Bird Photography: Use your birding skills!

Long-billed Curlew_WaddellBeach-BigBasinSP-CA_LAH_0768As birders, we have an advantage over other photographers wishing to photograph birds. We know our subjects. All those skills we’ve garnered in our years of stalking lifers and observing birdy behavior are about to pay off—big time!.

Finding birds is easier for us birders. We know where the hotspots are. (If in doubt, check out the field trip destinations from any birding club website.) For example, Colorado birders know that Mt. Evans and Guanella Pass are often productive places to search for ptarmigan, while Clark’s Nutcrackers and Gray Jays can almost always be found at the Rainbow Curve pull-out in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Now that we’ve found some birds, how do we get those “just the right moment” photos?

Prairie Falcon_LasVegasNWR-NM_LAH_8845Field experience helps us anticipate what a bird is about to do next. A bird about to fly often faces into the wind, and then “lightens the load” before launching off a branch (left). This is one reason why it’s a good idea to wear a hat in the field.) If you want a photo showing those wings outstretched, pay attention to these sorts of details. Or perhaps you want a picture of a flycatcher landing. You know that they often return to their save perch after an insect-snatching sortie. (Dragonflies do this too.) Focus on that spot and wait for the bird to arrive.

Semipalmated Sandpipers_ChicoBasinRanchCO_20100501_LAH_4500Happily, the best times to go birding—early morning and late in the day—are the best times to take photos. The beautiful golden light at those times can make the difference between just another photo and a prize-winner. Additionally, the birds are more active at the edges of the day and you can catch them in action, foraging for food, defending their territory, or displaying to a potential mate.

Wood Duck_PuebloCityPark-CO_LAH_6882_filteredAnd speaking of mates… don’t just think about the time of day; consider the time of year. As spring approaches, the male birds get all gussied up to impress the ladies. Breeding plumage is nearly always more colorful—and hence more photogenic—than non-breeding plumage. Along with the new duds come special behaviors as the birds put on a terrific show for one another—and for any photographers present. Capture the displaying males, or catch them defending their territories while driving off intruders. Breeding is followed by nest building and we know where to look for nests, whether they be on the ground or high on a cliff face.

Canada Geese_GrandLakeCO_20090714_LAH_6038Then there are the babies. Some are adorable balls of fluff, others tend toward the grotesque, but they all make eye-catching subjects. Who can resist snapping a picture of a harried parent feeding a nest full of voracious young?

Spring and fall migration also bring in new species, ones we don’t see nearly as often as the regulars. Consider the potential effect of using spring flowers or fall foliage as backdrop. Invest in warm clothes and venture out to take advantage of crystalline rime ice or newly fallen snow. Just be sure to adjust your exposure so all that white brilliance doesn’t appear 18% gray in your pictures.

seasonal backdropsThe important thing is to outside and take pictures. You may not get the greatest shots—not every trip results in publication-worthy photos—but you’re guaranteed to fail if you don’t try. The more pictures you take, the more keepers you’ll create.
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Birds, from top: Long-billed Curlew, Prairie Falcon, Semi-palmated Sandpipers, Wood Duck male, Canada Geese, Black-capped Chickadee, House Finch.

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