We do so many things to prepare for the holidays, to celebrate the season, to decorate for coming events. It’s certainly a special time of the year for everyone, and we all have our own ways of pronouncing our excitement for the annual festivities. Among the many ways to decorate, you can also festivize your bird feeding station with a holiday flare, by adding color, maybe even some lights, but more particularly by adding holiday-fashioned feeders that will help to spread the cheer in your yard and neighborhood.
For the 120th year, the National Audubon Society is organizing its annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC), which will take place between December 14 and January 5. Tens of thousands of birders will participate in count events across the Western Hemisphere to add to the 12 decades of data collected by participants that help inform ornithologists and conservationists about actions that may be required to protect birds and the habitats they need. Participation is open to birders of all skill levels, and it’s a great way for beginners to get partnered with more advanced birders to make this an exceptional learning experience.
We admire birds for their beauty and songs, their grace in flight, and most importantly we admire birds for the role they play in ecosystems around the world. With the theme “Spectacular,” who can resist National Geographic’s weekly collection of Top 25 Wild Bird Photographs submitted by photographers from around the world. The photos selected are meant to create awareness about the variety and beauty of birds in our world, and they are spectacular!
Project SNOWstorm is celebrating its seventh year studying the movements and ecology of Snowy Owls, and this promises to be one of the most interesting years. A number of radio-tagged Snowy Owls have already migrated south from the Arctic, adding new information for ongoing research and showing some fascinating results from new hybrid transmitters. There have already been good numbers of snowy owls showing up in the northern prairies from Alberta to North Dakota, across the Great Lakes and down the Atlantic Coast as far as New York.
The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation announced $30 million in new grants awarded from their National Coastal Resilience Fund to benefit coastal areas across the country. Among them, Audubon received funding for three projects totaling more than $1 million with matching funds to enhance coastal areas in North Carolina, New York, and California that will benefit a wide variety of birds, other wildlife, and citizens.
Keeping with the travel theme the past two weeks, I pointed my van southeast for Thanksgiving in Minnesota, which provided a different collection of birds than I’ve been seeing lately – some migrants, some locals. After an hour I encountered a collection of waterfowl along the nearly flooding James River – mostly flocks of Mallards, a few Canada Geese, and a pair of big Tundra Swans that surprised me this late in the season. Almost within sight of the Minnesota border, I was excited to see two flocks of seven swans each. But the most impressive sighting was a half-hour deep into Minnesota; A gathering of about 300 Tundra Swans, the most I’ve seen this year!
Nikon is synonymous for quality optics, and their most impressive binoculars – the Monarch and Prostaff – offer high quality, economy-minded models that fulfill every birder’s interests. The most popular models of the stylish Nikon Monarch 5 Binoculars are on sale now, including the 8x42 and 10x42 models that feature ED glass and fully multicoated EcoGlass lenses for top light transmission, along with turn-and-slide eye cups and a durable rubber-armored body.
Woodpeckers and chickadees often forage in nature by clinging to the undersides of tree branches while searching for food. Feeding upside down is natural for these birds – but not by starlings. Enjoy watching suet-feeding birds eating upside down, while you delight that starlings don’t even try. Available exclusively at Duncraft, the EcoStrong Upside Down Suet Feeder is made of durable brown and burgundy recycled plastic, holds one suet cake, and measures 6 inches square by 3½ inches tall.
A favorite outdoor clothing and equipment company among birders, Patagonia provides stylish quality products for birding and a host of other outdoor activities. With the change of seasons and holiday shopping at hand, Patagonia has something for everyone, including their Women’s Nano Puff Vest, the Men’s Micro D Fleece Pullover, the Women’s Down Sweater Hoody, and the Men’s Diamond Quilted Bomber Hoody among a wide variety of impressive clothing and outdoor gear, and be sure to see their discounted website specials.
November ended with a bang, yielding an exciting list of rare birds that featured Connecticut records of a First State Record Brewer’s Sparrow and a Seventh State Record Western Grebe, plus across the continent a Third State Record Eastern Towhee was photographed in western Montana. A pair of Eighth Records including a Little Egret in Nova Scotia and a Limpkin in North Carolina. Rare birds crossing oceans included a Northern Lapwing, La Sagra’s Flycatcher, Barnacle Goose, and Tufted Duck – and there’s more.

The stopped action of a downward wing stroke of a Peregrine Falcon in flight required good lighting, good positioning, timing, and a lot of luck among other elements.

A good bird photo records a moment of time shared between photographer and bird. It can be pretty quick, pretty simple, but it may be quite complex, depending on the photo opportunity. To make sure you’re ready for your next photo op, I developed a list of considerations that you can use as you prepare for a trip afield. You can also use these elements as you review the qualities of any photographs you take. You can also review other photographers’ work to see which photos catch your attention; then consider why you find certain bird photographs attractive. In essence, it’s all “in the eye of the beholder,” and there’s no perfect photo, but many come close.

Any good bird photograph will have a combination of elements that make it good, including:

Interesting Subjects – Any bird can be interesting, but an interesting subject can be improved by any number of additional elements, especially if you can record action, behavior, or activity. Larger birds may be easier to work with and easier to fill a photo frame with; colorful birds can catch your attention, and smaller birds can provide a unique quality to any photograph. But too often we settle for a “bird on a stick” image when with a little more patience, with continued tries, we can use action to elevate our photos.

Action – Photographs that show action are among the most impressive images; photos without a level of activity can be rather unassuming. After you take a nice portrait or two of a species, you will want more, and the same bird in action can be a big improvement over previous photos. What action? Spreading wings, stretching, interacting with another bird, flying, landing, swimming, hunting, preening, feeding, nest building, etc. Some action photos are inspiring, others are less than pleasing, but that’s part of the process. When taking photos at a fraction of a second some will be impressive, some won’t; but your editing process, your selection process, will highlight the best of your photo efforts.

The action of a landing Great Egret as it greets its nestlings shows a flash of action with open wings and an expressive face that required a quick reaction, good lighting that provided color without shadow along with sharp details, and a natural setting that contrasts with the color of the birds, along with other photo details.

Sharpness – The sharpness of a photo is the result of using a fast shutter speed, which can illustrate details of wing and tail feathers, eyes and bills, legs and feet – even when a bird’s in flight, swimming, diving, displaying. A fast shutter speed requires ample lighting, and adds to the level of detail needed to emphasize any good bird photo.

Lighting – Lighting is everything in photography – where the light comes from, how it illuminates your subject, how it creates shadows. The best angle of the sun may be at about a 30-degree level above the ground; anything more or less from about 50 to 10 degrees should be good too. Good light should illuminate a bird’s face and reflect the sun in its eyes (that shows as a small white spot in the eye); intensify colors, and provide a fast shutter speed with ample depth of field. When your shadow points at your subject, you’re in just the right position to utilize sunlight at its best.

Color – Good light from the right direction creates and reveals beautiful, cryptic, and even iridescent colors in birds, along with contrast and clarity. The background and setting are also integral to a good photo, especially when combined with an appropriate depth of field.

Setting – A bird’s surroundings, whether it’s scenery, landscape, or environment, can improve a photo by including water, trees, mountains, and more. Often, it comes down to the branch, vegetation, water, sky, or perch where a bird is positioned. Usually, uncluttered natural settings are preferred, but there are exceptions – again, the quality is “in the eye of the beholder.” Sometimes, if possible, you can improve a photo in the field by taking a step or two to one side to reposition a distracting element in the background out of the photo frame, or to the side of the photo. At times, you can position the bird to one side of your frame, perhaps in the lower portion of the frame, to show the subject as part of a larger scene. At times, a cluttered background can also detract from an image; the lack of an imposing background can improve a photo. It’s a judgement call, but it emphasizes that depth of field is an important element of this Setting topic.

Small birds are always difficult to photograph, but when you get a close-up of a smaller bird, it can be dramatic. This singing and displaying Orange Bishop provides vivid contrasting colors against a neutral background that helps make the bird stand out and doesn’t allow the background vegetation to distract from the sharp image of the perfectly lighted bird perched on a seeding bulrush stem.

Depth of Field – A bird image can be composed using a wide depth of field to show its position in its environ, in its habitat type – or you can use a narrow depth of field to throw the background out of focus and emphasize the bird against a relatively uniformly colored background to emphasize the bird itself. Both options are good, but you do need more light or a reduced shutter speed to get a wider depth of field. If you’re lucky, you may be able to try both options in the field, then decide which looks better when you’re editing your photos.

Timing – This may be relative to the moment you take a photo, or timing may be related to the time of day you choose to be in the field to utilize the best sunlight to photograph birds. Timing could also mean waiting for a sunny day to visit a favorite photo location, understanding that the best photos are taken in sunny conditions. It can also be a matter of crossing paths with a given bird – how often does luck enter into timing, even to the point of intercepting the flight path of a flying bird? Sometimes, timing is everything.

Positioning – Be sure to consider the position of the bird or birds within your photo frame. Try not to center your subject all the time; give the bird a space to one side where there is more space for it to look into, fly into, or swim into. Even if you center the bird in a photo, you can still alter the position of the bird when you crop a photo during the editing process. Also don’t overlook the option of turning your camera 90 degrees to use the vertical framing option in some photos, which can provide some interesting takes on the Setting of images.

Your Position – When photographing a bird or birds, you can sometimes improve a photo by changing your position. In some cases you can improve a photo if you get low, get down to the level of the birds you are photographing – at a wetland edge or beach, for instance.

This photo of a displaying Burrowing Owl incorporates many of the things that make up a good bird photo, including an interesting subject that shows a lot of character and facial expression, action, perfect lighting, a sharp image, excellent positioning, and a neutral background among other elements.

Luck – There is always an element of luck when you take a given photograph. Most good photos have many lucky elements. Just finding a bird to photograph can be lucky on any given day. Timing and Luck enter into a lot of good photos.

Be Prepared – Assess the scene in advance if possible; adjust your settings with consideration for the conditions you see in mind. Similarly, pre-focus your lens, even when using auto-focus, so there is no lag time in focusing when the action starts. Be Ready for Action!

Be Versatile – Try something new, and develop your own style in the process. Taking one good photo can inspire you into a lifetime of bird photography, each good photo you take will inspire you to go birding with your camera more often; and appreciate that this is a building process toward a rewarding part of your life, making you a better birder and an inspired citizen of the natural world.

One place to review a variety of good bird photographs by many photographers worldwide can be found in National Geographic’s weekly collection of 25 Wild Bird Photographs at

Article and photographs by Paul Konrad

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