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Backyard Bird Photography in Winter
If you have been following my series on creating a backyard photographic gallery for birds, you noticed baiting them is really easy. But it is more than just putting out feeders in the winter garden, it is where you put them that helps you get the shot. Having them close to your viewing window is key if shooting from indoors, and designing your garden to encourage them to stick around guarantees them in numbers.
Many types of feeding stations can be provided – here we have the fruit bar (on a two foot high poplar log). Varying the food source and type of feeder will ensure a variety of species of bird to attract. You just have to notice the way they like to feed.
Oh, and if you get rodents, you will get more. Just kidding. I never had a rat in the garden. The squirrels keep their brethren away by scarfing up all the ground goodies and the city cats are always on mouse patrol.
Other factors play into successful birding such as creating a sheltered environment, providing water, and creating a safe and welcoming habitat. A safe environment includes trees, shrubs and vines for places to hide. If you have been following along, you have been seeing from which they are hiding.
This is where a professional photographer might fall short. They might not know the plants that shelter or why certain plants bring in the birds. Those that learn the habits of their subjects will be better equipped.
Just capturing an expressive moment is a trick unto itself. If your camera can be dialed to continuous mode, have a go. I can snap off photos in rapid succession, zeroing in on some very noteworthy moments of scorn and disgust. See the post on Cardinals for some real snarly female birds, but this male sparrow above, seems to be spitting mad. That is a very intent stare.
But most of the little dicky birds do their darndest to give me a smile.
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Knowing your subject means learning how they work the yard and whether they prefer open, hidden or areas with cover. Did you know that it is estimated that 55.5 million people feed the birds. (source, Cornell’s BirdNote01–Winter Bird Feeding _for PDF_2012-10-22)
Feed Tips and Ideas
• Some people save the seeds from squash and melons, like those from Halloween pumpkins. Just dry them first to avoid mold. Not all birds can eat this size seed, but a tip is running them through a food processor to make the seed bite size for the little dicky birds. (source – Cornell)
• You can make insect-eating birds, such as chickadees, woodpeckers, and nuthatches very happy by putting out peanut butter. I mix it with oatmeal or birdseed and stuff it in pine cones. These birds go wild over it, especially the nuthatches. It does not last long either. This is to avoid the greenhorn look and keep the feeders out of most images. I wedge nuts and suet into cracks in the trunk and branches of the pear tree because the birds feeding from these “natural feeding stations” look much more photogenic. The birds peck away and I always wonder what they are thinking. It is not like peanut butter is usually found on trees.
• I know many make their own suet by getting plain beef suet available at most supermarket meat departments, but I don’t. I just prefer the convenience of good quality commercial suet. What I do differently due to the numerous, territorial Downy Woodpeckers is cut the suet into triangles to wedge between the crotch of the pear tree. If it is forced in, it frustrates the squirrels, and they often go off to easier fare. Many varieties of birds will feast here that may not at the hanging suet.
• I put fruit and fruit peels out because some birds will eat it. They love leftover, slightly mushy fruit that is getting old and wrinkly. I use pears, apples and grapes. That is if the squirrels don’t take it first.
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The Birds Have It Tough In Winter
Birds are very hungry and have less daylight feeding time in winter, two things that work in your favor. Many are easier to approach during the colder months.
I talked about how perches fit the bird that lands on them in the last post, and how we can determine where the birds land to best suit our viewing and our photographs.
Photos of birds on feeders really don’t look very natural, so I try to make sure my feeders are situated in an area where there are good natural perches or I just fabricate them.
Why They Come – What’s in it for Them?
So let’s take a look at my garden and see why it works for the winter birds.
It is heavily planted with deciduous and coniferous trees and shrubs. You can see two Alberta Spruce, four Arborvitae, two large Lilacs, a rose and many herbaceous plants left uncut. You can also see cut Concolor Fir sprigs and a Norway Maple branch spanning between the feeders.
These are the staging perches attached to the feeders by clamps. This is where most of the birds in all four posts had their portrait taken, grouchy birds and all. It is directly in front of and perpendicular to the window where I position myself.
So what plants make the grade?
The lilac is a tree they use for keeping safe. It is dense, that is a key.
Left: A sparrow seeks shelter in the Alberta Spruce. Below, a sparrow in the Fir.
Well, one of like one hundred sparrows hunkered in the tree. I almost regret putting the Christmas tree in the garden because many of my subjects now retreat here, where they used to go to the pear and lilac, now fly into the Fir. Even the Cardinals are hiding in there.
The 100 foot Black Walnut behind the garage provides nesting and food for squirrels, jays, woodpeckers and cardinals. The Mulberry, also behind the garage below, is used for nesting too, but is loaded with berries that get eaten long before winter. I have seen many drunken birds and squirrels in a summer berry-fest in this tree.
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I moved the Christmas tree outdoors for both shelter and food for wildlife, and as I mentioned am having second thoughts. But for my photography, it provides a good background, like in the photo above. When the needles fall in Spring, I will use them in the garden.
My arbs are great shelter for many birds. I have a 65 foot long hedgerow of them on the side of the house and four in the backyard.
The vines provide safety and shelter. If I go out the backdoor in winter, I am instantly covered in falling snow from the ivy when the birds fly from within. I learned not to exit the dining room door in winter holding a camera.
The trumpet vine is a good source of summer nectar, but provides perching possibilities in winter. They use it often, again with all the dense branching.
But how does all this help?
Well it gives the birds a reason to be here.
Now the perches we create for our shooting gallery.
It is as simple as clamping a cut branch to any man-made object in the garden. Just make sure the background is something complimentary to the photo, where it is soft and non-competing.
This was an overview of my winter backyard shooting gallery. I have more to talk about, but this gives you an idea in what context I was getting the prettier photos in the previous posts. The previous posts talked about how to shoot the birds, but did not show it in context.
Next time… the Hovering Hawks on the 12th. Then the light shines on the woodpeckers on the 16th. And on the 18th a special post on ground feeding that looks natural. You will see pretty images in a sunnier landscape, complete with camera settings – always something to share!