Migration is a great time of year, both during the spring and during the fall, as this can bring in exciting uncommon and rare birds coming through an area. The bird admirer in me loves to see cool new birds and add them to a life list, but the bird photographer in me is wary about where they can be found, and how accessible they are. Why do I start this blog post saying this? Because one thing that I have always told myself is this: “I always prefer creating artistically beautiful images of locally common birds over taking what amounts to “snapshots” of a rare bird too far away or in ugly settings”.
Where I live that means Black-capped Chickadees, Canada Geese, Mallards, Ring-billed Gulls, American Crows, Red-winged Blackbirds, American Goldfinches, and many others that may be considered unexciting or uninspiring or just simply too common to give another look at. Well, count me in as one that loves to photograph them, especially if they are doing something interesting! Here are just a few reasons that paying attention to these birds can pay off. Now keep in mind that much of what follows is stated while looking through bird photography glasses, with understandable differing views had I been looking through strictly birding glasses:
- They are common.
If you go out with the sole reason of photographing a rare bird and strike out, well, there are the “commons” always ready to bail you out and provide opportunities! You have a spare hour or two at home? Go in the backyard and photograph the regulars at the feeder. It’s “just” a Canada Goose that is dunking its head and chest repeatedly in the water as it bathes? Don’t ignore it, a beautiful wing flap is about to happen!
Canada Goose, Canon 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC II, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/2000s., f/5.6, ISO 800.
- They are easily accessible.
Many of these regular birds are found in urban parks and ponds, beaches, backyards, parking lots, etc. You can hike for hours in unfamiliar territory with no guarantee to see a specific target bird, or you can can head out to any of these spots and have hours of photographic fun. Those gulls starting to gather nearby at the beach? Observe them and a feeding or diving spree may develop, with tons of cool action!
Ring-billed Gull, Canon 7DII + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC III, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/2500s., f/5.6, ISO 1600.
- They are approachable, and often downright tame.
One thing about most birds, is that they small, fast, and flighty. It can be tough to get them close enough to fill the frame. Doubly difficult if the single rare bird you are stalking is skittish. Gulls, geese, and ducks in urban areas are large and tame. Often enough to create full frame head and shoulder portraits. The chickadees, nuthatches, and sometimes some woodpeckers, readily eat in the hand at popular trails. This makes them easy to setup beautiful perches in front of nice backgrounds to get high quality and artistically pleasing images of.
Downy Woodpecker, male, Canon 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC III, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/1600s., f/7.1, ISO 800.
- They are excellent target practice.
Gulls make the best subject for two things: flight images, and exposure (and a combination of the two!). Bringing some treats along where they are found will bring in dozens of them flying towards and around you. Hours of fun can be had. Their white plumages with some blacks make the perfect combo to fine-tune your exposure skills on, especially as the light changes. Geese coming back from farmers’ fields to land in a local park pond come in wave after wave, offering endless flight photography practice.
Ring-billed Gull, Canon 7DII + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC III, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/4000s., f/5.6, ISO 1600.
- They offer just as beautiful opportunities as rare or other “birds of interest”.
A bird posing in beautiful habitat or performing interesting behaviour (or both) is exactly that, no matter the species. Many ignore such wonderful opportunities because the bird in question is not a target one, or it’s “just a xxxxx“. I photographed an American Crow raiding a wasp nest, with this particular photo below being my personal favorite of 2014, for well over 30 minutes, all the while feeling excited about the behaviour and autumn setting. During that time at least half a dozen photographers (none of which I know personally), each armed with top of the line gear, walked over to me asking what I was seeing. All of them, when pointed out the situation, replied with a less than enthusiastic “oh”, proverbially shrugged their shoulders and carried on uninterested. A crow is simply not a “wanted” bird when there may be lingering migrants around the corner! But I would take this image anytime over a warbler skulking deep inside a thicket or foraging high up a tree.
American Crow, 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC III, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/160s., f/5.6, ISO 800.
The same general reaction happened with this Ring-billed Gull watching the day start to unfold during a beautiful misty morning. Even pointing it out and explaining the potential, a couple of photographers could not see the forest for the trees, so to speak. The lure of the potential migrating rarity was too strong and they opted to pass. “Just a gull” was the exact reason. I was on the lookout for migrating birds too, and struck out on those at that same spot, but at least came back with a beautiful series of this silhouetted gull in amazing light to post process and share!
Ring-billed Gull, Canon 7D II + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC III, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/800s., f/9, ISO 800.
In conclusion, does that mean that I do not like “birds of interest” or other rarities? Heck no! Especially if they are found in beautiful, accessible spots! I would love to photograph a diving Northern Gannet, or a Red-bellied Woodpecker on a birch, and a landing Roseate Spoonbill will always have that “WOW” factor – oh, and some of these birds could be locally common to some of you! But the lesson to gain here is to always be on the lookout for interesting behaviour or beautiful settings of even the locally common, often ignored, birds. An artistically beautiful bird image is indeed that, no matter the species…
You make some good points. I too would rather have an excellent shot of a nuthatch at my feeder, than a poor quality image of something more “desirable”. When I have the opportunity to view something rare, that opportunity is often wasted trying to get a not so great shot. The exception is when I want a photo for ID purposes.
Thanks Terry. I too may snap a quick one to help ID a bird later on. But certainly not something to keep – unless I come across an Ivory-billed Woodpecker!
Amen Daniel! Excellent write-up 🙂
Our local birds give us pleanty of opportunity to better both technique and art. An added bonus is there are countries where people are very excited to see good photos of our common birds …. because they are rare over there 🙂
Keep up the great blog work! I really enjoy reading your insights, Daniel! Thanks – Ross
Thanks Ross! I often imagine that the Ring-billed Gull or Mallard I’m all alone photographing is a rare bird…and all the lenses and scopes that would be pointed towards it had it been 🙂
What a wonderful read. I watched the 2 part NANPA webinar of “Stop Documenting! Start Creating Beautiful Wildlife Images” Ms. Langell spoke about something very similar to what you talk about. As photographers we go out looking for the perfect image. But, nature isn’t that way. So what do you do when you don’t have the subject exactly the way you want? What if it isn’t even there? Vision vs reality.
Hi Marlo, thanks for taking the time to comment. Is that webinar saved somewhere on the net?
Hi Dan, I think these webinars are for NANPA members only. Have not seen it for free access.
Thanks for following up, Joe.
What better exercise than to photograph a white bird and a black one.
I particularly like the crow shot.
First find the nest and then the crow.
You got both.
Thanks Richard. That crow image is one of my personal very favorites.
Thanks for great write up and the inspiring shots.
Like always i like the way you expose the whites and the for the details. Cant get better.
The blacks on the crow is so perfect. I always think shooting a crow is difficult.