Bird Watch SXM is back in The Daily Herald’s Weekender today. It will alternate with Wild Statia. This week, we take a look at one of the minor miracles that happen all over the island when birds transform the spaces we neglect.
It may seem like a minor part of the bird photography process, but once you get hooked, you’ll find that a lot of your effort happens after you get back from the field and need to turn all those images into something you can enjoy and share. This week we look at the crucial, albeit unglamorous aspects of selecting and organizing your bird photos.
One of the great things about bird photography is getting better at doing it. One sign that this is happening is that some of your old favorite shots start to disappoint. I wanted to share a few former favorites and how they’re not as good as I once thought they are.
This first example was a favorite. The Yellow-crowned Night Heron is captured in pleasantly warm evening light against a simple, high-contrast background. A few bits of blurry grass in the foreground frame the heron without being distracting. The problem? A crooked piece of rusty rebar sticking up on the left side of the photo. Does it ruin the photo? Perhaps not. Does it make the worse? For sure. Could it be fixed in Photoshop? Probably, but why not just go out and get a better shot?
This week we start to look at composition in bird photos. But if composition is the arrangement of elements in the photo, how do you arrange birds and scenery? Sure, you can’t tell the birds how and where to pose, but you still have a surprising number of tools you can use to create engaging compositions in the field. Read about some of them in this week’s Bird Watch SXM column!
Becoming very familiar with the normal behavior of the birds around you makes it much easier to notice abnormal behavior, just like knowing the common species helps you recognize an unusual bird. Unusual behavior is often linked to a physical problem, and photos of it can capture the amazing resilience of birds and their drive to survive even against the odds.
Obviously, a lot of bird interactions are also examples of other behavior, like child rearing or feeding. From a photographic perspective, I think the main thing to keep in mind is that an interaction between two birds is usually the most interesting thing you can capture in any given scene. Always be on the lookout for birds interacting with each other, or ones that look like they are about to. This can be a great way to focus more carefully when photographing a large flock. Also, common birds interacting with each other may be more exciting to photograph than a more unusual bird doing nothing.
Birds are one of the only animal groups where caring for offspring are cared for. Besides birds and mammals, child care is the exception rather than the rule, with most young animals on their own from the time they hatch from their eggs. Birds usually put a great deal of energy into caring for their young, from building nests to incubating eggs to feeding their chicks, often even after they’ve grown left the nest.
Capturing this in photographs requires knowledge of the life cycle of the birds around you: which ones nest locally, when they nest and where. You will need to know how to distinguish adult birds from juveniles, too: are you seeing parenting behavior or just a bunch of birds interacting? Getting good photos of nesting and child care is more dependent on good knowledge of local birds than any specific photographic skills.
For birds, preening isn’t done out of vanity. Grooming is very important to the well-being of birds and most birds do it several times a day. When preening, birds clean their feathers of dirt and parasites and they also arrange their feathers for more efficiency in flight. Most birds also spread oil from a special gland called the uropygial gland, which helps waterproof feathers and keep them flexible.
Other cleaning habits can include bathing in water or dust to clean the feathers and dislodge parasites. Birds often stretch their limbs and fluff their feathers to make sure they are all in the proper place.
These preening and cleaning times are generally great for bird photography because the birds are liable to stay in the same spot while they focus on the task. Stretching, bathing, fluffing and preening also put the birds into interesting positions and accentuate their wings and other body parts.
Here are a few examples with notes:
The old saying “you are what you eat” clearly applies to birds, although more directly it could be “you are how you eat.” The bodies and behavior of birds is often tightly linked to what they eat and how they get it. Feeding is one of the most fundamental behaviors—birds do it every day—but also one of the most distinctive since different kinds of birds feed in different ways.
What are the keys to photographing feeding? All the regular guidelines of bird photography are applicable, as are general birdwatching practices like being patient and knowing the habits of the bird you are photographing. When capturing feeding, there may be key moments that are particularly engaging or distinctive that may make the best photo. Also, although the eye is typically the focal point of a bird photo (or any portrait), the beak may be the focal point when a bird is eating.
Below are some examples with notes:
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 lesfruitsdemer.com for more tips and examples.
In flight bird photography is a pursuit unto itself. Any aspect of bird photography and strategy for getting better photos can be applied to in flight bird photography, although a slight twist may be warranted in some cases. Here are a few photos illustrating some of these aspects.
Landings are one of the most dynamic moments you can capture. Legs, often tucked away in flight, are extended and wings are moved dramatically to slow the bird as it comes in for a landing. It is definitely not an easy shot, but they can be fantastic if you are lucky enough to get one.
Probably the only real advantage you have is that the bird is slowing down in the final moments before it lands. This makes it a bit easier to capture a bird in good focus. Also, the wings may be used more like a parachute than a propeller, allowing better focus on the flight feathers.
For the best chance at getting a good landing shot, you’ll need to keep an eye on your surroundings. Locations where birds nest or feed are prime locations for getting this kind of shot. Keep an eye on the sky for birds joining flocks that are already feeding in wetlands, for example. A fast shutter speed will help freeze motion, and zooming out to leave some space around the bird will help make sure nothing gets cut off when the bird changes its wing motions or extends its legs for a landing. Zooming out a bit also helps convey a sense of the surroundings where a bird is coming to rest.
Here are a few examples:
Takeoffs can be incredibly dynamic. If you plan on using your bird photography for motivational posters, you’ll want to build up a good portfolio of takeoff shots.
The easy part about shooting a takeoff is that you know where the bird is. Usually they’re standing on the ground or perched on something. In some cases, the takeoff may involve a running start, but in most cases you are able to frame your subject and get focused before the bird is moving.
Basically every other part is tricky. You don’t know when the bird will take off, although you may be able to get clues from the bird’s stance (a quick bend in the legs) a split second before takeoff. You don’t necessarily know which direction a bird will be flying, although if it is starting on the ground, up is probably one of the directions. Takeoff also has to be fast, otherwise it wouldn’t work. Wings are usually flapping quickly, even if the whole bird takes some time to gain speed.
As a photographer, there are a few things you can do to compensate. To capture a takeoff you need to maintain focus on your subject lest you lose that magic moment. Using a fast shutter speed will help you freeze motion as much as you can, although you also need to maintain a reasonable aperture so the bird will remain in focus if its takeoff sends it towards or away from you. Since the bird in takeoff will be moving quickly, zooming out more than you would for a stationary bird will give it some room to move before it moves out of the frame.
Of course, patience and perseverance are key, and takeoffs will always be unpredictable, but you can improve your chances of success with a steady gaze, a fast shutter and some breathing room in your composition.
Here are a few examples:
Photographing a bird soaring in the sky captures an important part of its essence, particularly birds like the Magnificent Frigatebird that spend much of their time on the wing. Although a soaring bird is in motion you may be able to track the bird through your viewfinder so you are ready to take your shot when the moment is right, or take several shots to choose from later.
When is the moment right? Usually you will want the bird to be close enough to capture details. Depending on the situation, you may have the option of photographing the bird coming at you, right above you, passing by you or leaving you, each of which makes a different impression and all of which can be useful. You may also want to time your shot so blue sky is behind the bird. It can be very difficult to get the right exposure if clouds or the sun are in the background, although sometimes clouds or other backgrounds can be interesting.
Here are a few examples to consider:
We return to the Bird Shots series in this week’s Weekender.
Capturing birds in flight requires a fast shutter speed, a steady hand, and a knack for predicting the future.
Photographing birds in flight is one of the great challenges of bird photography. Your subject is not only in motion, it is free to move in any direction in a three-dimensional space. It could be tempting to give up on in flight shots altogether, if it weren’t for the fact that flight is a defining feature of all the birds that live around us. In flight bird photos are a challenge, but they’re a must.
In general, you will want to use a fast shutter speed to freeze motion, and you’ll need to learn to track the movement of birds as they fly. A good way to start is to shoot birds passing overhead, like Magnificent Frigatebirds at the Great Salt Pond. Often, these birds are gliding around at a leisurely pace, making it a relatively easy shot.
For this kind of photo, you’ll choose a subject and track it as it flies around. In general, the closer the better, but for birds in flight, the closer they are the faster they seem to move, so for in flight photos the sweet spot may be in the middle distance. (Someone running ten feet in front of you passes in an instant but seen from a mile away they would move very slowly through your field of vision.) Blue sky in the background is better than clouds, and you will also want to avoid having the sun directly behind the bird you are photographing.
Takeoffs and landings are very dynamic moments that can be great to capture. They also have their own advantages. When photographing a takeoff, you may not know when the bird will choose to fly, but you know where it is. Birds typically slow down when landing, giving you a little bit more time to get a great photo and making it easier to freeze the motion.
In both cases, learning to predict the future is a key skill. What does a bird do right before it takes off? Many birds will bend their legs to spring up from the ground or leap away from a perch. If you can learn to spot this, you get an extra split-second warning that your moment is arriving. If you’re tracking a bird through your viewfinder, you can look for a bird dropping its legs in preparation for a landing the way that a plane lowers its landing gear.
This week, spend some time watching birds to see how they take off, fly around and land, and then find a spot where you can photograph some birds in flight. We will also feature some additional tips and techniques at lesfruitsdemer.com throughout the week.
How did Gonzalo impact local birds? We have some general knowledge about how birds survive during hurricanes and other big storms, but we don’t actually have the data to know with any certainty how storms impact birds on St. Martin. Luckily, there are tools that can help us monitor our local bird populations throughout the year, which could someday allow us to measure the impact of major storms…if enough people participate in recording observations. Learn more in this week’s Bird Watch SXM column:
Here’s this week’s Bird Watch SXM column from the Weekender section of The Daily Herald. Check it out to learn how increasing your bird knowledge can improve your chances at getting great bird photos. I will be doing some bird education training this week, so we may not have updates on the blog during the week. In the meantime, check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds site for way more than a week’s worth of great bird info.
Nestled between Le Galion and Orient Bay, this extensive wetland area features a large salt pond and many smaller ponds. There is no observation platform, but the mudflat areas can be accessed by foot. Just be very careful in the late winter and spring to avoid stepping on very camouflaged bird nests/eggs.
This area is relatively undisturbed and is perhaps the easiest place to see the tricolored heron and little blue heron, which are often hard to see on St. Martin. Ospreys often fish over the large pond in the winter as well.
If there’s a downside, its that this is a large area to cover on foot, especially in the sun. On the plus side, there are many little spots to explore!
Here are some shots from this location:
This really is the most scenic pond on the island, and now there’s an observation platform that makes it that much easier to enjoy. If you have a friend visiting the island and you don’t take them here, you aren’t doing your job and you’re not a good friend.
Basically, this is a gorgeous spot and the best spot to take photos of birds surrounded by beautiful scenery, including mangroves, huge boulders and cactus-filled scrubland. The observation platform is constructed as a bird blind, so it is great for seeing birds without disturbing them. If the birds to fly off to the other side of the pond when you arrive, hang tight for a few minutes and they should come back. Green herons are usually up to various shenanigans on either side of the platform.
Here are some shots from this location:
This is probably the best spot on the island for close-up shots of waterfowl. There is a 225 meter wooden boardwalk through the mangrove and a large section has a wall that acts as a bird blind. Regular foot traffic from birders and many other people also makes birds a bit less shy at this pond.
There are normally plenty of egrets and a variety of shorebirds, particularly during the migratory season. The water level varies and the area is often most active when low tide leaves more exposed mudflat.
When visiting this site, it is also worthwhile to visit the beach to see more birds. In the morning, wade in the shallow water of the bay to take shots of birds on the beach with the rising sun behind you.
This pond is right beside the Pinel ferry dock in French Cul-de-sac. You should really never go to Pinel without stopping by this trail before or after to see who’s there.
Here are some shots from this location:
The Great Salt Pond is another huge pond on the island that has a rich historical heritage as a center of the salt industry. There are a number of areas to access this pond for birding, including the sand fill areas that ring much of the pond. Some of my favorite areas are in the southeastern part of the pond where the remains of salt pans provide a resting place for many birds and a nesting area for some, like the black necked stilt.
A wide variety of waterfowl can be seen at the Great Salt Pond, although there aren’t large mudflat areas that are favored by many shorebirds. The pond does tend to have many egrets, herons and ducks. Seabirds, including gulls, pelicans and frigates also forage on this pond. Like the pond in Grand Case, no matter what time of day, there is always some accessible part of the Great Salt Pond with good lighting. The many drainage ditches surrounding the pond can also be great spots to find and photograph birds.
On Saturday, October 11th from 9am-Noon, the Great Salt Pond will be the location for the 2014 Migratory Bird Festival, which will be held at the University of St. Martin. This event is free and open to all. There is more information on this website and on Facebook.
Here are some shots from this location:
The airport pond in Grand Case has a lot going for it. Although large areas have been filled in, it is still a big pond with large mudflat areas and it attracts a lot of birds. One reason I love it so much is that it’s close to home for me. I can pop by rain or shine, at any time of day. I often head down with my camera just to take some photos to take a break from what I’m doing or think about something I’m going to write. At your local pond, it is also easy to get familiar with the birds and what they are up to at different times of day.
To me, the pond is too urban to be very scenic, so I tend to stick to bird portraits. A wide variety of species utilize the pond, some in great numbers. Although there are no birding trails or observation platforms, there are a number of spots where you can see views of the pond: the canal where the pond meets the sea, at the entrance to the airport parking lot, a break in the mangroves on the main road across from the school central kitchen and just before the turn-in to Grand Case near Hungry’s Towing. These basically give you windows into the pond that will be good for photography at any time of day. Of course, there are other spots to get a view of the pond if you are willing to scramble through the mangroves!
Here are some shots from this location:
Single-species flocks can be great, but mixed-species groups can be wonderful, too. Perhaps I am late to this realization because I have often been focused on documenting each species individually. Anyhow, I don’t really have advice other than to embrace odd couples and motley crews. The odd man out may be the true star of your photo. And, of course, non-bird cameos can be fantastic, too.
Dynamic duos are some of my favorite bird photos. It’s the smallest group of birds possible, which makes composition more manageable. The pair can be together, evoking a couple (and sometimes they probably are a pair, or a parent and child). They can also be separated to fill out the frame. As a photographer, you get many of the benefits of multiple birds without the hassle of having too many.
While duos can be dynamic, three is often the magic number. With three you can make a “V” or a triangle (which are actually the same thing). Odd numbers, especially prime numbers, can often feel more random to us because, I don’t know, math or psychology or something. At any rate, trios, or trilogies, as the French like to call them, are a great for creating both movement and balance in a composition.
And, of course, having two or three of the same species can be very nice because it allows you to focus on the positioning without being distracted by differences in the building blocks. But, mixing up your birds gets you a very different, but also very nice result.
Rules are made to be broken. At least, sometimes they are. Here are a few photos that break rules. Do they still work? Maybe, maybe not.
Stolen thunder. The gull in the foreground was in focus and meant to be the subject, but the one in back had other thoughts. The photo is okay as-is, but would be better if there were time to refocus on the rear bird and still capture that laugh.
All bridesmaids. None of these egrets really grabs the spotlight. That’s not as noticeable because the setting on the old salt pan gives the composition some structure.
Ducks in a row. Of course, there are no ducks in this photo, but all the birds are in a row. Normally this makes for a flat and boring photo. Perhaps it does in this photo, too, but having several different species and the way the individual birds are looking left or right makes it at least a little more engaging.
Good crop, bad crop. This photo had some potential, but it was there was too much going on around the edges. The first version is my original crop from a couple years ago. It was a bit of a mess, with a bird cut though the head in the upper left and a blurry bird in the foreground pulling attention from the would-be subject by walking the the opposite direction. While writing about it, I started to see a new crop, which is the second photo. The subject is restored to a position of prominence and the birds at the top get cut off in a way that is a bit less distracting. Not a masterpiece, but a solid improvement, I think.
In a great group photo one bird will stand out as the center of attention. This is probably because the photographer picked that bird and built the shot around it. Choosing a single subject as a focal point works for groups from a few birds to dozens of birds. Once you get to hundreds of birds, you probably really have to luck out to find one that is distinctive enough to focus on, but most of the time picking a subject works.
Being the center of attention doesn’t necessarily mean being in the center of the photo. In a photo where the scene has depth, the subject bird will generally be in the foreground because it is more natural to have blurry birds in the background rather than in the front. The subject bird is often looking at the camera or doing something interesting because you focused on it and waited to capture that moment. The subject bird may be separate from the other birds in the photo.
Below are four photos that, I think, have one bird that is clearly the subject. It might not be equally obvious in each of the photos, but I think most people would agree about which bird it is. What do you think?
Did the title “Enhance!” make you think about those police/spy TV shows where they can zoom in on a blurry photo of a parking lot and read a license plate? Good, because that’s basically what I’m thinking about. A big group of birds gives you lots of composition options, and it’s usually worthwhile to try out a few of them.
Below are four photos of the same group of birds, although not all from the same angle. The differences in the end results are huge. It is a bit ironic that the photo showing the most birds is less overwhelming because it also shows large areas that have no birds. The last photo is the one where it is easiest to look at the individual birds, and it still gives the impression of a busy flock. Unfortunately it doesn’t have a strong focal point. The second to last photo actually does have a bird that stands out from the crowd, but there are so many birds you probably have to look for a moment to find it.
Perhaps you have an amazing ability to look at a scene and conceptualize what parts of it will make the best photographic composition. I don’t have that, so I usually do two other things. In the field, I will scan the scene through my viewfinder, zooming in and even walking around to find appealing shots, taking extras just in case. At home on the computer, I spend time with what I shot, looking for images that work, and cropping or adjusting to fine tune those selections.
Whenever I am photographing birds, I take lots of photos. Even if it’s a bird sitting totally still, I may take five of the exact same shot because I’m usually near the limit of my equipment and often one of those five is going to be sharper and clearer than the others. Then I might change a setting or two and take five more of the exact same shot. If a bird is moving, I might take twenty shots to capture the moment a muddy foot comes out of the water or a beak opens to let out a cry.
I guess spray and pray is not an entirely fair way to describe this. It is a fairly deliberate process. I generally don’t take loads of photos of something I know won’t turn out well. On the other hand, I am hoping that one photo from the bunch turns out well and I usually don’t know which one it will be.
When photographing groups of birds, I take EVEN MORE photos. The chance of something being off is higher, and it is often impossible to be aware of what each bird is doing at each moment. Once you’ve composed your scene, taking loads of photos increases the chances that everything will come together in one shot.
Of course, there’s a method to this madness. As we know from the Bird Watch article, you should always have one bird that is the subject of the shot. There’s no point in shooting a lot when your primary bird isn’t cooperating, but there is good reason to take extras at that moment to get the best from your supporting actors.
I don’t have any examples of a full set because I delete perhaps 90% of the photos I take. But, for reference, here are three that I saved out of a group of 20 or 30. These were my favorites because in each shot, the birds worked together in different ways. The rest of the photos were all less interesting compositions, blurry or had other problems so they got tossed out. Surprisingly, these three images were all taken within 11 seconds, which should give you an idea of how many different compositions can happen almost instantaneously when you are photographing groups of birds.
Whatever you do, you will probably want to take more photos than usual and review them after the fact to see which ones really work the best. It is impossible to be fully aware of what several or many birds are doing all at the same time, but you can take your time to compare photos after the fact if you are taking plenty of them.
If you’re lucky, when you’re photographing birds you are enjoying nature and break from the trials and tribulations of the human world. If you’re on St. Martin, when you’re photographing birds, you are probably trying to find an angle where there’s no garbage in the frame. Sometimes, though, it is important to capture the mess we’ve made, since that is the island we are living on.
Just as a photo of habitat is enhanced by the presence of a bird, our own woeful neglect of nature and downright hostility to the environment is brought into sharper focus when accompanied by wildlife. It is inspiring to see life surviving in the wake of our destruction and the shame we feel is amplified.
At the same time, there are also moments when the worlds of man and nature cross paths under more congenial circumstances. The remnants of the salt pans, mostly forgotten by man and now occupied only by birds, are a favorite. It’s also a reminder that in our rush towards the future, we tend to sacrifice not only the natural world, but also the legacy of our own past.
Often, capturing habitat means showcasing specific plants and animals that are key parts of a bird’s habitat and ecosystem. Mangroves are a great example. When it comes to tropical wetlands, mangrove trees are the critical organisms providing food and shelter, giving life and form to an ecosystem.
Although they move around, a cow is part of a Cattle Egret’s habitat. They are basically giant machines that help the egrets find food. From time to time, they can be a spot to roost as well.
This is something that I rarely do in bird photography because it usually is impossible to get close enough to a bird. With a nest, however, it is something that can work. Using a very wide angle lens, you can capture a nearby subject, like this nest, while also showcasing the whole scene around the subject. It can be a really striking effect and a fantastic way to feature something within a larger context.
Suppose you want to include habitat as a second subject in a bird photo, but also want to keep your photo simple: what’s the minimum you need to capture? There isn’t a specific answer to that question, but it is something to keep in mind. Composing a photo is often a battle between simplicity and complexity. Too many details can be overwhelming, but oversimplifying can skip details that tell a story.
I think this photo brings in habitat as a second subject with a minimum of ornamentation. It tells us about the Gray Kingbird’s habit of perching in open spaces where it can spot flying insects to eat, and it tells us how comfortable this species is in urban areas. The crossed lines are a key part of the visual composition, drawing attention to them in a way that a single line doesn’t. I have many photos of birds on a line, and they really don’t seem to be about the line in the same way.
In addition to habitat in general being a second subject, specific phenomena can be a second subject, too. Below are a couple examples of photos that are about birds and also about the influx of sargassum that has hit the Caribbean several times in the last few years. This has been a significant occurrence, impacting both man and nature. Sargassum is important to shorebirds at the moment, and shorebirds help tell the story of sargassum and its impact.
There are plenty of other opportunities to combine birds with events or phenomena to create engaging images. Trees without leaves or dry pond beds can tell us about seasonal changes and unusual droughts. I wish I had spent more time photographing cattle egrets as they fed on grasshoppers trying to escape from this brush fire. The presence of a bird is really more evocative than photos of the flames themselves.