My First Attempts at Songbird Photography
One of my favorite photographers is Alan Murphy. Alan specializes in bird photography and has developed many different techniques to get songbirds up on to perches. These techniques allow the photographer to control where the bird lands and what is in the background. Alan has spectacular images of songbirds on beautiful perches, with creamy out of focus backgrounds.
Being a long time birder and a photographer, I wanted to try my hand at songbird photography using Alan’s techniques. Though Alan’s workshop are out of my price range, he does offer a series of CD’s and Ebooks outlining his techniques. I spent the latter part of the winter gathering some props, such as a christmas tree stand, various logs, bird feeder trays and small speakers, to be ready for some spring bird photography.
I started with the easiest avenue into bird photography, my home bird feeder. I set up a feeder and some props outside of my sliding glass door. I made sure to put them far enough away so that my 600mm lens would be within minimum focusing distance and then spent a few mornings trying to capture images as birds came into the setups.
The most challenging part I found was to get interesting and varied setups. After getting the setups in place, another challenge was to keep them looking fresh. I used wet paper towels around the base of some setups and tried the flower water vials that you get from a flower shop around thinner branches.
The birds I photographed I am sure have been photographed a thousand times before, but my goal was to get experience with setting up props and getting familiar with how the birds responded to the props. No need trying to run when I hadn’t even learned to walk yet.
In the field:
My next challenge was trying to get warblers to come to perches in the field. This proved a lot more challenging and frustrating. I headed out several mornings to my favorite birding spots and set- up perches according to Alan’s instructions. In the beginning, I set-up in locations that had trees or shrubs bordering an open grass or field area. I am familiar with the bird songs in my area, so once I would recognize a bird song, I would try to call it down to the perch using an Ipod with the Bird Tunes app and a small speaker set to bluetooth hidden in grasses about 10 feet from the perch. This set-up allowed me to control the bird songs from my Ipod from 20 or so feet away. To get birds landing on the perches proved maddening, as the birds would respond and swoop down to a nearby branch or fly over the perch, buzzing it. I could not get one to land. I wasn’t sure what exactly I was doing wrong!
Success, at least a little bit:
One morning, I headed out to a farmer’s corn field and set-up. The field was large and wide open, with trees bordering one edge of the field. I heard some Chestnut sided warblers, Song Sparrows and Common Yellowthroats calling. I set-up two perches, each with different
vegetation. One perch was about 5 feet from the edge of the field with the speaker hidden in the grasses underneath the perch. The other perch was about 10 feet further into the field from the first perch. I set-up my camera, got the bluetooth working between the Ipod and the speaker and started to call in the Chestnut sided Warbler. Low and behold the Chestnut sided flew in and landed on my perch. Not too much later that morning, I had success with a Song Sparrow. The only mistake that happened that day is that I forgot to cover the tripod area of the perch. The Song Sparrow kept landing on the tripod and singing its heart out. So just a reminder, cover the exposed areas of your perch. You don’t want to miss a great photo because they landed in the wrong place.
I thought I had found the answer to my problems. Don’t give the bird the opportunity to fly over and land anywhere else. There are guidelines for calling birds in using recordings. Those guidelines suggest that you not use a bird call more than 3 times on the same bird in one session and that you wait a week or more before you try the call in the same species again in that area . So as per protocol, I waited a week or so and went back to this same farmer’s field, this time with a little bit different results. I could get the birds to respond, but this time, instead of landing on the perch as before, they flew right down to the speaker and stayed on the ground. No birds on perches that day!
Patience and Persistence:
Another excellent bird photographer, Micheal Studebaker, says that from early April to late June, he is out every morning trying to get bird images. I do think I am on to something when I found that birds respond better in places where they have no where to go but your perch. It seems a large open field with trees on one edge provides the best way to isolate the birds landing options.
But I need a lot more mornings to prove this theory, of which only patience and persistence will tell.