Getting close to birds

"Are you waiting to take pictures?"
"Are you with the paparazzi?"
"No. "
"Who's inside the building?"
"I wouldn't know."
"Is it Prince Charles?"
"Could be."
"When is he coming outside?
"I wouldn't know."
"Sorry madam, I'm trying to photograph these gulls."
"Oh ... And when is Prince Charles coming outside?"

By now somebody will have called the police. You will have to show them your id and explain that you are actually trying to photograph birds. This will attract even more onlookers and by now they are all convinced that Prince Charles is in the building. You end up with a crowd waiting for Prince Charles. While you were talking to the police, the birds have long gone. So choose your location wisely. Don't take pictures near military buildings, airports, harbour terminals, nude beaches without getting permission to do so.

Someone asked me: "How do you get so close to the birds". "Well", I said: "you will have to find the bird first before you can make photographs." It may sound silly but it can be harder than you think. Knowledge about the subject's behaviour, habitat and way of life can come in handy. This is not something you will learn overnight, it takes several years before you can judge where you will find a certain bird and it takes even longer to judge what a bird will do next. If you want to photograph birds, you want to get as close as possible without disturbing the bird. This can prove to be tricky even if you have located your subject. I will give you some tips on how to photograph and approach birds using different techniques without causing major disturbance.

Before you start

If you want to photograph an animal where do you start? Well, first of all try to find out where you can find your subject. Once you have found your subject try to sit quietly and watch every movement of the animal. Where is it coming from, where is it going to, what branches is it using, are there other animals around that can give away your presence... Once you know enough to judge what the bird is going to do next you can choose the ideal spot for your picture.

The next thing you need is PATIENCE. And lots of it. It can take hours before you find the right moment where everything comes together, the light, the posture of the bird, action, composition... If you have to check the settings of your camera now, then you are already too late. Adjust your settings every time when the weather conditions change so you don't have to check when the bird is in full view. This saves precious time when that magic moment comes.

Garden birds

Some birds can be very common but they can be hard to photograph in certain habitats. A lot of the woodland birds can be found in parks or residential areas where they tend to be a lot tamer than their woodland cousins. In most cases these birds are used to people and won't see them as life threatening. Garden birds can be very tame and are ideal study subjects for the novice wildlife photographer. 

When photographing the birds around feeders, make sure that the feeder is not visible in the picture. There is nothing worse than an ugly plastic net or container ruining your picture. You can place one branch over the feeder, the birds will use this as a landing area before jumping onto the feeder.

Never take picture through a closed window. The glass in the window will cause reflections and deformations; this will result in a soft image. Always open the window beforehand because most birds notice when a window is being opened or closed. Birds don't like rapid movement, so it is better to place a wooden board in front of the window with a hole to put your lens though. You probably will have an argument with your spouse over the aesthetics of your construction. Try to be gentle and say you have read it on the internet, and the internet is always right. I'm not responsible if you have to sleep on the couch for a few days. If you have a garden shed you can always set up camp there.

Using a hide

Some people do all their camerawork using a hide. I've never used one because you need a lot of patience. I'm sure the use of a hide will improve your pictures drastically but it takes a lot of time and preparation. You have to place your hide in such a way that it cannot easily be seen by people. You don't want to hear "Ay, what are you doing there.", while you are in the hide and you don't anybody to nick your hide while you are away.  So, ask the landowner for permission to put up your hide.  Sometimes it is easier to use whatever natural cover there is around you. 

You will have to get up early before dawn to crawl into the hide, so the birds don't see you entering the hide. Birds can remember that you are in the hide when they've seen you enter and will not approach the hide. When you leave, make sure that the bird has gone. You don't want to startle the bird. It may ruin any chance of photographing the bird again in the future.

Remember that you may be in the same spot and position for many hours. So make sure that you are comfortable, take along something to eat and drink and something dry to sit on. And now the waiting game can begin...  Take every opportunity to photograph other animals that happen to pass. It keeps you occupied and it is a good way to check your camera settings. And in many cases you go home with pictures of other animals and not the intended species. But there is always another day.

Using your car as hide

A car is one of the best hides as long as it is moving; birds won't see it as a threat. Of course you can't take pictures from a moving car, so you have to stop. You don't want to stop too far but not to close either. I will explain the different steps you need to do to get as close as possible.

1) Turn off the radio. Birds don't like heavy metal nor dance music.
2) Turn off the heating in your car. When you open the window you will get heat haze blurring your picture.
3) Open the windows on both sides of the car to evacuate all the hot air in your car. Electrical windows can come in handy because they don't make a lot of noise and you can sit still while opening them.
4) Cut the motor before you stop and use the momentum to get a bit closer. BE CAREFULL!!! DO NOT REMOVE THE KEY, THIS WILL LOCK THE STEERINGWHEEL.  ALWAYS MAKE SURE YOU ARE NOT HINDERING TRAFFIC. I'm not responsible if you drive into a ditch or crash your car into a wall because you've cut the motor. If you are not sure, cut the motor after you've stopped.
5) Close the window on the side of the car that you won't use to make pictures. This keeps the draught out and prevents you from freezing to death in your car.
6) If the animal is looking at the car, this means that you have crossed its safety perimeter. In most cases it will start walking away from you. Try to sit still so the animal can get used to your car.
7) When the animal is sure that you are not a threat it will continue with whatever it was doing. This is the ideal moment to take pictures.

I make a lot of pictures using this technique. I find it very relaxing, sitting in the comfort of your car making photographs of birds who act naturally. 

Photographing birds without a hide or car

With this way of photographing you have to be very careful not to disturb the bird. In most cases the birds will have spotted you before you have spotted them. If you are sure the bird has seen you, it is no use hiding. They know where you are and will feel uncomfortable when you are not visible. So now you will have to rely on the messages the bird is sending you. I used following technique with success on beaches and plains where there is no cover at all. First of all, don't look the bird straight in the eye. If the bird is looking at you, just avoid eye contact and turn your back to the bird. Don't walk closer.  If the bird is already walking away from you it is no use trying to get closer. Your best bet now is to kneel down slowly and wait until the bird relaxes.  If the bird is in a group of other birds make sure that you don't scare away the birds closest to you.

You can start moving again when the bird stops looking at you. Walk with your back to the bird looking over your shoulder. Make sure that the bird does not see your camera, it won't be impressed by the lens you're using, and they just don't like things pointing at them. When you are carrying a tripod try to hide it behind your leg. To most birds it will seem like you are carrying a gun on your shoulder.

When you walk closer don't walk in a straight line towards the bird. Walk in a big zigzag pattern giving the impression that you are walking away and than passing again. You will be moving closer bit by bit. Walk away from the bird when you see it raising its head or stand still. Don't go to close, every bird has a safety perimeter. If you are outside that perimeter they will give you a quick glance and carry on with what they were doing. If you are near the safety perimeter the bird will stop doing whatever it was doing and look at you for a long time. If you can, try to back off a little bit and act like you are ignoring the bird. If you are inside the safety perimeter the bird will run or fly off faster than a speeding bullet.

Laying down or sitting makes you look smaller and less threatening. But you have to be careful where you choose to lay down. Once I was laying down on a pier while I was photographing a group of Sanderling. They were all asleep, so I was waiting for a wave to roll over the end of the pier to wake them up with a refreshing footbath.  All of a sudden they flew of for no reason. But when I looked behind me there was this huge dog running towards me with its teeth showing. I jumped up and held my tripod ready to fence it off. Luckily the dog stopped and ran away.

In most cases it is easier to photograph birds in places where they are used to having people around. That's why I like to photograph waders on busy beaches in winter. I choose a quiet area on the beach where I wait. The birds will be chased away by dogs and people from the other parts of the beach and look for a quiet place to land. That's where I am waiting. In most cases people won't come to close when they see you taking photographs. And if they do come close, you can always try to stop them in their tracks, thus leaving a quiet area in front of you.

If you spot some waders feeding along the shoreline take your time to see in which direction they are moving. Try and sit down near the shoreline but give the waders enough space to move between you and the sea. A camouflage blanket can drastically improve your chances.

I hope by sharing some of the techniques that I use, you will be able to enjoy wildlife more without causing to much disturbance.