Bird Photography for Humans

This post was originally written to assist people with a bird photography contest. I hope you learn something! Please let me give you some general tips on how to improve your bird photography.

Get Eye Level
If you want to create a compelling bird photo, you have to get on the bird’s level. Exceptions exist, of course, but the majority of photos of birds high in trees or sitting down on the ground are more suited for bird identification than contests.

If you want a great bird photo, you have to get it from the bird’s perspective. Be the bird. Get dirty (bend over, lay on the ground, stoop). Do what it takes to get on the same plane as the bird.

You don’t know bird photography disappointment until you use a film camera

The Eye’s Have It
When I say “it,” I mean catchlight: the white little Obies that reflect the sky/sun/light source in the eyes. These are a must-have for bird portraits, and can dramatically improve a close up bird shot.
For example, these two photos were taken within a second of each other, but the one with the little white catchlight is vastly superior:

This photo isn’t even that incredible, the bird is above eye level, it has a cluttered background, but the photo with the catchlight really helps capture how adorable this little Verdin is.

Actively Compose Your Photo
Photography is more about what you leave out, than what you include. Sure, we are all here to get great photos of birds, but, what are we trying to exclude from our photos? Distractions! The goal is to have an idea of the subject, isolate it in the foreground, and remove unwanted distractions from the edges of the frame and the background.

Use your feet to help compose your shot by moving to create the most pleasing angle. These photos of Anna’s hummingbirds were taken within seconds of each other.

My thought process: Oh shit! It let me approach. Quick, take a photo! Oh, there is a car tire in the background – that looks like garbage. Look around. There’s a clean red background. The bird’s still relaxed? Lets shift slowly to not disturb our model, get to eye level, aaaaaand take a million photos!

Taking a million photos is important.

Sometimes just shifting slightly so your subject is on a nice solid field of color can make an enormous difference. Try to get clean backgrounds for your photos.

If your goal is to get a portrait of a bird, the fewer distractions, the better. If you are trying to get a landscape photo, be meticulous about what you include, and most importantly, what you leave out.

As your level of zoom increases, this gets easier. If you are taking photos with your cell phone, you have a very wide field of view to consider. By contrast, if you are taking photos through a telephoto lens or a telescope, you may only have to move a few inches to the left or the right to clean up distractions and completely change the mood and aesthetics of your composition.

Take a Million Photos

I took 30 very similar photos of this bird in an effort to get one good one.

Birds move a lot! They are tricky subjects. That being said, the more photos you take, the more chances you have of getting a good shot. When I see a bird in a good location I will take little bursts of 3-4 photos, as many as I can, until the bird flies off.

I have many, many, many bad bird photos. I try to cull the bad ones.
Here is my thought process on culling as I scroll through the photos.

Oh god, what have I done! That’s sooo many song sparrow photos, delete, that one’s blurry, delete, can’t see the eye, delete, blurry, delete, slightly weird pose, save for later. There is a branch sticking out of its head, nope, clean background, good feather detail, no catchlight, next Interesting pose, catchlight, good detail, Keep!

The More Dynamic the Better

When you are taking photos, or selecting photos to submit and share, the more dynamic the better. If you have to choose between a silly pose or a standard bird sitting on a branch, pick the silly pose. Photos of birds doing more than sitting are very difficult to find. This is the reason you see soooo many birds perched.

Try to capture birds doing one of the Four F’s: Flying, Fighting, Feeding, or Mating (I’m keeping my blog PG-13 for some reason). Any time you are able to get a clean, crisp photo of a bird doing more than simply perching, you have accomplished something incredible. Feeding is probably one of the easier behaviors to capture, because birds just keep coming back to food. Ultimately, though, you want your photo to tell some sort of story, and having any type of gesture or action helps create that narrative.

Get Closer (but not too close)

I said “Not too close!”

This should probably be higher up, and I am sure I am preaching to the choir here, but… it should be our goal to get ethical bird photos.  We should try to observe without disturbing. If you end up flushing a bird, in an effort to get a little bit closer to get a slightly better photo, you lost. The good news is, there are lots of chances to win. Each new bird is its own opportunity.

When I am in the field, I usually am a birdwatcher first, and bird photographer second. Most of the photos I am proud of are photos attained when the bird has gotten too close to me, not me too close to it. If I am lucky, there will be one or two experiences a day in which a bird gets overly comfortable. If you are really lucky, they will also be in good light, and not buried in a sea of greenery.

Seeing a bird shouldn’t paralyze you in bird ethics fear. Ideally you will just walk on paths normally without chasing birds from one perch to another. If a bird is in your path, and you want to see how close of a photo you can get, I recommend this strategy: See a bird, take a photo. If it didn’t fly away, slowly take a step or two forward, and take another photo. Don’t move your camera or your body too fast. Just keep creeping forward, stopping periodically, and snapping more photos.

When I see some nice shorebirds, I like to see which direction they are heading, creep up to them, and try to situate myself in a location where they will come to me. This works with birds that move in flocks too. Try to guess where the birds will go, get eye level, and let them come to you.

Scattered Thoughts

Crisp bird photos come from fast shutter speeds, using tripods or monopods, and luck. You can increase your luck by increasing your shutter speed, or carrying around a tripod.

Digiscope – Sarah Swanson, my friend and co-author of Must See Birds of the Pacific Northwest wrote an excellent blog post about digiscoping for Celestron. Read it.
Main take away: get crispy photos by using a cell phone holder and a remote trigger – not by jabbing the phone screen to take a photo. You can often do this with a pair of headphones.

Clean your lens, especially your cell phone lens. Those things get greasy/grimy/dirty and are not treated with the same kind of reverence as traditional cameras.

Practice makes perfect – Go to a place where people feed birds in your area to get great shots of feeding and flight. Get down low and get that shot! Gulls, ducks, pigeons, parrots?

Don’t forget your own front window. Practice with the birds you are feeding. Make them work for that seed!

Wear camouflage in the field. Scientists say it helps you get 28% closer to your subject.

Good luck out there. Bird up!

January 2019 – 5MR Recap

Menacing Anna’s Hummingbird – 2019 5mr bird 1

What a great idea the 5-mile radius is.
It makes common birds feel special
And uncommon birds feel like an incredible gift.
Maybe its because I have to work so hard to see each one,
Each new bird feels like a true accomplishment.

31/31! I need to get more audio of birds!

In the month of January, I saw 88 species of birds.
I got a flawless, 31/31 days with eBird checklists
A streak I hope to continue!
And I rode my bike approximately 255 miles.
I have stuck to my goal, and have only counted motorless 5mr birds.

Golden-crowned Sparrow – Gettin’ clean – 2019 5mr Bird 9

My co-workers always ask me what I am doing after work,
As I strap on my helmet, and carry my bag full of optics out to my bike.
Same thing I do every day.
I have had more fun this January birdwatching than I have had since I started.
Every day I have been able to eek in a bit of time, with weekends giving me time to make leaps and bounds on my list.

Short-eared owl – watch out lil dude! 2019 5mr bird 83

In the first half of January I found 81 species.
The last half I found 7 more.
But each one gets more exciting than the last

Best view of a shortie I have ever had!

This short-eared owl, for example
I had tried for it 4 times before I found it.
But when I did, it really put on a show
And made my dark windy ride home feel like a victory lap.

I saw 3 different owl species in 3 days!

I have 26 January days worth of Song Sparrows – 2019 5mr bird 10

I have also been able to get incredible looks at some of the most common birds we have.
And visit them in all sorts of habitats.
Many new places, and places that feel like new
Thanks to my newfound human powered wheels.

Mt.Hood – omnipresent as it is omnipotent (not very?)

I have probably seen more sunrises and sunsets this January than any other January.
I have a whole collection of overly-zoomed in Mount Hood views

Sleepy pond Ring-necked ducks – 2019 5mr bird 32

And ducks swimming off into the sunset
Lighting has been incredible on so many occasions
We have had a very mild winter
And I have greedily snatched as many breaks in the weather as possible

Sunset Ruby-crowned Kinglet – 2019 5mr Bird 16

Another benefit of seeing the same birds every day:
I am getting better at birding by ear
I am getting better at picking out high pitch squeeeks of kinglets
And their angry chatter

Calisthenics with Western Grebe – I need to stretch… 2019 5mr bird 58

I am excited to see what I can do in February
We are having a photography competition
And I broke my camera lens (maybe reparable?)
I am sure I will think of something

Greatest Egret – 2019 5mr bird 79

I look forward to keeping my eBird checklist streak alive
I will also try to see 100 species in one month again
(come on swallows, help me get over 90 this month)
And keep riding my bike as we have one legitimate month of winter.

Good luck to us all.

Bird up!

A Man a Plan A Strained Back – Panama

I hurt my back, and it is raining, so… what better reason than to reminisce of warmer, more mobile times?
Did I ever tell you about that one time I went to Panama in the year of our lord, two thousand and eighteen?
Oh, I did? Well, did I show you photos?
Oh, I did? Well, look at ’em again!

Hook-billed Kite

Let’s just start it off with what might be the best/luckiest bird I saw.
Its a Hook-billed Kite.
I only know that it is good because eBird flagged it as Rare
Also, the way that it looks.

Crimson-backed and white-faced.

Panama was incredible. I think everyone should go there.
Even if you don’t like birds.
But even if you do like birds.
This Crimson-backed Tanager is a fairly common bird in Panama.
Besides the red… look at its beak!
Hyper-matte white on red? Crazy!
I loved these guys.

Malachite is both a rock and a butterfly.

Here is a convincing list of pros and cons based on my experience
Panama pros:
Everything else (including this Malachite Butterfly)
You have to go home too soon

A spider big enough to photograph from the safety of a boat.

Man, that spider is both big and red.
Two things I look for in spider avoidance 101.
If you look closely, behind the spider you will see a White-headed capuchin.
It is hard to tell if it is looking warily at the spider,
Or eyeing it as a spicy treat.


Ooooeee! Another good bird!
Snail kite, with a snail, freshly plucked from the canal.
Their hooked bills are perfectly suited for getting tasty morsels from the inside of an otherwise too-crunchy container.

Best bird buds

Panama is great for Flycatchers.
I saw 10 species of flycatchers while in Panama, including these Social flycatchers.
They hang out in pairs and small social groups and catch bugs on the wing.
One of the more ubiquitous Panamanian flycatchers,
They seem to thrive in city parks, on rooftops, in gardens, and forest edges.

A very special bird.
The Blue dacnis, also called a turquoise honeycreeper.
I married a honeycreeper (who happens to also love turquoise).
So, I may have a natural affinity to them.
But, I remember feeling elated and overjoyed when I first saw it.
Such a brilliant blue, and such cool patterning.
I wish it was my job to photograph tanagers…
I look at this photo literally every day,
I think this is my favorite bird photo of the trip.

Just hangin’ out.

Panama City has a jungle park, a short taxi ride from downtown.
In it, you can find monkeys, sloths, terrestrial crabs, frogs, insects, weird rodents, and lots of good birds.
And also this Hoffman’s Two-towed sloth
Taxi to sloth, its incredible.

Can I get the spinach tortilla, and then just fill it with sour cream? Thanks.

This is the equivalent of eating a burrito in one bite with no hands.
Black-throated Trogon
Man, I can’t wait to see Trogon’s again.
The whole family is soooooo coooool! It includes Quetzals too.
I want to see all of them.
This might be the best reason for me to retire as soon as possible.

Industrial sized Egret

I visited the Panama Canal too!
This was probably my best photo from the canal.
I like that it makes it look like a techno-wasteland
Maybe a Great Egret,
Maybe a poorly disguised government drone.
Definitely the moody urban aesthetic I look for in a good bird photo.

Streaked Flycatchers love black licorice

The crazy thing about the trip is that it wasn’t necessarily a “bird watching” trip.
I was supposed to be a chaperone to a herd of middle schoolers.
They were, fortunately for me, very well behaved.
And I had a lot of time to hang at the back of the group and look at birds and take photos.
This streaked flycatcher was in a tiny park a few blocks away from our downtown hotel.


Another bird just a short walk from the hotel.
A Saffron finch new just where to perch so it would have the most interesting background.
Almost accidentally, I saw 97 species of birds this trip.
I bet I could have seen 100 if birding was my main objective.
In about an hour and a half, I saw 25 bird species, just walking through downtown!

Young apprentice Yellow-crowned Night-heron

Arguably the best night heron.
The heron design is just perfect.
Eyeball to Head/bill ratio + antennae + thicc legs


Green Herons are surprisingly accommodating in Panama
In Portland you have to look hard, scan pond edges, look under manhole covers.
But in Panama, they just exist in the open.
I wish I could explain why.
Probably one of those solvable mysteries I hear so much about.

Black Vulture Senior Portrait

Well, it has been fun looking through and re-editing all of these old photos.
I loved Panama more than my trip to the DR, or my trip to Peru.
I want to go back, and if you go, I want you to take me with.
I am a very enthusiastic bird partner, and I will bring snacks.

Powell Butte to Broughton Beach

Every day is a big day when you bird by bike. At least the way I do it. I was away from home for 9 hours, rode 35 miles, and saw 52 species of birds. My first stop of the day was one of the three highest locations in my 5 mile radius: Powell Butte. The whole ride there was a headwind. I felt like I was in purgatory. I need to get stronger…

The reason for tackling such a hill so early in the year was that there was a report of a Northern Shrike.

Shrikes are great because they are killer songbirds. That, and they impale their prey on pokey things. They are great birds and they are by no means a guarantee in anyone’s 5mr. This Shrike was well worth the climb and 2 hours searching. I’m happy I got it on my first try!

While on Powell Butte, I saw most of the expected winter raptors. I got my year Norther Harrier, I saw an American Kestrel harass a Red-tail Hawk, and two other Red-tails soaring. It was soooooooo windy up there, I saw almost no smaller birds, and felt very lucky to find my shrike.

On the edge of the forest, on my way down the butte, this male Anna’s Hummingbird bid me farewell and congratulated me on finding my shrike. I think.
It was a very forward little guy. While I was walking my bike it flew right up to me, about 5 feet away, and just hovered in front of my face. It was a weird experience.

As it landed I took this photo. I guess it could have just been eating the insects that were attracted to my bike-induced stink.

Though the trip up to Powell Butte was difficult, it was literally all downhill from there. I rode from the southeast most corner of my 5mr all the way to the Mighty Columbia. It was very fast and easy. I was surprised.

Once on the bike path I stopped to look at every group of ducks. I tried my hardest to turn one of the 100+ Common Goldeneyes I saw into a Barrow’s Goldeneye, but my efforts bore no Barrow’s fruit.

I’ll try again next weekend.

The whole day was fairly windy. Fortunately I had a nice tail wind while surveying the Columbia for secretive ducks.

Broughton Beach, and the trail to the east was fairly birdy. I added 3 new year birds: Common Loon, California Gull, and this menacing killdeer.

Last stop of the day was Whitaker Ponds. A reliable great egret spot, that also had reports of a spotted sandpiper. The Egret eventually flew right over me into the setting sun.

I ran into Audrey there, who asked,
“Did you see the Great Horned Owl or the Spotted Sandpiper?”
Wait, what? An Owl?
And then she walked me 25 yards, said it was in that tree, and I looked up and saw it immediately.
Normally, if there is an owl in a tree I don’t see it. Or, I do see it, after walking around like an idiot for an indeterminate amount of time.
I was very happy! Also, I didn’t expect to get an owl in the 5mr challenge so early!

Hurray Audrey!

Right after that she walked me over to where she said she saw the Spotted Sandpiper. It was right there waiting for me! Double Wow!

Oh yeah, and perhaps most importantly of all… I saw the Bald Eagle everyone has been talking about. Somehow I made it 13 days without seein’ it. Bald Eagle was bird 81, and my last bird for the day. Also, Audrey found this one too, so I owe her the majority of my birdwatching success.

If anyone was wondering what I look like, this is me.
I am smiling because I saw the Bald Eagle. Also, because I know at this time that there is pizza and beer in my future.

Big ol’ Birdin’ by Bike day

Wow, I am tired.

I rode my bike 24 miles today. I did a big loop on the northern half of my five mile radius. I saw 56 species of birds! 25 of which were new birds.
Hurray me!

I haven’t ridden my bike this much since I was 17!

This pace of one new bird per mile ridden is unfortunately not sustainable.
Soon, I fear, it will be one bird per 10 or even 20 miles. Hopefully I will be stronger by then.

Such a relief to see these guys this year. Weird that the best bird I might find this year was found on day 4…

My first stop of the morning, was the Eastern Bluebirds I have missed before/after work for the last 3 days. They are lazy little dudes. I could have slept in. I arrived at 8:45, and Just as I was about to leave at 10, like a little present from the heavens, they flew almost directly to me. They modeled for me, and I got the best photos of them that I can reasonably expect. I saw them choke down huge berries, and hunt for big wormy insects in the tall grass.

Gettin’ messed up on fermented berries (maybe).

After success with the bluebirds (and Lincoln’s sparrow, and cedar waxwings), I decided I wanted to be the first one this year to see a Black Phoebe in my county. It had been reported last year, so it is not an incredible feat or anything, but I was first to re-find it this year. And it is a good bird, and I am happy to have found it in my 5mr. Yay!

Photos are terrible, but if you wanna look at my ebird checklist… go for it.

I was two for two. Next priority was the recently re-found rarity: Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Apparently, it is only the third ever January record of seeing one in the pacific NW.

It took about an hour of searching. I had a fleeting glance, and then nothing for about thirty minutes. rode my bike down and back on this trail, stopped where I saw it the first time… and it graciously popped up and perched for a solid 4 seconds.


I was able to successfully relocate the two best lost birds in the county, and they were just a moderate bike ride away. Wowsers!

Really great news is that this trail was very birdy, easy to get to, and fun to bird by bike. I will definitely be back soon.

hey that’s not a bird

The biggest surprise about birding by bike, is that it is fun.
I thought it would just be hard. But, I get to feel fast, stop wherever I want, whenever I want. If I hear something exciting or interesting I can zoom over to it, and I can cover way more ground than just walking, while being able to scan for interesting and exciting birds and animals.

Unexpected picnic break

The only bad thing about birding by bike, I have noticed thus far, is that getting a flat tire is a thing. Today I had two. This may be from inexperience, or just bad luck.

Bike path is just a warm spot, but this goose could have been hiding whatever popped my tire.

Today was incredibly fun. I rode my bike a bunch, I got up to 62 birds for my 5mr, I got more exercise than I have had in 3 months, and I had a delicious beer! I wish I could do this every weekend!

Cheers to bird beers!

New Year – New Challenge

I sure do love starting a new challenge.
The hardest part, if you have read my blog, or ever talked to me, is finishing them. But, I love starting fresh… So… here we go again!

Oh, that fresh feeling of zeroing out the year. Everything counts, everything matters.

This year my goal is to see as many birds as possible, by bike, in the 5 miles radius around my house. It is great to start from zero: the first crow, the first song sparrow, they all matter. My first bird of the day was an Anna’s hummingbird, sipping some sweet sweet sugar water outside of my window.

New Year, new bike, new satchel full of bird seed.

January 1st was a frosty one. I went to the Dharma Rain Zen Center in an effort to locate my Eastern bluebirds. I failed, but I was able to see a Merlin, a couple Yellow-rumped warblers, and some cackling geese fly in to this non-frozen seasonal puddle.

Tough urban geese hiding in the tall grass

I ran out of time here and had to rush off to work. The hour after I left someone found my bluebirds, so it is good to know that they were just hiding from me…

On my way to work I stopped to take some quick photos of gulls at my local gull wad that I would be able to sort out later in the comfort of my home.

Good looking ring-bill stood out.

I picked up most of the gulls I will probably see this year, all in one stop. Ring-billed, Herring, Glaucus-winged, Western, Icelandic. 5 Gulls for the day, and in my time bird watching in Multnomah County I have only ever seen 10 species.

Gull goal: tie that lofty number of 10 gull species in a year. #yeargulls

Herring Gull, you can tell by its mean look, light eye, and sloped forehead.

Pizza work was calling. Had to be there in order to help people achieve their resolutions of eating pizza every day. No leftovers… and it was slow. I ducked out a bit early, and tried for the Eastern Bluebird again.

Very menacing little Golden-crowned Sparrow

You can tell by the lack of blue/orange that this is not a bluebird. I missed them again. But, the good news is someone else saw them the hour before I got there. I was just the bookend of bluebird failure that the zen center needed today.

Regardless of my bird misses. I saw 29 species in my 5mr, rode my bike 9 miles (half of it in freezing fog), and got a couple of good photos. Happy with the start of my year.

If you are interested in doing a 5-mile radius challenge around your house, I urge you to join us in our facebook 5mr group.