I SHOOT BIRDS. I enjoy an autumn day wandering in the high country chasing ptarmigan with my .22 short, and a fat mallard from one of our nearby sloughs is genuinely tasty. Nowadays, though, I’ve discovered an additional way to shoot.
I’ve found a place where there are no bag limits and no closed seasons. And not only can I pull the trigger, but now I can bring ‘em back. Every day is opening morning when you’re shooting in digital format.
Birds have been around me for much of my life. They’ve flapped and squawked, pooped on my deck railings, and pecked out the eyes of any fish I was careless enough to let go dry in my fishing nets. But I really didn’t give them an in-depth study until a hunting client mailed me a pair of Swarovski binoculars. These “unaffordable” optics impressed me so much I purchased one of their spotting scopes and another pair of binocs for my wife. These opened up a world of color and detail that I wanted to photograph and replicate.
A successful bird photographer will need a camera with certain features. Foremost is a good view finder—you can’t shoot what you can’t find. Couple this with a speedy auto focus for quick target acquisition. The lens should be somewhere in the 150-400mm range and have an aperture wide enough to work well in lower light conditions. Image stabilization has been added to many cameras and lenses, and the best work shockingly well. Many of my moodiest captures take place in the rain, so I’m a fan of weather sealed cameras and lenses. With all this good equipment, I now find that most short circuits occur in the six inches of space between my ears.
Camera sorted, we now need something with feathers to aim it at. Fortunately, birds are often close by, at least the LBB (little brown bird) variety. On a branch outside sits a fox sparrow. (I call this a BoB—bird on branch.) I make sure my camera settings are correct and sneak around to get close enough, preferably with the sun somewhat behind. This particular BoB is eating elderberries, which provide a colorful red and green backdrop of fruit and leaves. Don’t wait too long to shoot— LBBs are as stationary as a two-year-old toddler and can quickly fly off to become BooBs (bird on other branch), usually out of sight.
Feeding is another successful method of attracting birds within range. Seed feeders attract species like chickadees and nuthatches. Nectar feeders are a boon for hummingbirds, and our Steller’s jay friends certainly let us know when the peanuts run out. Eagles swoop down to steal the gushy salmon parts we didn’t want to eat for dinner.
I shoot waterfowl primarily from a kayak. I love sneaking stealthily around the rocky shoreline. I wouldn’t love that $3,500 plop as my camera plummets to a permanent residence at the bottom, and I surmise the Admiral-at-Home would feel likewise.
As your skills advance you’ll most likely want to photograph birds in flight (BiFs). BiFs are a lot of fun—sometimes. The challenges are numerous. Just framing the avian speedrocket in the viewfinder is one. Following and keeping it under the focal point is more difficult. As birds move through the air, both focus and exposure need to be constantly updated. Many cameras attempt this. Few excel. Some birds are easier than others to track. Eagles, gulls, and waterfowl often fly in reasonably straight paths; ravens fool you into thinking they will, before folding their wings and veering off in a completely different direction like Toonces the Driving Cat. Hummingbirds hover and are pretty easy. My experiences with swallows have been a train wreck.
Shooting flying birds is a learned skill. The best advice I can offer is practice and more practice. It doesn’t make perfect but it does make better. Find a place where birds are plentiful. Pick easy, slower flying birds. I started with New Zealand gannets, but here in Alaska seagulls are a good substitute. I often spend a couple hours around Gull Rock near Homer, practicing on gulls, murres, and whatever else flies by. The action is usually constant, and you may be lucky enough to spot a tufted puffin or another less common species. Just remember, BiFs are not easy to capture and even once you have experience, some days are just dogs—same equipment, same setting—and who really knows why? I’d like to blame the camera, but there’s a guy in Australia who shoots flying bats and damsel flies with the same equipment, so I guess I better look at that face in the mirror again.
Bird photography has given me another chance to get out into nature, to enjoy the thrill of a successful hunt, and to digitally freeze a moment in the life of a fascinating wild creature. And tomorrow I can do it again and the next day too, as there is no limit and no closed season, and every day is opening morning.
Eric M. Beeman lives in Peterson Bay, a short skiff ride from Homer.