10. Water, drinking and bathing as methods for improving photo-opportunities

All living things depend on water to a greater or lesser degree, and birds are no exception. Almost all species need regular access to water for drinking and bathing and catering for their needs can benefit the photographer as well as the birds themselves. The creation or use of a permanent water feature is an option, but temporary installations can work just as well. With photography in mind you need to pay close attention to the installation’s visual appeal through the lens, and to the background.

a.       Drinking and bathing

Some birds satisfy their dietary water requirements via the food they eat, or by drinking at puddles and pools they chance upon. But many rely on permanent fixtures – ponds and stream margins for example – to quench their thirst. Provide a reliable alternative and a range of birds will soon be visiting on a regular basis.

   From a photographic point of view, drinking birds provide some great opportunities. Bathing birds create opportunities for action shots, with water droplets spraying everywhere, either captured ‘frozen in time’ or used to create blur and movement. But with land birds, whose feathers lack the water repellent properties of water birds, once the main action is over you are left with a bedraggled individual that is far from photogenic. So with bathing birds, speed is key – worthwhile photography can last just a few seconds.

While drinking, this Corn Bunting provided an opportunity to capture its pristine plumage perfectly reflected in the pool. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

While drinking, this Corn Bunting provided an opportunity to capture its pristine plumage perfectly reflected in the pool. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

Moments later, the same Corn Bunting began bathing and within seconds its plumage became soaked and bedraggled. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

Moments later, the same Corn Bunting began bathing and within seconds its plumage became soaked and bedraggled. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

b.       Garden set-up

A water feature is great in the garden and a focal point for photography too. Small garden ponds as well as elevated water baths both provide opportunities. Once all the rage, eye-level ‘infinity pools’ still have their place in garden bird photography. To create one, plan the installation of a garden pond so that the water surface is not obscured in front (you can then use the camera almost at water level) and with no distractions in the background. Perfect reflections are one of the outcomes of this low-level approach. The downside is that images can lack individuality.

This Blackcap paid regular visits to this tiny garden pool to drink and bathe. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

This Blackcap paid regular visits to this tiny garden pool to drink and bathe. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

c.       Songbird approach

Using a bit of creativity and imagination, birds that visit water can provide photographic opportunities other than the acts of drinking and bathing. The way in which birds approach water lends itself to some artful manipulation. At the simplest level, you could install a mossy log at the margin of the pool or in its centre; birds will often alight on this first before visiting the water. Or a standard perch could be used in a similar manner. But you might want to try a more involved approach. Using a slender branch, perhaps three to four feet long, arrange it (with clamps and ties) so that the tip enters the edge of the water at an angle of about 25 degrees. If the other end can be located in the cover of a bush then so much the better. Small songbirds will often land on the branch and work their way down to the water in stages, posing briefly in the same plane as the branch.

By placing a sprig of flowering Hawthorn as an approach ‘perch’ to a drinking pool, this aesthetically pleasing image of a Lesser Whitethroat was taken. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

By placing a sprig of flowering Hawthorn as an approach ‘perch’ to a drinking pool, this aesthetically pleasing image of a Lesser Whitethroat was taken. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

d.       Travelling waterhole

If you visit a migration hotspot, particularly one in a relatively arid part of the world, it will be worthwhile trying to find a natural waterhole. Even a shallow puddle or water-filled rut can be enough of draw for birds, particularly in a dry season. But an alternative is to travel with a small sheet of pond-liner material and make your own mini-waterhole. You will need the landowner’s permission of course but even a modest artificial puddle, disguised with grit and mud and topped up regularly, will produce results. As an added enticement to birds, suspend a sealed water bottle over the puddle, and puncture the bottom creating a small hole. The constant ‘drip, drip, drip’ sound seems to have an added allure for thirsty birds.

Migration can be thirsty work and Turtle Doves will seldom pass up an opportunity for a drink.©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

Migration can be thirsty work and Turtle Doves will seldom pass up an opportunity for a drink.©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

e.       Deserts

Although most desert birds are dry-adapted with seemingly little need for water, almost all will pay the occasional visit to waterholes, often just once a day with different routines for different species. Typically most activity takes place for few hours after dawn and from a photographic point of view this coincides with the softest, most complementary light. A mobile hide, or a car used as a hide, are usually essential.

   To be more creative and individual, if the terrain is suitable search around for a boulder or large stone that contains a cavity large enough to hold water. If you routinely top up the water you will surprised at how quickly a few desert species come to recognise it.

An established waterhole hide in Israel’s Negev Desert acts like a magnet for flocks of Crowned Sandgrouse. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

An established waterhole hide in Israel’s Negev Desert acts like a magnet for flocks of Crowned Sandgrouse. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

Rob Read