Tips for Would-Be Bird Photographers


WC has a number of nature photographer friends who primarily shoot landscapes. They moan about how quickly the light can change and how sometimes they have only minutes, mere minutes, to get their shot. To a bird photographer, “mere minutes” are the purest luxury. Sometimes, but not often, a bird photographer has as many as ten seconds to get a shot. If you are after an action photo, a duck taking off, for example, you have perhaps a tenth of a second. Trying to track a hummingbird or a kinglet through a big lens can be a ticket to severe frustration.

To spare those readers who might just be starting to photograph birds at least some of that aggravation, WC offers some beginner’s tips and, as well, answers some questions readers have about WC’s knowledge of bird behavior.

The best way to get a photograph of a bird is to have your camera aimed, focused and ready at the spot where you think the bird is going to be. As an example, a flycatcher that launches from a perch to get a bug is more likely than not to return to that same spot. It’s how flycatchers behave. Focus on the perch, and be ready. You might even get a shot of the flycatcher landing.

Hammond's Flycatcher

Hammond’s Flycatcher

Now that implies some basic knowledge of bird behavior. You need to be able to recognize flycatcher behavior, and act accordingly. Sometimes you need to know it is a flycatcher. And that implies at least some basic ability to identify birds.

Another example: if you are looking at a hawk or owl, and it fluffs itself out and shakes its feathers – the technical term is “rouses” – you know that bird is more likely than not to fly away pretty soon.

Rough-legged Hawk Rousing

Rough-legged Hawk Rousing

Another example, Townsend’s Warblers, busy gleaning bugs off leaves and stems, like most warblers will look around to make certain it is safe every three or four leaves, just as this guy did. If you know that about warblers, then you can track the bird for the moment when you get a less obstructed shot.

Townsend's Warbler

Townsend’s Warbler

Most hummingbirds have territories they defend by flying around the boundaries and looking for intruders. In many North American species, it can be a well-defined “circuit.” That means that if you see a hummingbird on a photogenic perch, but it leaves before you can get the shot, simply wait a while – it can be up to an hour – and the hummingbird may very well be back.

Anna's Hummingbird on Circuit

Anna’s Hummingbird on Circuit

All of which should help explain how WC knew that gulls would run through brine flies with their mouths open as a foraging technique. It’s  well-known behavior of Salt Lake gulls.

So bird identification and some understanding of bird behavior are extremely helpful in photographing birds. Yes, it involves a little more work. Landscapes don’t require the same effort. But birds are more fun, more challenging and, at least for WC,  ultimately more rewarding.

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6 thoughts on “Tips for Would-Be Bird Photographers

  1. Agreed WC, knowing a bird’s behavior is very important in bird photography. Another tips on raptors is they usually poop before lifting off.

    And if a person doesn’t have patience then perhaps bird photography isn’t for them!

    • >>> “….Another tip on raptors is they usually poop before lifting off….”

      And we should all be so thankful for their thoughtfulness. 🙂

      Paul Eaglin
      Fairbanks

  2. PS. I wish I had “mere minutes” with birds, most often though we only have seconds.

    I would have one issue with landscape photography after being a bird photographer…. I would probably be bored out of my mind.

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