. We didn’t have to change anything in this regard (nor could we have if we wanted to). Our backyard only has the deck and the trees up against it. There is a very short distance between the trees and the feeders (between one to five feet, depending on the feeder), which means we are getting incredibly close-up, sharply detailed images of our subjects. Usually, this is on the branches right off the deck. The birds like to pause and stake out the area for predators before feeding, so they need a place of relative safety to perch and look around. Hawks do swing by our backyard every once in a while to feed, as they know that feeders mean songbirds are nearby. While we haven’t seen it happen, I have no doubt that they have culled some of our population. (If you have never seen a Coopers Hawk or Sharp-Shinned Hawk fly between the branches though a dense forest, do an internet search for footage. Their agility and speed is amazing to behold.) We have plenty of trees abutting our deck, so our birds have a nice canopy of cover to pause in between trips to the feeder, and this is the background we have for almost all of our photographs. If you do not have a natural setup like this, there are any number of ways you could plant or erect a perch for the birds to use, whether from planted trees and bushes or man-made structures. One detriment to it being so close is that catching the birds in flight becomes even trickier, because the closer they are and the more they fill the frame, the more frenetic and unforgiving the panning to keep them in frame. One thing I occasionally do is set up the camera on a tripod on the deck, and shoot via remote control from inside. Setting up the camera early and leaving it there for a while will allow the birds to get used to it. I position the camera and pre-focus it (manual focus) to the empty space between where the birds like to perch and the feeder. I can use a relatively wide lens because the camera is so close. Just as a bird starts to fly across that expanse, I start firing a burst. This technique, called Focus Trapping, is probably the easiest way to capture small song birds in flight. Even then, it is still challenging. Try as I might, I cannot discern any tells or body movements broadcasted when these little birds are about to take flight, and since the distances from the perches to the feeders are so short in my backyard, it requires more reflexes to successfully capture one than it would in a larger backyard. There is also a delay in the responsiveness of the Olympus OI Share app, so I prefer to use a wireless remote trigger. I have a Hahnel Giga T Pro II version made for Olympus cameras, which works very well.
Zoos, Rescue Centers and Aviaries:Birding does not have to be about going to national parks or the wilderness. Shooting birds in a contained environment can be a very easy and enjoyable way to photograph exotic birds that you may never have the opportunity to encounter anywhere else. Going to a zoo or aviary, or attending photo shoot opportunities to meet the birds taken in by rescue shelters allow you to get a lot closer without the need for a massive telephoto lens. There are also many parks where local birds have become used to humans, and interact with them in sometimes unique ways. Because the birds are closer, I generally find that shooting with the 40-150mm is an adequate focal length range for zoos, aviaries, and many parks where birds are used to people. There is no need for special gear or tripods, and indeed they can get in the way or be against the rules in these types of environments. If you plan on bringing a support system, it is best to check online to see what the regulations are for bringing them into the park. We recently visited the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, and got to get up close with a day full of “lifers” — birds we’ve never before seen in our lifetime. We have also frequented the National Zoo in Washington, DC. Almost all of the aviary and one section of the zoo are enclosures where you will be among the birds as they fly about, rather than shooting through glass or a cage. We really enjoyed these places, and saw some amazing birds. At the aviary, there are also educational and entertaining shows, where photography is not allowed. Photography is allowed during feedings, and the aviary allows the audience to feed some of the birds by hand. For both of these places, if you arrive early they are practically empty of people, and I understand that they sometimes have closed events just for photographers. It is quite possible that there are similar opportunities in zoos of other areas as well.
In these sorts of places, the indoor background is not always going to be pretty (though the aviary’s galleries in particular were filled with beautiful foliage for the birds to perch in), but at least our shots were not obstructed by glass or cages. It isn’t fun to shoot birds behind thick, dirty glass or wire mesh, particularly glass that is scratched and/or dirty — which I find typically to be the case at zoos. One trick to get around this is to shoot as close as possible to the glass or mesh, (shoot through the holes in the mesh) and shoot with aperture wide open. This will minimize the obstructiveness of the glass or cage. Another trick to remove some of the glare coming off of glass is to shoot with a polarizing filter. Polarizers, however, can come at a cost of a stop of light (which can be a problem in indoor situations), and won’t rid the glass of all glare in extreme lighting conditions. Sometimes the best solution is to just position yourself so that the glare is not in your shot, but this is not always possible. For obvious reasons, do not use a flash when shooting through glass.Sometimes wild birds become used to humans (and being fed by humans) and take on more dependent lifestyles in local parks. At the DC zoo, one would think the Black-crowned Night Herons are parts of the exhibit, but they actually roam freely and stay at the zoo because they want to. Most of the lakes in our area have signs warning people from feeding the waterfowl, but it doesn’t work with the abundance of well-intentioned people who don’t seem to read. As a result, it is easy to get photographic close-ups of some types of local ducks and geese. Migrants birds (even if of the same species) are different, however, as they will swim away from the humans rather than towards them. It is these who the signs are meant to protect, as they will likely be hunted at some point in the right season. I will talk more about the ethical debate of this in the next section.
Another interesting experience was attending a photo shoot opportunity hosted by the Owl Moon Rescue Center in Maryland, in order to raise money for their rescue work. These particular birds had been dealt severe injuries before they were rescued, and as a result were unable to be rehabilitated into the wild (which is normally what the center tries to do). The photo shoot was an excellent chance to get close up to some birds of prey, many of which are not from our area. We were able to see various owls and hawks, as well as smaller birds like kestrels and falcons. The birds were perched on either little stands or a handler’s arm, and were surrounded by people, so the background was not the best, but the importance of the event was marveling at the birds far more close-up than could ever (or should ever) be achieved in the wild. I should forewarn that a lot of people mistakenly brought telephoto lenses. Not only was there no need to bring such a long lens, as we were literally only a few feet from the birds, but it could seriously hinder the photography. These photographers had to stand way back amidst a crowd of people just to get the birds in frame. A regular portrait lens or medium telephoto, such as the 40-150mm Pro that I used, was perfect. While the event was free, there was opportunity to provide a small donation, which we happily did.
Moral Debates:I don’t mean to turn this blog into a sermon or tell people what to do, but I do want to make readers aware of a few naturalist morals as well as photography ethics debates going on about shooting animals in ways that introduce more personal control. I generally find that there are extreme cases that are blatantly morally reprehensible (some of which I won’t get into here), and then more grey-area varieties where I am not so opinionated or in some cases even supportive. Regardless, underlying all of these debates there are more motivations in my bird photography than just to capture an epic shot. Finding the birds themselves is important, both as a “collector” and a “hunter” (for the record, I am neither physically collecting or hunting them – just photographing them – but there is a kind of satisfaction that I would imagine is similar in finding them and capturing their image). Another driver is being among nature and celebrating how amazing (or sometimes hard) it can be, and even raising awareness of wildlife issues. Pursuit of photographic art is, of course, a third motivation. I don’t think one needs to necessarily have all three drivers, or have them all the time, (I’m certainly not in nature from the comfort of my kitchen window), but I do think they are central to most of the moral debates of bird photography particularly when any of them get trampled upon. I think usually that happens when a photographer gets carried away in trying to get a great photograph.
One very publicized issue is whether it is ethical to shoot wildlife that has been taken into captivity for profit. Game farms are facilities where oftentimes rare or exotic animals are kept in captivity so that photographers or film makers can pay a fee to shoot them in “action” — even if the activity takes place in an environment completely different from their natural habitat. At first glance, it sounds like a relatively affordable way to get a chance to shoot animals you may never see otherwise, but there is a dark side to these places. I have never been to one of them (nor intend to), and can’t vouch for the supposedly inhumane conditions these animals live in, but the stories are not pretty. That said, I already mentioned that I do enjoy going to zoos, and I support rescue shelters that nurse animals back to health from tragic events that would otherwise have killed them. So, as with most of these issues, I think there are gradations.There is another nuanced, photography-centered debate as to whether it is ethical to influence or bait wild animals into certain behavior or to come closer. Again, I think there are different circumstances which can make some scenarios less clear-cut than others. Zoos and aviaries often train animals, and I can’t say if the animals’ lives are happy ones or not, but in any case they have no choice in the matter but to be outside of their habitats and natural behaviors. One could argue that my keeping bird feeders in my backyard is the exact same thing as baiting, but I suppose there is a difference between baiting songbirds and, say, birds of prey. I’ve never heard anyone ever complain about backyard bird feeders, but if someone tries to bait an owl into swooping in for a one-in-a-million shot (I have never done this), there may be protest. Perhaps part of the issue may be about the genuineness of the shot, but it more importantly has to do with not interfering with the predatory instincts of a bird (I’ll leave animal psychology to the experts) or making the animal too comfortable around humans that could easily kill it. No one almost hunted House Finches to extinction, though this has almost happened to some of our nation’s treasured birds of prey. Perhaps there is also something to the argument that I am creating a permanent habitat for these birds, a place where they can always have food and water. That all said, even if you personally feel there is nothing wrong with baiting, I would suggest that at the very least you flag the picture with the word “baited.” For similar reasons, in some parks in the U.S. it is illegal to approach animals to within a certain distance. When birds are in their nesting grounds, I have seen situations like this, though most other times the birds are in complete control and are quick to fly well away from humans, making any regulations moot. Many photographers violate these rules out of ignorance or the overwhelming desire to get close enough for a great shot. In nesting cases, where the animals will likely be at higher stress over their fear of humans warring with their need to protect their clutch, the risk of harming the eggs (or causing the parent to abandon them) is very real, the laws are there for a good reason. Because of the prevalence and impact of getting too close to the birds, a lot of wildlife photographers refuse to disclose where they have found rare birds (at least I hope that is their primary motivation). This is true for some rare birds even when they aren’t nesting, such as Snowy Owls, simply because of the stress humans getting too close can cause to these solitary animals. Again, I don’t know what’s going on in the animals’ minds, and I’ll leave defending the issues to the experts. I just want to make people aware of the debates so that they can research the problems and make their own decisions. I think it is important to close by saying that shooting birds in zoos or parks is absolutely not cheating; but lying about it is. No one will think less of you if an amazing shot of an exotic bird was taken in a zoo, as opposed to being the product of some arduous journey into some far off wilderness. While many people (me included) enjoy the romance of being out in the wild and taking the hard trek to find animals in their habitat (and may take extra pride in doing so), that is a separate, personal motivation that doesn’t take anything away from a nice photograph, or simply the pleasure of going to a park. Most bird photography doesn’t require extreme adventures into the deep wild, anyways. A great shot is a great shot, so just be upfront about how it was taken. There are several close-up shots of birds on my Flickr page from the Owl Moon Animal Shelter that include word “rescued” in the description. If the bird was from a zoo or aviary, I would use the word “captive.” Many of the shots I took at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh probably could have been passed off as having been taken in the birds’ exotic habitats around the globe, but I won’t do that. By showing integrity and transparency, I am respecting the craft of the wildlife photographer without limiting my own photography.