Combining Birding and Photography


Okay, so you are a birder or a bird photographer and you want to get great bird photographs.  Birding and photography go hand in hand.  One complements the other.  If you get a great photograph of a bird, you want to be able to tell what it is.  Hence, you get into the birding aspect.  You don’t need to be an avid birder to photograph birds, but it is nice if you can name the birds that you do capture.  For that I would recommend carrying some kind of a bird guide.  We have several, but my two favorites are the Stokes Field Guide for North American birds; several great photos of each bird.  The other is the Sibley Guide to Birds;  great for identifying field marks, etc.

Originally, I didn’t consider myself to be a birder, but getting into the photographing of birds, has made me into one.  So I am in a bird photography mode everytime I leave the house.  I am constantly on the lookout for birds.  If I see a bird, I see an opportunity to get a photograph.  My camera is usually on the back seat or on my lap.  I have gotten some of my best shots, just blocks from my home, on my way to eat lunch, etc.

I am going to try to help you with some advice.  I am a bird photographer and a darned good one, if I do say so myself.  I have been published nationally and been on the cover of various books and magazines.  You can say to yourself, hey, this guy makes the big bucks so I should listen to him…….or you can go on your merry way and do what you want.  That will not hurt my feelings.

Bear in mind, this narrative just tells you what works for me.  I am not trying to force any distinct method upon you.

One of the key things you need is: PATIENCE  –  SLOW DOWN (Okay, that’s two things.)

Also, a good set of binoculars would be a plus.  I know, you are thinking, hey, I am a photographer.  Why the heck do I need those?  Before you can get great bird photographs, you need to find out where they are.  It is easier to spot them with binos, than it is with a long 500 or 600mm camera lens, because the magnification is a bit shorter and has a wider field of fiew.   Usually you can hear them first, then use your binoculars to locate them. Then you can plan a stratagey to to get in a position to use your camera.  By the way, a camera lens of at least 300mm is best, longer is better.  Just use what you can afford.

My own current set-up for birds is my Canon EOS 70D with a Tamron 150-600mm lens.

Bird blinds can be a big help, so that is my starting point to get my bird photos.   You can sit in comfort with your camera on a tripod and watch the birds come in.  Usually there are feeders set out to attract birds.  These give great opportunities for nice photographs.  But you can’t be picky about the light in the blinds.  They face different directions so you must learn to adapt.  Most blinds have some trees or some cover in them.  If the sun is from the side and producing harsh shadows, wait for a shot of the bird in open shade, or shielded by leaves, etc.  Don’t quit because of bad light.  A nice cloudy or overcast day is perfect.  Then the light is nice and even.  Plus, the colors seem to get a bit more saturated.  But when things aren’t perfect, you adapt, you make lemonade with the lemons.

I must interject here that the blind here in San Angelo is deplorable in the mornings, if it is a clear sunny day.  The sun hits from the left and leaves very harsh shadows early on.  If there are some clouds or it is slightly overcast I love the place.  But as I mentioned in the previous paragraph I just watch for birds to locate in open shade, where the sun isn’t catching part of it.

BUT, not all birds are seed eaters.  There are flycatchers and other small birds that you will hardly ever see at a bird blind.  You won’t see a hawk or other raptor in a blind, unless one makes a dive to try and grab one of the smaller birds.  If you want to really see all of those other types of birds, you must either drive or hike into the areas where they are seen.  This is what we do after we have exhausted our efforts at the blind.

If you like to use your car as a mobile bird blind as Ann and I do, you must drive slowly.  Keep your eyes alert, listen for any calls.  When you hear a bird, stop, use your binos to locate it if you don’t immediately see it.  Once you can locate it, you can then work at getting a photograph.  Watch the high branches of trees.  That is where we can find our owls.  Also, you never know when you may spot a hawk type.

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

You can also hike to get your bird photos, but you definitely have to be quiet and stealthy.  Using a monopod for your camera can be a big help here.

In my gallery, http://bobzellerphotography.smugmug.com/Birds/, I have over one hundred thirty photographs, and growing.  I would say that only a small percentage of them, say about 15%, were taken at a bird blind.  So, I say get out, open your eyes, look up, look out, and be PATIENT.  Take it from me, it will pay off.  It is a heck of a lot of fun.  As they say, the fun is in the chase. 🙂

National Wildlife Refuges are great places for bird photography of all types.  One of my personal favorites is the Basque Del Apache NWR near Socorro, New Mexico.  But there others, many in the state of Texas.

We are going to visit the Davis Mountains next weekend.  It is not a NWR, but just a state park amidst one of the best birding areas in the western part of the state.  We will visit the bird blinds at Davis Mountains State Park first.  By the way, Montezuma Quail have been reported there on occasion.  But beware, if you go there for only that, you will most likely be disappointed, as you probably have a one chance in five thousand of seeing them.  But you should spend an extra day and really do some traveling around the area, slowly.

During our trip to and from Fort Davis area next week, we will probably observe around 30-40 birds.  That means 30-40 opportunities for photographs.   I will most likely not be able to photograph all of them, but if I can locate them, I give myself the opportunity.  So be observant and give yourself the opportunities.

When we visit there, after a stop at the State Park blinds, we usually head out towards the McDonald Observatory.  No, we are not interested in looking at the stars, but there are great bird photographic opportunities along the way.  If we look closely, we see raptors or other birds.  There is one little roadside park complete with picnic tables and such, but it is a great bird area.  On a recent trip on that loop, we stopped at a scenic overlook.  In some nearby shrubs I photographed some Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and a Wilson’s Warbler. We always look forward to stopping at those areas.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Another drive we like is to take a drive southeasterly towards Alpine.  About four miles out you come to the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center.  Great opportunity for hummingbirds and others.  Go on into Alpine, cut across on hwy 90 to go to Marfa, then head north back to Fort Davis.  Lots of opportunities for birds or hawks on the fence lines.  Great chance to photograph some Pronghorned Antelope, too.

But, as I tried to stress earlier.  Be Patient, Alert, go slowly.

Happy Photographing, Happy Birding.  Get great shots.

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14 thoughts on “Combining Birding and Photography

    • Thanks, Dave. After I wrote it, I re-read it and wondered if I had come across as a know-it-all. Apparently, from the comments I have received, people have realized my intentions as just trying to give some helpful pointers.

  1. Thanks for the great advice, Bob. Yes you are a darn good bird photographer and I appreciate you sharing your strategies/equipment instead of being all “famous” and keeping it to yourself. You are famous but in a very nice way!! I know you and Ann will have a good time wherever you are. Y’all are pretty nice folks…hugs

  2. Great article, Bob! Reading it gave me several ways of improving my bird photography. Thanks. Hope you and Ann have a great trip to Davis Mountains. We envy your proximity to that beautiful State Park.

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