Finding, Approaching, and Photographing Birds
Step 1: Determine Objective
Specific Species Objective: Intention to find and photograph a specific species of bird.
Non-Specific Species Objective: Intention to find and photograph birds, regardless of species.
Step 2: Site Selection
For Specific Species Objective: Choose a site tailored to the habitat and behavioral needs of the specific species you seek. For example, a photographer stands a much better chance of finding a Rose-Breasted Grosbeak if she chooses a forest or woodland site and an even better chance if that location has a bird-feeder stocked with sunflower seeds and safflower.
Non-Specific Species Objective: While site selection is not necessarily as important for a photographer who is not seeking a specific bird species, it still makes sense for them to visit a site known for harboring a large and diverse bird population, as the photography session will likely be more more productive.
General Site Selection Tips
Largest number and greatest diversity of species often found at site on or in close proximity to body of water, surrounded by or in close proximity to open woodland or forest. In many cases these are state or privately preserved parks. For more on this topic see: Bird Habitats
It’s always a good idea to select site with large diversity of native plants – as native plants attract the highest number of insects (the number one source of food for wild birds) and produce the most sought-after berries, fruits, and seeds. For more on this topic see: Attracting Birds with Native Plants
Step 3: Find Birds in the Field
Check or Start at Hotspots: Hotspots are areas within the birdwatching site in which birds are most likely to be located and thus are the spots a birdwatcher should most frequently monitor.
For a backyard or non-specific birdwatcher, hotspots are going to be at the bird feeder, birdbath (or other water source), and in or around native plants (such as in the garden, brushy understory, or in mature trees).
For a birdwatcher seeking a specific species, a hotspot should include the specific plants and habitat features that are known to attract the specific bird.
Examples of Species-Specific Hotspots:
A Cedar Waxwing hotspot would include a water source and at least one of the thier favorite fruit producing plants – such as: Eastern Red Cedar, Serviceberry, Hawthorn, Wild Cherry, Wild Blueberry, or Crabapple.
General Hotspot Tips:
Native Plants like American Elderberry, Oak, Maple, Red Mulberry, Wild Blackberry, and Wild Cherry are known to attract the greatest numbers and varieties of birds. Many non-specific and even specific birdwatching sessions should start with observations of these plants.
Water Sources, Forest Edge Habitat, and Brushy Areas are also spots favored by a majority of birds and should thus be targeted by birdwatchers.
Look for movement – in trees, and brushy areas.
Listen for Sounds: bird songs and calls are most helpful but even the sound of rustling of leaves can lead you to a bird
Once a photographer finds a hotspot they must be willing to wait there– even if bird activity is not high in the particular spot initially. Patience at hotspots (for both specific and non-specific birdwatching objectives) generally pays off – as birds do favor certain environmental features and plants. While waiting at a hotspot it is best to do all you can to blend into the environment – besides wearing dark, earthy colors, try to be as quiet as possible (if you must talk whisper). Also avoid sudden movements – if you must move (even to look in different directions) make your movements slowly and carefully. Finally stay alert, many birdwatchers make the mistake of going on their phones while waiting at a hotspot – this had led to many missed opportunities. If you go through all the trouble of preparing a birdwatching session and finding a hotspot – go all in to find the bird – messing around on your phone can wait.
Once a photographer finds the bird – he or she has two options:
Don’t Move: This is the safer option as birds rarely stay in one spot for long. By not moving closer you can immediately begin snapping pictures, plus you don’t have to worry about scaring the bird off.
Move Closer: As is usually the case, the riskier option offers more potential reward, as the closer you get to the bird, the more impressive your image will likely be. Moving closer does increase the odds that the bird flies off and may leave you with no picture at all – the most disappointing of all outcomes. Be sensitive to the impact moving closer will have on the bird, you don't want accidentally expose the bird to danger. Also be sensitive to other birdwatchers/photographers - if you move to close and the bird flies off - not only have you ruined the shot for yourself but also the view for many others.
If you find a bird and want a closer view, it is best to approach in a discreet and non-direct fashion. A birdwatcher is much more likely to scare a bird off if they walk (or run) directly towards it – a more effective option is to approach the bird from a side direction with more cautious movements. Walking on your toes, in order to avoid crunching leaves is recommended. If the bird appears to notice your presence while you are attempting to approach – don’t get excited – instead try to remain as still and calm as possible, when the bird’s attention shifts off you – then slowly move closer. Remember birds are naturally on alert for danger, do all you can not to act like an obvious predator.
A great idea for beginners is to stop when you initially see the bird – snap a few pictures (so you at least get something) then attempt to move closer to the bird. Overtime experience will eventually condition the photographer to make judgement calls based around when it makes sense to approach and when not to approach.
Oftentimes the “move or don’t move” decision is best decided in the spur of movement.
Remember, if you anticipate where birds will be (such as patiently waiting at birding hotspot) you may be able to avoid the move/don’t move dilemma entirely. As instead of you moving towards the bird, the bird will be moving towards you.
Great bird pictures are hard to come by – if you have an opportunity, take lots of pictures because the more pictures you take, the better odds you have of getting a special picture.
See: Composing Bird Photographs for in-depth overview on composition.
See: Lighting & Bird Photography for an in-depth overview of lighting.
Always stay alert - birds can fly over in a second’s notice – often very inconspicuously. Don’t miss a shot because you were on your phone.
If you are unsure of what exposure settings you want to use (especially if you are a beginner) there is nothing wrong with using Full Auto mode. For more information on DSLRs see: DSLR Overview.
Travel with an extra SD card and a lens cleaning kit.
Birds move quickly – don’t hesitate when you have one in view, don’t spend too much time trying to frame perfect shot. Snap, Snap, Snap!
Prefocus on the spot you expect bird to land, this way when it does you don’t have to scramble.