Photo by Rick Hanson
Do Your Research
So attracting birds in the winter is fairly easy – it's a perfect season for baiting them, but do a little research to find – firstly – the birds in your area, and secondly the foods that will attract them. Most Bird books will list birds by region, and detail their preferred foods. Most garden birds are fairly easy, fat-rich foods will attract most types to your garden, try black sunflower seeds, fat balls, and peanuts, but make sure they are all in appropriate feeders. Peanuts need to be in a wire feeder for small birds such as tits, as they will otherwise get stuck in their throats. Robins love mealworms, which can be bought either dried, or live. Blackbirds, starlings and the like love old fruit – so when your Christmas fruit is getting a bit wrinkly – put it out for the birds, and you'll be treated to loads of visitors to your garden.
Remember, as well as garden birds, the British Isles – with its thousands of miles of coastland, is a haven for wintering waders, with Hooper Swan, Dunlin, Oystercatcher and Knot numbers swelling through the winter months. A visit to the coast can prove very successful through the winter.
Make no mistake, photographing winter birds is cold work, sitting outside for a few hours without any exercise to warm you up means you really do need to wrap up warmly. I use a portable hide, with a built in seat, my tripod with a Gimbal head with either a 400mm or 600mm lens on my camera. The Gimbal head effectively takes all the weight of the lens, and supports it exactly on it's point of balance. It can be locked in both the vertical and horizontal planes, or left free to pivot and follow moving birds, both in flight, or moving over the ground.
Although long lenses are essential, particularly exotic glass isn't always necessary, with excellent results possible from 80-400mm or 100-400mm lenses. Wide maximum apertures make focusing and composing quick and easy, but you don't need f/2.8 apertures for 99% of your bird photography, but remember, as you get beyond 300mm, lenses become significantly more difficult to use, more prone to movement, with a very narrow band of focus. Rather than relying on super-long lenses, spend and extra half-hour getting closer to the subject.
Feed The Birds
When preparing to photograph garden birds, don't simply put the food out in your garden and expect them to come immediately – rather, feed them through the whole of the winter, and you will be rewarded with a rich variety of garden visitors. If you are using a hide, make sure it's in place for a good few days before you even attempt photography.
Move your Feeders
Pictures of birds on feeders really don't inspire, so make sure your feeders are situated in an area where there are good natural perches – or interesting ground for ground-feeders. Wedge nuts and pieces of fat-balls into cracks in the trunk or branches of a tree - birds feeding from these hidden "feeders" look much more natural – acorns wedged into the bark of a tree can attract Jays – so try to get a supply soon from your nearest oak tree.
Photo by John Gravett
Let It Snow
If you're lucky enough to have a covering of snow, it always adds to the wintry feel, but check your exposure first, to make sure you're not underexposing the snow. With low winter light levels, be careful to ensure a high-enough shutter speed and sufficient depth-of-field in your photos. It's always tempting to shoot at a wide aperture and throw the background out of focus, but make sure enough of the bird is sharp! I've got photos where the eye is in focus, but the front of the breast isn't – and although you might not get everything from beak to tail crisp, beak, eye and breast is a good minimum.
At The Coast & Nature Reserves
For shoreline birds, there are other considerations. Tides being the most important, - especially if you're thinking of using a hide. I often work without a hide by the coast – using long grasses for cover. As the tide comes in – shore feeding birds are forced further up the beach – closer to your vantage point. Do make sure you are above the high-tide line if you're planning this approach. Whenever you're working on a beach, do all you can to break up your outline, even lying prone on the beach covered with a bit of camouflage netting can take away the obvious human outline. For cheap camo netting, look on eBay, there's always loads about. Your local RSPB reserve can have a wealth of winter visitors, and their web-sites will usually have a list of birds visiting.
Article by John Gravett of Lakeland Photographic Holidays -www.lakelandphotohols.com
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