Tips for birdwatchers and bird photographers
On this page we provide basic information on technique and equipment, most of which experienced birdwatchers will find trivial, but it may be helpful for newbies. We give advice based on our own experiences and would welcome comments/suggestions.
Although in some respects it is a bit awkward to have all this information on one long page, we choose to present the information this way, rather than split it up into a multitude of pages that would require to navigate through them to find whatever detail one wants to find. To ease navigation throughout this page, we provide a table of contents and a link at the end of each subsection to return to it.
Table of content
- What to record or document
- Bird watching
- The principle of "minimum impact" birdwatching
- Be quiet!
- Be there first
- Dress code
- Camouflage or cover
- Let things settle down
- Choose the right time of day
- Use of documentation and equipment
- Criteria for bird identification
- Bird photography
What to record or document
Many experts and volunteers not only try to properly classify (by scientific means, which these days involved DNA analyses) bird species, but also monitor them. A lot of effort goes into bird counts in the field to determine specific species' presence and numbers in certain locations and tracking their evolution over time, i.e. possible changes in their conservation status. These activities not only help to keep track of species, but can also lead to knowledge of how to help declining/threatened species.
The goals of what we do here are less ambitious. The information presented on this web site is presented with the aim of acquainting readers with species we have found and have been able to capture in photos. The photos are taken with the goal in mind to assist bird enthusiasts in identifying species in the field. We try to obtain photos of birds in several key postures (frontal, lateral, dorsal) and with different plumages (if they happen to change with time) and during their key activities (singing, drinking, feeding, etc.). This goal determines the structure of the pages describing each species, which is similar to the way bird drawings are presented in field guides.
If in doubt about how to behave out in nature, try to tag along with an experienced birdwatcher first. This way one can learn most of the basic techniques in a reasonably short time - and one gets a chance to ask questions. In our experience, one learns fastest in one-on-one training. Groups tend to create too much of a disturbance for individuals to learn the more subtle requirements of birdwatching.
The principle of "minimum impact" birdwatching
The principle of "minimum impact" describes the goal to study nature with a minimum amount of disturbance caused (and certainly no damage done!). Apart from the obivous (not interfering with everyday life of birds or animals in general), minimum impact has the additional advantage of leading to the most rewarding experiences, with birds being seen behaving in a natural way. One can then also document (film, photograph) birds engaging in their natural activities.
Keep your eyes peeled and your lips sealed! Trivial? This is the most frequently broken basic rule of birdwatching... Move quietly and slowly. Avoid a frontal, upright stance if it is necessary to approach a bird. A crouched, sideways stance appears less threatening to birds. Use natural cover to move through the landscape (e.g. keep a tree between yourself and a bird you are approaching).
Be there first
In most cases it is just no use trying to approach a bird. Apart from the disturbance one can/will create, the chances of a good view or photo are small, given the fact that birds' survival depends on their alertness, while our inability to approach with the stealth of a cat does not really help either...
The much more promising tactical approach is to be in a certain area first, remain quiet and inconspicuous and wait for birds to move in. This will work with many, but not all species. In some cases (the shiest species) a bit more help/finesse may be required.
Although one often does not need to wear fatigues, it does help not to show up expecting to get a close-up view of a bird wearing a neon-green or screaming-orange outfit. Inconspicuous colours blending into the landscape are a plus, leaving flashy jewelry at home helps too, and shielding one's eyes - that tend to stare at a bird so threateningly, like those of a predator - with a cap or a hat will also make a postiive difference (apart from shielding one's view from sunglare).
Bird habitats are also inhabited by other creatures. Therefore, it may be worth mentioning here that somebody who tends to have his/her eyes looking skywards most of the time had best make sure that the (usually visually unguarded) feet are protected, e.g. by ankle-length boots... This makes it just that bit harder for poisonous snakes to get a good bite at your ankles.
Camouflage or cover
Although camouflage, e.g. in the form of a tent or a hideout, may help reduce an observer's impact on the biotope during a visit, care must be taken in the process of setup and dismounting. If these are not performed in a non-obtrusive way, the good intentions may in fact lead to an increased, rather than reduced, level of interference. It is often just as good to use natural cover by, e.g., standing behind a tree or just under a tree. Just make sure that you have a clear line of sight towards the area you want to observe.
Let things settle down
Whichever way one uses to enter a habitat, one should give the environment time to settle down again, before observations can be made of animals in an undisturbed state. Depending on the severity of the disturbance caused by one's approach and depending also on a bird's shyness, this can take some time. When entering a habitat, one can immediately see the effects one's arrival causes. But, although less obvious to the birdwatcher, it is clear that one's departure will cause similar ripples, which means one should retreat with just as much care as upon arrival!
Choose the right time of day
Depending on what one wants to see, the time of day of an observation can play a crucial role. In general, birds are most active around dawn and dusk.
For specific activities other times may be more favourable (or some times may not be good at all). For example, if one wants to observe a bird taking a bath, late evenings are not a good choice, because after the bath birds will want to have time for preening and drying their plumage in the sun. After a long night, birds will try to be the first to exploit food sources, before the competition moves in. But even that must wait until the territory is re-claimed. This is why one will hear most contact calls first thing in the morning.
Use of documentation and equipment
A field guide not only presents drawings or photos of bird species that help in the process of identification, but will often also state in which kind of habitat a certain species can most likely be found. Thus a field guide is not only useful while out observing, but also in the preparation of a bird-watching trip.
Binoculars obviously offer the fastest and easiest way of obtaining a close-up view of birds from considerable distances. In particular the new generation of "perma-focus" binoculars make things easy. However, a pair of binoculars does not keep a record of any image viewed through it.
A camera can provide unequivocal evidence of bird sightings, if a decent photo is taken. Especially for non-expert birdwatchers (like us) this is the safer way of identifying birds, rather than relying on what one sees through binoculars. An additional advantage of taking photos lies in the fact that a photo can later be enhanced on a computer (for more information on bird photography see below).
Using a recording of a bird species' contact call helps a lot in luring birds suspected of living in a certain habitat towards the observer, because they will come to investigate the intruder into their territory. We do not use this technique, because it is a form of interference.
As one gains experience in bird-watching, one learns to quickly discern certain characteristics in birds, even though one may not know immediately which species one has just seen. Picking up these characteristics in an instant, often subconsciously, is called acquiring a bird's "jizz". This is an assimilated form of the original term "GISS" (General Impression of Size and Shape). This term, coined by WWII plane spotters, in its current version as jizz, is now used mostly by birdwatchers. It not only comprises features like size and shape, but also the characteristics of a bird's flight pattern or e.g. wingbeat (such as its frequency). But normally one will try to observe precisely a bird's characteristics to then determine its identity, as outlined in the next paragraph.
Criteria for bird identification
General tactics - Bird identification, naturally, is done by matching observations with descriptions, e.g. in field guides. However, with little experience (e.g. when one starts exploring previously unknown habitats, with as yet unknown bird species), it can also help to approach things the other way round - by means of exclusion of the impossible. For example: If one can estimate a bird's size (say, 20-25 cm), one will not necessarily be able to identify the species, but one can in fact already exclude hundreds of species. This narrows down the field of "suspects". If one continues this process with more criteria, one gets ever closer to a correct identification. In the following we list a number of suitable criteria.
- Call - Often, before seeing a bird one will hear its call(s). Identifying bird calls correctly is an important first step towards sighting a bird. The difficulty lies in the match that one must make. At least once one must find the bird issuing a certain call and see it at the same time. It is part of becoming an experienced birdwatcher to match all calls to the correct birds. This is a real challenge, because in particular passerines can have many different calls.
- Plumage - Obviously the easiest way of identifying a bird is to see its plumage and match that against a field guide's description (or the photos provided on this web site...!). However, there are species with such subtle differences that just a look, even a close look, will not always suffice to distinguish between them.
- Size - A bird's size is not always easy to establish, but it helps point the observer in the right direction. If, for example, a bird is small, one will start consulting a field guide's descriptions of family groups of small birds.
- Shape - Many different parts determine a bird's overall shape: bill, wings, crest (if any), legs and tail can all be used for identification purposes. For example, if a bird is about 15-20 cm in size and has a slender, downward-curved bill, chances are it is some type of nectar-eater.
- Stance - Many bird species have very typical stances.
- Flight pattern and wingbeat - Both flight patterns and wingbeat can be distinctive. For example, most species of honeyeaters have undulating (wavey) flight patterns and all pigeons/doves have special wing feathers that will swish on takeoff to stun an approaching predator. The frequency of a bird's wingbeat is usually also indicative of its size. Another distinguishing feature is the type of sound (if any) produced by a bird's wingbeat - owls have special feathers for stealthy flight; ravens don't give a toss whether one can hear their wingbeat or not, because they are no predators, but they are also not preyed upon by raptors.
- Behaviour - Some behavioural patterns are distinctive enough to identify a bird species at considerable distances.
- Habitat - One can consider the habitat in which a bird is observed to identify it. Again, such considerations often lead to the exclusion of the impossible.
Taking photos of birds one can keep a record not only of one's own observations, but also to share with others. We use bird photos for identification purposes and prefer them over drawings, as provided in most field guides. Note that there is also a photographic field guide to Australian birds by J. Flegg, but it provides only one photo per species.
Choice of camera
In the past we used a Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera with slide film, then went digital with compact digital cameras, before upgrading to a digital SLR. We find that the size of the camera's CCD camera is the most important factor to consider. Imaging a given field-of-view with more, smaller pixels is equivalent to using a longer lens, in the sense that more detail can be shown. But in general the camera itself is not as important a factor as the choice of lens (see below).
Choice of lens
As they say, "the sky is the limit"... Lenses are the most expensive parts of photographic equipment. The basic rule is that the longer a lens's focal length, the better. And the bigger the objective lens, the better. The only downside to this is that a powerful tele-lens can be quite heavy and awkward to carry. Compact cameras help in that regard, but their optics are not as powerful (and accurate) as those of single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras with big tele-lenses. Note that a long focal length also leads to a small field-of-view, which can in some cases pose problems (but usually not for bird photography, unless you get up VERY close).
Currently we are using a 300-mm focal length lens with a 58-mm aperture objective lens (in conjunction with a 10-Megapixel CCD), which is good for most purposes, but not quite optimal for professional-quality photography. A 1000-mm lens with big aperture would be much better; but then one needs to have a bit of small change (of order $10,000-$20,000). Also a few sessions in a gym may be warranted before lugging such equipment in the field.
There are various ways to improve the stability of images one takes with a camera. For stationary or slow-moving targets the use of a bipod or tripod will help, especially when using a very powerful, long lens. Without such support, the photographer's stance plays an important role. These days the most powerful image stability improvement is probably achieved by sensors and software in the camera/lens.
It helps to remember preparing a few things before setting out on a field trip. For a digital photographer, apart from a chair (and possibly foldable table) and food and drink, the things that come to mind are:
- make sure the camera's lenses are clean
- charge the camera's battery
- empty the camera's memory card
- collect all camera accessories to take along
- for spotlighting: prepare a torch/flashlight
- on long trips: take along a laptop computer for offline image inspection/processing (don't forget the USB reader/cable to connect your camera's memory card with the computer) and all required rechargers
Light conditions/choice of observing position
Choose an area where birds are to be observed and place yourself in a way that the sunlight will fall in from behind or sideways. This is more important yet for photography than for observations with binoculars, because the human eye can cope with very high contrast. A camera can do that too, but one will need to "overexpose" to get the correct brightness on a target while facing into sunlight. This will make the background too bright, which does not make for the best of photos.
Manual vs. auto-focus
Purists will always advise to use manual focus, but the fact of the matter is that cameras can focus so quickly that one can hardly beat them to it. With an appropriate choice of focus field (i.e. usually one small focus field only) the focus setting will often be determined correctly, even in difficult circumstances, such as taking a photo through a tree crown. Manual focus may be required when one cannot keep the target in the camera's focus field. This can be the case for small fast-moving targets, such as e.g. swallows - in flight.
Besides the obvious advantage of having photographic evidence of bird sightings, photography offers another possibility - offline image enhancement. On this web site only cropped and possibly contrast-enhanced images are shown. We do not alter the colours in photos. The possibility of offline image enhancement is the reason why we believe that photography is increasingly gaining an edge over drawings in field guides.