Setting up a basic bird feeding station for garden bird photography.
I will use my back garden as an example, (I like to keep my woodland sites completely private).
I have a large-ish garden, which is laid mainly to lawn. Although large, it’s really not great for bird photography. On the southern side, against the light there are five massive 300 year+ oak trees and five large conifers, so I don’t get much light. Added to that the backgrounds, as you can see in the photograph below are very cluttered and messy. With reflective holly bushes, greenhouses and lots of sky and uPVC windows getting in the way. And there are cats, lots of cats….
Step 1 : Feed the birds, tuppence a bag…
I wish! I spend a fortune on bird seed. A 20kg back of sunflower hearts lasts me about 3 weeks. Anyhow I digress. If you want to photograph small garden / woodland birds in winter you have to feed them.
As I’ve mentioned previously. In my neighbourhood EVERYONE feeds the birds! Which is not a bad thing really, it’s just that sometimes there just aren’t enough birds to go around. So I have to outwit the neighbours by feeding better food, and more of it. I may put out apples, pears, bread, suet, dried fruit, fat, nuts, seed, corn, mealworms, even meat and even open up my precious compost heap to reveal the bugs and worms. That way the birds simply can’t resist stopping by to have a look.
For this basic feeding station in order to attract the birds in the first place I’ve put out nuts, sunflower hearts, (in a squirrel proof feeder), and fat balls. All placed next to a large hedge. Within the hedge there are another two feeders of sunflower seed. I’ve pulled a piece of bramble out from the hedge and pegged it out across the line of where I expect to do my photography. I’m not looking for a huge vista here, just a small matchbox sized spot along the bramble where I will train my lens. This is the spot where I will be trying to get the birds to land, (more about that in another post). The grass and hawthorn hedge beyond will, hopefully give me a clean green / brown, uncluttered background to my image.
Although, I would dearly love to photograph the birds on the bramble, I haven’t as yet been successful in getting the birds to land on it in the garden. I have used bramble as a perch in the woods quite successfully over the years for species such as Willow Tit, Marsh Tit, Robin, Chaffinch, Coal Tit and Dunnock. In my garden however, the birds are just damn fussy and don’t want to land on it. Which is such a shame, especially in Autumn. A bramble branch can be such a colourful prop perch. I will swap the bramble for a crusty lichen covered oak branch or a spade handle for my photography sessions.
The cane on the left hand side of this picture marks the closest focussing distance of my 500mm lens, (just under 4m).
Typically, the feeders will be in place in strategic spots around the garden for several months before I even attempt any photography.
Step 2 : Set up the lens
Here I’ve set up my lens in the position where I will build small lightweight portable hide and focused it on the bramble. In this particular case, I will build my hide against the face of my shed, which will act as a good windbreak, however it does block some of the light behind the hide, which is not great. Unfortunately, in the case of my garden I have to work with what I’ve got, and it’s generally an uphill struggle to get any decent photo’s at all.
I will build the hide around the lens, which will not be moved. This technique is a far cry from the more serious work of setting up a ide on a nest, whereby it may take you two weeks to build the hide at a considerable distance from the nest, and a further two weeks to slowly move it in…. For garden bird photography you can usually get away with a more simplistic approach as the birds are generally far more approachable and are so interested in the food you are offering that you don’t have to be so discrete. Sometimes, I’ve had birds sat on the perches next the bird feeder whilst I am trying to fill it up with seed. However, for Jays and Woodpeckers you may have to leave the hide in place for a few days and then enter and leave in the dark or use an accomplice to get you in and out of your hide. Birds generally can’t count to very high numbers so if you have someone walk with you to the hide, then you get in and they walk away you are generally okay. You can then radio / phone them to get you out of the hide in the reverse order of how you got in. I’ve never had to use this technique in the garden. In the woods I will enter and leave the hide in darkness.
I use an old beer crate as a seat in my hide. Who said wildlife photography was glamorous!?
Step 3 : Build the hide up around the lens
(apologies for the poor image here, the excitement of it all, I couldn’t hold my phone still)
This particular hide canvas used to be a lovely shade of green and brown, the sun has really taken it’s toll over the years.
Inside the hide roof I will add a bamboo cane frame inserted between the top of the aluminium frame and the canvas. This is in order to stop the roof from sagging under the weight of water / ice / snow which will generally collect on top of the hide. I will also tether the fide against the wind and weigh it down with rocks and stones to protect it from the wind and to stop the sides flapping.
In the woods I have a similar hide which is sunk in to a hollow in the ground, and is also covered in camouflage netting. In to this I have added bracken to fully hide the hide. There are a lot of poachers and trespassers in the woods where I go and more than once have I been visited by more than just wildlife whilst using my hide here. I’ve had my hide vandalised, feeders stolen, had shot guns pointed at me etc. In the garden I don’t need to resort to such clandestine methods and it’s not so scary. So no need for the camouflage.
I leave a plastic bottle end sticking out of the hide window when I’m not using the hide so that the birds don’t get spooked when I suddenly change it for a lens with a big piece of reflective glass showing. Currently, my daughter has used the bottle for a school project, so I have to drink another two litres of lemonade to get another one. I have a bespoke one in the woods, covered in camouflage tape to resemble a lens hood.
Below are a few shots taken from this hide set up on the day after I set up this hide. The lighting was overcast and a too little dull for my liking. I’ve not used this part of the garden for photography before and I found this area by the hedge a little too overcast and shady at times so resorted to using fill in flash when the sun came out in order to subtly fill in the darker shadows. I have since moved the hide to another position.