What do you do to make your yard a haven for birds? The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and FeederWatch sponsor Wild Birds Unlimited have announced their second of four Data Entry contest winners among the many birders who responded to that question. The randomly selected winner, Gail Beasley, wrote about some of the steps she takes for her local birds, and the Lab provides other important steps birders can do to improve their landscaping to provide better backyard, office, and school habitats.
What a winter for hummingbirds in Louisiana! Since the end of November, 145 hummingbird hosts have reported almost 700 individual hummingbirds this winter, including 8 different species of hummingbirds! To put that into perspective, during all of last year, 223 birds were reported. New hummers are continuing to show up in Louisiana yards at Louisiana feeders, and with the coldest part of the winter at hand, compiler Erik Johnson noted that hummingbirds will continue looking for a food sources, “so keep those feeders fresh.”
Be a Better Birder: Duck and Waterfowl Identification – it’s a new online birding course that’s designed to help you identify waterfowl – ducks, geese, swans, and more, created and offered by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Each self-paced online lesson features a video tutorial, followed by exercises and quizzes designed to help you build your ID skills. Now you can get expert training to identify waterfowl from all angles and benefit from identification strategies like noticing “where is the white?” to take your waterfowl birding skills to the next level.
An exciting marker in the northward expansion of the nesting range of White Ibis along the Atlantic Coast of the United States took place in New Jersey last summer. For the first time, these pioneering wading birds nested at the Ocean City Welcome Center near Cape May. The activity was covered via blog by Tom Johnson and Doug Gochfeld, who were on the scene to document the progress of this months-long nesting event. They were assisted by Conservationist Kashi Davis, who helped to provide local context.
As I started my afternoon drive to Bismarck, the sun slipped behind a cloud bank that would bring a January rain to the expansive northern plains before me. Likely not great birding weather, but better than Thursday’s coming windstorm. Would there be more owls? Indeed, even more than my three owl day the previous Saturday – but just one species this time, in the form of four Great Horned Owls! One on the open prairie, three south of Bismarck east of the wooded bottomlands of the Missouri River. But the real excitement was a sighting of a favorite raptor.
The ultra-versatile Tamron 18x-to-400x Zoom Lens for Canon or Nikon cameras is on sale now. This compact and lightweight lens provides high-quality optics through a series of aspherical and low-dispersion elements for consistent sharpness and clarity throughout this len’s zoom range. This impressive ultra-zoom lens allows you to zoom smoothly from wide angle photos to photograph at telephoto ranges. It also features an HLD autofocus motor that delivers quick and responsive focusing performance that is also quiet to benefit video recording.
Several innovations make this Perky-Pet Select-A-Bird Tube Feeder one of the most economical and convenient hanging tube bird feeders on the market! Featuring 8 feeding ports, a 3½ pound seed capacity with an easy-fill wide mouth top, the Select-A-Seed feature allows you to rotate the feeding ports so mixed seeds or thistle seed is served. The beautiful copper finish accents the clear plastic seed reservoir that makes it easy to monitor seed levels. The feeder’s base can be rotated so perches can accommodate birds of different sizes.
Show your interest in hummingbirds by wearing a stylish shirt, polo, or hoodie from the expanded Hummingbird Spot collection. Available in a variety of colors and styles for women and men, the assortment of graphics provide a splash of colors and action that are sure to catch attention. There is also a new selection of coffee mugs and travel mugs, plus logo hats, and there is free shipping in the United States on qualifying orders. Add hummingbirds to your favorite birding clothing, with shirts and hoodies from the Hummingbird Spot.
Are you ready to invite Purple Martins to colonize your yard or lake property with the 16-Room Purple Martin House Package from BestNest? This fantastic package of equipment includes everything you need to host a Purple Martin nesting colony: The Purple Martin Barn that features up to 16 nesting cavities, a 15-foot Telescoping Aluminum Pole & Ground Socket, 2 Purple Martin Decoys, and the Stokes Purple Martin Book. This package is ideal for birders just getting started with Purple Martins, or ready to add a second colony site.
A most exciting aspect of birding is finding rare birds, and reporting them. Last week three First State Record species were documented, including a First White-throated Swift in Tennessee, a First Buff-bellied Hummingbird in Virginia, and a First Winter Wren in the state of Washington. In addition, there was a Second Provincial Record Scott’s Oriole reported in Ontario, and a Third State Record Lesser Goldfinch in Iowa. Other exciting off-course species included a Slaty-backed Gull, Pink-footed Goose, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and more.

Among my favorite winter photo subjects are the shorebirds – sandpipers, plovers, avocets, stilts, willets, godwits, curlews, yellowlegs, and the like – the shorebirds. Of course, shorebirds are rarely found where water freezes, so during winter, southern states from California to Florida tend to provide the best photo opportunities with a variety of shorebirds to be found, as well as varied social groups that may number in the tens, the hundreds – even in the thousands if you travel to a prime feeding and roosting area.

Shorebirds provide a variety of photo ops, by the diversity of their sizes, shapes, and colors; their numbers, and their activities as they search for food along wetland shores and ocean beaches. Walking, wading, probing, flying, competing, bathing, resting, roosting – singularly, in varied flocks, often species-specific, often sharing feeding sites with a variety of species. In short, shorebirds provide a variety of photo options and opportunities, especially during winter when they tend to be more social and more concentrated at suitable shallows, beaches, and mud flats.

Getting low near the level of the foraging Sanderling provided an intimate image of the small sandpiper, complete with a mirror image reflected in the calm shallow water.

Photo Specifics

Since you probably don’t have shorebirds in your yard, plan to visit a shorebird hangout while the sun is shining, preferably during mid-afternoon or mid-morning when the sun is at the best angle for photography during winter. Good sunlight is imperative to getting good bird photographs, so it’s best to dismiss photographing during cloudy weather. Just as important is to time your photo session when the sun will be at your back at the location you have in mind. I often say timing is everything, but lighting is just as important, and the direction of the sunlight is paramount to getting the best photos possible – keep the sun at your back and check your shadow to ensure it points at the birds before you.

American Avocets are a favorite shorebird subject for many bird photographers, so it’s always a delight to get a “different” image, like this swimming avocet in basic winter plumage.

A zoom lens is most versatile when photographing shorebirds, but a telephoto is almost equally useful. Usually you get your best photos from a distance, which puts shorebirds at ease to act naturally, and to realize that even though you may be standing tall and large, you are no danger to them – which may bring them closer eventually.

While you are photographing, work on trying not to center birds in your photo frame. Position the bird to one side of the frame or the other, providing a little extra space in front of the bird for it to look into, walk into, or fly into. Artists and designers often use the “law of thirds,” pointing out that the points to the right and left of center are more powerful positions for subjects.

I preset my camera using the aperture-priority (Av) mode setting on my Canon camera, and adjust the aperture to f8 to begin with. Using the f-stop, the camera automatically calculates the shutter speed with regard to the available light, which is likely more than 1/1000 of a second – usually ample shutter speed to stop motion including most shorebird flights, and the f8 aperture usually provides an ample area in focus for a single shorebird, and often for a small group depending on their positioning. Of course, you can always change your settings when there is a break in the action or as opportunity permits, so you can increase the area of focus to f11 or f14, for example, so a flock of birds are in focus.

A line of resting Black-necked Stilts is mostly within the area of focus, with the front birds most in focus and the rear fading slightly beyond perfect focus. Remember to focus on birds in the front of a flock.

Shorebirds on Foot

Photographing shorebirds is a lot of fun, and one of the most enjoyable aspects of photographing wintering shorebirds is the opportunity to walk along the edge of the shoreline, possibly even along the shore of a lake or an ocean beach. It’s still important to walk without displacing foraging or resting birds of course, but you can even kick off your shoes and feel the sand between your toes as you approach sandpipers and watch for flights of plovers. Photographing shorebirds is incentive enough to get outdoors, but to get some exercise and fresh air in the process is tough to beat.

Often while walking, our photos are taken while we stand, looking down at the birds along the water’s edge. You can always change that angle by kneeling down to get closer to the birds’ level. Then too, when you are in a lower position, you become less obvious and less ominous to wary birds that only stand inches above ground level. Watch for opportunities to take photos of shorebirds probing the sand or mud for foods, or when a bird runs along the water’s edge to reposition. Be aware of what birds are doing ahead of you, as well as behind you. You never know when a different species might fly in, or when a flock of avocets moves closer to the shoreline from deeper water. You may even get a rare photo of an avocet swimming, although keep in mind that avocets have webbed feet, so unlike most shorebirds, they are “equipped” for a swim when necessary.

As you are photographing, always be aware of the background. Often you will have a calm water setting, a wavy water background, or a sand or wet mud setting. Be aware of the colors, reflected light, vegetation, and other elements, and be prepared to take a step to the right or left, or several steps, if it improves the position of a bird or birds relative to their background. Also try standing tall, bending down, kneeling, and even sitting on the ground to get different background perspectives – so what if you get a little wet or dirty. Be creative, and consider a level of artistry as you photograph.

A flying flock of sandpipers will often switch sides simultaneously, turning their bodies from side to side, uniformly showing their underside, then their topside.

Fhotographing Flocks

When photographing a flock of birds, be sure to focus on birds closest to you. Too often, we focus in the middle of a flock, which can leave the birds in the front of the photo out of focus. By focusing on the front of the flock, the most obvious birds are in focus, and hopefully most others. If birds are out of focus, they will be birds at the back of the flock, which provides a much more acceptable image. Then, you can also adjust your aperture to an f14 or f17 to get more of the flock in focus – you get the idea.

If you have a small flock in focus, you be lucky enough to have them lined up within the same area of focus. Also keep in mind that it might be best to photograph a few birds at one end of a larger flock rather than trying to fit as many birds as possible in a given photo. But you may be able to do all of these things if you have the time to do some optional compositions of shorebirds before you. Flocks of shorebirds can be especially fickle, taking flight without apparent reason, so be prepared for such opportunities. However, when shorebirds take flight be sure to look up to see if a Peregrine, Prairie Falcon, or Merlin is in the area.

Stopped in action, a landing Willet provides a feather by feather look at a wintering shorebird in focus with a pleasing background and a full wingspan.

Flight Fotos

When flocks of feeding or resting shorebirds take flight en masse, they will often return to the same resting or feeding location, so it may provide a good opportunity to photograph birds as they approach and land. These can be especially good photo opportunities, often characterized by a series of birds landing over a minute or two. Also watch for a flying flock of sandpipers to switch sides by turning their bodies simultaneously from side to side, uniformly showing their underside, then their topside (ventral and dorsal sides).

My favorite way of photographing flying shorebirds is to find a location where they are regularly passing by, flying from one location to another, flock after flock and individually. That’s when I get positioned with the sun at my back and wait for the birds to come to me, trying to take a classic photo or 2 as different species pass by.

To be ready for any action situation, especially flight photography, I always set my camera’s Drive Mode for “Continuous Shooting.” In continuous shooting mode, the camera takes photos as long as you hold the shutter button down – up to 5 photos per second with my camera; up to 10 frames per second with higher-end models. I tend to take 2 photos at a time of flying birds, but when the opportunity arises, it’s worth taking a series of photos over a few seconds. The resulting series of photos provides you with a variety of photos from which you can select your favorite images – with wings up, wings down, gliding, banking, diving – enjoy giving it a try when you can.

The other important technical consideration for flight photos is your camera’s autofocus, which works best when a flying bird is fairly close. Sometimes, if you are not locking on to a flying bird as it passes, it may require you to press your shutter button halfway a second time to get the autofocus to lock in and track the bird as its flight progresses.

Although the following aspect of flight photography is rarely addressed, keep in mind that it is often hard to keep a flying bird within a camera’s photo frame. It’s not easy to follow the often rapid and sometimes erratic flight of a bird. I often get a little riled when I’m trying to follow and photograph flying birds and am a bit disappointed when I see resulting photos with part of the bird outside a photo frame; but that’s often part of the mix when taking photos of any birds in flight. Do your best, keep repeating the action, and you will get better; but I doubt anyone doesn’t have this problem at times – it’s just part of the process, an exciting part of flight photography!

Shorebirds offer birders with exceptional photo opportunities year-round, but winter photo options can be especially fulfilling. If you are lucky enough to have wintering shorebirds near home or work, make it a point to enjoy the varied photo means and methods, and try a new camera setting or two along the way. It will make you a better photographer, and a better birder overall. But most of all enjoy the shorebirds, and the great outdoors that shorebirds lead you to experience.

Article and photos by Paul Konrad

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