As I've mentioned before in this blog, my luck with chasing birds for a good image is little to none. I may get a photo or 2, but not where I want, with the background I want, nor the perch I want the bird to be on. (The only exception I know is shore birds, but that's a different blog subject) The best way I know to get a lot of good images is to go to a place where some one feeds and waters them and it has a blind or hide you can use (please see my blogs on elephant head pond above). But for reasons such as distance, the inability to book a spot, or that the bird (s) you want to photograph do not eat from feeders (insectivores) or are not found in the habitats where such areas are you are up to your own devices. My methods for photographing these birds is audio calling them to perches I have already set up. I'm either in a blind or my vehicle and waiting.
I'm not going to go into here on what methods I use because there are already a couple of definitive sources out there, both by the same author. Noted bird photographer Alan Murphy has produced 2 audio cd books and I am completely impressed with the methods in both. I have used over 50% of the many methods he discusses in both with better than expected results. I'm not going to duplicate his efforts here but instead I urge you to purchase one if not both of these cd's. To order these cds please see Alan's website (http://www.alanmurphyphotography.com/ebook.htm) and order yours. NOTE: I have never met Alan, talked to him on the phone, etc. and get no kickback from his sales, I just think his products are that good to highly recommend them. If I do meet him I'll certainly shake his hand with a sincere thanks.
After I read both of these cd's I started calling and I'm still learning about our birds here in Arizona. You will find each species has a time that it works best to call them, usually a week or 2 week long period when they are just setting up territories. Some that you can call in late February will not respond in April and visa versa. I just came back from the Catalina's where I hoped to attract red-faced warblers with an off chance I might see a yellow eyed junco based on what a friend told me. What I found was the opposite, the yellow eyed juncos landed right in front of me and I was lucky to get a red faced warbler into range. If you want to know when to go I recommend purchasing a in depth bird guide in your area. Here in Arizona I read the Arizona Breeding Bird Atlas (http://www.amazon.com/Arizona-Breeding-Bird-Atlas-Corman/dp/0826333796/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1368900962&sr=8-1&keywords=arizona+state+breeding+bird+atlas) to get the best information I could on some different species.
So far I've found I have to tweek some of Alan's methods which he recommends, and that's half the fun. It's your creativity and thoughts against the cautious instincts that every species has, You will "lose" some as the birds won't respond as hoped to your great idea. It sure happened to me but keep it up and success will taste that much better.
A concern biologists have on using bird calls is their overuse (long periods of calling the same bird) causing stress on the bird and/or pair bond, and some research indicates this concern is well founded. The Sibley bird guides has an excellent synthesis of what NOT to do and what is considered ethical. Some people do not like the use of audio at all but research has not found a negative effect when used properly. I strongly urge you to visit this site and follow their guidelines as close as possible. Murphy's "The photographer's guide to attracting birds" has a good overview as well in his extensive section on using audio.
Below I've posted a subset of the many images I took this spring, all with the use of audio and using my own perches. My goal was always to get as close to a full frame image as possible with an attractive perch and an uncluttered, preferably light green background. Unlike some bird photographers some times I opt for more of the habitat/plant as well, guess that's the biologist in me. I started in late February in the lower desert and worked my way up. When I started in the desert my goals were the "silver dollar" birds because that's there size (verdins and black-tailed gnatcatchers) and gilded flickers. As I noted what was around me I tried to call them as well, some times with success and sometimes not. Cactus wrens and curve billed thrashers are some of the most aggressive, thus easiest to call. Abert's towhees are very timid, and orioles are just hard to find but call in fairly easily. Unlike visiting a feeding area, I find when calling I have one of 2 species I'm hoping for. If I do and do too much I don't get any good images. As the weather got hotter and desert birds began to stop responding I went up in elevation, still with specific birds as targets such as vermillion flycatchers and kingbirds. As of today, May 18, it's still a great time in higher elevations but due to an upcoming trip of a lifetime (6 weeks in South Africa) I've had to postpone calling until spring of next year. I hope you enjoy the images, I sure enjoyed taking them.
In mid March I decided to try to photograph birds during one of our snow storms in the high country. I was able to get permission to photograph at a private residence outside of Prescott where the owner vigorously fed birds and lived on the the USFS boundary. By setting up my blind, more for protection of my equipment as it was snowing hard I was able to get a few hard to photograph species with different backgrounds than the norm. I was happy with some of my bridled titmouse, dark-eyed junco, ruby crowned kinglet, hairy woodpecker, spotted towhee, and western scrub jay photos. I was really hoping for a nice stellar's jay but the snow was so wet that the crests of all the jays I photographed were droopy. Just gives me an excuse to go back next year in the same conditions.
If you are fond of photographing birds I strongly recommend you find ways of photographing them such that they come to you. My first 2 years of bird photography were "chasing" birds in some popular bird photography areas like Gilbert Riparian and the Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden. Both are good spots and I return to the areas a different times of the year. However, I found that the number of species you could photograph well at either area was limited. If I wanted more perching birds I would have to find new areas.
I now concentrate at feeding areas such as this private residence, my favorite is a place discussed before, Elephant Head Pond, and you can go there by contacting owner Bill Forbes at Phototrap.com. I also use bird calls frequently and find this method very successful. I will be discussing some of my method for calling species in future blogs. Although I love the calling, it's hard to get near the species you will at a popular feeding area though.
I went for a scouting trip to Bosque del Apache in December for just a couple days but was very happy with the images I took in such a short time. It was crowded as the week before Christmas is a popular time for many of the tours but my fellow photographer and long time friend Bruce Taubert had an excellent time. Birds are back at the major roosting pond for the evenings and the magnificent fly outs, not in huge numbers as they are roosting in other ponds as well, but it still made for a nice fly out. The sunrises were spectacular as you can see below. The colors there never cease to amaze me and I slightly desaturated the images below as the red was overwhelming. There were approximately 65,000 geese there, 7,000 sandhills, and over 40,000 ducks of various species. As usual the northern pintails were the most numerous. The fly in to the major roosting pond by the sandhills was different than I have ever seen it before and it provided some great opportunities for flying birds. They were coming in from the east so you could set up on the west shore and get some excellent shots with the front of the cranes completely illuminated by the softer late afternoon light. I was dissapointed I only had one afternoon to shoot them in this light, but I still have many photos to process so I should not complain. Bruce and I headed to Albuquerque where he met his tour group and we all went to the zoo to shoot wood ducks, many to choose from at quite close distances as usual. The next morning I skipped the zoo in search of an area I might be able to photograph flying wood ducks and was lucky enough to find a few. Shooting flying birds is always tough and these little guys average around 45 miles per hour. I was able to get a few landing that I'm happy with but just didn't have the time to get a side view. I had to get back to work and make a Christmas shopping stop in Gallup which both my wife and son appreciated less than a week later.
In this new year I have many exciting photo trips lined up including south Florida, High Island in Texas, a few more trips to Bosque, my annual brown bear shoots in AK, back to Colorado for leaf color changes and elk again, and the pinnacle, 6 weeks in South Africa as I design a study abroad class on Wildlife Biology for ASU. I'll also have several local trips lined up. This late winter, early spring I hope to center on waterfowl, smaller predators through calling, and the desert breeding birds as the season is just around the corner. Happy New Year and Happy shooting to you all. I hope you feel as blessed as I do!
Here is the press release from the Boyce Thompson Arboretum:
Marvels of Migration Photography-Lecture By Stan Cunningham Dec. 9 Last winter Arizona birders and photographers were surprised when a wayward Common Goldeneye spent a few days at Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park, near the scenic copper-mining town of Superior, about 45-minutes drive due East of Mesa. Would you believe that of the 850 bird species in North America, more than 300 leave the continent and spend the winter in Central and South America and the Caribbean? In preparation, some transform themselves into “super birds”: gorging until they accumulate fat reserves that almost double their body weight in order to have the energy for transcontinental flight? Others take an opposite approach - flying just a few hours each day. And how do they find their way? An internal magnetic compass, eyes that can see polarized light or even magnetic directions, memorized celestial maps along with many other methods have all have been hypothesized and some convincing data collected. Research biologist and ASU Polytechnic Wildlife Professor Stan Cunningham will share these and more insights into avian migration during a lecture Dec. 9 at Boyce Thompson Arboretum accompanied by his impressive photography of birds on the wing. The presentation begins at 1:30 p.m. in the lecture room of the Smith Building and is open to the public, included with Arboretum daily admission of $9, and no pre-registration required. For the past three decades Cunningham has lived an adventurous life you'd expect to see depicted on film: crawling into black bear dens during wintertime as a wildlife biologist for the Arizona Game & Fish Department and spening a month each summer in Alaska as a professional photographer, shooting vivid pictures of Brown bears for magazines, tourist lodges and leading Alaskan photo safaris and ecotourism trips. A professor of wildlife biology at Arizona State University Polytechnic since 2006, Cunningham is known for his decades of research about bears, mountain lions, and the ecological effects of wildfire. On Sunday, Dec. 9, he will share some of the secrets scientists have learned on migration and navigation along with some of his most breathtaking avian photography.
I also will be talking about photographing migrating birds. I hope to see you there.
I have been spending a couple weekends so far shooting birds from blinds at 2 locations run by friends of mine that offer excellent chances to photograph a variety of species at close range in just a morning or 2. I first want to tell you about Bill Forbes' Elephant Head Pond on his property in Amado, Arizona, approximately 40 miles south of Tucson. In just 2 mornings and one afternoon I was able to photograph 22 species and have over 100 "keepers" that I need to continue processing.
I was able to shoot several shots of each of the following species: Gambel's Quail, Mourning, White winged and Inca Doves, the Eurasian Collared Dove, Gila and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Verdin, Cactus Wren, Curve-billed Thrasher, Pyrrhuloxia, Northern Cardinal, Canyon Towhee, Brewer's Sparrow, Cassin's Sparrow, Black-throated Sparrow, English House Sparrow (hey, it's a bird right?), Chipping Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, White Crowned Sparrow, Brown Headed Cowbird, and the House Finch. You can view a representation of what I shot here (just click here). I was happy to have such a good representation of the High Sonoran Desert birds from right at the base of the Santa Rita Mountains. Bill will get an influx of several more species but I knew that at this time of year I would be lucky to get any thing but residents and some wintering sparrows. That's what I got and I got 95% of what I could hope for.
There were a few broad billed and black chinned hummingbirds around but I didn't have the time to do a set up for them. His place is great for that as it warms up and more birds arrive.
Bill's nice water feature, built for bird and bat photography, with blinds all around and several feeders that are filled twice a day make for excellent opportunities to shoot. He also has a series of nice perches ranging for live cholla growing in a wheel barrow to saguaro skeletons that can be set up as you wish. I also had clipped and brought some lower elevation wildflowers and flowering shrubs that I keep in flower tubes to add to the background and you might want to do the same. His location at the base of the Santa Rita's and just a "stones throw" from Madera Canyon ensure the birds will be there. I have shot there at several different times of the year and I'm well aware of why well known photographers such as the McDonalds or Allen Murphy use his location (s) for some of their photo tours. He also has a location reserved in Madera Canyon just across from the Santa Rita Lodge and a couple new friends and I will shoot there in mid April. Look for my report on that in a month or so.
Although I have every intention of leading tours there where I help people better their skills and get some great bird images you don't have to go with me. Especially if you feel comfortable on your own. Book early though as his places fill up at the prime time for our SE nesting species and migrants. You can easily reach Bill by calling him at 520 444-6649 and/or check out his website at phototrap.com. If you do call him please tell him I referred you as Bill has been very good to me and I want him to know I appreciate it.