The woods are alive with birds. A bird survey last week revealed over 40 individual great tits, all singing away like creaky supermarket trolleys. There are buzzards, sparrowhawks, great and great-spotted woodpeckers, great, blue and long-tailed tits, wrens, dunnocks, robins, blackbirds, song thrushes, goldfinches, bulfinches, chaffinches, nuthatches, woodpigeons, pheasants and that is just one day’s observations.
But do you think any of them will let me photograph them? Well, yes, but it has taken a long time. You might think it is easy to just put up a seed feeder and then stand and wait and take photos. It is easy in the garden at home.
But these little birds are not garden birds, although they are birds that you can get in your garden. They are not used to humans, living as they do in a woodland without much human activity. In my garden I can remove the seed feeder while two sparrows and a blue tit sit inches from my head, complaining about the delay in getting their food. In the wood, they are much more shy of human contact.
The seed feeder that we placed in the autumn had to be removed when the squirrels were emptying it every day, only to bury the seed around the wood. I’m sure we’ll get a lot of sunflowers growing in odd places in the summer thanks to their activity. Having controlled the squirrels a bit during the winter, we have replaced the feeders and got the birds used to using it. This has taken a few weeks, but the feeders are now alive from dawn to dusk with little birds, and the occasional great spotted woodpecker.
However, getting photos is still not that easy. As soon as you approach the feeder, the birds disappear. They sit in the tree over your head, but won’t come near the feeder. You need to get reasonably close, even with a big zoom lens, because otherwise the feeder is obscured by twigs. A lot of patient approach work, moving in slowly, inch by inch, can be ruined by the battery alarm going on the camera, undoing about half an hour of careful stalking, while getting frozen in the process.
The birds are also so busy that you end up with about 500 pictures of an empty seed feeder or of blurred little bundles of feathers moving too fast for the shutter speeds attainable in the wintery light, and only about 4 or 5 useable photos of birds on the feeder. And then they all have their heads in the holes, and won’t pose for the camera!
At last, this weekend, we had some success. I set up the camera, and walked away, so they could get used to it being there, and close enough to get a photo that wasn’t 99% background with a little dot in the middle that might be a blue-tit, but ends up as a fuzzy blur when you enlarge it. I then spent a while moving in, and finally, after a long wait, the birds started to arrive. In large numbers.
Many of the photos still showed an empty feeder, or birds with twigs coming out of their head, or heads buried in the feeder holes. The long-tailed tits spectacularly failed to show me their sweet little faces, so I have plenty of photos of sweet little long-tailed tails instead. The birds refused to stand in the optimum light, and generally only wanted to feed on the far side of the feeder.
But in the end the patience was rewarded, and I got some decent shots of nuthatches, great tits, blue tits, chaffinches and robins.
I also had some success in the afternoon, when I found out you could fool the birds into thinking you weren’t there by standing behind a twig. Now I might be slim, but I’m not that thin, however a few twigs (one of which was down my neck and the other almost up my nose) provided sufficient camouflage for some of the birds, and I got some really nice shots of the birds on the feeder in the evening sun.
OK, a feeder isn’t a natural setting, but I managed some shots of the birds in the trees waiting for their place in the feeding queue. I’m completely hooked on photographing them, even though it involves frustration, discomfort, getting very cold, and the inevitable battery alarm at the wrong moment. I obviously need more feeding station, bird hides, and some extortionately expensive lenses to get closer to the birds when they won’t get closer to me.
Frustrating – yes indeed. But worth it!