Safely & Successfully Photographing Birds at the Nest
Reprinted from the BT Journal, Vol.1 Issue 2, May 1996
Spring is in the Air!
Spring has to be one of my favorite times of the year (but my nose hates it!). After I get through sneezing and my eyes stop watering, I take off for the shrubs and trees. I don’t set out to do any macro work, but to find nesting birds. Nothing charges my rockets like photographing nesting birds. I like the images I take and all that rot, but what I really enjoy the most is the opportunity to spend “quality” time with a wild creature.
Photographing nesting birds, no matter the species, can be done by anyone. There are only a few rules (I hate rules, but these are important) you need to remember:
- No photograph is worth sacrificing the welfare of the subject!
- Never have the parents off the nest for more than twenty minutes!
- Have Fun!
To get you thinking about nesting season, or better yet, get you out and doing it, I want to print some excerpts from chapter 1, vol.II of Moose Peterson’s Guide to Wildlife Photography (to give some of you a sample of what’s to come). The entire chapter deals with photographing nesting birds-cup, cavity or ledge nesters. There’s no reason why anyone can’t do it safely and productively. Here are some guidelines to get you started in what I think is one of the most enjoyable aspects of our profession.
Finding the Nest – Pre-Field Homework
When it comes to photographing a nesting bird, the first place to start is in books. I’ve always thought that’s what winters are good for, staying in at night and prepping for the coming spring shoots. You might find all the prep I do before going out in the field a bit much. But I’ve yet to have a nest fail (knock on wood!) which I attribute to my actions and the homework I do before entering the field. That zero failure rate is more important to me than getting the photographs! I tend to work mainly with endangered species where there’s no room for the slightest error. But even with common species, there’s still no room or reason for errors. This is especially true for your first shoot at a nest, if you do your homework first!
The first things to discover about the species you want to photograph is the time of year it nests. Many believe that just because it’s spring, nesting birds abound. In grand generalities this is true. But in specifics, it’s way off. For example, Great Horned Owls tend to nest very early, in the latter part of winter. That’s because they don’t make their own nests, but use inactive hawk nests from previous years. They nest early because hawks reuse their old nests and don’t take kindly to finding an owl in their home! Hummingbirds are another early bird (sorry, bad pun!). They can be sitting on eggs before New Year’s in many regions of the country. Clark’s Nutcrackers nest in the dead of winter in the high country. So don’t assume the nesting time or you could be left holding an empty nest (figuratively speaking, of course).
Researching and uncovering the answers to these questions can be frustrating. In many instances, little has actually been published on a species’ nesting biology. True, some species’ nesting biology is understood in great detail. But for many common nesters, there are no published details about their biology. Finding out what is known takes a little detective work.
There are a number of great resources out there where you can start your sleuthing. A good starting point is bird identification books. These provide one key piece of information, the species’ Latin name. This is quite often needed later in extracting information from scientific sources. Bird identification books also provide range maps. In a quick glance, these provide a rough idea of geographically where a species nests. The written account for a species often provides further insight about the nesting biology. The two bird identification books I find indispensable are The Peterson Field Guides (either the Eastern or Western guide to birds depending on your locale) and the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. (These should already be a part of your personal library!)
Another resource to check out while at the library (sorry, bad pun again) are books. If your library is anything like mine, it has many old volumes, some pre-World War II. Though old, they often have lavish accounts on species. (You’ve hit gold if you find one pertaining to what you’re researching.) These often can solve all of your research needs as they contain incredible amounts of information. As it often turns out though, you might find one or two books that only mention your species in passing, but every little bit helps. (To avoid spending tons of my time in libraries, I started my own reference library in my office long ago which makes research a more pleasant task. If you’re serious about documenting lots of nesting birds, you might consider doing the same. There are a number of natural history mail-order book outlets which make finding titles simpler.)
The one type of library that’s sure to aid you in your information quest are research libraries. These are most often found at universities and museums of natural history. A great treasure chest of information awaits you there in scientific journals. The journals are typically published quarterly by different ornithological organizations. They contain a collection of papers written by scientists/biologists on a variety of topics in avian biology. Accessing the data you’re after is quickest by reading through the index that is published in the last journal of the year. Here’s where knowing the Latin name for the species you’re researching is invaluable. By searching the indexes for a number of years, papers on the species your researching can be obtained. The one drawback to research libraries is you’re typically not permitted to check out material.
You might be wondering if there is a definitive source for information. There is one book in my library I rely on constantly in the spring, A Field Guide to the Nests, Eggs and Nestlings of North American Birds by Colin Harrison. In this one volume, basic information for each species on nesting habitat and requirements, nest type, breeding season, eggs, incubation, nestling and nesting period are listed. (This is the general list of the information you need to find.) Now not every minute detail is available for every species, but it’s pretty darn close. The one drawback to the book is it generically covers all of North America. Some regional adjustments need to be calculated in for habitat and time of year of nesting for your locale.
Then Comes Spring
In the spring, trees and shrubs have on their new wardrobes of green. Birds are returning from migration, filling the forests, meadows, grasslands and marshes with sound. Males are doing their best at alluring a mate with song after song. Most males also use their song to defend their territories from other males trying to do the same thing. These are your first clues that the nesting season has begun in earnest. It’s also time for your first step in finding an active nest.
Singing males mean there are females about. And where there’s two, well you know what happens (a clue: the birds and the bee thing). Be aware that in some species, males use more than song to attract a mate. Some species perform specialized flights, dances and parades, all in an attempt to impress the opposite sex. Swifts, terns, and shorebirds are just a few. Some species dance for a mate, such as, prairie chickens. Some even have very specialized means of drumming up a mate (bad pun again, sorry bad habit), such as, the Ruffed Grouse.
Finding Nest Building
Observing birds with nesting material is the quickest way I know of finding a nest. Now this can vary some so when doing your homework, determine the principle material used in nest construction. For example, hummingbirds collect spider webs by wrapping them around their bill. Birds of prey often collect dead twigs and branches and just before laying eggs, they collect green boughs. Song birds often use the natural down of cottonwoods or thistles to line their nests. Observing birds gathering, perching or flying with these materials are signals that nest building is in progress.
Using binoculars, observe where the bird is taking its nesting material. Now if it’s a bird of prey, the nest will be rather obvious. It’s very size and placement high in the tops of open trees or cliffs make them relatively easy to find. On the other hand if it’s a hummingbird, it can be the proverbial needle in a haystack. Narrowing down the search area from an entire forest, to a corner, to a group of shrubs, to just a shrub and then finally to a branch, is a chore. It’s a chore that’s lots of fun, but one that must be done with the utmost care!
Care must be observed when approaching a nest! All preliminary inspections should be done with binoculars and not the feet. The reasons are many, the main one being natural predators. Foxes, raccoons, skunks and domestic animals all tend to follow the scent of man. Your actions can lead one of these predators right to the nest. Remember one very important fact. You depend on the welfare and success of that nest! All your efforts in researching, discovering and photographing a nest can be washed down the tubes in a matter of seconds because of a careless act. Not only will all your efforts be wasted, but more importantly, a generation of birds can be lost! If after all this work, you cannot go to the nest without leading a predator to it, walk away to photograph the bird another day!
First Trip to the Nest
When you believe the pair is on eggs, make plans for your first physical inspection of the nest site. Give the pair a couple of days buffer from when you believe they first started incubating before making your first visit. Now I’m assuming you found the nest from all the birds’ activities. But what if you haven’t, this first visit could be hazardous for the birds.
First of all, take care in the path you walk to the nest. Use large, high steps to avoid beating a path to the nest. We don’t have a firm understanding of how birds select their nesting sites. It’s not unreasonable to believe that the foliage surrounding the nesting site is as important as the actual bush or tree they’ve selected. If there are any large downed trees you must cross to get to the nest, take care not to break off any branches. And if there are branches extending into the nesting bush itself, take great care not to step on them. You could adversely affect the nest by tearing at branches attached to the nest.
Every time you take a step towards the nest, watch to see if the birds flush. They can fly out in any direction from the nest, so keep a keen eye out. You shouldn’t have any camera equipment with you at this time, just binoculars. Proceed cautiously and carefully, especially if you aren’t sure of the exact location of the nest. If you get to the shrub or tree and no birds are observed flushing, you’re doing great. If a bird did flush, hold still and wait twenty minutes. If they don’t come back in that time, leave the area and watch with binoculars. If it takes them five or ten minutes to come back to the nest after you’ve left, find another nest as this pair is too sensitive to tolerate your presence. If they come right back after you’ve left, you’re probably going to be OK.
You’ve successfully approached the bush, now how do you find that nest? The best method is to use just your eyes. Position yourself if possible so the bush/tree is backlit with the light shinning through its branches. This reveals the location of the nest by silhouetting it, its size and shape, making it stand out from all the branches. By slowly moving up, down and sideways, you might be able to find its location without physically touching the bush.
Preparing for the First Shoot at the Nest
Here it is, the exciting day you’ve earned with all of your diligent efforts. Now’s not the time to lose your cool and go off half cocked. (Get it, film advance? Ha, it’s a joke.) You want to head off to the nest with a song in your heart and checklist in your head. You need either a physical or mental check list of all the equipment you’ll need at the nest. You need to arrive at the nest site ready to go. Once at the nest, you’ll need to stay put until it’s time to go home. You don’t want to make a couple of trips back and forth from the nest to gather all needed equipment. You want to be able to work lightly and quickly. What follows is my checklist of equipment for a basic nest setup.
Nest Site Equipment Checklist
- Camera bodies (most often two)
- Tripod lens for photographing the nest
- Cable release (min 10′ long)
- M acro lens
- C hair
- F ilm (min five rolls per session)
- W ater / munchies
- F lash(s)
- M icro-cassette recorder
- E xternal battery packs for flash
- H at (if required by sun)
- A ll needed flash cords
- B ranch clips
- F lash bracket
- Rubber bands
- B inoculars
You want to assemble your equipment away from the nest. This means not only having film in the camera and the camera turned on, but also having it mounted to the tripod and flashes in place. This also means having all cords attached and ready at hand, plus the ties for the branches readily accessible. The last thing you want to do at the nest is take time assembling your equipment and gathering yourself. Not going in ready not only limits your productive time at the nest, but also creates unnecessary busyness which can keep the parents away. You want to travel light and work fast when photographing a nest. This means having a battle plan for dealing with the branches and your lighting all ready thought out.
Holding the branches back out of the way for photography can be a little tricky. You obviously can’t hold them with your hands the whole time. You cannot cut them away either, right? For my method, I utilize some homemade devices made out of heavy duty binder clips (obtainable at office suppliers). I attach a heavy cord connecting two small clips which I can use to tie back a group of leaves or twigs. I can either clip the two clips together to form a circle or safely clip them to a branch without injury to the plant. I have the medium and large sizes set up in the same fashion, but I also carry single binder clips. I use these to hold back just one branch if needed.
Setting these up the first time at the nest takes time (referring to minutes rather than seconds here), but after that visit, it’s a snap. The first time takes so long because you must use such care when moving those branches for the first time. Remember, they could very easily be attached to the nest itself. Pulling on the wrong branch or twig could upset the nest and its contents. It takes a few minutes to unravel the maze of twigs around the nest, but it can and must be done carefully without any harm to the nest. (Remember when you leave, you must put back all the branches, twigs, and leaves just the way you found them to protect the nest. When you remove the clips and ties, ease everything back into place. Do not let the branches snap back into place because this could upset the nest!)
First Sitting at the Nest
As soon as you’ve reached the nest site and the adults leave the nest, the clock is ticking. Your activities should not keep the adults off the nest for more than TWENTY MINUTES! If the adults don’t come back to the nest after twenty minutes, pull yourself out but leave your equipment. Pull back to a distance from where you previously observed the nest with binoculars and watch the nest. If within the next five minutes, the adults come back, great. If not, go get your equipment and pull it all out including any branch ties. (Take care of the path you’re creating this whole time.) We have few scenarios to work through now. Obviously if the adults came in, then skip down a few paragraphs.
If you leave the nest with your equipment still set up and the adults come back in five minutes, you have a couple of options. Whatever you do, you need to wait a while. The parents need time to tend to the eggs which they just came back to incubate. They should have at least fifteen minutes to secure the eggs’ temperature and any turning of them that is required. After this time, you can slowly approach your gear. The birds will probably flush again, but hopefully return within twenty minutes. If that’s the case, you’re in like Flynn!
Now if they don’t return again, attach a cable release to the camera and move back ten feet from the camera. Remember you need to be holding still during all of this. You can’t dance about from nervousness, being cold or needing to go to the bathroom (that sure can make one dance). Once you’ve moved back ten feet and the adults come back in five minutes, good. If they don’t, move back to your previous position and watch. When they come back to the nest, provide them with the appropriate time then walk back to the ten foot mark. If they stay at this distance, do some remote shooting and try getting to your camera the next trip to the nest. If at this attempt the adults leave and don’t come back in twenty minutes, go get your camera gear and try again the next day.
Wow, you’ve made it to the nest and you’re sitting with camera and flash on, waiting to take that first photograph. The first time the adult returns to the nest, don’t fry its feathers with a blast of flash! Take a deep breath and soak in the moment; you’re sitting next to a wild creature, sharing a very important time together. You’ve probably had to work hard to get to this point, so did the birds. Just sit for a while and take in all that’s happening.
I can almost guarantee that the first time you do fire that camera, the birds will flush. It’s not so much the light from the flash that bothers them as much as it is the noise of all the operations. They will come back, and within literally a few frames, ignore the whole picture taking process. But in the beginning, take it slow. You’ll always have to remain calm, making all movements very slowly and smoothly. This is especially true for focusing the lens. Hand movement around the lens barrel tends to make most birds nervous.
Observations of the parents made on the first visit to the nest now become invaluable. Sitting at the nest, you tend to grow blinders to the many things going on about you. The direction from which the parents come and go to the nest and the duration of their absences are all important factors to your photography. These are things you should have learned from your preliminary visits to the nest. When the adults leave the nest, for whatever reason, it’s important to be aware of how and when they come back. During their returns to the nest, it will be like the first time every time. They’ll watch you like a hawk (oh sorry, another of those bad puns)! Any movement you make, will possibly cause them to stay away from the nest that much longer. Since you only want to stay at a nest site for a couple of hours Amax, time away from the nest is photographs lost.
Now this is the abridged version, but it should give you a direction and the basics to begin photographing nesting birds.