Flights of Fancy
By Tamia Nelson
June 2, 2009
I enjoy watching birds as much as I enjoy paddling, and luckily I don't have to choose between them. Water draws birds like a magnet attracts iron filings. Many spend their days paddling around. Others—ospreys and swallows spring immediately to mind here—are less keen to get their bums wet, but they dine out on the water's bounty nonetheless. And that's just a start. The list of birds who frequent river banks, foreshores, and wetlands is long and varied. This is great news for paddling shutterbugs, of course. But though birds are always enticing targets for the amphibious photographer, they're also among…
The Most Challenging of Wild Subjects
Birds don't sit still for long. They move around. A lot. Many of them are small. Some are no bigger than your hand. And they like to keep their distance. Even the most curious among them approach featherless bipeds warily, peering out at us from behind branches or leaves. Moreover, quite a few species could give an Army Ranger lessons on camouflage.
All of which makes life very difficult for any paddler who's hoping to shoot good bird photos. You can plop yourself down next to a rapids or saunter along a lakeshore and fill your camera's memory card with gig after gig of sharp, beautifully composed scenics, with not much more effort than it takes to program a microwave oven. But capturing the images of wild birds requires a very different strategy. It's more akin to hunting than studio photography. Isabella Beeton, the 19th-century housewife who compiled a celebrated cookbook, is widely reputed to have begun one recipe with this advice: "First, catch your rabbit." The fact that she didn't write any such thing doesn't detract from the soundness of the principle. You can't cook what you don't have. And the would-be bird photographer labors under a similar constraint. He, too, must first catch his quarry. This is yet another example of the many ways in which digital photography improves on the film technology that preceded it. As soon as a bird comes into sight, you can snap away without incurring huge charges for film processing, or having to spending endless hours in the darkroom. Even if your target is in constant motion, flitting from sunlight to shadow and back again in the time it takes to press the shutter, at least a few of your shots will likely be keepers. The rest? Electrons are easily and cheaply recycled. If you have to shoot hundreds of shots to get a single photo that you like, it doesn't matter. You'll only have pay to print that one.
So far so good, but this convenience and economy come at a price. Digital photography is technology-driven. That being the case…
What About Equipment?
Are only the most expensive digital cameras good enough for bird photography? And will you need a battery of long, autofocus lenses with a price tag that rivals the cost of a small car? No, and no again. I shot one of my best bird sequences many years ago, using a modestly priced consumer-grade Minolta SLR film camera outfitted with a 50mm ("normal") lens. I simply happened to be in the right place at the right time. A red-tailed hawk snatched a starling in mid-air in front of my eyes, then landed right at my feet to enjoy a fast-food lunch. I ran out of film before the hawk finished his meal, but I got 12 great shots of which I was enormously proud. Unfortunately, I can't reproduce them here. The Christmas Eve fire that destroyed all of my possessions except my bike and my Sierra Club cup didn't spare my slide collection. But I can still capture the 12 lost shots on the emulsion of my memory, and I can confirm that the photos I took with my inexpensive camera were very good indeed.
That was a long time ago. I no longer use a film camera. These days I'm a digital girl, through and through. This entails some small inconveniences. On all but the shortest trips, I have to remember to pack plenty of batteries—and batteries of the right kind, at that. Alkalines are good for a few dozen shots at most, and rechargeable NiMH batteries don't do much better (at least that's the case in my digital SLR). Lithium cells, however, just keep going and going and going and…
A spare memory card is worth bringing along, too, though I've yet to need the extra capacity. Even when I'm shooting large-format images with my workhorse bird camera, a Pentax k200D DSLR, a 16 GB SD card gives me room to spare. That said, alternating between two cards protects you against total loss if the data on one card is corrupted. I'm trying to get into the habit.
Of course, my workhorse camera needs a lens, and the one I most often turn to is a Pentax DA 50-200mm F4-5.6ED telephoto zoom. (This gives the same results as a 76.5-306mm zoom on a 35mm film camera.) A longer lens would be welcome on the vast, treeless expanses of the James Bay Lowlands or in the high Arctic, to be sure, as well as on the North American prairies and anyplace else where the vistas are long and the horizon distant (beaches, say, or open water). But for much of the rest of Canoe Country the 50-200mm zoom is perfect.
OK. I like my DSLR. No surprise, eh? But there are times when it's just "too much gun," and that's when I turn to a smaller, lighter, point-and-shoot camera, a little Canon PowerShot A590. The integral lens is surprisingly versatile, incorporating both a close-up macro capability and a modest zoom, the equivalent (in 35mm terms) of a 140mm telephoto. This is a lot to get from a camera that slips easily into a pocket of your field vest or PFD. (Warning! The Canon isn't waterproof. Not many point-and-shoot models are. Take precautions.)
Camera and long lens aren't enough in themselves, of course. You also have to have a steady hand. And if you want to win the Battle of the Blur, you'll often need more. A tripod is the conventional answer here, but tripods are a perishing nuisance on the trail, about as likely to snag a passing cedar and tumble you into a bog as help you get that perfect shot. Moreover, unless your boat is 30-foot trimaran adrift in a dead calm, a tripod is useless afloat. Still, a tripod is essential if you hope to snap waterfowl from a shore blind, and a good panning head even enables you to capture birds in flight. So pick a tripod that's compact and reasonably light, and watch out for low-hanging branches. Don't expect it to last forever. Most of the lightweight tripods I've used have developed palsy within a year or two. The only remedy? By a new one.
So what's the bottom line on camera gear? You get what you pay for, more or less, but you don't always need to spend top dollar to get good results. Here's a case in point:
I snapped this photo of a diminutive yellow warbler with my pocket Canon point-and-shoot. My subject was sitting in a jack pine along the portage trail overlooking one of The River's many falls, and the little Canon did the business. The resulting shot is crisp and colorful. It leaves you in no doubt that the warbler was caught on the cusp, frozen between curiosity and caution. It also illustrates the importance of being prepared. I had the camera in my hand because I was hoping to capture the moment when a shaft of sunlight illuminated the falls. Then, when the warbler lit nearby, I had only to point, zoom, and click. I got just one chance at the shot, but that one chance was enough. The picture was a keeper.
The upshot? Professional gear is great, but it's not essential. The secret of great bird shots has more to do with…
Sometimes it's a sudden movement that catches your eye and alerts you to a bird's presence. Or it could be a flash of color. Or an unusual silhouette in the shadows. In the case of the indigo bunting in the photo below, it's easy to see what got my attention:
He was flitting through the thicket of jack pines near the falls, not far from where I saw the yellow warbler. The River was roaring, drowning the valley in sound. I couldn't here the bunting's high-pitched, buzzy call. But his blue plumage stood out against the greens and browns of the forest. Here again I was ready with my little Canon camera, and although the photo is slightly grainy, the composition and color make it a keeper. It's also my first shot of this elusive bird. Who knows when I'll get another opportunity?
On a different day, I was messing about in my pack canoe in one of The River's many moving pools. I thought there was something strange about the outline of a familiar, half-submerged stump. I drifted downstream with the current, the little Canon in my hand, moving as carefully and as slowly as I could. I snapped a photo, but I couldn't tell what I'd got. (I'd buried my reading glasses deep in my pack, and I couldn't see the LED display clearly.) Since I was literally shooting blind, I figured my chances would be better if I beached my canoe and stalked closer along the shore. So that's what I did, snapping this photo with the telephoto zoomed to the (optical) max.
Now here's a digitally enhanced version, showing the preening female mallard and her companions:
It's clear that there was a regular hen party going on in the shallows around that stump, and if the gabble of voices that reached my ears were any indication, the participants obviously had a lot to say to each other. The photos are instructive in other ways, too. You can see how digital enhancement degrades the image quality. The picture is decidedly grainy. Still, I'm glad I kept it, even if it isn't gallery quality.
Later in the week, I returned to The River. As always, I did what I could to make myself inconspicuous, wearing a faded, olive drab shirt and a weathered brimmed hat. I also took advantage of the tangle of shoreline vegetation while I picked my way along the anglers' trail from my canoe's temporary berth. I'd brought my DSLR and my long lens this time, hoping for find another hen party in full swing. No joy, though. So I continued down the trail for a bit, and I was eventually rewarded with this shot:
The mallard drake struck a dapper pose in the brilliant spring sun as he basked on a sodden log. Perhaps he was wondering where all the ladies had got to. Despite my stealthy approach, however, it was obvious that he knew I was there. But he didn't seem much disturbed, just wary. Compare his portrait to the one of the hen party, just above it. See how sharp it is in comparison? I had no need for a digital zoom with the long Pentax telephoto. (The ruddy streaks in the lower foreground are red osier dogwood branches—my adventitious riverside blind. I could have edited them out of the picture, but I don't think they get in the way much, do you?)
Then, just as I was getting ready to go, something moving high in the sky caught my attention. I looked up, and this is what I saw:
It was a turkey vulture, soaring on the thermals and looking for a meal. I must have been keeping pretty still, because he drifted closer and closer to me, in an ever-tightening spiral. I fired off a few shots and this one caught his outstretched primaries, highlighted by the sun behind him. My movement was enough to convince the vulture that I wasn't on his menu, so he widened his spiral and moved on. So did I.
Oddly enough, bird photographers frequently have to rely on other senses than sight. Forest birds are often heard long before they're seen. In fact, you could say that a paddling shutterbug's best friend is…
The Heard Instinct
Sound travels far over open water. A yodeling loon can be miles away, yet you would sometimes swear he was calling from the bay just in front of you. Even the soft plashing of a family of diving ducks can signal their presence while they're still out of sight, far downstream and around the next bend in the river. That's why serious photographers often drift or paddle "Indian style," never lifting their blades from the water. After all, you can't hear what's going on around you if you're making noise yourself. Of course, once your quarry's in sight, he (or she) can see you, too. So move slowly and deliberately as you bring your camera to your eye, and be sure to kill your flash. Many point-and-shoot cameras make the flash the default option. Shut it off before you venture afield.
Are you ashore, rather than afloat? Then walk as quietly as you can in the direction of the call or song that alerted you to a bird's presence, being careful not to tread on wildflowers or the eggs of ground-nesters. But don't take more than a few steps at a time. Advance by fits and starts, pausing every few yards to look and listen. Sooner or later you'll probably spot your songster. And sometimes your quarry will even come to you. The yellow warbler in the photo above flew over to me as I rested in the shallows of a tiny stream that meandered lazily through a swale. He was determined to let me know I'd invaded his territory. So after shooting this picture, I left him in peace.
The chickadee below got my attention by singing the FEE BEE song. It, too, is a territorial warning, as well as a way of distinguishing family members from outsiders, and it's most commonly heard in spring. But if you listen attentively, you can hear it in every month of the year.
This little fellow was circumspect, but confident. He—he might have been a she, of course—let me get close enough for a great shot.
Calls, songs, and cries. The splashing of ducks and the booming of bitterns. Birds make all sorts of sounds. As I drifted along the shore of a nearby beaver pond early in the spring, I heard a loud rustling in the scrub at the water's edge. I floated nearer and saw a congregation of male white-throated sparrows, scratting for tasty morsels in the duff. They'd just finished flying up from their winter quarters, and it was obvious that they were topping up their tanks after the long journey. I caught one in the viewfinder of my Pentax as he paused for a drink in the mossy shallows:
This little songster—he warbles O Canada, Canada, Canada north of the border, but changes his tune to Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody in the south—is well known to all Canoe Country paddlers. Or at least his song is. He's mighty impressive when seen up close in his breeding plumage, with his golden yellow eyebrows (lores in birderspeak) and white stripes.
The ruffed grouse is another familiar woodland bird. He often drums in the spring, but on the day I snapped the photo below, I heard only scuffing and rustling in the sandy margin of the trail. I had my Canon point-and-shoot out in seconds, and sure enough, my foresight—make that forehearing—was rewarded.
Do you see the hollow in the sand where the grouse took a dust bath? He was leaving when I caught up with him, and I didn't linger. I was already regretting having interrupted his morning toilet. In wildlife photography, there's a fine line between stalking and harassment, and I try not to cross that line. If in doubt, it's best to pass up a shot, rather than disturb a nesting or feeding bird. That's why long lenses are so important.
Further down the same trail, late in the morning of another day, I heard a thrashing sound coming from somewhere high in a stand of quaking aspen. My first thought was that it was a murder of crows having a convivial spat. (Swallows congregate in flights and peacocks join ostentations, but whenever two or more crows gather together, they form a murder.) Nope. The noise was more regular, and it carried no hint of violence. Then I decided it was a rafter (another rarely used collective term) of roosting wild turkeys who'd decided to sleep in and were only now stirring. I readied my camera and crept closer. Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw this genial countenance in my viewfinder:
A porcupine was eyeing me just as I snapped his picture. He and his mate were enjoying a companionable brunch of tender aspen leaves. Soon they were joined by a troop of chickadees who landed en masse to dine on the cloud of insects drawn to the sun-warmed spot.
There's no mistaking the fact that Mr. Porky had me in his eye, is there? In fact, he was…
And that's not a bad thing for bird-seeking shutterbugs to be, too. The last film camera I bought was an Olympus OM-1n. It was a manual-focus SLR, and I learned to be quick when shooting photos of birds, or else…
Modern autofocus cameras don't do any better. In fact, they're often too slow off the mark, as the photos above show. It's a classic case of "Now you see him, now you don't." Foraging for food in a pine, this white-breasted nuthatch wasn't about to hold still for me. He was gone in a flash of blue-gray wings. I only got the first picture because I overrode the autofocus and did the job manually, rather than waiting for the electronic brain of my Pentax to make up its mind.
The moral of my tale? If you're shooting birds, autofocus is not your friend. When your subject is half in shadow and half in sun, moving constantly, and framed by a tangle of tightly curled branches, even sophisticated autofocus cameras throw up their hands in despair. They gibber and judder and then…they do nothing. If a bird is in the open, of course, things go much better, but unless you're shooting over water, such opportunities are rare in Canoe Country. So if your camera has a manual focus option, learn to use it.
Is that the end of the story? Not quite. Zooming out to capture a distant bird is all in a day's work for the paddling photographer, but there's the danger that you'll focus on the wrong bit of your target. Luckily, if you have the technical know-how, you can tweak your aperture to increase the depth of field, bringing more of the bird into focus. Read your camera's manual to find out how. But what if your camera won't let you override its automatic setting? What then? Easy. Focus on the eyes.
This hairy woodpecker peeked out at me repeatedly from his perch on the opposite side of a pine, but he finally consented to have his picture taken. I focused right on his eye, and the result couldn't have been better. You can even see the droplet of melted snow clinging to a downy filament just below his beak. The rest of him is slightly out of focus, a happy accident that softens and models the contours of his plumage. Much the same thing happened when I took the next photo. I focused on the chickadee's eye, blurring the nearby pine branches and creating a natural frame for the shot.
No detail of his mantle, coverts, and secondaries was lost, however. Not a bad showing for a pocket-sized, point-and-shoot camera. Of course, you don't always want the eyes to be the center of attention. Take this picture of a male goldfinch in winter:
The feathers are the main focus of interest here, and the fact that the bird's eye is somewhat blurred doesn't detract from the shot. The goldfinch's perky personality comes through loud and clear. And that's the main point, isn't it? Birds aren't mere ornaments. They're intelligent, adaptable creatures, who've made themselves more at home in three dimensions than we've managed to do in two. They're our neighbors, in short, and we can learn a lot from them. But only if we look—and listen. Photography can do no more than open a window on their complex and fascinating world. The rest is up to us.
Canoes and kayaks take you to where the birds are, so it's only natural that there are plenty of paddlers who are also bird-watching shutterbugs. And while birds seldom hold still to have their pictures taken, it's not mission impossible to get great shots of them on and around the water, even with relatively inexpensive gear. Patience, skillful stalking, and a steady hand are the keys to success. Believe me, that's no flight of fancy!
Copyright © 2009 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.