If photographing birds while traveling, hang a collapsible water container over the buried saucer to create a water source. You can buy such containers where hiking supplies are sold. Attach plastic tubing to the container’s spigot, and extend the tubing to an area above the buried saucer. A two-gallon container holds enough water to drip for an entire day.
Either natural or artificial light can be used in bird photography. Don’t forget to consider lighting when choosing the location of the water set-up. If using sunlight, position your water station to take advantage of the pleasing light of morning and late afternoon. Avoid the harsh light of midday. If you plan on using a flash, choose a site that is in the shade.
Modern cameras simplify many aspects of bird photography, especially exposure. With my Nikon 8008s, I use two flashes in TTL mode. The main flash is positioned in front of the subject and slightly to the side of the lens axis. The second flash is positioned behind and to the side of the subject, to soften the shadows created by the main flash. Allowing the camera to determine the exposure will be successful most of the time. Some compensation may be necessary if your subject is extremely light or dark.
Zoom lenses are convenient when dealing with birds of varying sizes. I often use a 75-300mm lens with a macro feature that allows me to focus as close as five feet. With a fixed focal length lens, you may need to change camera position to get tightly framed images of birds that are significantly different in size. With a zoom lens, just frame, focus, and fire.
If your lens has reliable autofocus, all you need to do is frame and fire. The camera will take care of the rest. You may also choose to use a tripod. Mounting your camera on a tripod keeps it ready for action while you wait for birds to arrive.
The use of small apertures – such as f/16 and f/22 – gives greater depth of field, but requires a stronger flash which causes a long recycling time. External battery sources can significantly reduce the recycling time, allowing you to take more images. This is especially useful for photographing during periods of activity, such as bathing.
Unless the birds attracted to your water set-up are extremely tolerant, you will need to conceal your presence. Bird blinds can be homemade structures, inexpensive tents, or commercial blinds made for photographers. Choose a blind that camouflages you and your equipment but allows ample viewing of outside wildlife. This facilitates the opportunity to enjoy the overall birding experience.
The Big Picture You can learn much about bird behavior by observing birds interacting with each other. One of the most interesting behaviors to watch is the playing out of the dominance hierarchy within and between species. On a recent trip to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California, three species regularly visited my water set-up, and several others appeared less frequently. A flock of White-crowned Sparrows was often present, and the birds seemed to attack each other continually at the feeder. When a California Towhee arrived, it spent half its time chasing the White-crowned Sparrows from the feeder. However, the California Thrasher was the most dominant of the regular visitors. When the thrashers arrived, the other birds did not attempt to feed but would often go to the water to drink and bathe. On several occasions, all the birds quickly left the area while emitting alarm calls. Soon afterward, a Greater Roadrunner would come into view.
Interesting behavior can be observed and photographed when birds bathe. Getting a good photograph of a bathing bird, however, is not as easy as it may seem. Although bathing birds often remain in a small area for extended periods of time, their movements are so quick that you may not know what you are capturing on film. Head dunking is common during bathing; in a photograph, however, this behavior may appear as if the bird has crashed into a body of water. Quick wing flicks during bathing send out sprays of water which can make striking photographic images. Short flash durations will freeze wings and drops of water, making them appear suspended in midair. Also rewarding – and amusing – are images taken when bathing is finished and the bird is soaking wet.
Bathing by one bird can stimulate other birds in the area to do the same. You will observe this behavior with several species including Northern Mockingbird, Bridled Titmouse, and White-crowned Sparrow. After one bird begins bathing, other birds arrive and wait for their turn. With a zoom lens, you can get wide shots of both waiting and bathing birds.
One of the most challenging aspects of bird photography is getting close enough to get an acceptable image. Providing water for birds presents a simple, inexpensive method of attracting birds for photography or observation. And it might just inspire a romp through the sprinkler some hot summer day.