Photographing and Identifying Birds

I am finding out how difficult photographing birds can be. They are small. Finding them in dense foliage with a long lens is like finding the needle in the haystack. I discovered that zooming out until I can find them, then zooming in again on the subject helps to find them faster.

Exposure metering and focusing are tricky, since the subject typically only fills a small part of the frame. Exposure is further complicated because a dark bird is frequently silhouetted against a bright sky. Since wildlife shots emphasize subject over composition, I try to center the subject and use only the center focus area. I also use spot exposure metering, again emphasizing the center of the frame.

Dynamic range can be a problem. A bird’s plumage is often so varied that it exceeds the sensor dynamic range when in full light: either one has to blow out the white or underexpose the dark. I am usually happy with trying to find the middle, with some very slight blowout acceptable as highlights and then trying to bring up the shadow detail via spot post-processing. Although blowout is generally a bad thing, one of my favorite photos has a slight highlight blowout that gives the image an aesthetic sense that it wouldn’t otherwise possess. To ensure a successful image, exposure bracketing is a good idea for any bird that has dark and light plumage and is in sunlight.

Finally, there is camera shake with a long lens. My Vibration Reduction lens helps a lot, but extended at 560mm, one still needs to pump up the ISO setting to ensure adequate shutter speed as the light goes low, as it is in morning and late afternoon when the birds are actually active. My results seem to fall off quickly when I go below a shutter speed of 1/200s at 560mm.

In the end, luck plays a large role for the novice, who will have a problem getting all these things right in the few seconds that a subject bird is available to photograph. And as far as getting excellent shots of flying birds without an $8000 lens, one shouldn’t get one’s hopes up. I’m still waiting for my first one.

On a tropical cruise, perhaps 15 birds that I photographed were previously unknown to me, primarily because I only study North American birds. Fortunately, in Costa Rica, our tour provided a booklet picturing likely-to-be-seen Central American birds. All the birds I saw in Costa Rica were shown on there, making it easy to know what I was seeing. That pamphlet also helped me identify the Tody-flycatcher and Great-tailed Grackle I saw in Mexico, and the Groove-billed Ani I saw in Jamaica. This left five birds still unknown on my return home.

I had never seen a Rufous-backed Robin, but the bird in my picture from Huatulco looked similar to an American Robin, so I looked up Robin and there was my bird. On Jamaica, I saw four birds in the ship pier parking lot. Two were humming birds, and one had a long scissor tail. I looked up Jamaica hummingbirds and learned that there are two streamer tail variants endemic to Jamaica. Also endemic is the Mango Hummingbird, of which I now probably have a fuzzy image.

A black, white, and yellow bird was harder, but using the WhatBird.com step search function, I was led to the Bananaquit as most likely. Its picture surely looks like my bird. Subsequently, I got lucky in Sibley’s Field Guide and identified my Thick-billed Kingbird. The Huatulco parrot-type was hardest to identify. There are so many species of parrot and conur that a blind search would be hopeless and the WhatBird search didn’t turn up a clue. So I turned to the WhatBird forum, posted a picture and asked what it was. I received 5 responses within three hours. Apparently, I had photographed an Orange-fronted Conur, aka Half-moon Parakeet. What a great resource is the WhatBird site.

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