Photographing Birds – A Newbie’s Lament

Since getting a digital bridge camera with a long zoom lens six months ago I’ve discovered I really enjoy photographing birds. But it’s a new hobby that is not without its pitfalls.

We all get used to seeing the “normal” birds, like crows, robins, chickadees, Canada geese, and mallards. They are the species most adapted to urban and suburban living and the least shy around humans. They are also easy to identify. It can leave one with the impression we have boring birds, and that all the really interesting birds live in other parts of the country.

But once you start pointing a long lens at more distant birds you realize, holy heck, we have tons of neat birds in the Puget Sound region!

All those birds swimming around in the lake aren’t just geese and mallards. They might be cormorants, buffleheads, mergansers, goldeneyes, widgeons, canvasbacks, or coots. With a long lens you can see details missed using only your eyeballs.

But getting excited by this knowledge and wanting to capture great images of birds brings a whole new world of frustration to photography. Especially if, like me, you’re a newbie in the realms of wildlife photography and birding.

First I discovered that photographing water birds is darn easy compared to other types, so I’ve done a lot more of it. Since they’re out on the water they’re in the open, ridiculously easy to spot.

But spotting them can sometimes be the only easy part of things. Pesky bushes on the shore can be in the way of the perfect shot. Or, though you can see them well enough to identify through your lens, they’re still too far away to get more than a fuzzy, noise-ridden photo that gets sent to the delete bin.

Or, there’s enough of a wind that the water is choppy. The small size of the waves wouldn’t have made you even notice in the past, but point a camera at a bird riding the surface and wow. You can end up with 30 photos of just heads or tails and only one decent shot. It’s funny and infuriating at the same time.

And of course, the birds that dive under the water for their meals require good timing. It’s like a game of tag. I’m just about to snap the picture when under it goes. Wait and wait. Oh there it is, over there now. Bring up the camera. Nope. It just dove under again.

Photographing birds takes a lot of patience. Not one of my strong suits.

Birds in the woods bring an entirely new level of frustration. You can hear them all around you. And even if you can’t identify birds by their songs, you can differentiate between the songs enough to realize there are probably eight different species in your vicinity.

But actually seeing any of them is a whole different ballgame.

I’ve learned to scan for movement, or to try and narrow down where a song is coming from. But I still suck. Sometimes I want to scream because I know there is a bird in that tree, but I can’t find it!

Then once my heart leaps with excitement as I chortle (silently) with glee because I finally spot it, good luck getting it on camera. Those bush and tree-dwellers are fast! The little buggers flit quickly about, living their little birds lives, ignorant of me gnashing my teeth because they refuse to pause and pose.

There’s nothing quite like coming back from a trip to the park with only pictures of empty branches and blurry tail feathers to show for it because your target kept flitting to another branch just as you clicked the shutter.

I’ve also discovered that being able to see a bird, and then quickly bring your camera to your eye with the bird in the viewfinder, is a skill all its own. I not only haven’t mastered it, I’m a total bumbler.

Who knows how many great shots I’ve missed because even though I know where the bird is I can’t find it with the camera? Ninety-nine times out of a hundred the bird flies off just at the exact moment I get the lens pointed at the right spot. Which unleashes a wail of anguish inside my head.

The other day at Magnuson Park I noticed a branch on a bush bobbing and caught some motion as a little bird dropped lower to the ground out of sight. I quietly crept closer, trying to spy my quarry. I could tell it was moving around, but I hadn’t seen it yet.

Then joy of joys it flew up to a higher branch. But dang it, other branches were in the way. Still playing sneaky wildlife photographer, I slowly and quietly moved around the bush, intending to use it as a partial blind so as not to scare off the bird.

I brought my camera up. Wait, I can’t find the right branch through the viewfinder. Argh! Finally I’m close to snapping a pic. Need to get it in focus and hope it sits still just long enough.

A woman comes walking down the path from around the corner, her footsteps crunching loudly on the gravel. Startled, the bird flew off. I’m pretty sure the woman heard my whispered, “Shit!”

I still have no clue what kind of bird it was, but I’m positive it was one I’d never identified before.

I need a lot more practice at this whole bird photography thing. If my nerves can take it.


What a breeze can do to ruin your day.

What a breeze can do to ruin your day.


Why can't this horned grebe fish closer to shore?

Why can’t this horned grebe fish closer to shore?


Stupid bushes.

Stupid bushes.


Yay for butt shots? At least it’s in focus.


One thought on “Photographing Birds – A Newbie’s Lament

  1. Pingback: Ruby-Crowned Kinglet | Park Preview

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