Just mention birds and many of us dream of photographing herons and egrets in the Everglades, flamingos on a brackish lake in Kenya, puffin and penguin colonies in colder climates, and macaws in a Central American tropical forest. Traveling to photograph birds has serious drawbacks. Try checking eighty pounds of photo gear as carry-on baggage at your local airport and don't even think of clearing customs in Nairobi on your own. Organized photo tours are costly, over too quickly, and far too dependent on weather and the experience of your guides. You also have too little control over how, where and when you will shoot. Worst yet, it's a long wait to your next photo trip. What's an avid bird photographer to do in the meantime?
Consider photographing birds in your backyard or at least in your neighborhood. Birds are attracted to a reliable food source near good cover. Birds are like bad relatives, if you feed them, they will come and they will stay. To attract birds just set up a feeding station in your backyard. Pick a location with a non-distracting background. Ideally, you'll want the birds to be lite with frontal lighting as they perch around the feeder. You can shoot through an open window with long telephoto lenses or using medium telephotos from a blind nearer the feeders. In either case, be sure to provide a brush pile or some tall bushes nearby to allow the birds to escape from hawks and falcons. Please, keep your cats indoors. Remember, the objective here is to feed the birds not your cats. A heated bird bath is also a great attraction for birds in cold climates.
I live in an apartment and don't actually have a backyard. Over the years, I've hung feeders on my windows using suction cups only to have my downstairs neighbor complain when the seed and occasionally the feeder fell to her patio. I tried several different arrangements to prevent seed spillage. I even went to the extent of placing an open-front plexiglass box inside my window to invite the birds to feed inside my apartment. While my cats found my window box an endless source of amusement and frustration, my neighbor still complained about the bird droppings. The feeders at tree limb level attract a large number of finches, doves, titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, juncos and jays. My feeders were gray squirrel-proof though I had a flying squirrel visiting every night. I generally try to photograph birds in trees near the feeder. I use a Bogan Pistol Grip ball head mounted on a board clamped to the window sill. I shoot through a slit cut in a drape. Lens focal lengths from 350mm to 1000mm are most useful for small birds 20 to 100 ft away. Shooting wide open with my Olympus f2.8 / 350mm lens, with 1.4x and 2x teleconverters, requires long shutter speeds in the 1/30 to ½ second range. I love the soft out-of-focus backgrounds I get shooting wide open. Stopping motion at these shutter speeds is also a real challenge. Even when the bird don't move, the branches often sway in the breeze. A major limitation of my window setup is the lack of control over the lighting. My view faces east so if I shoot at sunrise my birds are strongly back lite. By noon, the birds are in full shadow as the sunlight is blocked by my apartment building. Worse yet my backgrounds receive full sunlight and are several f stops brighter than the birds. Between sunrise and noon, the birds are back or side lighted. However, sunlight bouncing off the side of my building acts a giant reflector card to provide frontal fill lighting on the birds.
Fortunately for photographers bird activity picks up in the late afternoon. To take advantage of wonderful golden late afternoon light from the southwest. I established a feeding site in a nearby hillside meadow where I had often photographed nesting bluebirds and deer.
The meadow abuts a swamp and is surrounded by second growth woodlands. One edge of the meadow transitions from swampland to a brush lot to a conifer stand to a hardwood forest.Life is most abundant and most active in transition zones. I have often set up in the woods along the edge of this meadow to photography deer entering the meadow at dusk and exiting at dawn. With permission from the land owner, I built a permanent blind in the middle of the meadow and hung seed and suet feeders from a single tree uphill and east of the blind. This setup yields frontal lighting on the birds in the late afternoon. The steep slope of the hillside frames the top of the meadow and treeline as a distant soft out-of-focus background even when the birds are 10-20 feet above me in the branches. I have piled fallen limbs and dead brush around the blind to provide additional security cover for the birds.
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The blind serves as my base of operation for much of my local photography as well as a convenient temporary sanctuary from bad weather. In the winter I photograph birds at the feeders and deer browsing in the meadow. In the spring bluebirds, tree swallows and wrens nest in boxes in the meadow. In summer the meadow is full of wild flowers, insects, butterflies, butterfly moths and dragonflies. Fall brings the turning of the leaves and fully antlered bucks chasing their does. Timing is everything in nature photography. I've walked through this meadow a hundred times and seen nothing. But when I slow down and spend some time in the meadow I always find something to photograph.
Over the years in this meadow I have photographed deer, racoons, porcupines, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, woodchucks, snakes, mice, toads, spiders, webs, bats, turtles, salamanders, newts, red fox, coyotes and even the tracks of a cougar. The birds I've seen in this meadow include robins, cardinals, blue jays, sparrows, titmice, red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatches, house and Carolina wrens, mourning doves, blackbirds, crows, indigo buntings, wild turkeys, starlings, cedar and bohemian waxwings, bluebirds, catbirds, bronze cowbirds, chickadees, wood ducks, kestrels, finches, flickers, geese, grackles, woodcocks, downy,hairy,red-belied and pileated woodpeckers, sapsuckers, tanagers, broad-winged, Cooper's, red-tailed and sharp-shinned hawks, juncos, mockingbirds, an ovenbird, a barred owl, a great horned owl, pewees, phoebes, vultures and six species of warblers. Don't overlook the endless photographic opportunities in your own backyard or in a nearby meadow.
A nature photographer by avocation, trained as a research scientist, Dick operates Dick Budnik Photography in Mt. Kisco, NY where he offers a range of custom photographic, digital imaging and consulting services. He offers fine art prints, custom digital printing, computer imaging and retouching services, commercial and industrial photography and computer consulting. His photographic services and stock photos have been utilized by a variety of clients from major corporations to small businesses, nature publications, nature centers and individual artists. His photographs have appeared in nature publications, calendars, text books, posters, newsletters and numerous web sites. Dick has exhibited in group and individual shows in the greater New York area. He is a frequent camera club judge and lecturer at schools, libraries, clubs, nature centers and state parks in the area. Dick has taught Wildlife Photography at the Westchester Art Workshop. He privately tutors in PhotoShop, web page design, and computer basics. He has been very active in the Westchester Photographic Society as a Salon competitor, a Board Director, Corporate Secretary, Executive VP and its current Webmaster. He is also the Webmaster for the Central Westchester Audubon Society.
Dedicated to the observation of wildlife in its natural environment, Dick is usually found in his element stalking the swamps, meadows and forests of wild Westchester.