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Bird Photography Tips — Bird Photography Road Trip (full story)

©Glenn Bartley
Connecticut Warbler (Oporornis agilis), MB
Settings: 700mm focal length, ƒ5.6@1/320 sec., ISO 800

Story and photography by Glenn Bartley

For all the photo trips I take to exotic tropical destinations I have to admit that my absolutely favourite type of bird photography excursion is a good, old-fashioned Canadian road trip.

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I love the freedom and flexibility of road trips. I love that I don’t have to spend time in airports or take any flights. Perhaps most of all I love seeing parts of Canada that I would probably otherwise never visit.

I have done some pretty serious bird photography road trips in my days as a nature photographer. Usually I like to go for at least three weeks to really cover some ground and see a lot of species.

The longest trip I undertook was seven weeks and involved more than 10,000 kilometres of driving! On that trip I visited many different habitats all across Canada — from the Okanagan Valley in B.C., to the Prairies of southern Alberta, to the boreal forest of northern Manitoba and even the tundra near Churchill, Man.

The images in this article are all from that one epic road trip that I took in my trusty old Subaru.

©Glenn Bartley
A male chestnut-collared longspur sings from its territory in southern Manitoba
Settings: 700mm focal length, ƒ9@1/500 sec., ISO 200

 

Preparation and Research 

Any good photography road trip starts well in advance of the actual journey with thorough research and the scouting of locations. When I am researching for a trip I usually start by flipping through my field guide and picking out a handful of species that I am really excited to photograph. Once I have my list of targets I start to try to figure out when will be the best time of year to photograph them. In most cases this is going to be in the spring during breeding season. More specifically I aim for the first week that these birds are on territory. 

Perhaps the most valuable tool available for narrowing down the timing and specific sites is the website Ebird (www.ebird.org). This citizen science project is an incredibly valuable resource for bird photographers. Simply enter a species name and zoom in on the map to your area of interest and instantly you will have incredible insight about where and when your target bird has been seen.

Locating hotspots for a given species can save a lot of time in the field and lead to much greater odds of locating your subject.

Once you know where and when to go you can focus on trip specifics such as where to stay, any specific gear needed, while making sure that you are familiar with the calls of the birds you are pursuing. 

Black-backed woodpeckers specialize in disturbed habitats such as those affected by forest fire. A quick question to a friendly park naturalist in Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba allowed me to locate the most recently burned areas and within minutes I was photographing this species.

Get Intimate with New Ecosystems 

While not an absolute necessity, I think it is hugely beneficial to try and camp onsite during road trips. One of the main reasons for this is to become acquainted with new and unfamiliar ecosystems. Spending the maximum amount of time on location will allow you a more intimate knowledge of the local environment. You will hear the birds singing first thing in the morning and last thing at night and will therefore be able to find them more easily.

Nature photography (especially bird photography) is all about understanding your subjects and their behaviour. To do this best you need to spend as much time as possible in their presence. On a road trip you may only have a few days in a given ecosystem so it pays to camp onsite if possible.

©Glenn Bartley
Black-backed Woodpecker perched on a burned tree trunk in Manitoba.
Settings: 500mm focal length, ƒ5@1/80 sec., ISO 800

Finding the Birds — Sight, Sound and Habitat 

Doing your research in advance will get you in the vicinity of your target birds. Actually getting your lens on them though will require a bit of knowledge. I often say to people that being a good birder is the No. 1 skill required in being a good bird photographer. You simply cannot separate the two. 

Step one of identifying birds is to know your subject when you see it. For the most part this is pretty straightforward. Even more valuable to the keen birder or photographer is to know your target birds by their song. This requires a lot more time in the field but will ultimately pay the biggest dividends.

A final and more nuanced skill is to be able to look at a given habitat and know what birds should be there. Understanding the species composition of different ecosystems allows you to really refine what you are looking for. It also allows you to make targeted stops on the road when the habitat looks right for a species you are after.

Often tricky to photograph, the Connecticut Warbler would have been impossible for me to photograph without being familiar with its song. 

Last Words 

We are so lucky to live in such a vast and beautiful country. In my opinion there is no better way to explore Canada and all of the incredible birds that live here than on a road trip. Whether it’s just for a weekend getaway or a multi-week expedition, do yourself a favour and get out on the road with your camera, binoculars and camping gear. You won’t regret it!

To read more of this not-to-miss issue please pick up the Fall/Winter 2018 issue today online or at your local newsstand. To never miss an issue you can subscribe here

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