The Savvy Winter Bird Photographer, Part 2

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In Part 1 of The Savvy Winter Bird Photographer, I shared my strategies on how to best prepare yourself and your gear for dealing with extreme winter weather. In addition, I covered some tips for photographing from your vehicle and how to use manual focus in heavy snowfall. In Part 2, I will share some exposure tips, discuss how to create your own backyard bird studio, and also suggest a few winter bird photography destinations.

Winter is an excellent time to concentrate on photographing birds coming to feeders. Birds need an available food source to provide the energy they need to stay warm on cold winter nights. By providing food in your backyard, you might attract a good variety of beautiful birds into range of your telephoto lens. There are a few things you should consider when deciding where to set up your feeding station. You should place your feeding station near cover so the birds will have an opportunity to escape a sneak attack by a hawk or other predator. Close to cover, but not so close that a roaming cat might lie in wait to ambush your unsuspecting birds. Determine what light angle you want to work with. My feeder is set up to the west of a permanent blind I built in my yard many years ago. There are no large trees to the east that would cast shadows onto my feeders during morning light. Prior to building the blind, I used either a tent-type blind or a Lens Coat bag blind. I prefer a permanent or tent-type blind because they are easier to leave in place and the birds can become accustomed to them. To ensure good backgrounds, it is very important to keep the feeders close to your shooting position and to keep the distance from feeders to background at least twice as far as the distance from your blind to the feeders. I most often use up to 700mm of focal length and prefer my feeders to be about 20 feet from my blind. A background 60 feet from the blind is good, but 100 feet would be even better.

In some winters, Common Redpolls move south in large numbers. With some luck, you could host them at your bird feeders if you live in the northern 1/3 of the country.

Once you have your feeder area designed, you will want to offer a variety of seeds, nuts, and suet to attract the greatest number of birds. In winter I typically offer sunflowers and safflower seeds on a platform feeder that attracts many varieties of finches, cardinals, blue jays, doves, blackbirds, cowbirds, and sparrows. I feed thistle in a sock for the small finches such as siskins, redpolls, and goldfinches. In addition, a suet cake is placed in a cage and hung on a snag for several species of woodpeckers and nuthatches. I offer peanut pieces in a metal feeder to attract suet-loving birds, as well as the occasional over-wintering warbler. Eastern Bluebirds can be enticed by mealworms. I use light stands or old tripods with clamps to place branches above and next to the feeders. Birds will often land and inspect the scene on their way to the feeders. I place attractive branches and vines trimmed from my yard and replace them often to avoid having all of my bird shots on the same branch.

Black Rosy-Finch—up to three species of rosy-finch can be found frequenting high elevations in the mountain west.

I find snow to be an exciting and beautiful element to include in my winter bird compositions. If you receive limited to no snowfall in your location, there are a number of areas in the northern tier of states, as well as the mountains west that are certainly worthy of a visit. Some locations to consider include Utah’s Powder Mountains, Sax Zim Bog north of Duluth, MN, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where I conduct one of my most popular bird photography tours each winter.

At northern latitudes, open water in winter is another situation that can lead to excellent bird photography opportunities with waterfowl, gulls, herons, and more. Here in Ohio, I train my lens at open water provided by warm water discharges on Lake Erie. Moving water of rivers and streams, as well as spring-fed ponds, can all provide good opportunities. Water in its liquid state provides access to food, bathing opportunities (important in feather care for retaining body heat) and a place to loaf that is safe from mammalian predators.

A drake Canvasback takes advantage of a small pool of open water in an otherwise frozen marsh.

Coastal saltwater regions and brackish backwaters in the tidal zones have a way of concentrating large numbers of waterfowl with flocks containing a variety of species. I have photographed more than a dozen species of waterfowl in a one-week winter visit to the east coast. My personal favorites are the end of Oakley Street on the Choptank River, in Cambridge, MD, and the jetty at Barnegat Lighthouse State Park, at the north end of Long Beach Island, in NJ. Between these two locations you can expect to photograph Canvasback, scaup, wigeon, mallards, eiders, Long-tailed and Harlequin Ducks, up to three species of scoters and much more. Barnegat will also provide great chances for loons, shorebirds, gulls, and the occasional seabird. Pacific coast locations can provide similar opportunities. Be warned, it is not recommended to walk the jetty rocks at Barnegat alone. They are slippery and it is easy to fall and get wedged into the gaps between the rocks.

Black Scoter: In the depths of winter a cold snap in New Jersey caused slush to form on the surface of Barnegat Inlet, an area heavily influenced by tidal saltwater.

Winter is a good time to visit one additional location. Some community landfills (often referred to as dumps) allow some amount of access to view and photograph birds. While not the most appetizing places to visit, dumps can provide excellent opportunities to photograph Bald Eagles, multiple species of gulls, Raven, and American Crows. Access is generally limited to weekday business hours and it is always recommended to stop at the office or gate to inquire about access. You may be required to put on a hard hat and reflective vest (lay low to avoid the fashion police). Dumps are always better when the trucks and dozers are operating; constantly turning over new delectable morsels and occasionally flushing the masses into the air where your best images will be captured. Think about what time of day and wind direction will be best, based on your site access, keeping in mind it is best to keep the sun behind you for in-flight photography. Since birds fly slower facing the wind, it will be best to attempt in-flight photography in the morning on an east wind and afternoon on a west wind. Southerly winds can be good all day long, since the winter sun stays well to the south at northern latitudes.

A majestic adult Bald Eagle stretches its wings over an active land fill in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Photographically speaking, winter is certainly no time for hibernation! In the north, the days are shorter, but good light dominates most of the day. The sun never gets terribly high and, even at midday, light bouncing off of the snow does a nice job of filling in shadows. It is definitely worthwhile to bundle up and head outside to explore your backyard and beyond—you may just find some of your best bird photographs of the year!

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