Songbird photography is difficult on many levels. Songbirds fly fast, they often move without providing signals, they're small so they require you get close or use a long lens and many are seasonal. Here’s where backyard bird photography can be a huge benefit if it’s your desire to capture good shots of them. It doesn't take a lot of effort to attract birds to your backyard and the overall expense is low, especially if you weigh it against going to far away locations where specific species have grown tolerant of people. The keys to setting up your yard to make it an attractive spot for birds include providing a source of water, putting up perches so the birds have a place to land, providing an accepted form of food as in bird seed or suet, installing nesting boxes and, depending on how skittish a species is, setting up a blind.
Water: I have a bird bath that I constantly keep filled with water. It’s important to keep it full so the birds learn they can rely upon it. Place a perch or two close to it so each species has a place to land and inspect the area for safety before they choose to make themselves vulnerable when they drink. The perch also creates a natural location for the bird to alight, which nets a better photograph.
Perches: Along the back side of my yard, I have a low fence. Attached to it, I place mulleins, old sticks, small twigs and a few thick branches. Each species prefers a different size perch upon which to land. Having ones of various diameters will make each comfortable on where to settle. Try to mount these perches fairly high off the ground so the birds feel less vulnerable. Also, be extremely cognizant where they're placed. Be sure the backgrounds are far away so you limit depth of field. A totally out-of-focus background allows the bird to stand out. A background that has distractions competes for attention and the resulting image falls short.
Food Source: There will always be in-depth debate regarding the use of food to attract wildlife. A purist would never think of using food of any type while those on the other end of the spectrum use means that endanger the animal being photographed.
Case in point is the use of live mice to attract owls. This is unacceptable for me. I do admit to using bird seed and suet to feed and photograph birds as these food items are deemed acceptable by many professional bird organizations. Setting aside the ethics issue, use approved seed and suet in addition to putting the seed in a good feeder. Place the food close to the perches so the birds can first land on the sticks, examine the environment for safety and then go in to feed.
Nesting Boxes: I do have a bluebird nesting box along my side fence. It was wonderful to watch the male and female first go through their courting ritual and progress to the point where they created a brood. The best part was when the young grew large so both parents had to constantly hunt for bugs. In the photo of the female bluebird with a beetle below, she landed on the fence post right next to the box, scanned the area and flew to bring the babies the food. Placing the hand of man in a wildlife shot is often acceptable if it’s “natural” for a bird to land there.
The beauty of backyard bird photography is you can make photos any time of the year. Spring and summer often prove to be the best, but with fresh snow and great sunrise or sunset light, you can capture amazing photographs. Give it a whirl!
Visit www.russburdenphotography.com for information about his nature photography tours and safari to Tanzania.