Bird Photography and Bird Recordings

by Darren McKenna


Marsh Wren by Darren McKenna

Marsh Wren

I have been fascinated with birds since I was a young boy who got to go out hunting pheasants with my Dad back in 1967. In the late 90’s I tried capturing birds with a point and shoot camera.

I was always amazed at the bird images I viewed online, how do these g

uys do it I often asked my self. The realization that I needed better gear to get a successful image marked my foray into serious bird photography. By 2006 I had the gear, however my first attempts were not what I had hoped for, in fact they were down right awful. I knew I needed to learn more about my subjects so I persevered and worked very hard at getting better images.

Tree Swallow by Darren McKenna

Tree Swallow

There was days however that I became rather frustrated with my subjects. Often they would not cooperate at all and I would spend hour after hour with out any action or results. Then a friend and fellow bird photographer Mark Schiebelbein introduced me to Birdjam, software that loads and organizes bird songs onto an ipod enabling you to easily play them back with external speakers. The Stokes Western collection alone has over 550 species on it. The first time I tried it was with Common Yellowthroats and in one day I was able to get better images then what I was able to in two weeks of trying prior to using the recordings. We have since successfully photographed Rock Wrens and many other species that are tough to get in the open.

Swainson's Hawk by Darren McKenna

My knowledge of bird songs has increased immensely over the last few months since I began using Birdjam and often my youngest son and I will use it to quiz each other, so it is a great teaching tool as well.

Merlin by Darren McKenna       Black_Capped Chickadee by Darren McKenna

                    Merlin                                                                                Black-Capped Chickadee

Of course one needs to have ethics when using such a program. I have witnessed times where a bird becomes stressed and begins pacing and acting rather erratically. In cases like this simply turning it off and moving on is the best solution. If you asked three different photographers how they feel about using sound recordings you probably would get three different answers. It is each individual’s own code of ethics that should guide him or her into deciding whether or not to use bird recordings

Common  Yellowthroat by Darren McKenna

Common Yellowthroat

I try to show birds as art with detailed subjects and clean backgrounds. Good long lens technique is required and a good knowledge of birds and their habitat. I mainly use a Canon EF 500L IS lens with a 1.4 extender which gives me a 700mm reach. For bird photography you can never have enough reach.

A blind or a hide is a definite asset for bird photography along with a camp stool and plenty of water. I have sat in my blind for several hours at a time, always thinking just five more minutes (lol). For birds in flight (BIF) I prefer to hand hold my camera/lens rather then on the tripod. This offers much more freedom to move around and has a higher keeper rate as well.

Set up photography can be very useful for a bird photographer. This is where you have control over many aspects, you can choose a perch and dress it with wildflowers or grasses and other vegetation. You can set it up where the light will be the best. As I mentioned earlier a clean background is what a professional photographer strives for, so a set up allows for your choosing.

Another good technique is the drive by shooting, not the kind your hear about on the radio but your vehicle can make a good blind and often birds will not fly away when a stealthy approach is used. Often if a bird fly’s away when I approach I will try again, if the bird fly’s away again I leave it alone and move on.

We are truly blessed here in Canada with a incredible variety of birds available during all four seasons night or day you can always find birds.



Darren McKenna is a amateur birder and a semi professional wild life photographer who focuses on birds. Born and raised in Alberta he currently resides in Medicine Hat, Alberta.