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Closing in on birds

Stealth is a technique to practice


This keen-eyed fellow is hard to approach much closer
This keen-eyed fellow is hard to approach much closer

Believe it or not, it’s relatively easier for hunters who stalk wildlife than it is for photographers to approach their quarry in the wild, particularly birds, since the photographer must approach closer. This is not easily-done, except with birds that are accustomed to the presence of humans in their territory. Birds are always alert to potential threat and have exceptional eyesight. They don’t miss much, so it is almost impossible to approach them undetected. Getting within range for a suitable photograph is challenging, but can be accomplished with perseverance.

THE OPEN APPROACH

It is often more effective to remain in the open, without attempting to hide from birds. You can almost always count on birds seeing you before you are in range. Rather than risk startling them into flight by suddenly emerging from your cover, let them be aware of your presence. Approach slowly and provide no sign of your interest in them. Sudden rapid or jerky movements will cause birds to take to their wings. Freeze if the birds become skittish at your presence. If it looks like they may be about to leave, back up slowly. Give them time to get used to your being there. Patience may soon bring you close enough for the photograph you are after.


THE STEALTH APPROACH

If you just can’t seem to get close enough without your bird quarry flying off, you may need to employ stealth and concealment. Be sure you have plenty of time, and a good reserve of patience. Note that many bird photographers feel that all the concealment techniques in the world can't get you close to some sharp-eyed species, and that very slow movement out in the open is less alarming to the birds and more effective in bringing you closer.

Moving unobtrusively involves:
(1) wearing camouflage or otherwise dressing inconspicuously in drab clothing, with anything shiny covered (place dark matte electrician's tape over shiny camera parts, for instance);
(2) darkening your hands and face;
(3) being careful when walking so you move slowly, without stepping on twigs that may break, and carrying nothing that can rattle or make a disturbance;
(4) avoiding open ground and staying in the shade whenever possible;
(5) standing perfectly still when a bird seems to be approaching you or when it pauses to check its surroundings; and
(6) moving straight forward rather than at an angle.

You can sometimes get close to an owl in daytime
You can sometimes get close to an owl in daytime

You may not see the relevance of visiting a place where birds are contained to learn how to approach them with stealth, but it's surprising how it can help. Joanne Dickeson of the Sunshine Coast Wildlife Rehabilitation Center has extensive bird knowledge.
You may not see the relevance of visiting a place where birds are contained to learn how to approach them with stealth, but it's surprising how it can help. Joanne Dickeson of the Sunshine Coast Wildlife Rehabilitation Center has extensive bird knowledge.

Practice stealth with easy subjects, like birds in your back yard, a park or local marsh area, before you go out in the wild. The experience will pay off.

It is also a good idea to visit aviaries, zoos, bird protection areas or wildlife rehabilitation centers to get a close-up look at the kinds of birds you are interested in photographing, and a better understanding of their behavior. Observing a bird's mannerisms and movements in captivity can provide you with information that can be surprisingly useful in the wilds, and staff in such places are generally willing to share their extensive knowledge with photographers. (Don't forget to say thanks by leaving a donation to the organization.)


SHOOTING TIPS WHEN USING THE STEALTH APPROACH:

  • Preset your camera’s focus, shutter speed and aperture while you are out of range.
  • Focusing at infinity is usually appropriate unless you expect to be really close, in which case you will have to make an educated guess and preset an anticipated focus distance for the lens.
  • Pre-setting your aperture for hyperfocal distance along with a suitable shutter speed for correct exposure is ideal, guaranteeing you that your subjects wil be in sharp focus.
  • Select a fast shutter speed when possible. 1/500 sec and faster should adequately stop motion. Using 1/250 or 1/125 sec may show some blur from wing movement, but should still render all but the fastest-moving birds in acceptable sharpness.
  • A telephoto lens, or adjusting your zoom lens for telephoto shooting, will bring your subjects closer.

Begin practicing your stealth with easy subjects, like birds in your back yard or a nearby park.
Begin practicing your stealth with easy subjects, like birds in your back yard or a nearby park.

Move slowly to ensure you don't startle your photographic quarry. This male California quail was curious, but not frightened by the close proximity of the photographer, who made no sudden moves.
Move slowly to ensure you don't startle your photographic quarry. This male California quail was curious, but not frightened by the close proximity of the photographer, who made no sudden moves.

  • If your camera has auto-focus capability, you may wish to shut it off to avoid unnecessary noise.
  • Once you are in range of your bird quarry, don't let excitement take over. Keep your movements smooth and oh so s-l-o-w. Bringing a camera suddenly to your eye may send your subject flapping before you can shoot a single frame.
  • Be sure to focus and depress the shutter release smoothly, with a continuous, steady movement, then keep the lens trained on the bird and look for the next picture. You will at least be ready to catch the bird launching into flight if the shutter or automatic film advance noise from the first exposure startles the feathered creature.


Sometimes, after all of your careful stalking and searching for birds, you miss the quarry that is right out in the open. Can you see the owl in broad daylight in the picture on the left? Keep your eyes open at all times.
Sometimes, after all of your careful stalking and searching for birds, you miss the quarry that is right out in the open. Can you see the owl in broad daylight in the picture on the left? Keep your eyes open at all times.
Further information...

Finding a nest to photograph

Essentials of wild bird photography
Related topics...

Blend into the animal's habitat