One of the ways I have been able to capture and appreciate the wonders of birdlife is through photography. The purpose of this article is to share some of my learnings with the bird lovers out there.
The first thing to appreciate is that the more time spent outdoors and the more patient one is, the more likely you are to come up with a winner. The second is that in order to be part of their action, you need to be birding during the dawn chorus. This begins just before sunrise when birds chirp to advertise their presence and wellbeing after a long night. There is a theory that during the cacophony of birdsong, each species communicates only with its own family but will acknowledge danger and intrusion regardless of source. Before packing your rucksack and getting a good night’s rest, prior research into what species fall into the local geographical distribution and some knowledge of their respective calls will prove invaluable.
Obviously good equipment helps when seeking that special photograph and one could be limited by the capabilities of your camera and lens, but this is no guarantee as technique is what really counts. The use of binoculars may help for identification, but I tend to leave these behind when I walk with my camera for fear of missing that moment. Instead, the aid that I find most useful is my hearing. Once you recognise the call of a bird, you get an immediate clue where to locate it and how to approach without disturbing it.
Another useful tool, especially with ever-evolving technology, is bird apps on mobile devices. Apart from providing you with an electronic reference at your fingertips, a unique feature allows you to play the bird’s call. My preference is the brilliant Roberts bird app. Often I use the device to assist me with identification, especially with those LBJ’s (little brown jobs). Watching it carefully for a reaction once I play the suspected call will confirm the bird in question. Sometimes the bird may fly closer or flit up to the top of the tree to investigate. It is at this moment that you need to be ready to quickly snap away. Is this ethical?
This is a great platform to emphasize that although these bird apps are fantastic, the question around playing the bird’s call repetitively in their presence can have an unknown effect that we don’t really understand. One could be responsible for driving territorial birds out of an area or interfering with courting during breeding seasons. Many feel that the respectful behaviour is that if the bird hasn’t responded after you tried to call it twice, you move on. Also, once an ID has been confirmed, leave it at that. What are your thoughts?
In my opinion, like with all types of photography, light is the most important factor. Photos taken during the “golden hours” (early morning and late afternoon) are when the best results are often achieved. The leaves on a tree often cast shadows making this a somewhat tricky task. With bird photography specifically, I believe a good photograph is only taken when the eye of the bird is in focus.
I recommend changing the following settings on your camera. Set the drive mode to continuous shooting so that you can take successive shots. With the AF point setting – manually select the centre focus point. It is also advisable to shoot on a quick shutter speed, especially when the bird is in flight or about to take off.
Naturally, great bird pics can also be taken during the day. Sites with water will always produce opportunities. If you are not on foot, taking photos out a vehicle or at a hide can also be rewarding. If you happen to find a nest during your exploration, this is another great place to get some good shots but always be sensitive and mindful of the birds returning to their nest to feed their hungry chicks.
A missed photographic opportunity can often be substituted by an even better replacement due to the gregarious spontaneous behaviour of the world of birds. Happy snapping or should I say flapping…
Birding safaris are becoming more and more popular with areas like the Okavango Delta, the Kruger Park and the swamps of Zambia filled with incredible birds. Have a look at this amazing 7 Day Zambian Birdwatching tour or this 4 Day Kruger Birding Safari.