Bird Photography

THE purpose of this chapter is to call the attention of the reader to the splendid opportunity offered for taking pictures of those birds which may be attracted around our homes, and to give a few general suggestions regarding the equipment needed and the method of using it. No attempt will be made to treat this subject from a professional standpoint, for the author is but an amateur in this work and does not anticipate that he will be able to contribute much to those who have already had experience in bird-photography, except as another’s experience may prove of interest ; but to those who have never taken the first step in the fascinating art of bird-photography, perhaps these experiences may prove suggestive.

From the time when the author first became interested in bird-life he looked forward with much anticipation of pleasure to the time when his bird-studies might be pursued with a camera, but the great expense which he had understood was involved in securing the proper equipment seemed to postpone for some time the fulfillment of these desires. It was, therefore, with much gratification that the following statement was found in Job’s “Among the Water-Fowl ” : “An expensive outfit is entirely unnecessary. In case my own experience may prove an encouragement, let me say that all my pictures in this book were taken with an ordinary 4 x 5 focusing cam-era, rapid rectilinear lens, and bellows of 12 inches draw, that cost me less than $20.”

Thus encouraged at the possibility of securing the necessary outfit at a small expense, inquiries were made, and through a friend, attention was called to a second-hand outfit adapted to bird-photography, which was secured for about twenty dollars, and which proved fairly well fitted for the purpose. It was a 5 x 7 camera, which is too large and heavy for field work. In this has been used a kit and 4 x 5 plates altogether. A 4 x 5 camera is better adapted to bird-photography, as it is very seldom that one needs a larger plate, and in tramping through the country the larger size is quite a burden on a hot summer day.

Kind of Camera. — As birds are comparatively small objects, it is necessary for the camera to be placed quite near the object to be photo-graphed in order to secure a sufficiently large image ; for this a long draw of bellows and a long focus lens are needed. They are the only absolute requisites. Other improvements which can be se-cured without much additional expense are the reversible back and the swing back, the first of which will come into frequent use and the second into occasional use in photographing nests; but they are not essential.

Another device which the author has found such a constant convenience and time-saver as to be almost indispensable is a ball-and-socket attachment to go on the tripod to which the camera is to be attached. This allows the camera to be pointed almost instantly in any direction, and frequently when quick work is demanded may be the means of securing a picture which might otherwise be lost, and in all cases it is a wonderful convenience.

Incidentals. — Another device, which under certain conditions may be so essential that with-out it no photographs can be secured, is a steel rod about a foot long and three eighths of an inch in diameter. At one end it tapers and is provided with threads so that it can be screwed into any tree or post. Near the other end is a plate three inches in diameter, with a hole in the centre, allowing the camera and ball-and-socket attachment to be securely fastened to the plate. To illustrate the uses to which this may be put, two instances which happened last summer may be cited. A nest of a song sparrow was found on the ground. An attempt was made to spread out the legs of the tripod so as to get the camera down low enough, but it could not be arranged. So a post was driven into the ground near the nest, and then the screw was turned into the post and the camera attached. A little later in the sea-son, an oriole’s nest was found so high up in an old apple tree that it was almost impossible to attach the camera; so the screw was fastened to the largest limb and the camera attached to this. And many other cases will arise where this will be of great service.

Method of working Shutter.—While the birds will soon become accustomed to the nearness of the camera, some device is needed so that the operator may stand at a distance and work the shutter. This may be done by means of long rubber tubing, attached to the shutter, and through which air is forced with a bicycle pump, at the other end. As still another means, a piece of metal may be attached to the lever of the shutter, to lengthen it so that it will snap more easily; and to this may be tied a piece of linen thread which may be passed around the focusing screw and then carried to any distance. The author uses a spool of ordinary linen thread, which enables him to retire to any distance desired. Each method has its advantages, the chief ones of the latter being perhaps the slight expense involved, the small weight to carry on field-trips, and the easy adaptability to any desired length. The advantages of the rubber tubing are that it is not disturbed by the wind and there is not the risk of the shutter’s being operated accident-ally that there is with the thread. The author has used the thread entirely in his work, and has found it on the whole quite satisfactory, though perhaps, everything considered, the tubing may be superior.

Time to photograph. – In order to approach a bird closely enough to photograph it, one must take advantage of some strong instinct, or feeling, which will offset the fear caused by the nearness of the camera. The two feelings which may be used to the best advantage are the parental instinct shown in rearing the young, and the feeling of hunger. Opportunity for using the former means is furnished by those birds which nest in houses; and for using the latter means by those which will come to the winter feast.

Photographing Birds at Nesting-houses. — It has been the author’s experience that the birds which nest around buildings or come there for food have become so tame and accustomed to the proximity of human beings that they can be photographed with great ease. With both blue-birds and house wrens, almost as soon as the camera was in position the birds came to the nest, and it was necessary for the operator to retire only a short distance, and in some cases probably he might have remained at the camera. The opportunity offered of securing photographs with but little trouble is an excellent one. If the house is in a position difficult of access for setting up the camera, it may easily be lowered without alarming the birds, and then replaced in its first position after the pictures have been secured. The author has tried this with both bluebirds and wrens, and the feeding of the young went on as usual after the house had been changed, although in one case the male bluebird came much less frequently to the nest.

As a convenience in moving the house, the reader is referred to the method of putting up houses explained on pages 78 and 79. An observation box, made as suggested on pages 20 and 21, allows opportunity for photographing the young as well as the old birds.

Photographing Winter Birds. —The pictures of most of the winter birds taken by the author were secured by placing the camera just inside the window, only a few feet from the lunch-counter, while the operator sat just back of the camera. There is a special degree of satisfaction in photographing winter birds, because one is not in any way interfering with the life of the bird or disturbing it in any way, and there is absolutely no possibility of accident, of which there is always danger in working with young birds; though this is more than compensated by the trust which the birds usually come to show in the operator.

During the winter of 1906-1907, the author had good opportunities for photographing the birds. His friend Master Uehling had arranged a moving counter as explained on page 94, and soon most of the birds came to the window to feed. To secure pictures of those which would not come, or which came only occasionally, to the sill, food was scattered on the ground in a spot from which the snow had been removed. The camera was focused on the food and the thread run to the second-story window. The blue jays came occasionally to the window, but no good photograph of these birds was obtained here. Most of the work, however, was done at the window, the camera being set up just inside, and incidentally it may be worth mentioning that during the bitter cold days it was most gratifying to be able to sit in a warm room while securing pictures. At first the window was kept open; but it was found that the double click of the shutter used frightened the birds sufficiently, so that most of the pictures were blurred. Accordingly the window was closed and pictures were secured with less difficulty, as the birds could not hear the noise of the shutter, and sometimes it was possible to change the plates and secure two pictures of the same bird before it left the counter.

During the winter photographs were secured of nine species : the chickadee, white-breasted nut-hatch, downy woodpecker, brown creeper, blue jay, hermit thrush, myrtle warbler, junco, and song sparrow. This list includes all the birds that came to feed excepting the tree and white-throated sparrows, but these were both very rare visitors at this particular lunch-counter. Pictures of all these, with the exception of the junco, were se-cured at the window-sill. The chickadees became so tame as to feed from the hand.

Actions of the Different Species.—The various species of birds showed considerable differences in the way in which they seemed to regard the camera at first. After a little they became so accustomed to it that they came and went when it was present as when it was absent. The chickadees from the start paid no attention to it, nor did the thrush, creepers, juncos, or myrtle warblers; the nuthatches and bine jays showed quite a degree of caution, but the backwardness of the former was removed by closing the window, while the latter seemed willing to trust themselves within the range of the mysterious-looking object, only when driven by hunger. The downy woodpecker was the most obstinate of all, always eying the outfit suspiciously, with a swinging motion of his body from side to side; and even when he was within range of the camera he was so quick motioned that the pictures were nearly all spoiled. It was only during the latter part of the winter that he became sufficiently reconciled to the presence of the camera so that a respectable picture was obtained.

The hardest chase of all was given by the brown creeper, not because he was alarmed at all at the camera, but on account of his peculiar habits. He seldom came more than two or three times a day to the trough, and when he did come it was in such a quiet, unobtrusive way, giving absolutely no warning of his approach, that unless one kept constant and close watch on the trough, he might come and go before his presence was detected. It was only by keeping the camera set up for hours at a time and keeping unremitting watch of the shelf that any pictures were secured. The author would hardly dare to tell the number of hours spent in securing pictures of the creeper and downy woodpecker.

As a means of securing pictures of tree-trunk birds in their natural position, a branch of an old apple tree was attached vertically to one side of the window and a piece of suet nailed to the branch, all other food being removed from the trough. In this way pictures were secured of the downy and the creeper, the white-breasted nut-hatch and the chickadee. The first two sidled their way up the branch to the suet, and just as the shutter was pulled, the former dodged his head into his own shadow, and the creeper zigzagged at the last moment away from the suet instead of toward it, thus blurring the picture a little. The nuthatch climbed up above the suet, and then, turning around in his characteristic position, head downward, pecked at it; while the chickadee alighted with both feet on the suet, and partook of the feast in any position that pleased his fancy at the moment.