How to Get Close to Birds

Major Mitchell Cockatoo close-up

Do you ever wonder how some photographers manage to get those photos where not only can you see every individual feather on the bird, but every danged filament of every feather?!

You have a reasonably good lens. You’ve got the right settings but the clarity and detail’s still not there.

I hear you! Want to know the secret?

Closeness. Even with the best lens and best light and best settings you still have to get reasonably close to a bird to get great details.

And here’s the thing. Getting close enough is closer than you think. People see me with a 600mm F4 lens (a.k.a bazooka) and assume I can take a photo of a hummingbird in South America from my porch… in Toodyay (Australia)!

No way José.

Ideally, with my 600mm lens, I still want to be within 15 metres of a medium-sized bird if I am after a crisp, detailed image.  For small birds, I need to be even closer.  

There are lots of different ways to get closer to birds which are founded upon one solid rule: 

You will never, and I mean NEVER, get close to a bird by chasing it. 

Main Ways to get Close Feather icon 

I have listed below the main ways to get close enough to birds to get maximum detail. Often, you'll need a combination of these methods (such as technique and luck, camouflage and technique and hides and water).

  • Equipment 
  • Technique 
  • Hides (Blinds) 
  • Camouflage 
  • Habituation 
  • Water/Food 
  • Luck 

Do Your Research Feather icon

What device or technique you use to get close to birds will vary, not only according to your equipment, but also according to location, time of year, species and even individual personalities.  Do your research on the species you want to photograph. If you are travelling, it might pay to hire a local guide who knows where and when to find certain bird species. 

Location

Do you live in an area where hunting is common? If so, then you will probably need to adopt more covert methods to get close to birds.

I am lucky enough to live in Western Australia where duck hunting has been banned. When I travel to states where duck hunting is still allowed, there is a noticeable difference in the behaviour of the waterfowl. 

Similarly in the Mediterranean, where hunting is ingrained, in rural areas it's very hard to get within cooeee of even a pigeon!  

Time of Year

Birds' behaviours may vary according to the time of the year. Some species can be secretive and particularly hard to find, let alone get close enough for a photo, for most of the year. However, during the 'courting' season, in order to get the females' attention the males will often become quite bold and engage in public displays (singing or dancing), making this an ideal time to take photos.

Once birds are nesting, however, you should not go anywhere near them. Any attention on a nest can attract predators who may later raid the nest.  Nesting is the most stressful time in a bird's life. Yes you can get close, but that is only because the birds are 'snookered'. If they want to protect their young, they will not move. So the moral of the story is:

Avoid nesting birds! 

Species and Personality

Some species, like some robins (see image below of a Red-capped Robin that hopped towards me) are extremely 'confiding', meaning they will let you get quite close (in fact they will often fly to perch nearby where you are).

Red-capped Robin

Similarly, birds in colonies (eg Penguins) often have no fear and are easier to photograph within a reasonable distance.

Different birds within a species also have different personalities. Some may let you get close whilst others are not confiding at all. I experienced this recently when photographing Ptarmigans in the Cairngorms National Park in Scotland. I used a local photographer to guide me to the area which the Ptarmigans frequented. Once we were there, it was a matter of finding the pairs that were happy to let us get closer. The Ptarmigan below, was quite happy for us to be within 15 metres of it. In fact, at one point it came towards us, getting within ten metres of us as it fed. 

 PtarmiganThe friendly Ptarmigan(Lagopus muta): Taken in the Cairngorms National Park, Scotland, UK, with a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F/4 600mm lens + 1.4x teleconverter, F5.6, 1/1250 secs, ISO800, with frozen fingers and teeth chattering. 


Equipment

There is no escaping it: the bigger the focal length the better for getting close, detailed shots of wild birds.  Ideally, you want 500mm or more.

As I mentioned in my article Birds in Flight: Nailing the BIF, here are some suggestions to increase your focal length without spending a fortune. 

Cropped Sensor Cameras:

For someone who has a limited budget buying a cropped sensor camera body is a good way to get increased focal length.

There is a lot of talk about "cropped sensor cameras". This refers to a range of DSLR cameras which have a sensor that is smaller than the traditional 35mm film format (Full Frame cameras). In Canon’s 7D Mark II, for instance, the sensor is 22.4 x 15 mm compared to the Canon 1Dx sensor which is 36 x 24 mm (full frame).

What does this mean?

Because a smaller sensor is capturing the same image, it has a similar effect on the resultant image as ‘zooming in’ on a subject or ‘cropping in’ a photo to make a bird larger in the frame. 

The downside is that there is a small compromise on image quality and high ISO performance (ie noise in low light situations) and sometimes the crop factor is a BIG negative, such as when you want to use your super duper wide angle lens!

Teleconverter: You should also consider buying a teleconverter.  A teleconverter is essentially a magnifier than sits between the camera body and your lens.

Canon offers two sizes, a 1.4x and a 2x teleconverter. With a 1.4x teleconverter on your Canon 70-200mm lens you will get a focal length of 98-280mm. Nikon has three sizes: 1.4x, 1.7x and 2x

Technique 

The way you approach a bird (or not approach) makes a huge difference. Often it is not so much your presence that is the issue but how your presence 'appears' to the bird and whether or not it looks threatening.

My best tip for getting close to any kind of bird is to find a spot which they like to frequent and sit or lie down and wait for the birds to come to you.

Why sit or lie down?

Because a sitting or lying human is far less threatening than a standing human. Not only do you appear bigger in an upright position, but you are also more mobile. Birds seem to know that a sitting human takes a lot of effort to be mobile again (and the older they are the longer it takes them).

For wading birds, lying down is by far the best method (and also gives you the best angle).  When I see wading birds, I will take a large circle around them and position myself on the ground around 40-50 metres away but in the direction in which they appear to be feeding. I lie prostrate, do not move and hope that they continue feeding in my direction.  By adopting this approach I have been able to get close to many normally very skittish waders over the years. Some birds have come so close to me, while feeding, that I could no longer focus on them with my large lens (see the images below).  I have also gotten very muddy so I highly recommend a yoga mat or similar to lie on. 

 Bar-tailed GodwitBar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica): Mandurah, Western Australia, Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon F/4 600mm Lens, F7.1, 1/2500 secs, ISO400, Lying on ground in the same location as the Australian Pied Oystercatcher, below. The Bar-tailed Godwit walked past me feeding. As long as I stayed where I was, and lying down, it wasn't bothered by me.


 Pied OystercatcherAustralian Pied Oystercatcher (Haematopus longirostris): Mandurah, Western Australia, Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon F/4 600mm Lens, F7.1, 1/3200 secs, ISO640, Lying on ground.


Common SandpiperCommon Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos): Avon River, Toodyay.  Canon EOS-1D X, Canon F/4 500mm Lens, F7.1, 1/1250 secs, ISO1250. I spotted this bird from a distance. I circled around and positioned myself by the river's edge, lying on the sand, in the direction in which it was feeding. After about ten minutes it was just metres away from me. I was not camouflaged so it was fully aware of my presence. At one point, it came so close I could no longer focus on it. 

 

Hides/Blinds

One of the best, and most relaxing, ways of getting closer to birds is to use a hide (or blind). How much better can it get than to sit back on a chair with your lens in position, and a drink by your side, and have birds come and go just metres from you, careless as to your presence? You are comfortable and the birds are comfortable: It's a win-win.

Hides fall, roughly, into three categories:

  • Permanent
  • Temporary (small pop-up tent-like structure)
  • Mobile (vehicle)

Permanent Hides

You can, of course, build your own hide and there are plenty of resources on the internet that will give you some idea of how best to do it.

The good news is that these days you don't need to build your own. Providing good quality permanent bird photography hides (and I'm not talking about those wooden structures at wetlands with horrid seating and bad angles ... and which are often set several hundred metres back from the actual birds) in prime birding sites has become a lucrative business in many parts of the world with more and more appearing each year. If you are travelling, it is well worth finding out if there are any near where you will be.

Of course, legendary bird photographer Bence Maté is THE master of hide building and using one-way glass so that you become the 'invisible' photographer.  He has hides for rent all over the world including Hungary, South Africa and Romania. The images taken from these hides are incredible: click here.  

 

Mulga ParrotMulga Parrot: Taken from a permanent hide at Gluepot Reserve in South Australia, with a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F/4 600mm lens, F4, 1/800 sec, ISO400. 

 

Southern WhitefaceSouthern Whiteface (Aphelocephala leucopsis): Taken from a hide at Arid Lands Botanic Gardens in Port Augusta, South Australia with a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F/4 600mm lens with 1.4x teleconverter, F5.6, 1/8000 secs, ISO400. I was so excited when I saw these birds come in as I had been trying to get a good shot of them for a long time but, out in the bush, they move around so quickly. The hide had water, but actually they never stopped to drink. Sometimes birds just pass through out of habit. I also got zebra finches and a White-winged Triller at the same hide.

 

Temporary Hides

Let's say you are driving through the Australian Outback and you come across a beautiful freshwater hole that is teeming with bird-life but, the minute you appear, they disappear.

This would be the perfect spot to set up a temporary hide. Portable bird hides can range from bespoke photography hides with special mesh viewing holes and openings for tripods and lens etc, to a cheap one person tent with some camo netting thrown over the top. You can also get floating blinds which are perfect for waterfowl photography.

There are many stores all over the internet selling camouflage gear. Ironically (and depressingly) one of the best places to source a wide range of hides/blinds and other camouflage gear is a hunting goods store such as Cabelas.

exmaple of a blind

I recently bought a quality bird photography hide from nature photography specialist store Tragopan  which I plan to put into action over the next six months. Watch this space for a full product review.

The key is to put up the hide and be able to leave it in the area for at least a day or two (ideally several) before you want to use it. You need to give the birds time to get used to the new 'thing' in the area and to realise that it's not a threat.

Once you are ready to use it, grab your water and get into it before the sun is up (or when there are no birds around) and then wait. You may be surprised by what will turn up.

Mobile Hides

This is just another way of saying: CAR. Yep. The car is still the best way to get close to birds of prey who are often seen perching on roadside trees.  As long as no human comes out of that contraption, they often seem content to stay put. 

Similarly, boats are often useful  for getting close to birds such as kingfishers. 

Nankeen KestrelNankeen Kestrel (Falco cenchroides): Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F/4 600mm lens with 1.4x teleconverter, F5.6, 1/2000 secs, ISO640. This was taken from the car window in Streaky Bay, South Australia.

 

Camouflage

In Australia, you seldom need camouflage to get close to birds. Neutral coloured clothing and a good technique will suffice 90% of the time.

If you do quite like the idea of looking like a deranged escapee from the Special Armed Forces, there is a plethora of websites selling all kinds of camouflage (see above for Hides).  Generally, though, anything that hides the human form will work. I have sat beside a waterhole with camo-netting thrown over me and that worked perfectly (though it was very annoying to work with, which is why a hide or bespoke clothing is preferable).

If you don't mind looking like a swamp creatureGhillie suit, you can get a Yowie (or Ghillie)  suit for around $40. But beware! Don't use these for kangaroos.  The first and last time I wore my Yowie suit was out photographing kangaroos. Well, I can tell you that the only thing scarier to a kangaroo than a human with a bazooka (aka big lens) is a human IN A YOWIE SUIT with a bazooka!!  I mean, they took one look at me and took off and they they were never coming back... ever...

So the moral of the story is that not all camouflage is an advantage. It depends on the species and what they're used to. If they're used to humans from a distance (eg kangaroos), then probably a slow, calm, non-threatening approach is enough. There's no need to dress up like a psychotic tree. 

On the other hand, in hunting areas camouflage will undoubtedly be an advantage.

 

Camouflage

This is me and a friend, Keith Lightbody, demonstrating different camouflage suits. I am in a Yowie suit. Keith is in a camouflage cloak/blanket thingy. 

 
And guess what? Just when you thought you'd spent enough money already, you can also get camouflage for your camera gear!  

LensCoat are arguably the leaders in quality camouflage for your camera gear (yes, even the tripod). 

image of camouflaged camera and tripod

 Habituations

I have said it before and I'll say it again: if you want to take great bird photos, start with the birds in your area that are already habituated to human activity. This might be at the local park or botanic gardens, a roadside pond, golf courses or even a jetty, as in the photo of the osprey below. 

The more used to humans birds are, the greater the chance you can get close to them and observe them behaving naturally. If you are going to a new area, it pays to contact local birders and ask them where is the best public place to see birds. For instance, when I was in Darwin a couple of years ago I really wanted to photograph the Orange-footed Scrubfowl. I had had no luck with several pairs I had seen in the nearby bushland, as they are very fast and elusive. I told my local bird guide about it and he said 'No Problems! I'll show you exactly where you can photograph them easily.'  He took me to the Darwin Botanic Gardens where they roamed around like chooks in the backyard. 

 Eastern OspreyEastern Osprey (Pandion haliaetus): Taken at Broome, Western Australia with Canon EOS-1D X, Canon F/4 600mm lens, F6.3, 1/800 secs. ISO1600, handheld. The bird was on a post along the jetty which is frequented by people. As it was relatively used to humans it let me get so close I could almost touch it.


Partidge PigeonPartridge Pigeon (Geophaps smithii): Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon F/4 600mm lens, F8, 1/800 sec, ISO640, hand-held. This was taken in the visitor centre car-park which is renowned in the birding world as the place to get these birds who are otherwise quite elusive. I love it when a guide tells you to go to a car-park and bang! There's the bird!


 Splendid Fairy-wrenSplendid Fairy-wren (Malarus spendens): Taken from boardwalk at Creery Wetlands Reserve, Western Australia. Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon F/4 600mm Lens, F7.1, 1/640 secs, ISO400. Clearly the wrens are used to people coming and going along the boardwalk and were happy to pose for this photo.


Water

In dry or hot climates, the best way to get close to birds is to set yourself up near a fresh water source. The fewer the water sources in the area, the better as this maximises the chance that a bird will come either to drink or bath at the location you choose.

In particularly hot climates, people are encouraged to put out bird baths in their backyards.  I have even had a Nankeen Kestrel come and stand in my bird bath for four hours once on a day on which the temperatures had reached over 40 degrees Celsius. Of course, all the usual suspects who normally frequented the bath stayed away.

Elegant ParrotElegant Parrot (Neophema elegans): Taken at Mia Moon Reserve near Dalwallinu, Western Australia, with Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon F/4 600mm lens, F8, 1/2000 secs, ISO 640.  This was a small rock pool in an area that was very dry. I was there early in the morning and decided to sit in the shade within 10 metres of the pool and wait.  After around 20 minutes this parrot, normally extremely flighty, flew in and took a drink. I was not in camouflage.


Mistletoebird

Mistletoebird: Taken from my veranda with a Canon EOS-1D X, Canon F/4 600mm lens with 1.4x teleconverter, F7.1, 1/3200 secs, ISO800. This bird is on a tree branch that I had placed beside my bird bath. The birds would land on this branch before going down into the bath for a drink or to have a splash. 

  

Food

Like me, the quickest way to a bird's heart is through the stomach.  An eating bird is easier to approach as it is often preoccupied with its meal. 

One of the best ways of finding and photographing birds is to research what is their favoured food source and position yourself near it. Sooner or later they'll decide that the lure of the fruit (eg the Song Thrush below) is greater than the risk that you pose a threat (which you will demonstrate that you do not by staying still).  

Collard SparrowhawkCollared Sparrowhawk (Accipiter cirrocephalus):  taken near Lake McLarty, Western Australia with a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, Canon F/4 500mm lens + 1.4x teleconverter, F9, 1/640, ISO320.  I was lucky to come across this sparrowhawk with its prey in an open field.  Ordinarily the raptor would have moved away as soon as it saw me but because it had food, it allowed me to get close enough for this photo. Do you see how it's hunched over with its wings spread? This is called 'mantling'. Birds of prey do this over a recent kill to conceal it from other birds and predators who would be potential thieves. 


Song ThrushSong Thrush (Turdus philomelos): Taken at a cemetery in Kinross, Scotland  with a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F/4 600mm lens with 1.4x teleconverter, F5.6, 1/500 secs, ISO1600, resting on a gravestone. I had noticed them eating the berries, so I positioned myself near the tree and waited for the birds to return, which they did. In fact, I managed to get several different species feeding in this one tree.


Crimson RosellaCrimson Rosella (Platycercus elegans): Taken at Thredbo Ski Village, NSW, with a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F/4 600mm lens, F4, 1/1250 secs, ISO1250, handheld.


Australian RavenAustralian Raven (Corvus coronoides): Taken at Thredbo Ski Village, NSW, with a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F/4 600mm lens, F6.3, 1/800 secs, ISO1600.


Letting nature provide is the best way of using food for photography and feeding birds can cause them a raft of problems. However, there are places where birds are used to being fed regularly, and these offer good opportunities for close shots. Whether you should take advantage of these places might depend upon the answer to the question whether the feeding is harmful to the birds.

Australian PelicanAustralian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus): Taken at a fish cleaning station in Albany, Western Australia with a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F/4 600mm Lens, F5, 1/2500 secs, ISO200, handheld.

In many countries, bird feeding stations are not only common, but actively encouraged by birding organisations (eg see the Blue Tit at a government-run feeding station in Scotland, below). 

Bird

Eurasian Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) on a bird feeder in Scotland, UK: Taken with Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F/4 600mm lens, F4, 1/100 secs, ISO1000, handheld.

In Australia, feeding wild birds is a topic of hot debate.  The traditional view is that you should not do it, but increasingly this seems to be changing in favour of the idea that you can do it if you do it with the right food (ie not bread). Darryl Jones, a Professor at Griffiths University, has written a book The Birds at My Table: Why We Feed Wild Birds and Why it Matters (I have it but haven't read it yet).

In the meantime, I don't feed wild birds myself (and won't, unless I can be satisfied that it does them no harm) but where I come across birds that are being fed with appropriate food, I can't resist taking the opportunity to try and get detailed shots such as those below.  

 Australian King ParrotAustralian King Parrot (Alisterus scapularis) (male): Taken from The Lookout cafe at Cambewarra Mountain, NSW, where they have seed feeders.  I was less than ten metres away, shooting with a Canon F4 600mm lens, handheld, at F6.3, 1/800sec and ISO 640.


 King ParrotAustralian King-Parrot (Alisterus scapularis) (probably a juvenile): Cambewarra Mountain Lookout, NSW, Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4 600mm lens, F6.3, 1/800sec, ISO640, handheld.


Pied CurrawongPied Currawong (Strepera graculina): Cambewarra Mountain Lookout, NSW, Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4 600mm lens, F6.3, 1/400sec, ISO640, handheld.


Under no circumstances should you use live bait to lure a bird in closer. The use of live bait for nature photography is widely regarded as UNETHICAL.

Luck

 And sometimes you just need plain, dumb luck. 

 

Did you find this article helpful? Is there anything else you'd like to know about bird photography? If so, please be sure to leave a comment.
I would really love to hear from you!
 

9 comments

  • This article is really helpful, and your photos are quite wonderful, as is your book and references.
    Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience
    JillR

    Jill H Rowbottom
  • Georgina your writing style is fluid and totally informative. We are friends on insta and you are always encouraging myself and so many others with your comments. Thankyou for your tips and advice much appreciated. Look forward to your future articles.

    Jenny Leith alias @jenny_ann_wren
  • Your photos are a wonder and a delight.
    Thank you.

    Ziggy
  • Hi Georgina,
    I’m very happy to have found your blog and newsletter. I didn’t realise that you were writing regularly and sharing your wealth of knowledge? Well written from a wealth of experience. . .win, win !!! Thanks for letting me be part of your world. Bruce.

    Bruce
  • Good, down to earth info and outstanding shots.

    Chris Tate

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