The Garden is Set for Winter Birds


Male Cardinal Feeding

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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.


Downy Woodpecker Feeding

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.


Downy Woodpecker Checking Out the Apples

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.


Grumpy Sparrow

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.


Black Capped Chickadee in the Viburnum

But most of the little dicky birds do their darndest to give me a smile.


Black Capped Chickadee at the Heated Birdbath

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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.


Chickadee Eating Suet

•    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.


Dark-Eyed Junco

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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.


Sparrow_In_SpruceAbove: The 20 foot juniper provides shelter from winter winds to many songbirds. The pear provides food. Beyond is three huge, sheltering spruce trees about 90 feet tall.

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.


Downy Woodpecker


Three Sparrows


Mourning Dove

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!


Flying Sparrows

Starlings in Winter – Photo Studio Introduction

Blue Jays in Winter – Photo Tip – Prune Those Trees

Cardinals in Winter – Photo Tips – Fabricating Perches

About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at:
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56 Responses to The Garden is Set for Winter Birds

  1. Christy says:

    I LOVE this post. I love the pictures and all of your ideas. I’d never thought of “making perches” and I’m definitely going to do this in our garden, especially by the apples and the suet.

    • Thank you Christy. Making the perch is so simple, just minutes. Find a branch that looks like the right diameter and just clip, done. I usually add the fir branches to make it more interesting and to hide the clip. I thought the clip would scare the birds being shiny, but they even land on it.

  2. I love your posts so much, Donna…
    Whatever my mood may be, as soon as I land here, I instantly get this big smile and sigh in relief. Yes, there is beauty in this world!
    I am truly grateful for that. Thank you, dear!

  3. flora says:

    truly enjoyed your bird photos and I learned much about how to attract them..I especially love your feeders and how you creatively position them to make beautiful shots with the birds…awesome!

    • As a designer, I always think of the aesthetics of the garden, but as an artist or photographer, you have to think in terms of your art. Painting a bird, I don’t have to worry as much, but in photography it is too much trouble to remove something distracting. Plus, the realism of the scene is important, even if it is kinda staged.

  4. These are all so beautiful — especially love the flying sparrows!

  5. Pat says:

    Great info and beautiful captures!

  6. alesiablogs says:

    I am getting excited about getting peanut butter out for my backyard birds. I love the dove photo. So unique and then the way you describe the looks like if you think they are mad. It really does look that way! Yet I can’t help to think they are really really HAPPY because you are feeding them so well! I am surprised they are not wanting some kind of modeling contract for posing so nicely for you. : ) Thank you for a wonderful post. Alesia

  7. Phil Lanoue says:

    What a great variety of birds show up in your winter wonderland!

    • Hawks tonight!!! Finally some birds that have the real magic. You get so many images of gorgeous birds, our hawks are the only ones with that kind of photo worthy power. Wish I could get more on location though, instead of in the garden.

  8. Alice says:

    A real haven. Unfortunately my backyard birds chatter and have long furry tails.

  9. Great Captures – thanks for sharing! The birds have been active in our neighborhood, especially a flock of robins. Have a Great One:)

  10. You really go all out to get those photos!

  11. b-a-g says:

    Love the graceful dove and the pompous chickadee.

  12. Jennifer says:

    Hi Donna, I haven’t tried fruit like apples before and will add it to the smorgasbord of treats I leave for the birds.
    I have lamented the unattractive appearance of some of my feeders in photographs, but had not thought to create anything better looking in the manner that you have. It is a good idea, as is the perch. Your shots are all terrific of course. I love the swoop of metal in the shot of the dove and the little sparrows on the feeder.

    • Since I have my own bird, I should have thought of this idea on my own. But, I got it from a famous wildlife photographer and naturalist. It works like a charm, and now I don’t have to WORK to get the photos.

  13. Tons of great ideas to add to others…and love the expressions you capture…once I put up my suet feeder I will have to learn to use the new camera…here’s to fun times with the birds.

  14. Great pictures. This has been a good winter for birding for us this year. Lots of nuthatches, hairy and red bellied woodpeckers. The plain suet is very popular, also the peanuts. I have to follow your lead and put out chopped up fruit once it is past it’s prime. I usually throw it in the compost pile.

    • We get lots of birds because of where I live. I think if I was at a different location, birds would be more scarce. The fruit gets picked at by many birds, but the squirrels abscond with much of it.

  15. Gorgeous photos and great tips. I have moved my Christmas tree onto the front porch near my bird feeder to induce the birds to eat. I’m still waiting.

  16. I like the idea of stuffing nuts and suet into the tree bark. We are so high up in the ‘treehouse’ that some of the ideas will have to be used when I am downstairs. I like the branch clipped to the shepherd’s hook too. My pictures ( posting tonight) are of the feeders.. not at all natural looking but will work on it.

    • The stuffing works great, but being high up is not much help for you. The food is eaten far too fast, but they love the treats. Peanut butter lasts longer because the squirrels find it harder to access. I stopped using the peanut butter on the tree because I thought the squirrels would chew the bark. They didn’t, but I don’t trust them.

  17. I love, love the shot of the mourning dove! I have so many of them in my garden but rarely get shots of them in the trees because they are to high up. They are such fun to watch waddling around chasing each other around the garden. They often fly up and try to eat from the feeders in the winter but are too big to stay there for long. I have tried to put food out for them on the ground (as an extra to what falls from the feeders) but the squirrels are too fast to gobble it all up.

    • I have a small flock of doves here that never leave. There is always a couple in the pear tree. I have lots of photos of them. It is funny if one flies to the feeder. They are so fat, they tumble off.

  18. There are some great tips here, Donna. I enjoy photographing the birds in winter because the trees are bare. I can see so much more and capture those special moments. I am hoping for some snow to get the birds against that lovely white.

    • Winter is my favorite time for bird photography. In summer, it is much more difficult to get clean shots. The perch idea will work in summer the best. Also pruning like I mentioned in the post on jays. Great for summer too.

  19. I always enjoy reading your blog-super good pics and great info too! I never thought of wedging suet in the trees. I must try that now!

  20. Sonja Daniel says:

    Great post. I don’t have snow but learned so much anyway. The dove photo is just besutiful. You are just the best at sharing your gifts of gardening, birding, and photographing. Sonja

  21. Carolyn says:

    Great tips, Donna. You’re all set. I’m afraid I don’t have quite that much energy to create a stage. But I do enjoy the little birds that come anyway. (bird seed next to the window is my secret.)

  22. Marguerite says:

    Some great tips for getting birds into your yard. Many people don’t realize they need to provide shrubs and cover for birds along with bird feeders so they can be safe and eat.

  23. A lovely and timely post. Its always so enjoyable to see the wildlife in the garden and allotment. This time of year when most of the berries etc have already been eaten is so important to help the local birds.

    • That is another thing many do not consider. We are deep in the season, and the shrubs and trees are lean, so planting is great for backyard habitats, but one must plant in numbers for it to carry through the season. Most can’t do that.

  24. Dear Donna, I follow all your suggestions and they definitely work! I have plenty of ‘models’ but your photographs far surpass mine. I like to think it is because you have a better camera, but I know that is just a cop out … you have so much more skill! Another beautiful posting! P. x

    • It just takes practice Pam. The suggestions will help because you are bringing the birds within camera range. That is why I mentioned the 8 feet and three feet limits. It works for all cameras I think. With my 300 and 400mm lenses, I can do the whole yard easily, but having the feeders really close makes it fun for any lens or camera I have.

  25. supernova says:

    Great post Donna, superbly written and brilliant photograph’s. 🙂 SN.

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