Saturday, September 3, 2011

I Love My Backyard Birds!

Dark eyed junco bird in autumn. Use of fill flash opened up the shadows a bit and added a subtle catch light to the eyes.

I Love My Backyard Birds!

               Birds are everywhere. We often take our common birds for granted. In New York City it was pigeons and sparrows. In suburbia robins and yet more sparrows reign supreme. Ducks on the lake are another common scene. Go to the beach and seagulls are there as a common sight. Most people either don’t notice them or find them to be a bit of a nuisance.

Creeping nuthatch on tree branch.
               Birds are another subject that fascinated me as a child. My earliest attempts at taking photos of them in my teen years led me back to my childhood playground where the pigeons would always hang out. Pigeons are actually intelligent, friendly, and inquisitive. If you point a camera at a pigeon, many of them will start posing for you. They are used to being ignored and often enjoy the attention. I’ve even had the pleasure of photographing birds in Florida years ago. And even though my photo skills were far from where they are now, I still managed to capture quite a few keepers.

               I’ve lived here in the Poconos since 1998, but it was in 2008 when I started to get really curious about our local birds.  Before then, I had never really bothered much with photographing our new cast of characters. I had felt that serious bird photography was out of my skill range. But the purchase of a 70-140mm (140-240mm in 35mm equivalence) got me focusing on these small fast moving targets. I got a few keepers and felt somewhat encouraged, even though I still felt that serious bird photography was out of my reach. It wasn’t until 2009 when I bought my 70-300 (140-600mm in 35mm equivalence) that my interest really took off.

Goldfinch in springtime.
               It started simple enough, put a little bird seed out and a few visitors would come by. Mostly dark eyed juncos , sparrows, and mourning doves (the pigeon’s country cousin.) After improving the mix of seed then we got visits from titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, and the occasional woodpecker. But once again,  my husband got interested an took it to the next level. Adding suet and peanut butter to the mix, more woodpeckers and then wrens started visiting. Next we began putting out niger seed and that lured in visits by finches. We even have had a few rare visits by rose breasted grosbeaks. Cardinals like to  come by for the black oil sunflower seeds. And during migration, a hungry blue jay or two will stop by. Hummingbird feeders and flowers have rewarded us with regular humingbird visitors. And robins like to pop by to munch on our garden worms. Crows fly by, but don’t hang around much. It’s a good thing as they often scare the smaller birds and like to eat the corn we grow in our garden. We have even had hungry wild turkeys stop by in the dead of winter to eat any discarded seed that falls to the ground from our hanging bird feeder.
A friendly chickadee.

               My favorite times of the year to photograph birds are in autumn, winter, and spring. Summer usually has me distracted by my flowers, but I still remember to photograph our feathered friends when they stop by. Last summer I got to watch a mother bird teach her fledgling to fly. And this summer I got to watch juncos, woodpeckers and sparrows feed their juveniles and teach them to eat at our feeders. Very cool!

               But it is in winter when these birds really make my heart sing. Winters here are long, cold and brutal. Never underestimate the joy of hearing a bird's song in wintertime. It somehow triggers that “summer feeling” and brings a smile to my face every time. Any time of the year a visit by a bird to our feeder can wipe a grumpy grimace off my face in mere seconds. I love my backyard birds!

Female downy woodpecker.
I still consider myself a novice on bird photography. But I have improved greatly over the past few years and here are my favorite bird photography tips. Follow these tips and your bird photography will also improve:

1. Get a telephoto lens. One in the 500-600mm (in 35mm equivalence) is ideal. If you are using a camera with a high megapixel count, or if you are shooting large birds you can get away with a shorter lens in the 200-400mm range. But remember you will lose quality and megapixels if you have to crop the image too much in the computer. It’s always best to get the bird as large in the frame at the point of capture for the highest quality images.

2. Put out a bird feeder with an assortment of treats. Be sure to place natural looking perches nearby, such as a twig, as birds will often perch there making for excellent photo ops without seed or food in the frame. Buy a book on backyard birding and you will find out what birds are local to your area and what foods they like to eat.

3. Use aperture priority. I usually use aperture priority to capture my bird images as lighting conditions frequently change. In addition, I often find myself focusing on different parts of my backyard as I try to capture a variety of birds, which can also mean a great difference in lighting values as some birds are in shade and others in full sunlight. I don’t want to miss a shot just because there wasn’t enough time to change my settings before the bird flew away. I also use the RAW format to capture the images. That way if there are small errors in the auto exposure, there may be a chance to still salvage the image without the quality of the photo suffering because of it. See my earlier blog post, “Raw, JPEG, Tiff?” for more information on capture format which will explain exactly why that is.

4. Use fill flash. Use of an on camera flash will freeze bird movement, add a catch light to birds’ eyes, and also will help to balance contrasty lighting situations. I usually set my flash to -1.7 stops so as not to overpower the natural lighting which looks disturbingly fake in photographs. I will discuss the use of fill flash in future blog posts. Learn from the experts. I recommend purchasing instructional photography books by Tim Fitzharris, David Tipling, and Arthur Morris.  You may also want to join photo workshops and tours led by professional photographers. They will lead you to where the exotic birds are and teach you valuable techniques to capture their beauty either on film or digitally.

Mourning dove in early springtime.

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