Some bird photographers are happy to ‘follow the pack’ but many prefer the satisfaction of going it alone, creating their own opportunities and doing all the hard work themselves. Occasionally bird photographers en masse are not an issue – regulated seabird colonies and wader ‘spectaculars’ for example. But generally photography is best regarded as a solitary pursuit rather than a social pastime, not least because of the potential for disturbance. And arguably the best images are produced using this approach, especially by photographers who have a mastered the art of fieldcraft.
With parallels to military procedure, fieldcraft for bird photographers requires an understanding of the need for camouflage and concealment, and field skills that allow a subject to be approached without disturbance. Silence is also a virtue. But most of all it requires an understanding of the subject and its behaviour, the end goal being to capture images where the bird is unperturbed by the photographer, although not necessarily unaware of their presence and proximity.
a. Know your subject
Increasingly, bird photography is a passion that develops later in life without the photographer necessarily having a background in ornithology. It is essential of course to be able to recognise and identify your subject, but a deeper understanding and appreciation of bird biology and natural history are also invaluable tools for successful bird photography. Knowing what a bird feeds on, where it is likely to feed and how it behaves, for example, can greatly improve your chances of capturing an image.
Try spending time watching birds without your camera serving as a distraction. You will develop an appreciation of patterns of behaviour and a feeling of how tolerant or otherwise a given species is to your presence. Make sure you are confident when it comes to the identification of commonly encountered species and do not be afraid to ask for advice, or refer to field guides.
If you have chosen a particular species as a photographic subject, spend a bit of observational time studying it before you decide on your photographic approach. There are exceptions of course but in general birds are wary of being stalked in an obvious manner. So study your subject, watch its behaviour and see if there is a pattern that can be used to your advantage. Some insect-eating birds follow a ‘circuit’ and using a number of different perches: find a regularly used one, approach the perch when the bird has moved on, and sit and wait. The same can be true of song perches, but photographers obviously need to be sure they are not causing disturbance to nesting birds. Many freshwater waders follow feeding routes, up and down a shoreline for example; far better to position yourself in a good spot and wait for the birds to approach you, than to try to stalk them; the latter usually results in the birds edging away from you every time you move.
b. Know your environment
Many birds are habitat-specific and if you can recognise basic types of habitats you increase the chances of your finding target species. Beyond that, it can be useful to be able to recognise a few plant or tree species too. For example, in Britain you are more likely to find Common Crossbills in plantation woodlands where Norway Spruce Picea abies is dominant (their bill size and shape is suited for the extraction of seeds from its cones) whereas Scottish Crossbills favour native Scots Pine Pinus sylvestris forests in the Highlands. Winter flocks of Bramblings favour mature woodlands of Beech Fagus sylvatica above other woodland tree species – they feed on the fallen seeds, known as ‘mast’.
c. Aim for eye-level
Your chances of having a close encounter with a bird are greatly improved by employing stealth in your actions, blending in with the environment and specifically by not breaking the horizon. This low-level approach can also have benefits for your photography. The best, most intimate-looking images are often ones where the photographer is at eye-level with the subject. This can mean stationing yourself and your tripod at the same height as a regularly used perch, or getting as close as possible to water level with swimming ducks or shoreline-feeding waders.
d. Recognising warning signs
Being familiar with bird behaviour generally, and individuals specifically, will allow you to enhance your photography and to recognise warning signs – when your presence, proximity or procedures are affecting the bird’s behaviour and causing distress. No photograph is worth putting a bird’s welfare in jeopardy.