Scarlet Tanager. Photograph by David Akoubian.
By David Akoubian
Each spring, as daytime lengthens and the nights grow shorter, migrating birds return to Georgia. Those that headed south last fall to their winter grounds – some as far away as South America – will begin reappearing in our landscapes, full of color and songs. As nature photographers, many of us strive to capture images of these the birds as they pause on their northward migration, or settle in to take up summer residence.
If you want to make the most of this annual opportunity, here are some ideas to help you attract those birds and bring them closer to your camera…
Whether the birds are returning to their summer breeding grounds or just passing through, how do you get them to stop so you can photograph them? Well, it’s fairly easy – you invite them! Birds prefer environments where they feel are safe from predation, and they will seek out areas that have a safe “feeling.” What do I mean by that? They search for areas where other birds are frequenting, like feeders in yards. Migratory birds as a whole (or at least the Warblers, Vireos and Tanagers) are primarily insect eaters and don’t really land at feeders. Some other birds, like Grosbeaks, will feed alongside your regular birds. But the insect eaters will often fly into a feeder area to see what all the fuss is about. Getting them to stay there long enough for photos is the tricky part.
A few years ago we had our yard certified by the Audubon Society as a Wildlife Sanctuary. To do so, we had to meet certain requirements, like having a food and water source, providing cover, and providing nesting options when possible. Out of all of those requirements, the most important to me is providing cover. We leave brush piles, and have created sections of small trees and shrubs where a bird can hide and feel safe. Once they feel safe, they will explore an area and search for food.
This is where it pays off for a nature photographer to create an outdoor “studio.” I usually set up only a few feeders, such as a sunflower seed feeder, a suet feeder and another feeder where I place mealworms and suet nuggets inside. Around those feeders, I place “T” bars driven into the ground, each with a stick, branch or small tree trunk attached to them with wire. The birds will land on these strategically placed posts and wait for their turn at the feeder, or in the case of the migratory birds, will pause to check things out. The reason the posts are important is that birds follow a social tier, with the most dominant birds feeding first, thus the term “pecking order.” It’s when birds land on these posts that I capture most of my images. I also have small trees near the feeder that serve the same purpose. Either place is perfect for creating photos of the birds.
I don’t use a blind when photographing birds; I simply sit on my porch drinking coffee and eating breakfast. Birds get accustomed to you sitting there, and they are unaffected by your presence unless you make any sudden movement. My posts are set up from 8-12 feet away from my seating location (I chose that distance because it’s roughly the minimum focusing distance of my Tamron 150-600mm G2 lens).
When I position my posts, I try to create some separation between the post and the background, which in my case is a row of trees and shrubs. I do this to allow the lens to drop off focus fairly quickly, even at my preferred aperture of f8. To accomplish this, I aim to allow a minimum of 4 feet between the objects. Behind the row of trees and shrubs I have a buffer of 20-40 feet, which will give the background a smooth, out-of-focus pallet of color to create the visual separation needed to make the birds stand out.
I prefer longer lenses, like my 150-600mm at 600mm or my 150-500mm at 500mm, when I am creating images in the “studio” area. This approach provides a sharp subject, then drops off to a smooth color background, creating an almost 3D effect. I shoot in manual mode, at f8, and I begin with a shutter speed of 1/125 of a second, with Auto ISO selected. I use the Auto ISO feature simply because the birds are constantly flitting back and forth between light and dark areas, and the variable ISO will help compensate for this. My subjects are mostly front-lit, so this works really well. But if I am shooting in the evening, the subjects can be backlit, so I will step my exposure compensation up +1 to compensate for backlighting. And while shooting I will use either a monopod or a tripod, because the weight of the lens can cause fatigue and shorten your shooting time dramatically.
As the morning goes on I will increase my shutter speed to an eventual 1/1000 of a second if needed. Usually, though, by the time the light warrants even a speed of 1/500, the light is pretty harsh and I am finished for the day.
To help enrich the studio site, I plant flowers around the yard that will attract insects. That’s because attracting insects means attracting things that feed on insects, which includes birds! I let the flowers die and decay in place as well. Why? Decaying plants attract insects, which attracts the birds. Do you see a pattern? I also don’t use any insecticides or pesticides in my yard because – you got it – I want the insects to be there. Each year I get good number of Scarlet Tanagers feeding on Japanese Beetles in the trees and shrubs in the yard, and that is the direct result of inviting the birds into the landscape.
This process will continue until the birds are ready to fly south for their fall migration. Often I see a greater variety of bird species in the fall than in the spring as numbers increase each year. You can pretty much count on the birds that come through one year to return again the next year, as they recognize a safe place where it’s easy to feed. This past summer alone we saw 27 varieties of Warblers, 5 different Vireos, plus Tanagers and Grosbeaks, all from the back porch.
This same setup can be adapted to smaller areas, such as a porch or even a common area in an apartment complex. The payoff can be many hours of photographing a variety of birds, which I find extremely rewarding. And most of what needs to be done actually requires less work than maintaining a pristine garden. So consider “letting things go” a little, and in return you’ll find more birds in your area than ever before.
David Akoubian is a professional nature photographer and a longtime resident of Georgia. He has been photographing professionally since 1992, and conducts workshops around the U.S. and Iceland. For more details on David and his workshops, check out his website at www.bearwoodsphotography.com. He is also active on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram.