The Challenges of Bird Photography

by Alan Mackeigan



McCowans Longspur by Alan Mackeigan ©

McCowan's Longspur

The first thing I noticed was the wind, which blew at a steady 40-50 km\h and never seemed to stop, even through the night while I tried to sleep in my car. The second thing I noticed was that I was the tallest thing around for miles, competing with the occasional barbed wire fence. There is not much down here, just lots of bare open ground, scattered with arid grasses and small granite boulders left right where the retreating glaciers of the last ice age dropped them.
I had left home in Calgary on a Friday night to photograph a McCown’s Longspur, a little member of the sparrow family that visits Canada annually to breed on patches or dry native short grass prairie, mostly in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. Just over three hours from Calgary, Etzikom Coulee is located east of Milk River, Alberta, within sight of the Sweetgrass Hills of Montana. This habitat is severely threatened, with less than 5% of what once covered large areas of Canada and the US still more or less intact. Just about everything that lives here is threatened, in decline or endangered.
I had searched for this bird for three years, and the previous weekend I had spotted one here, however approaching it for a photo proved impossible. All the birds in this habitat are hard-wired to flee at the first sign of danger, and this can start with some species at 500 meters proximity. 

Longspurs try to attract mates by their distinctive flight pattern, flying up 30 meters or so then spreading their wings like a parachute and floating back down to earth. Their delicate wind-chime song doesn’t carry far on the wind so relying on that alone a male would be single for a long time. I noticed that this little guy preferred one granite rock that sat slightly higher than its neighbors, so on this my second visit in a week, the plan was to try to hide in the dark and wait for the sun to rise. I hid under a camouflage tarp ( hunting retailers are good for something after all ) and waited. Sure enough the object of my search showed up a half hour after dawn and started his flying show. Within an hour of sunrise I had several shots and was heading back to the car.

Blackburnian Warbler by Alan Mackeigan ©

Blackburnian Warbler

I started bird photography in 2000, and rapidly became hooked on the challenge of the great shot and the mystery of my subjects. In the following years I learned more and more about birds so that I could transition from beginner - basically getting a photo then trying to ID the subject in a bird book - to knowing what bird I was looking for, where and when I should find it, and planning on how to best get close enough for a picture.

Close enough - there it is. All bird photography eventually comes down to getting close enough, even with the biggest lens you can buy. If you pursue birds with regularity, the avian world will reward you with lucky opportunities where you can get a great shot with little effort, but in practice, waiting for these is a lot like waiting for your lotto numbers to come in. I have Mountain Bluebird by Alan Mackeigan ©found that my outings became much more productive once I started learning as much as I could about each of my subjects, then searching for them with a firm plan on how to get close enough. The Longspur did not know that I was 25 feet away, and that’s my favorite situation because as a photographer I am interested in natural behavior. I don’t have any shots of frightened birds on nests, because I feel that I have no right to put my desire for a photo ahead of their peace. There are other reasons too, my scent near a nest can draw in curious foxes or coyotes.

I have described only one method that I used for one bird. With others,  their normal food may work to attract them or recorded songs work with some species. With some forest birds, just sitting still for a minimum of an hour in their territory will be enough to let them decide that you are a deer and not a fox, and they will resume normal behavior in your presence as if you were not there. Keep movements slow and eye contact to a minimum. Watch how they relate to other birds, squirrels, etc. and try to blend into their community. If using recordings, try to get the shot asap and shut it down. Particularly with little migratory birds, you can exhaust and possibly kill them with too much stress.

I go after portraits, and for some reason like birds that no one else seems to be interested in. The most obscure, drab little guy has a stunning portrait in there somewhere and my goal is to find it. Above all though, I try to do no harm. I have often left a prize specimen without a picture only because I had worn out my welcome. I try to keep appointments with them to a hour or less. There is always another day and another bird. (Above right - Mountain Bluebird).

For equipment, you will need a fast lens of 300mm or more, with 400mm to 600mm being ideal. Though I have a 600mm F4, I would not recommend it unless you are prepared to carry its substantial weight, along with a big tripod to hold it steady. The 500mm is a better compromise. With today’s digital cameras offering 1.5 magnification with no loss to picture quality or shutter speed, a 400mm F4 lens puts you on equal footing with me and my 600. ( At time of writing I still shoot film ). You should also have a 1.4 or 1.5 tele-extender for extra reach when you need it, and a good flash. Also carry your smaller lenses because I have taken all of my best landscape photos while in search of birds!

Check local birding and naturalist groups for locations to find your subjects. This has been my main source of information, and I always donate samples of my work in return whenever it can help them with their causes. Learn the common bird songs for your area, as we only see about 15-20% of the birds around us. I use familiarity with their songs every time as a way of determining who is there.

Finally, you and your alarm clock must get used to the little numbers like 2,3 and 4 as the sun in the spring comes up at 5:30 and by then you need to be where you need to be to get the shot. Many of them only sing at this hour and most are quiet by 8 or 9. I have met people at 10AM who were rightfully convinced that there were only robins and chickadees about ( all-day singers ) when I had noted over 40 species by 6 am.

Boreal Owl by Alan Mackeigan ©

Boreal Owl

There will be days of doubt when you get nothing and days of nearing the edge of sanity when you ALMOST got the shot. On my Longspur day, the drive back from the grasslands had me smiling all the way back to Calgary.



Alan MacKeigan is located in Calgary, AB - Originally from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, he works in bidding and contract management in the municipal and civil construction industry in Calgary.

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