How To Photograph New Zealand Birds - Part 2

Part one of this article covered the techniques and equipment useful in photographing New Zealand birds. The bottom-line in bird photography, however, is finding some birds and then getting close enough to them, and it is this area I will be discussing in part two of my article.

Know your birds
Location, Location, Location
Finding the right bird
Getting the birds to come to you
Working from a hide or blind
Seek and you shall find
Learning more

Know your birds

To be a good bird photographer it greatly helps to have a sound knowledge of birds, their behavior and where to find them. It is no good looking for a bird in the wrong habitat or when a migratory species is not even in the country. Find out what a particular species feeds on, what its call sounds like and if it is more active at a particular time of the day - the more you know about a species the better your chances of capturing it on film. To increase your knowledge of birds join your local bird conservation society, get a decent field guide and use every and any opportunity you can to learn from others.

Location, Location, Location

Finding a location with a good range of birds or with a particular species  present is, however, not the end of it. Not all good “birding” locations are necessarily good bird photography spots. The beginning bird photographer will quickly discover one thing - birds are small and you need to get closer than you thought – much closer than with a scope or binoculars.  Even with a 500mm lens and a teleconverter you will often need to get within 6-7 meters of a bird if you aren’t going to be saying – “is that dot on my film a bird?”

To get within close range it is important to remember that not all locations are the same. It helps a lot if you can find a place where birds are accustomed to people, for example on beaches where people regularly walk. The secret is to keep searching for new and better locations.

When I was first trying to photograph oystercatchers I just couldn’t get close enough, but a chance afternoon walk on a local beach showed me that here the birds were used to early morning walkers and allowed a much closer approach than the other places I had tried. A few days later I was there early in the morning, sitting at the water's edge and waiting for feeding birds to wander past. The early morning light was perfect and I was able to make some excellent images.

Finding the right bird

It also helps if you can find just the right bird. As all birders know some birds just seem to like people and allow a much closer approach than others of the same species do. During my last visit to Miranda there was a very tame pied shag perched opposite the local fish and chip shop. He allowed me to approach as close as I wanted to, change lenses and set up my flash. All the time he never moved an inch.

Getting the birds to come to you

Setting up a couple of bird feeders is a great way of getting birds to come to you. You also have the added advantage that this is something ideal for setting up in your back garden at home. The main thing here is to make sure that you position the feeder to give yourself a nice clean background to your images and so that the light is coming from behind you over your shoulder at the time of the day you want to be working.

In the past I have set up a small feeding table in my back garden, put out some fruit for the silvereyes and just set up my camera close to the table - no hide/blind needed.  After a few evenings I had some nice Silvereye pictures, one of which was used as a textbook front cover.

With some species you may need to use a hide/blind to get close enough to the birds. With a back garden set up, instead of using a portable purpose built hide, you can use a window from your house, or build a nice comfortable permanent hide. Working from a hide or blind in your back garden also gives you the opportunity to use a shorter lens of 300mm or 400mm focal length.  


Working from a hide or blind

Recently I have started to use a hide more and more. Here location becomes even more important. Once you are in the hide, if you aren’t in the right place then you are in for a long and lonely wait.

Whilst out and about I am always on the look out for places where birds hang out. If the place is tidal then I visit the day before to see where the high tide point is going to be. Then the next morning I arrive early, set up near the high tide point and wait for the water to come in and for the birds to arrive. I have occasionally miscalculated and ended up with the water lapping around my feet, but I haven't yet been washed out completely!

I was recently tucked away in my hide when I heard some footsteps outside. I thought it might be an inquisitive member of the public, so I took a peek, only to find myself almost face to face with a heron who had wandered to within a meter of my hide. I carefully moved back behind the camera and was able to make some nice images.


Seek and you shall find

Whether using a hide or not I am always on the look out for new locations for bird photography, and I never discount a spot until I have checked it out myself. For example, I have found New Zealand dabchick and scaup in good numbers on a small lake in a housing development where I only really expected to find mallards.

I also always try to check out every possible spot at a location, as you never know where the birds will be. I have visited Waikanae and Paraparaumu many times on photography trips, but, as there are many possible locations, I have only recently been to some of them. My last find was that a large group of white fronted terns were spending all day flying back and forth along the edge of the beach, leaving to feed and then returning to the group. This allowed for endless opportunities to practice the tricky art of photographing birds in flight.

Learning more

Bird photography is a large subject and to learn more I would highly recommend that you read The Art of Bird Photography, by Arthur Morris. It is by far the best book I have found on the subject. The two websites www.photo.net and www.naturephotographers.net are also excellent sources of information.

Finally, feel free to contact me with any questions you may have on photographing New Zealand birds. I am also available for one on one tuition or for group workshops.

Home-About-Contact-Gallery-Stock-Prints-Gear-HowTo-Links