Thursday, March 21, 2013

Backyard Bird Photography Basics

Hello BirdSpyBlog readers!
Today I decided that since I love both birds and photography, I would share some tips with you all concerning backyard bird photography.  I will say from the get go that these tips are meant to help improve your photography skills, but will by no means produce National Geographic cover results from shot 1.  So without further we go!

Tip 1- Know Your Camera
I know this sounds like a very basic, why-do-I-need-to-read-this type tip, but it is something that many people overlook.  Do you know how to set a quick shutter speed? Do you know if your flash is going to fire or not?  Take some time to sit down with your camera.  Whether you have a basic point and shoot digital camera, your phones camera, or a $3,000 DSLR, taking time to figure out what settings are where, what buttons do what, and how to manipulate your camera will save you many a flustered moment and missed shot.   For simple shots of the birds that visit your feeder, setting your camera to Auto mode will be more than fine.  Digital cameras these days are advanced enough to choose the best settings for the picture and you will get good shots this way.  In trickier lighting situations(dusk, dawn, overcast or stormy), you will need to know how to turn off your flash if you are shooting through glass, otherwise you will get a glare in your picture and miss the shot.  A fast shutter speed is also needed to be able to freeze the birds in motion. Auto mode in good lighting will usually be enough to do this, but knowing how to dig into your cameras settings(usually in Manual Mode or Shutter Speed Priority Mode) will allow you to set a speed of at least 1/400th of a second or faster so that you know you will capture the birds in motion with any shot.

Tip 2- Know Your Birds
Again, most of you who are reading this are probably very experienced birders and will scoff at this tip. But for those who are new to birding and bird photography, this is important.  Some birds feed on the ground and will never come to hanging feeders, so if you want a picture of a dove, junco or certain types of sparrows, be sure to set up a platform feeder or spread seed on the ground to improve your chances of attracting these birds to your yard.  If you want chickadees, goldfinches or woodpeckers, put up hanging and suet feeders will bring these birds in.  Some birds are more docile and don't move as much while others are quick in and quick out, so knowing what birds fall into these categories can help you time and choose your shots.

Tip 3- Choose a Point to Pre Focus On
Spraying and praying(photographers term for taking a bunch of shots fairly randomly) will not net you many good photos.  Instead of firing off shots randomly and hoping you get something good, choose a point(aka feeder perch, tree branch, feeder, etc) and focus your camera there, and wait.  That way, when a bird lands at the spot, your camera is already focused and all you have to do is fully press the shutter button. This will greatly increase your chances of getting a clear, sharp photo.

Tip 4- Use A Long Focal Length
Focal length is the amount of zoom/magnification that your lens/camera provides.  The big lenses that you see many professional and top notch bird and nature photographers use are lenses with long focal lengths, allowing them to get a large, close up shot of birds.  If you are looking into buying a camera for bird photography, look for a camera that has 10x zoom or greater.  If you have a DSLR, buy a lens of 200mm or longer. These zooms/focal lengths will allow you to get fairly close to the birds and get good photos.  The longer the zoom or higher the focal length the better though! I personally have a 55-250mm lens that I use, which is good and I can get some great photos with, but I can't wait to save up and get a 400mm or bigger lens.

Tip 5- Make Your Yard Bird Friendly
Birds won't come to your yard, and therefore, you won't be able to do backyard bird photography, if you don't have anything to attract them to your yard! This is another no brainer but can make a world of difference.  Instead of just setting up one feeder, set up two or three and put different kinds of seeds in them.  A variety of seeds will attract a wider variety of birds. Set up a bird bath. Next to a feeder, a bird bath will attract a larger variety of birds than anything else you put up in your yard.  Bird baths will also attract birds to your yard that wouldn't normally come visit your feeders. Bird baths also allow you to witness and photograph some exciting bird behavior as well.

And finally,
Tip 6- Practice, practice, practice
If you are serious about taking great pictures of birds in your backyard, then the more you shoot the better you'll get! You'll learn your camera, you'll learn the birds and you'll learn your eye as a photographer.  The digital age allows us photographers to take hundreds of images without having to shell out tons of money.  Learn from your mistakes when you make them and figure out what would have made the shot perfect.  The more you practice, the better pictures you'll get and soon you'll be taking breathtaking pictures of the birds that are visiting your yard.

Good luck photographing birds! If you read this and put these tips into practice, I would love to see the final results and even publish some of the photos here with the stories behind them!

Happy birding!

Friday, March 8, 2013

Spring is in the Air

Ah...spring. The season where the weather gets warmer, days get longer, flowers start blooming, trees leaf out and, of course, spring migration occurs.  The time of year birders dream about, with the birds showing off in their brightest plumage, ear delighting songs and surprise appearances.  Though it isn't quite spring yet, the birding is picking up and March is probably my second favorite month to bird(second only to September).   I haven't been able to get out to bird much, but that looks to change in the coming months as due to a variety of changes in life, my schedule should be freeing up.  That means more birding adventures which in turn means more activity on my blog.   I was able to squeeze in two hours of birding yesterday at the wondrous Walden Ponds in Boulder.  I absolutely love that place and one of my earliest birding memories is of my dad taking me their to bird early in March many years back.  Well enough of the daydreaming about the coming spring and nostalgic talk of years past, let's get on to the birding trip wrap up.

Walden Ponds is a gem of a birding spot located in Boulder, Colorado. Walden has a diversity of habitats that attract birds ranging from swans to warblers, Sora to Osprey, and a trip at any time of the year(but especially during the months of March-June) will be productive and fun.  They have done some renovations to the trails and boardwalk, but nothing that changed any habitat.  My friend let me borrow his Canon Rebel t2i/550D, so I was very excited to put it through its paces and see what pictures I could take.  I got to Walden in the early afternoon.  To my surprise and delight(I haven't checked the rare bird alert lately, otherwise it wouldn't have been such a surprise to me), 12 Tundra Swans were gracing the lake with their presence.  A multitude of other waterfowl, including Canvasback, Redhead, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye and more dotted the surface Cottonwood Marsh.  I didn't have my binoculars with me but my car kept 8x21 monocular provided decent views as the light was good.  The t2i paired with a 55mm-250mm  lens took good pictures and provided a good viewing medium as well.  Outside of the waterfowl, there was not much bird activity.  I walked along the boardwalk and along the trails to Sawhill Ponds, but no birds showed themselves outside of a distant Red-tailed Hawk.  Some geese were setting up territories on one of the Sawhill lakes.  With the bird life being very quiet, I decided to head back to Cottonwood Marsh and see what other birds showed up, as well as to meet my dad and bird with him for a little bit.  I met up with my dad about 20 minutes later, and we had a nice conversation with another birder about bird life at Walden.  My dad and I spent about an hour birding, scanning the lake, walking the boardwalk and chatting with other birders and locals we met along the walk.  The bird life didn't change much, outside of a very distant Northern Harrier. A couple other birders had seen the Great Horned Owls by the South Boulder Creek, but we didn't have enough time to walk that far.  A wren made a flash appearance and disappeared into the weeds before we could get a look at it beyond a quick glimpse.  Red-winged Blackbirds started popping up and call-defending their territories.  There weren't many small birds at all, but the waterfowl made up for it.  I was very impressed with the t2i and had a very enjoyable day of birding overall, and can't wait to go back in the coming months to see what surprises Walden has in store later in the year.

Just a handful of the waterfowl on Cottonwood Marsh.

The Tundra Swans.

The new boardwalk.

Looking out over one of the Sawhill Ponds ponds.

A Red-tailed Hawk flying over the lake. 

Here comes the dad.

A Ring-billed Gull providing a nice photo op.

More pics of the swans.

Red-winged Blackbirds setting up their territories.