Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Log feeder poacher?

After installing the log feeder, I had a few frustrating days when the weather was too poor for shooting. I was encouraged by the fact that something had poached the peanuts out of the log feeder. I dutifully pushed in fresh peanuts at dusk every evening, hoping that the poacher was one of the woodpeckers, and not the grey squirrels who liked to raid the bird feeders every now and then!

The weather forecast looked good for a change, so I got out before it got light and topped up the feeders, and positioned my tripod in the hide, on which the dew had frozen. It was going to be a bright but cold day, with little wind, but it would take a while for the sun to get high enough to illuminate the feeders, so I went back inside the house to make a flask of tea.

A little while later, as I watched from the kitchen window, in came a Great Spotted Woodpecker, straight on to the log feeder! Perfect! He nibbled away for a few minutes and then disappeared. As soon as the sunlight began to hit the top of the tree, I would refill the log feeder and install myself in the hide, wrapped up against the cold. I attached the 70-200mm VR lens and 1.4x teleconvertor to my D2x, put spare batteries and memory cards in my pockets and waited impatiently.

My first session in the hide (2 hours) didn't yield very much, I managed to get one picture of the woodpecker but that was about it. I think the feeder was a little close and the bird was disturbed by the shutter noise. I needed a break, my feet were cold (despite having 3 pairs of socks on inside my wellies!), and the sun had moved round so now the log feeder wasn't in the best light. I move the feeder to take advantage of the afternoon sun and moved it back a little away from the hide, went inside to warm-up, and switched back to my 300mm lens.

Back in the hide, I could lean forward and just about see my neighbours' birdfeeders, and I had observed that the woodpeckers seemed to go there first before coming to my garden. After an hour, sure enough a woodpecker appeared on their feeders. But, for some reason it didn't move on to my garden. My feet were starting to get cold again and after another hour I was ready to give up. Then, bang, Great Spotted Woodpecker appeared on log, I hit the shutter and snapped away in 8 frames per second bursts. Job done! As soon as the woodpecker disappeared I went back indoors to warm up and look at the results.

I rotated the image slightly as the log appeared dead vertical and this looked a bit artificial, and then cropped the image slightly to get the composition you see here. Not perfect, earlier in the day would have given better lighting, but not bad all things considered.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


My first session in the hide was a great success, in terms of bird activity. A few nice shots of tits, like this Great Tit, but I quickly realised that I had two problems. I was too close to frame a shot of a larger birds with a 300mm lens (which is effectively 450mm on my Digital SLR). Also, the three natural-looking perchs I had setup simply offered the birds too many choices!

The layout of my garden meant I could not move the hide back, so I decided that for my next session I would use the 70-200mm zoom with 1.4x teleconvertor, effectively a ~150mm-400mm range, which should give me sufficient range for all sizes of birds I had encountered so far. I also had the option of using the D2x's High Speed Crop mode to take this out to almost 600mm.

I removed all but one of the perchs I had created, and pruned a few branches from the tree. I also set about created a natural-looking perch for the woodpeckers. I took a log (80cm by 15cm) with good bark, and fixed this to a plant frame, which was carefully positioned and then pushed into the lawn. I drilled some holes in the side and pushed in some peanuts, and finally brushed the sawdust away with some water and a soft brush.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Birdbrain goes into hiding!

There was no way I was going to be able to photograph birds in the lawn area without putting up some sort of hide. After debating all the options, including a green dome tent with some scrim netting thrown over it, I eventually purchased one of Kevin Keatley's purpose built hides from Wildlife Watching Supplies.

I went for the standard dome hide, in 'Advantage Leaf' - this really is an excellent camouflage pattern for all year round in the UK. These hides are not cheap (around £200), especially when you consider it is basically a tall dome tent without a floor! However, it is designed for the purpose, the extra height allows you to sit comfortably and the three viewing 'ports' are perfectly positioned and designed. There is a flap at the front that you can poke one of your tripod legs through, this give you a bit more room to manoeuvre inside (although consider going for the larger version if you're tall or big!). So far it's stood up to all the January wind and rain and hopefully should give years of service.

I bought a fisherman's chair from my local angling shop, this has adjustable legs so you can level it on uneven ground and wide 'mud' feet that won't sink into soft ground. A nice bit of comfort for around £30. To finish things off, a scrim scarf (ebay) is thrown over the lens barrel and some camouflage material wrapped around the exposed tripod leg. Wildlife Watching Supplies can supply everything you need, but ebay is a good source of bargain army surplus bits that will do the job.

So, does it work? You bet it does. I threw it up one morning, and even as I was checking out the tripod for size, a Great Spotted Woodpecker appeared on the feeders less than 2.5 metres away, even though I had only just popped inside out of sight. Brilliant!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Operation Birdbrain - Part II

My first attempts to photograph garden birds involved me enticing the birds to within around 4 metres from the house and shooting from inside the kitchen door. I have a 'stable' type door and the birds didn't seem to mind me standing there with the top section open.

So, I placed a feeder holder (a metal pole about 2 metres tall with a hook on top - you find them in most garden centres) in the border. I taped a branch to the metal pole about 30cm below the feeder, paying careful attention to orientate this so the background was uncluttered. Next I found an old spade, with a well-worn wooden handle at a bric-a-brac store and positioned this in the bed below the branch.

Within minutes Blue and Great Tits and the occasional Greenfinch were feeding on the peanut feeder, but very few actually perched on the branch. I realised that I had chosen quite a thin branch, and I guess it wasn't really substantial enough to be a comfortable perch. It's thinness also made it tricky for me to pre-focus on. Occasionally Robins would hop along the nearby decking area but never ventured onto the spade handle.

My biggest problem though was light. I was using a Nikon AF-S 300mm VR lens with the D2x or D200 on a tripod, but in order to get sufficient depth of field I needed to shoot at f/5.6, preferably f/8. The location I had picked was convenient but quite shaded, and even using fill flash with a SB-800 (which the birds didn't seem to mind), I couldn't achieve a high enough shutter speed to freeze the birds rapid movements without going to high ISO's. Also, using flash made coninuous shooting, even with an SD-8a battery booster attached to the flash, a bit of a hit-and-miss affair, as the flash didn't always recycle in time for the next frame.

I persevered with this for a few sessions, and had some success with the Robins when I smeared some lard along the back edge of the spade handle and used this to hold dried mealworms in place, out of sight from my shooting position. Success! the Robins took the bait and I managed to get a few shots with flash. Sometimes they were on the handle before I had time to get back behind the camera!

Still, I knew I now needed to adapt the setup to use more natural light, and my chances of attracting shy birds, such as the Great Spotted Woodpeckers, so close to the house were slim. It was now pretty obvious that the ideal spot would be on the lawn area which is open and gets the sun, even in winter, for much of the day. In the middle of the lawn is an old elder, and this made an ideal place to hang feeders. However there was absolutely no cover for me to shoot from, and ideally needed to be a bit closer, perhaps 2.5 metres from my subjects...

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Operation Birdbrain - Part I

I moved house late in 2007, my new location is quite rural and I was very soon struck by the variety of garden birds and the stunning colours of some species, such as Great Spotted Woodpeckers and Jays, that I had never even noticed before! I set about installing feeders and spent a few months casually observing my feathered visitors. I'm no twitcher, but soon I found myself buying binoculars and a bird identification book.

When it came to setting my January 2008 photographic objective, it was an obvious progression to move on to try and photograph the birds in my garden. So, 'Operation Birdbrain' was born!

My observations during the last months of 2007 had given me an insight into not just what species to expect, but also some clues to their likely behaviour: Great and Blue Tits would flit about all day, rarely settling anywhere for more than a few seconds; Great Spotted Woodpeckers would swoop in two or three times a day and gorge themselves on the peanut feeder. I knew that these types of observations would be a big asset in trying to capture images of the birds.

What I wanted though was natural looking images, not birds clinging to birdfeeders, but birds perched on branches, and even that classic (but cliched!) shot of a Robin perched on the handle of a garden spade! Over the next series of posts I'll describe my approach and how this has evolved to give me the results I am aiming for (hopefully!).