Bird Watch SXM: Bird Shots – Capturing Behavior

How does bird photography remain fascinating and challenging year after year? A deeper understanding of birds compels us to capture not just the birds, but also their many unique behaviors.

Observing bird behavior is fascinating. Some behaviors, like hunting and feeding chicks, are immediately recognizable to us, and reinforce the fact that we are both animals and share many of the same activities in life. Other behaviors, like certain mating rituals, may seem strange and exotic to us. Capturing behavior in photographs allows us to share these moments, both commonplace and extraordinary.

Of course, anything a bird does is part of its behavior. Even resting can be evocative, as when a sandpiper tucks its beak into the feathers on its back for a midday snooze. More active behavior is the primary focus of this article, however. Capturing bird behavior is more dependent on skills like patience, careful observation and knowledge of birds than apertures and shutter speeds. The photographic principles covered in past articles don’t change when capturing behavior.

Everyday behaviors of most birds include feeding, preening (straightening and cleaning feathers), communicating with song. Because birds are so diverse, these activities manifest themselves in a variety of ways. The Great Egret will stalk shallow water looking for fish to spear with its bill, while the Gray Kingbird sallies forth from high perches to catch flying insects. Some ducks dabble and some ducks dive. You can become familiar with the daily behaviors of the birds around you through observation and put your self in the right place at the right time to capture these activities.

Seasonal behaviors are often linked to reproduction, although some of our resident birds reproduce throughout the year. Courtship, nesting and the rearing of chicks are all fascinating behaviors. Killdeer couples often do a scrape ceremony when selecting a nesting site prior to mating. Sugar birds often make nests in visible locations, making it easier to document the process. Female hummingbirds feed their chicks frequently, a fantastic photo subject if you know the location of a nest. Knowledge of the life cycle of local birds is key to being able to document many of these behaviors, knowing the nesting season and the type of habitat or specific locations where birds nest and raise their young.

There are also unusual behaviors that are worth capturing as well: a kingbird with a broken beak foraging on the ground instead of in the air or a young Brown Boobie with a fish stuck in its throat after trying to swallow it tail-first. These behaviors may not even stand out as unusual without knowledge of what normal behavior for these species looks like.

This week, spend some time trying to first observe, and then photograph the daily behaviors of birds around you, like feeding and preening. Try to capture the essence of the activities you are observing. Also, follow along on for more tips and examples.

A Black-necked Stilt will do an elaborate distraction display if you wander too close to its nest.
A Black-necked Stilt will do an elaborate distraction display if you wander too close to its nest.

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