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Songbird Photography

(camera setting info and shooting strategy after all the pretty bird photos)

In a previous post, Photography Blinds & Raptors, I shared what I learned about using blinds for wildlife photography as part of a workshop I attended. Our first morning was nonstop activity photographing a few dozen raptors. We could swing our cameras from the Turkey Vulture pushing another bird off a perch to the Black Vulture precariously balanced on a blooming cactus, over to a Caracara standing on a bait ball attempting to rip off a bite. The birds were not so skittish as to mind a few camera lenses moving.

Life is different at the water blinds for song birds. The ranch uses deer feeders to automate putting food out within twenty or so feet of the blind, to prime the local birds into regularly checking the area for a meal. The feeder is turned off the night before we plan to photograph there. But the real attraction is water — a shallow pool and the sound of water dripping. The song birds as a general group are wary. The migratory birds are very skittish, and we have to move our cameras very slowly and whisper as little as possible to have the best chance of capturing the tiny birds.

There is more work/art to prepare the stage than just hiding bits of hamburger in branches. The ranch provides small tubes attached to stakes to be driven in the ground to hold a branch for a perch, and a shovel in case we want to bury the gallon-bucket shrub our instructors brought with them as a colorful perch option. 

adding some colorful perch options for the birds

Suet and seed mixes that you would recognize from the bird food aisle of your town grocery store is what is set out. Suet for the branches over the water, and the seeds are sprinkled strategically behind tufts of grass and small rocks along the waters edge. Alligator clips on bendy arms hold orange halves for fruit lovers.

birds eye view of the back edge of the reflecting table

Birds appear in waves punctuated with long periods of absence. If one or a pair of birds land in front of us, it is pretty simple to decide which bird you have the best viewing angle for and spend your time with that bird. It is easy to stay calm, work slowly and quietly, and enjoy the moment. 

several days we had to wait over an hour for a bird to visit

In periods of calm, when not a song or a flutter can be heard in the meadow it is hard not to share “Did you see that?!” questions with your neighbor. Some periods of inactivity are so long, I photograph the bees that came to the waters edge to drink, or the bugs landing on the water, legs spread wide but not breaking the surface tension.

sometimes the only thing moving at the blind were bugs

We use this down time to open the Merlin app [https://merlin.allaboutbirds.org] and identify the bird we just photographed. The app uses your current location to narrow down the list of possible matches. It can also listen to bird song and ID the bird that way. When food and the sound of dripping water are not enough to entice birds within our camera view, our instructor plays bird calls from his phone.

using the MERLIN app to identify the birds we saw at the blind

The biggest test however, is when an unusual bird or large variety of birds land. The normal reaction is to exclaim and jump up to aim the camera quickly. Baaaaad move in a bird blind! The Summer Tanager perched long enough for only the instructor to get just one shot and we never saw it again. 

Of the thirty-one species of birds we officially identify (“I think I saw” doesn’t count) I can say that twenty-four* birds are completely new to me! 

  • Raptors
    • Crested Caracara*
    • Turkey Vulture*
    • Black Vulture*
  • Songbirds & Others
    • Black-crested Titmouse*
    • Blue Grosbeak*
    • Bobwhite Quail*
    • Brown-headed Cowbird (male and female)
    • Clay-colored Thrush* (rare in TX)
    • Common Ground Dove
    • Curve-billed Thrasher*
    • Golden-fronted Woodpecker*
    • Great Kiskadee*
    • Green Jay*
    • Hooded Warbler*
    • Indigo Bunting*
    • Lincoln’s Sparrow*
    • Long-billed Thrasher*
    • Mourning Dove
    • Northern Cardinal
    • Nashville Warbler*
    • Olive Sparrow*
    • Orchard Oriole*
    • Painted Bunting* (male and female)
    • Pyrrhuloxia*
    • Red-winged Blackbird (female)
    • Greater Roadrunner (rare)
    • Scissor-tailed Flycatcher* (male and female)
    • Summer Tanager*
    • Tennessee Warbler*
    • Yellow-breasted Chat*
    • Wild Turkey
a list of the birds I saw in Texas this week, stored in the Merlin app

I am stunned to think I can look upon this variety of birds, in the wild, just ten feet (or less!) away. The blind is key to creating an environment the birds can visit for a few minutes at a time to eat, drink, or bathe, and a we have comfortable location to wait and watch from. I am coming home with some terrific photos, vastly improved over my past images. Birds fill the image frame without any post process cropping on my part. Meeting and sharing with the other students is a lot of fun. But maybe best of all is just watching the bird’s gestures — how they juggle seeds on their tongue to discard the shell — how they approach the water for a drink or a refreshing bath. I know anthropomorphism is a bad thing in science, but luckily this is entertainment and it is a great delight to assign the idea of a “quizzical expression” to the tilt of a Green Jay’s head.

new friends from the workshop

Black-crested Titmouse

a charming bird, darker in color than the Tufted Titmouse of home

Blue Grosbeak

Blue Grosbeak in the deep cover near the pond, deciding if it wants to come out into the open

Brown-headed Cowbird (Mr. & Mrs.)

Northern Cardinal (Mr. & Mrs.)
(notice the male feeding a bit of suet to his mate)

Curved-bill Thrasher

softer colors than the similar Long-billed Thrasher

Golden-fronted Woodpecker

Great Kiskadee

we could hear these birds, and sometimes see a yellow dot in the shrubs 100 yards away — only once in four days did the Great Kiskadee come perch for 90 seconds

Greater Roadrunner

during a slow time at the blind, I spotted a roadrunner about 100 yards away skirting the edge of the grass field and tree line

Green Jay

a Green Jay scoping out the treats looking for his favorite peanuts

Indigo Bunting

we saw the Indigo Bunting only once — what a beauty!

Long-billed Thrasher

when compared to the Curved-bill Thrasher, the Long-billed Thrasher has higher contrast spots on its front and is more brown than gray
face of a Long-billed Thrasher

Orchard Oriole

female Orchard Oriole checking out the public bathing facilities

Painted Bunting

Painted Buntings, about the size of a tennis ball were glimpsed in the deep cover by just a flash of color
male Painted Bunting
female and male Painted Bunting taking a bath


a desert cardinal
female and male Pyrrhuloxia snacking on seeds atop a local cactus

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

we would spot these birds high in trees or on power lines — and were gobsmacked when they rested on a branch in front of us for a few seconds
having deep cover and water near the blinds was key to our photography success

Warblers and Sparrows

Nashville Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Olive Sparrow
Lincoln’s Sparrow
listed as “uncommon” – a shy Hooded Warbler perched a stake for a few minutes and was gone
Clay-colored Thrush — rare to see in the United States!

For photography buffs, here are some of my take aways from class. It was new info for me, maybe fore you too? Must speak geek. Otherwise you can bail out of the article here! 🙂

I am using a Canon R5 mirrorless camera, and used the 100-500 lens.

To read excellent wildlife photography articles from my instructor, scroll to the bottom of John’s page: https://www.gerlachnaturephoto.com

In the past I tried to shoot shutter priority but never fast enough. I even made a disastrous attempt to use the recommended method of aperture priority when photographing snow geese. DOH! Overall I was not happy with my hit-or-miss wildlife photos. This week I shot in dread Manual Mode! John suggested:

  • set shutter for the lowest speed I feel comfortable capturing action (in general 800 for raptors and 1000 for song birds
  • Set aperture one stop down from most open, where the lens is usually sharpest
  • set ISO to Auto and use 1/3 increments of exposure compensation to adjust

ETTR – Expose to the Right 

At John’s recommendation this week I tried to set my exposure compensation to the right (+) so that looking at the image in playback I could see “blinkies.” The little flashing red dots indicating that the highlights are beginning to be blown out. Another way would be to check the histogram and see if the curve started touching the border on the right. I need to develop the habit of checking more often!

Back-button Focus

When I got this camera for the first time, I set it up to have dual back button focus: one button for focus and another for eye detection. John wanted me to change from that (even though he used to advocate BBF) so auto focus is back on the shutter button. I am not sure it will stay that way, but for the week, this was a test. 

Eye Detection Focus

The Canon’s ability to find and lock on to a bird’s eye (while not perfect) was a huge factor in the success of my images. If the bird’s eye was in focus, wing feathers blurry from shallow depth of field did not matter as much. The light was dull from overcast skies all week, so it was hard to shoot for greater depth of field.

Crop Factor

I did reassign the SET button to control the in-camera crop. I am in LOVE! It was super handy at the song bird blinds. Setting the camera to 1.6 crop factor is asking the camera to crop the photo instead of me doing it in software on my computer. It was easier to see their movements, such as when they bunch their shoulders getting ready to jump or fly and thus I knew better when to press the shutter. It also makes a smaller file, so I fit more shots on the memory card.

Electronic Shutter

I used the electronic shutter at the song bird blinds. It makes the camera silent — an advantage around skittish birds. On the Canon, that mode triggers the camera to shoot at twenty frames a second. You can get a lot of nuanced expression and movement in those twenty frames! I was grateful to learn about it and take advantage of it! 

Bathing Bird Strategy

When the tiny birds were bathing, I kicked the shutter up to 2000. I pressed the shutter button half way to get focus, and then pressed a button on the back that was customized to turn focus off. This way, I could get the camera focused on the bird, and then once it started splashing, the camera would not go crazy trying to focus on the flying water drops.  And then, as John says, I “Let them have it!” I just held the shutter button down, shooting at 20 frames a second. It is also a good technique for birds in flight. 

You Can Get Lucky

Early Wednesday morning at the water blind was exceptionally dark and overcast. We set the shutter to 1/25, aperture wide open, ISO to Auto and actually got a few images out of a lot of misses. It was better than waiting for it to get light enough to shoot at 500 or 800! Thank goodness for tripods with gimbal heads!

Sorting the Results

If you are wondering how to go through 22,919 photo in less than a year, this is how I do it. I use Adobe Bridge, (I am still learning Canon’s DPP4) and use the space bar to set the image to full screen preview so that I m looking at the photos at 100%. Then I give them a rating. One star means keep it, two stars means I really like it and should process it as soon as I am done sorting. Escape back to the main screen. Then I filter all images with no rating, select all, and hit delete. (OK, I move them to a For The Trash folder to hold for a few days since I am so nervous!) 

I had so much fun, and learned an incredible amount about getting the best out of my camera that I am looking forward to finding another opportunity to photograph from blinds! Maybe a little landscaping in the backyard?!

screen capture of Adobe Bridge to cull almost 23,000 images shot over 4 days
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4 thoughts on “Songbird Photography

  1. What an enjoyable blog! Thank you for sharing your exquisite photography. Vr, Gret

  2. Stunning photos! It sounds like an awesome workshop. I might have to paint that blue grosbeak

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