The biggest hurdle for most bird photographers is getting close enough to capture an image where the bird is prominent in the photo. In a previous issue, I wrote about using high-magnification lenses as a fundamental way to help fill the frame. Today, I’m giving an overview of other techniques photographers use to get close to birds (I’ll cover some in more detail in future issues). Some of these methods can harm the birds if done irresponsibly, so please consider this as a starting point in learning to be a responsible bird photographer. Since these are (or were) common techniques, it’s important to discuss them openly.
Stalking tame, approachable or migrating birds
Going to places where birds are tame and approachable, such as city parks, is an easy way to practise bird photography and bag some great photos. These spots have plenty of common species (e.g. ring-billed gulls eating French fries) to focus on, but you can also find more exotic birds as well. My best photos of long-tailed ducks, a beautiful Arctic nesting species, were taken in downtown Toronto as the birds overwintered on Lake Ontario.
Visiting locations where birds congregate during migration (called “migrant traps”) or winter and pursuing them while they are preoccupied with resting and eating is a common strategy for bird photography. Well-known hotspots include Point Pelee National Park (ON), George C. Reifel Bird Sanctuary (BC) and Beaverhill Lake (AB).
Photographing birds on their nests or at nesting colonies
Shooting birds on their nest was common decades ago, but is rarely ever practised now because of the high level of disturbance to the birds and threat to nesting success. Photographing certain types of birds, notably seabirds, at large nesting colonies can be done responsibly at certain locations with controlled access. Two of the most magical days I’ve spent shooting birds in Canada were at the northern gannet colonies at Cape St. Mary’s (Newfoundland) and Bonaventure Island (Quebec).
Attracting birds with food or water
Setting up a bird feeder in your backyard is an easy and fun way to lure birds within photography range. Drop by your local bird-feeding store for tips on the best types of feeders and seeds for the birds found in your area. Put out a buffet of several kinds of food to attract different species (I’ve had up to 14 feeders in my backyard at one time!). If you’re in an arid climate like the Okanagan Valley (BC), set up a bird bath or water drip to lure in birds for a drink.
Luring in predatory birds such as owls and hawks with mice is a common practice for capturing dramatic photos of these birds, but it’s a controversial technique because (among other reasons) it’s sometimes done in ways that could potentially harm the birds. I’ll do a detailed analysis of this topic in a future issue.
Attracting birds with their songs
During nesting season, male birds sing to attract mates and tell others to stay away from their turf. If you go into their breeding territory and play their song, they think it’s a rival male and will respond aggressively — often by coming in close to the source of the sound. This is an increasingly popular technique for photographing songbirds such as warblers (almost every photo you see of a songbird with its head tilted back singing is taken this way). Only experienced photographers with intimate knowledge of bird behaviour should consider this technique because of the potential to cause the bird to abandon its territory if overdone. Note that calling birds is not permitted in many parks, and it’s not legal to call some species officially designated as “species at risk.”
Concealing yourself and your movements with the use of blinds or camouflage can be very effective for getting close to many species. I use pop-up blinds in my yard, shoot out of my kitchen window or out of the window of my car with great success. When photographing very shy birds, I’ll even dress up from head-to-toe in camouflage.
To read more of Ethan’s columns and other great how-to articles please pick up the Fall/Winter 2014 issue of OPC today, or subscribe!