Thursday, 10 May 2012

The Art of Photographing Birds


The Art of Photographing Birds
by A. Hyatt Verrill

From Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, Vol. LII., September, 1901. No. 5. Photographs by the author.
Researched by Dennis Lien; digitized by Doug Frizzle, May 2012.

ALTHOUGH still in its infancy, bird photography has become so general and its uses and applications so manifold that it may almost be considered an art in itself. To secure good bird photographs one must not only be a master of photography, but, in addition, must possess considerable knowledge of ornithology and woodcraft, and, most important of all, untiring patience and perseverance. Even then do not be discouraged if many plates and much time and labor go for naught. One good negative out of a dozen exposures is a fair average, while as to time and labor none is wasted, for is it not recompense enough to wander through sunny field and shady woodland, the while watching and studying the birds at home?
When once you have won a bird's confidence and feel on intimate terms with him, it will surprise you to find what a wonderfully interesting little chap he is. The plainest and commonest kind has a multitude of strange and interesting habits you have never dreamed of, and even the despised English sparrow will exhibit traits of intelligence and affection which will at once win for him a warm corner in your heart. Bird life is not all pleasure and sunshine, by any means. Tragedy and drama there is in plenty, and many a wee bird finds life just as serious a problem as we humans. Comedy and humor there is, too, and some species seem actually to appreciate a joke. On one occasion, while watching a busy downy woodpecker industriously boring for grubs, a sharp-shinned hawk dashed by my face straight for the little drummer. Even quicker was the woodpecker as he slipped behind the protecting limb, while the bold marauder, baffled, veered off, perched on a neighboring birch and, after staring with savage hauteur for a moment, disappeared among the trees. No sooner was his enemy out of sight than Mr. Woodpecker bobbed out from his shelter and, perking his head on one side, appeared to wink in such a knowing manner that I half expected to hear him exclaim: "Didn't I fool him neatly?" Many a like glimpse will you have of private life of the woods when you are afield with camera, and for each such situation you should be prepared, for often the most opportune moment for snapping wary birds or animals is when they are suddenly surprised and for a second or two remain motionless, apparently considering the wisest course to pursue.
If one possesses a horse and carriage much may be accomplished which otherwise would be well-nigh impossible. Many a shy bird will permit you to drive within a few feet, whereas the same individual, if approached on foot, would not remain within gunshot. That bold winter visitor from the North, the northern shrike, is one of these. Last winter the shrikes were very numerous, and many a long drive I took with the hope of securing their portraits. Finally, while driving along a narrow sapling-bordered road, the long-looked for opportunity arrived, and as the butcher bird perched on a twig by the roadside I drove slowly by and snapped him from the carriage. A few moments later I returned, and although he was somewhat more suspicious and perched on a barbed-wire fence a little farther off, he stood his ground bravely, and I secured a second negative.
Usually, however, it is best to win a bird's confidence by other means, and if they have young this is an easy matter to accomplish. To secure a photograph of the chickadee feeding its young I visited the locality of the nest daily for over a week, ere the little mother felt sufficiently sure of my good intentions to feed her big baby in my presence. Many birds, and especially the migratory species, seem always too busy to bother about making human acquaintances, and must be induced to come within camera range by fraud and deception. The best way of doing this is to sit quietly among the underbrush and imitate the cry of a young or wounded bird, by sucking the back of the hand. Almost instantly a number of previously invisible songsters will appear as if by magic, and gather excitedly around. Nine times out of ten the first to arrive will be the well known catbird. Although these queer fellows spend the greater portion of their time imitating catcalls and cries of distress, apparently merely for the joy of teasing other birds, yet they are the most readily deceived species I know of, and always seem to be in a great fret for fear some casualty has actually occurred. They are first-class subjects, owing to their tameness and soft gray dress. Towhees, thrashers, vireos, tanagers, grosbeaks and warblers of a dozen or more species will also be attracted by the "cheeping" sound, and it is often possible to make half a dozen exposures before the excited creatures become convinced that nothing is wrong, and betake themselves once more to their various haunts.
In the breeding season one may secure many beautiful pictures of birds on their nests, and as the majority of our birds are very close sitters it is often possible to focus on the brooding bird, and even give a short-time exposure without disturbing her. This I have repeatedly done with various species of warblers, vireas and thrushes. When the bird shows signs of alarm and glides off the nest as you approach, other methods must be employed. The best and simplest is to arrange and focus the camera on the vacant nest, and after concealing it by freshly-cut branches, or a green cloth, retire to a safe distance and spring the shutter by means of a long tube and bulb when the parent returns. It was in this manner I secured a photograph of the bobolink on her nest, and the thrasher near her nest. In the former case I lay for two hours motionless in the damp meadow-grass before Mrs. Robert returned and settled comfortably on her neglected treasures.
Sometimes a nest will be discovered which seems impossible to take, but where there's a will there's a way, and few indeed are the nests actually beyond the reach of the bird-photographer and his camera. Quite recently I found a rose-breasted grosbeak nestled in her frail home on the slender, horizontal limb of a young beech, full twenty feet above the ground. To obtain a picture seemed at first out of the question, but the very difficulty of the feat made me more anxious to accomplish it. Climbing a nearby oak, I cut two long branches, and binding them together placed one end resting within a few inches of the nest, the other on a branch by my side. Focussing my camera at eight feet, I set the shutter, drew the slide and pushed it slowly down the extemporized bridge towards the grosbeak's home. A leafy oak branch concealed the suspicious looking contrivance, and a slender string, dangling below, served as a means to spring the shutter when the parent at last returned. Altogether the operation occupied fully three hours, but the result well rewarded me for my time and labor. A little later I obtained the mother grosbeak's portrait in much the same manner.
Strangely enough, it is not always the more rare and shy birds which are most difficult to photograph, but, on the contrary, very common and usually unsuspicious species, when approached with photographic intent, are exceedingly wary. This is the case with our familiar robin, and also with the kingbird or bee-martin. Time and again have I spent an entire afternoon endeavoring to photograph this saucy flycatcher, but without avail, and it is only very recently that I succeeded in inducing one to sit for his portrait, and even he condescended to do so only when his fatherly solicitude was aroused and I disturbed the peace of his young family. On the other hand, blue jays, which are notoriously wild, I have had no difficulty with, provided the time chosen was late summer or early autumn. I find that at this season they readily approach within range of my lens if their cries are imitated while in hiding. Many birds have habits which greatly facilitate matters once they are learned.
While in Bermuda, I endeavored to photograph the beautiful long-tailed tropic-birds, but met with many difficulties. These birds nest in deep holes in the rocks and cliffs, and while the birds are very tame and will permit themselves to be pulled off their nests without trying to escape, the deep shadow of the holes renders anything but long-time exposures impossible. I had almost despaired of getting any satisfactory pictures when I happened to discover that they had a habit of dozing during certain hours of the day. At these times they appeared so excessively drowsy that when disturbed they merely fluttered about for a few moments ere resuming their siesta. Once this peculiarity was discovered my task was simple, and in the end I felt fully repaid for the many days spent studying them.
It is practically impossible to win the confidence of many species of birds. This is particularly noticeable in the case of game birds, as woodcock, quail, grouse, etc. Such birds become so thoroughly imbued with fear of man during the hunting season that their one idea at sight of a human being is to keep as far away as possible, but even these may occasionally be photographed when some lucky chance favors. During midsummer the quail (especially the fully grown young), are frequently quite tame, and by a little judicious use of grain in the spots they frequent, a person may somewhat overcome their inborn fear. Many nocturnal birds, as the nighthawk and whippoorwill, are seldom seen except when on their nests, or rather eggs, for neither species constructs any nest whatever, the nighthawk laying her two gray eggs on a bare rock in field or meadow, while the whippoorwill deposits her glossy, white and lilac treasures on the fallen leaves in open woodland. When flushed from the eggs these birds simulate lameness or injury and flutter about in a very distressing manner as they endeavor to attract your attention from their eggs. If you remain quietly in the neighborhood they return very soon, and seem to have but little fear of a camera placed near their home. Young birds in their nests are charming subjects after they have their eves open and their tender skin is hidden by budding feathers. They are not so easy as they would seem, however, for they are wriggling, palpitating little creatures, and their fuzzy down fails to give the sharp outlines and distinct lights and shadows of the adult birds.
Perhaps no birds afford better opportunities to the bird photographer than the owls, owing to their well known habit of dozing during the day. At this time they resort to the heavy shade of evergreens, and can usually be approached without difficulty. Quite often they are so drowsy that a short time-exposure can be given, which is frequently a necessity in the situations they frequent. Whereas, some species—as the little screech-owl—are often to be met with in orchards and in the vicinity of farmhouses, others inhabit only the heaviest forests, while still others are wanderers from the wilds of northern Canada, and to be found only during the coldest winter months. The tiniest of all our species—the sawwhet or Acadian owl, although a resident in New England, is most abundant in cold weather. They are unsuspicious little fellows and seem to enjoy posing. An individual of this species allowed me to secure ten different portraits, and then, apparently considering he had done enough in the interests of science, dropped off to sleep, whereupon I completed the series with a picture of my obliging model wrapped in slumber.
Often when afield in search of feathered subjects you will meet with mammals, reptiles and even insects well worthy of a photograph. Squirrels, both gray and red, are far easier to take than any bird, owing to their habit of standing motionless for a moment to stare at the intruder. Our little cotton-tail rabbit has the bump of curiosity well developed, and will often stand stock still for minutes at a time if some odd noise is made, as for example, a low whistle.
Snakes, too, make interesting pictures, and are fairly easy to secure, while nothing is more beautiful than some large, handsome butterfly resting on a wayside wild flower.
All seasons of the year are harvest time for the bird-photographer, but spring and autumn are the most favorable. Then, not only are the residents more numerous, but a host of migratory species on their way north or south afford many a chance for valuable and interesting pictures. The Peabody-bird or white-throated sparrow, the fox-sparrow, the jaunty winter wren, the hermit and the olive-backed thrushes and many others fill the woods with life and music, and coming from a region undisturbed by man, are fearless and sociable. Even dreary winter must not be neglected, for only at that season can one expect to find snow-buntings, crossbills, siskins and others from the Arctic regions.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.