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Approaching Birds

Almost everything I've said in the few pages leading up to this one has been said before by others. My goal so far has been to keep it short and sweet. Longer more comprehensive discussions about cameras lenses lighting and composition aren't hard to find. How best to approach birds is important too. And not so often discussed, perhaps because it is an ethically perilous subject.

Photographers want to get close the birds. Birders want us to stand further back and to give out feathered friends some respect. How best to balance those conflicting goals is a subjective problem solved only from within. Disrespect for wildlife is like pornography. It's not easy to define but we all know it when we see it. There are some obvious do's and don'ts. _PIC4928_01_Splish-splash-dowitcher.jpg

Nesting Birds

Singing male birds who are primarily interested in love making are generally not so hard to approach. Females on the nest aren't part of the equation. Leave those birds alone. Or be content to shoot from 30 yards away. Or more.

In general, while approaching birds with camera in hand, if you make the birds fly you've gone too far. That's not such an easy metric to evaluate however, because birds fly all the time. Even when you aren't anywhere near by.

What the Robin Knows and Bird Blinds

Jon Young in What the Robin Knows talks a lot about patience and siting. Jon often sits all day long in a favorite spot, perhaps a small clearing in the woods. Jon's book isn't about photography but it's hard not to make that connection as you read it. Jon is interested in bird behavior so he sits quietly and watches, with notebook in hand. I do much the same but I record what I see with a camera instead of a notebook. Sometimes I use a boat. I have many times parked my boat on a sandbar and waited all day. Sleeping some. Gazing. And getting fast into action when the birds finally come my way.

Approaching

I used to be a hunter. I don't hunt anymore but when I was younger I was out there every fall. I did a lot of deer hunting. I was good at it. I was never a particularly good shot but I was very good and finding the animals. And at sneaking up close to them before I squeezed off a shot. Hunters work with the wind. The wind not only carries odors it carries sound too. Approaching closely is all about moving slowly with frequent ghostly-silent pauses. Making a little sound as possible. And about working with the wind.

Get as close as you can without flushing the birds. If you are approaching from a slowly moving car you can get surprisingly close. If you so much as click the door handle off they'll fly. If you are working the gas peddle and inching slowly forward stop frequently. Wait ten seconds or so and then begin to inch forward again, slowly, the instant a fence-perched bird begins to preen again. The instant that bird pokes his head up to sniff and to watch, stop the car. Brace your camera against the car (or truck's) window frame and squeeze off a few shots.

If you are trying to sneak up close to raptor perched on a power pole never try to get closer than a half a power pole spacing. If you do the bird will fly anyway. If you see a good bird perched on a fence tree or power pole but it is back lighted keep on driving. U-turn 1/4 mile down the road and come back. You want the sun shining on the bird from behind the camera rather than from behind the bird.

On windy days mule deer hunters know they can often find their long-eared quarry standing still on windy ridge tops, with their backs to the wind. The deer can smell trouble coming from behind, when their backs are facing into the wind. So they stand and watch the other way, doing their best to see trouble coming from the odorless destination direction the winds are driving into. Animals, in other words, work with the wind too. On still days even gentle breezes tend to come from a constant direction. It's always important to think about approaching from a downwinddirection.

Even more important than a background awareness about wind is to watch his subject like a hawk. When you spot a bird from a convenient distance. And then you want to approach slowly with frequent stops. You want to keep your eyes glued to the bird so you can read its body language. You can tell when a bird gets nervous. It will look at you and then look all around. If it dips down on its legs and hunches its shoulders you know it's about to fly. But birds often dip and hunch, as if they're about to jump and fly, and then they change their minds. Watch the bird closely. Move slowly and pause frequently. Frozen like a statue. Don't move a muscle. Wait patiently. Slowly step forward again when you see the bird relax again. Move the fastest (but still slowly) when the bird is either singing or looking the other way.

All of what I just said about monitoring a bird's body language works well when approaching from a car or ruck too. A great variety of birds can be found right along the side of the road, from winter time Rough Legged Hawks and Eagles on power poles to Grasshopper Sparrows and Burrowing owls on barbed wire fences or old cedar fence posts. Drive slowly and watch. When you spot a bird (if you're not on a well-traveled highway) shift into first gear and work both the brake and the gas pedal. Stop moving the moment you see the bird get nervous. Roll down your window. Turn off the radio. Never turn off the ignition and never open the door. Or--if you do want to work with an open car door open it long before you get close to the bird.

Some species are spookier than others. It's pleasantly easy to drive right up beside Horned Larks at times, while maddeningly difficult to get close to Meadow Larks, Red Winged Black Birds or Warblers. Yellow Headed Blackbirds are spooky too, but not nearly as much as their Red Winged counterparts. The Snipe is a notoriously spooky and secretive bird. But you never know. A Snipe perched on a fence post will sometimes allow you slowly drive to within 20' feet or so.

Winter time hawks on power poles can usually be approached safely and reliably to one power pole spacing away. To get closer takes great skill. And mostly luck. Bird photography is not always compatible with birding. Bird photography takes patience and perseverance. You have to be willing to scare 90% of your subjects away, so you can press the shutter only ten percent of the time. Eagles are fickle birds. Eagles will often spook and fly from a great distance. But they're also macho birds who will often hold their ground and stare back at you, allowing you to slowly approach far closer than any Red Tail Hawk ever will. Eagles are most reluctant to fly when their bellies are gorged on roadkill deer. If you spot a freshly killed elk or deer carcass you might want to keep your eye on it for a few days. Especially so early and late in the day when the biggest raptors are most likely to visit.

Prize winning bird photographs are almost always taken with long lenses, from surprisingly short distances. Getting that close isn't easy, and some people are far more skilled at it than others. It's important to remember top-of-the-line nature photographers often spend days or even weeks huddled in a tree top blind, waiting patiently for an elusive Harpy Eagle, Toucan or hummingbird. Few of us here will ever spend a week in tree top blind. But we can learn to move slowly. And not to get upset when the bird flies too soon. Repetition and perseverance is what it's all about.

Favorite Perches

Last year I got to spend two long and somewhat tedious days working as a nameless fly-casting model on an ESPN fly fishing documentary. While I was standing there largely motionless for hours at a time, waiting for the photographer to setup the next shot, I couldn't help noticing the Yellow Warblers across the creek kept re-appearing on the same branches. The male birds all seemed to have 2, 3 or 4 different perches they'd visit over and over again like a film loop in a 1960s light show. Even if you scare a bird away from a favorite perch it's likely to return soon. So if you hide yourself slightly and sit or stand as motionless as possible a recently scared and flown-away bird is highly likely to return. Patience waiting and faith in the bird's eventual return is what makes it happen. A lightweight three-legged fold-up stool is as important to the bird photographer as a lightweight tripod.

Tripods and Mono pods

A camera mounted on a tripod and activated with remote shutter control produces the sharpest photos. No matter what. Tripods light enough to carry around all day exist. But they are expensive. One inexpensive and useful alternative is a mono pod. I use mine constantly. Mono pod photos might not be as sharp as their tripod counterparts, but the do tend to be an order of magnitude sharper than any hand held exposure, at least at any shutter speed less than 1/1000th of a second.

Automobiles and Beanbags

Driving remotely located rural gravel roads (in Summer and Winter both) is one of the great pleasures in life. I'm happy to spend an entire day just driving a 5-10 miles per hour. Birds have gradually learned to ignore moving vehicles. Birds do tend to take notice if a vehicle slows down or stops. But not nearly as nervous as they do when they hear the ignition turn off and the car door make its latch opening sound. When I spot a Horned Lark, Meadowlark, Grasshopper Sparrow or Burrowing Owl on a fence post or a string of barbed wire I slow down to nearly a stop. Open the window half way, place a bean bag on the top edge of the window and my 400mm lens on top of the bean bag. And then I drive slowly forward. If I see the bird getting nervous I stop and wait. The moment the bird relaxes I start to move again. 19 times out of 20 the bird flies before I get the shot I wanted. Once out of twenty times is good enough. With the window down and carefully maneuvered pickup truck I can often get the front end of my lens to within 20' feet of a fence-perched bird. And the closer the better. Sharply focused well-lighted bird photos that fill the entire frame are what I want to see. An alternative to a bean bag is a foam swimming pool noodle clipped down to perhaps 12" inches long, with and end-to-end slit cut into the noodle with a sheet rock knife, so the slit noodle can be slotted right over the top edge of a half-opened car door window. A properly-cushioned car door window can stabilize a camera as well as a tripod.