Backyard Birds

Most photographers have a plan to improve their inventory of favorite images. It’s usually related to capturing those birds or animals that continue to elude them or simply the desire to visit those dream destinations such as the canyons of Utah or the thermal activity of Yellowstone that consistently produce great images. Our plans are not much different. However, you don't have to travel a great distance to create some truly exceptional images. Attracting and photographing birds in your backyard can be lots of fun and experimenting with some simple feeding and nest box strategies can help improve your success while in the field.

Photography sessions can create some truly inspiring moments. Every so often you will encounter a location that is really exciting in terms of the impact it has on moving your skill set to another level. This is certainly how we would characterize Bill Forbes Pond At Elephant Head and Drip At Madera Canyon (see our description of these sites in our Locations synopsis of South Central Arizona). Here every detail from light to provision of blinds and attractive perches has been carefully thought out and provided for your convenience. The Cabin Lake viewing blinds near Fort Rock, Oregon and the well organized Lens And Land program in south Texas, including the Ramirez Ranch location in Roma, are also good examples. All are truly great locations for bird photographers dedicated to elevating their craft to a more artistic level.

Our experience at each, but especially at Bill Forbes location in Arizona, crystallized into a desire to build something similar in our yard. It's easy to install selected feeders, nest boxes, perches and build a simple water feature to attract resident and migrant birds. The arid condition of the Vernon area is well suited for the creation of a water attraction. Our home is situated on a large, private, open treed landscape that is attractive to a variety of species, especially California Quail and several hummingbirds, including Rufous, Black-Chinned, and Calliope. As spring approaches, we begin to focus our efforts on “baiting" the area for California Quail and Ring-Necked Pheasant. We also prepare a dozen or so rough cedar nesting boxes to accommodate Northern Flicker, Black-Capped Chickadee, Mountain Chickadee, House Finch, Downy Woodpecker and the ubiquitous Tree and Barn Swallows that seem to breed everywhere. We have several tube and platform feeders (both elevated and at ground level) that, combined with some suet cages, help to establish our yard as a good feeding location. Unfortunately, this also attracts a number of raptors. We regularly have a mating pair of Cooper’s Hawk hunting the area and have many visits from Red-Tailed Hawk, American Kestral, and Merlin whose territories now include the outskirts of our orchard. Amongst our other winter surprises have been a Northern Shrike, Northern Harrier, Rough-Legged Hawk and more Mule Deer than we’ve seen in ages. It’s quite a pedestrian list, but not a bad start. Our only concern was the Black-Billed Magpie. We’d read various accounts of the havoc this species can inflict on smaller nesting birds. As we monitored them over the early summer, we found that our original concerns were poorly placed as the only bird that regularly visited and raided our nesting boxes was the American Kestral. As to the Magpies, they visit us each morning like “clock work” to dine on peanuts in the shell that we place in our ground feeder, can be encouraged to perch and are an exceptionally lovely bird to photograph. Finally, we have six sugar feeders spread around the perimeter of our home in shaded locations to attract hummingbirds. The males show up in the middle of April and we had three nesting pairs visit our feeders regularly during the summer.

To give you an idea of what's lurking during the winter months, we’ve wandered around our neighborhood and taken a few late season images that can be seen in Gallery 62. Winter here is largely a low light photography experience demanding higher than normal ISO. As such, images taken at this time of year tend to be a bit "soft." On the plus side, the lack of foliage often allows an unfettered view of the subject that cannot be achieved when spring arrives. As we have alluded to previously, pure habitat photography is one of trade-offs which makes working with what you are given a challenge. A perch set-piece creates an element of control that is missing when working a natural habitat location. And what better place to experiment than your own back yard! Our plan was to create not only perch set-pieces using a water drip, seed and suet as attractions but also continue to experiment with the use of high-speed flash.

Building a perch attraction allows you to control several key variables when photographing birds, namely background, light and composition. Photography at this level is an art form. We have yet to fully grasp the subtleties and techniques that are used to create truly great images using set-piece attractions. However, a backyard can be a good place to gain some experience. Again, observation and practice are the keys to developing the skills required. We built several simple perch sets to take advantage of early arrivals (House Finch, Pine Siskins and American Goldfinch) as well as to attract residents that are becoming more active now that winter is over (California Quail, Black-Billed Magpie and Ring-Necked Pheasant). You can see some of the sets we created below.

Feeder And Tripod Perch

Moss Logs And Lichen Stone

We started by hanging a tube feeder in our Apricot tree baited with hulled sunflower seeds. The tripod handle holds the perch. We selected a number of branches (Forsythia, Pussy Willow, Magnolia and Staghorn Sumac) that were of a thickness suitable for the feet of the birds we were trying to attract. We set it near the feeder and left it for several days to allow the birds to become accustomed to its presence. Birds that use this feeder tend to “stage” when they come to eat. That is, arrive at higher branches and work their way to the feeder by progressively hopping down through the tree. As the number of feeding birds increase, latecomers will perch on the tripod branch to await their turn. We usually remove the bottom tray to further restrict their ability to feed and force more potential landings on our branch. We position the tripod such that the sun is at our back and the background is homogenous. You can get progressively more sophisticated by adding vines and using flowering branches from fruit trees. It's best to compose such that the branch and bird are roughly two-thirds of the frame.

We then built a rock pile as a perch for California Quail. We placed a small concealed ramp baited with wheat kernels behind the perch to entice feeders to get to the top. Next to this setup is a higher log perch baited for Black-Billed Magpie. Here we use shell peanuts secured with a small finishing nail placed just out of sight on the tip of the perch. We decorated the top of each with some Oregon Grape leaves. The ground hopper is baited with sunflower seeds and millet. We placed shell peanuts in the hopper for several days to make it easy for the Magpies to feed then stopped, forcing them to look harder for their meal. It wasn’t long before both species were using the upper perches regularly.

Although these setups are simple and the birds fairly pedestrian, it affords a good venue for practice. You can see a selection of our images from these sets in Galleries 64, 68 and 70. Understanding the habits of birds and controlling the experience is the key to developing truly great compositions. You can also achieve good results with a simple water attraction.

Hummingbird photography can be addictive. It's fairly easy to attract them but the techniques used to capture an image vary tremendously. We've experimented with a high-speed flash setup next to a feeder. Although we prefer not to use flash in our photography, we cannot find any reference material that indicates what harm it may cause a hummingbird (unlike an owl, where we have read that it causes damage to their eyes). Moreover, as you will see, the flash power used is at a relatively low setting. Below is a very simple setup. It employs four inexpensive flash units controlled by a wireless unit on the hotshoe of the camera body.

Simple Wireless Hummingbird Setup

We set each unit to Manual and adjust the flash power individually as follows: The key flash, positioned along the axis of the lens, is set to 1/32 power. The two fill flashes, positioned above and below the key flash (to the right and left respectively), are set to 1/16 power; and, the background flash, in this case pointed at a piece of cardboard supported by a step ladder, is positioned along the same axis as the key flash and set to 1/64 power. All flashes are then set to 24mm. The key and fill lights are then positioned exactly 14 inches from where we expect the bird to back off from the feeder. Finally, we set the camera body to Manual, 1/250 second shutter speed, f/22 aperture and ISO 200. A test image will indicate whether any of the flash power settings need adjustment.

This is a simple setup but produces reasonably good results if your objective is to freeze the wings in flight. Once you get comfortable with the technique, the next step is to change the background. We bought some inexpensive colored paper at Staples (light shades of blue and green are good choices). Post-processing using the Dodge or Burn Tools in Photo Shop can create a "mottled" rather than "flat" background. Remember to clone out the multiple catch-lights from the eyes created by the flash units, leaving the one that produces the best effect. We are still experimenting with this technique. As such, our bird images are fairly good but the background and flowers inserted in the final image are relatively poor. However, it's a start and by researching what others are creating, better results will hopefully be on the way. To see how our initial experiment worked out, review the hummingbird images in Gallery 66.