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Photographing Wild Birds in Civilized Places

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Just because hawks and eagles do not abound in your area does not mean you must give up photographing birds. There are lots of species around every home if you look closely. Here are some tips for photographing birds for fun.

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This Eagle-Owl portrait was shot with a 400mm lens when the bird looked in my direction.

I love to watch birds and photograph them. I am not a specialist, and I am not one of those photographers that spend hours in a hide waiting for a particular species to show up at a specific spot. Still, I do take my time to watch and photograph birds, I willingly stay inside a hide for some periods, but what I like the most is to find birds in settings that are common to most of us, either public parks or urban spaces.

My collection of photographs of birds has grown based on my findings here and there, sometimes in odd places for some species to be. Like the Black Stork (Cigonia nigra) you can see in a magnificent portrait I took in a public park in the outskirts of Lisbon, Portugal's capital. It was a matter of luck.

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Even if you focus on the bird's eye, remember to use an aperture that keeps wings in focus.

The same year this photograph was taken, a photographer I know travelled for weeks in one area of Portugal where the Black Stork appear, and he could not get a single shot. I had three juveniles of the Black Stork posing for me for a whole week in a public park, in the midst of a busy coastal village. That year the Summer was very hot and dry, and the water supplies were low, so these storks on their travel south must have decided to stop at the stream running into the Atlantic Ocean.


Black Storks in the Car Park

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A juvenile Black Stork poses for a portrait at a public park, not the usual place for this type of bird.

They made their "home" on top of street lamps in a car park and stood perched there for a whole week, sleeping, watching. The birds would fly around in the park, amazing everyone, and go to the mouth of the stream to catch fish. And because they were young, seeing them try to catch fish was an adventure itself and a unique experience in terms of contact with nature. They were very clumsy, as anyone starting to discover things usually is.

The portrait of a Black Stork I had the chance to create was done close to the stream mouth, using the water as a background, and my 100-400mm lens, an essential tool for this kind of photography. Had I used a wide angle lens you would see the surrounding walls, a bridge over the stream, trees and even some cars in the car park.

Is this a wildlife picture? You can bet it is, and most important, it documents behaviour not usual for these birds. In fact, it was only due to the exceptional weather conditions that year that the Black Storks decided to stop. Usually, these birds are not very social.

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This Red-Tailed Hawk was photographed at a falconry center in special conditions with a white background.

Birds at falconry centers on the other hand are often social. I've photographed some as part of my professional work (and passion too). The Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is a bird of prey that is easily trained as hunter, and the Eurasian Eagle-Owl (Bubo bubo) is a species of eagle owl sometimes called the European Eagle-Owl. It is one of the largest species of owls. These birds are used for public displays and children's education about the need to preserve wildlife, and I have the chance to photograph them at various times during the year.


Portraits and Gear

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The Western Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) loves water, so once you find a place they visit, stay around and you'll get interesting pictures.

The Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) was photographed for my series Birds of Prey Portrait Sessions, which in 2012 won an award in the major photojournalistic prize in Portugal. The international judges gave me a second place in the Environment category.

The Eagle-Owl picture was taken during a public demonstration and is another type of bird portrait that is easy to do and always attracts the attention of people. A long lens as the 100-400mm is ideal, as it creates great compression, keeps backgrounds out of focus and lets you keep your distance from the bird. The Eagle-Owl was watching the surroundings from a perch and looked straight at me. The light was just right.

Most of the time, you'll need to use a long lens, at least 300mm, to get pictures of birds. You must watch for the light when photographing, so you cannot use low shutter speeds. It is always possible to set a higher ISO, and you'll need it at times, with birds in flight, but try to work with lower values, as much as possible, to get the best detail on plumage.

Remember that although you may have a very fast lens, f/2.8 or so, you'll need to close the aperture to get most of the bird in focus.

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A 20 minute drive takes me to the Atlantic coast, where I can find species like the Whimbrel. I had to play hide and seek with the bird for some time in order to get this shot.

While a tripod or other form of support may be needed if you're using a hide, in movement a monopod or simply using as fast a speed as you can might be the best choices. For use in a car and also in the field, a bean bag might be your best choice for support. These are, to me, the most essential aspects to understand in terms of bird photography. The rest comes with practice, patience and studying the options you've close to home in terms of watching birds.


Staying Close to Home

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This Nycticorax (Nycticorax nycticorax) picture was taken at the Lisbon Zoo. This bird is not in captivity, but a visitor looking for free food.

My interest in birds as led me to choose a series of habitats I visit regularly looking for different species. On my walks along the Atlantic coast I've found species like the Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus), which is a widespread, migratory species wintering on coasts from America to Australasia.

Coastal areas around the world are a great place to take pictures of birds. You should visit some areas close to your home, rather than choose far destinations that you are not able to visit regularly. Get familiar with the surroundings and in time that will pay off.

The pictures published with this article, show, generally, that returning to the same spots over and over is a wise choice for bird photography. The Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) image, with the bird posing on top of a dead fish on the sand is also an example that staying for some time at a place is also important. Learn to be patient and learn to anticipate what may happen when faced with a situation like this.

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My series "Survival of the Fittest" includes pictures like this Turnstone posing over a dead fish the bird is about to eat.

I made this image after a storm. I saw the birds on the sand and spotted some dead fish. I knew what was coming next. I choose one dead fish that gave me some options for good pictures and sat close by, with my trusty 100-400mm and flash ready. I wanted to use the flash to brighten the image a bit as the day was dull and grey. I took some shots, checked exposure, and waited.

Turnstones are opportunist feeders, unlike most waders they are scavengers, and I knew they hardly could resist the fish. The resulting image says it all. It's an example of survival of the fittest.


Endangered Species

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A pair of Southern Ground Hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri) in Masai Mara, Kenya, a species that may vanish soon.

Some of the species mentioned here are common and not in danger, but just because we see them close by we should not take for granted that they will be around all the time. A common sight for photographers visiting Masai Mara, in Kenya, is the Southern Ground Hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri), the largest species of hornbill. But the species is classed as vulnerable and even critically endangered in South Africa due to its slow reproductive rate and specialized habitat.

My picture of two hornbills on a tree branch, taken while on a photo safari in Kenya, tries to reflect the prospect of a dying species. The white of the overexposed background contrasts with the black from the bird's plumage and the red patches on the throat and face. The bare tree branch helps to pass the message.

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Small birds, like the mavis, are easy to find on fences, barbed wire and stone walls along farm roads, one of my "hunting" grounds for bird photography.

We do not need to go to Africa to find vulnerable birds. Close to usin our gardens, parks and fields, the Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos), also known as mavis, is a species with a distinctive musical song. It is frequently mentioned in poetry and is vanishing from Europe with a serious population decline probably due to farming changes.


Hide in Your Car

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A car or better, a 4x4, is a good "hide on wheels", offering good conditions for bird photography. Many of my pictures are taken that way.

For many small bird pictures, like the Song Thrush, I use my car as a hide. I visit areas with crop fields and watch for birds on fences, stone walls, barbed wire or low tree branches, and take pictures from inside the car.

Using a 4x4, that is usually higher than a regular car, you've got a great "hide on wheels" that gives you a good vantage point. I drive my jeep or car slowly on farm roads and many of the pictures in my collection have been taken that way. Give it a try and you'll be amazed at what you can do.

As I've already written, many of the birds I photograph are found at civilized places. The Nycticorax (Nycticorax nycticorax) bird picture was taken at Lisbon Zoo. This night heron gets the name from the Greek for "night raven," due to its nocturnal feeding habits.

I've seen them in the late afternoon hours in city parks crossed by streams, patiently waiting for prey like fish, frogs or aquatic insects, even small mammals. This heron was feeding in broad daylight, freely, from the zoo feeders. It stopped long enough on some tree branches overlooking the feeder for me to get a shot I like very much for its colour and detail.

Another example of the importance of regularly visiting your "hot spots" is the picture of a Western Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) reflected on the water of a fountain. The species, easy to spot for their characteristic long, constantly wagging tail, lives near water. Once I spotted the birds using this pond, I started to spend hours there, hiding in my car, sometimes taking a lunch break while I wait. It did pay off, as the picture shows.


Showing Birds in Their Habitats

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Birds in Blue is a collection of pictures focused on water and wetlands populations of birds, showing their habitat while trying to go beyond the pure photographic document.

You don't need to always get close to birds to make some interesting images. Placing them in their habitats and exploring more artistic images is also important. The picture of a group of birds flying over the water is such an example. The bluish light creates a moody atmosphere for the very prominent black and white markings on the wings of the birds.

This image has been used to promote a special workshop I lead called "Birds in Blue" centered on bird populations in water and wetland. This picture, again, was taken near a residential area close to the Tagus River in Lisbon.

If you find your interest for this kind of photography growing, you can always try your hand at something more intense, like using a hide. Find places in your area that will work. Cabins are sometimes a good option. After getting information on the best hours and periods of the year, get to work.

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Find places with wildlife watching hides or towers and spend some time there. It's a great lesson in being patient, waiting for "the right moment".

Watching and photographing birds is a good excuse to do something that I believe is intrinsically connected to photography: keeping quiet in silence for long periods of time. I call that contemplation. Your bird photography (and photography in general) will benefit from being contemplative.

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