Studebaker Bird Photography Newsletter #5


Shorebird Workshop Report

On our annual shorebird workshop we took advantage of classic good shorebird shooting conditions with a species list which included a Solitary Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipe, 2 Black-bellied Plovers, 3 Stilt Sandpipers, a few Short-billed Dowitchers, and 5 Pectoral Sandpipers along with the usual suspects. An American Avocet flew around taunting us several times but never gave us a chance to photograph him. Our lecture/slideshows included shorebird ID tips, shooting strategy, and Photoshop demonstrations. When a thunderstorm rolled through in the afternoon of the last day, everyone except Alex Mody left. Alex and my persistence paid off as soon the rain departed and a family of Sora rails started wandering out of the cattails chasing each other over the mudflat for the remainder of the evening. Then a black-crowned night heron landed and ate some dragonflies while the evening light turned the whole scene into a study of golden browns.

Here are a few of my favorite shots from our two day workshop at Conneaut:



Black-crowned Night Heron

Photo by Alex Mody on the Shorebird Workshop

Approaching Birds in the Field –

Excerpt from my forthcoming book 2009 “The Complete Guide to Digital Bird Photography” (unedited initial version)

People frequently see me in the field with my long lens and make comments like, “Wow, you could photograph a hummingbird a mile away with that lens!”. Little do they know that with my 500mm lens and matching 1.4x converter I would actually have to be within twenty feet of a hummingbird to get a decent shot. Bird photographers constantly struggle to approach their subjects within photography range. Some photographers wait in blinds for hours, others belly crawl on the ground to make their profile less intimidating. Although close approaches are required even with large telephoto lenses, with proper technique and sensitivity towards avian body language, a photographer can learn to approach most any bird with out scaring them away.


Marbled Godwit

Conneaut, Ohio | Canon 40D | Canon 500mm f4 IS | 1/800sec f5.6 | ISO 400

Field Ethics

Take care not to unnecessarily frighten birds. Birds need to be spending every possible minute feeding, sleeping, and defending their territories, so if they are at any time diverted from these purposes for our benefit, we should keep it to an absolute minimum.

Some nature enthusiasts believe that even a single second of time diverted from a bird’s daily routine is ethically unsound. I however, disagree. Knowledgeable and considerate bird photographers may occasionally take a few moments of a bird’s time. Producing good photographs of nature allows others to experience and value species they may never have cared about otherwise. I believe for any major conservation effort to be successful, it must be supported by the general public. How are we to expect voters to set aside prime tracts of real estate for a rare warbler, for example, if they don’t even know what a warbler looks like?

Unfortunately, most bird photographers are less likely to error on the side of caution, than to unknowingly harm their subject or their reputation. That is why I emphasize that good bird photographers must first be knowledgeable ornithologists. Most ethical lapses occur accidentally when a photographer gets so excited about a potential photo opportunity that they forget to use common sense. Here are some common mistakes bird photographers make:

  1. Trimming foliage around nests to get a better shot.
  2. Accidentally causing a bird which is attending a nest to leave the nest for a time period causing the eggs to decrease in temperature or exposing young birds in the nest to possible predators.
  3. Scaring away rare migrants, ruining opportunities for other nature enthusiasts to see them.
  4. Playing recordings of bird calls too loud and too long on a bird’s breeding territory.
  5. Disobeying park rules to get a photo (feeding, going off trail, etc.).
  6. Walking up behind another bird photographer to get a shot, not knowing how long it took for that photographer to get close, risking ruining their photo opportunity.
  7. Stepping in front of bird watchers to get a shot (especially easy to do on boardwalks).
  8. Holding up traffic to get a photo out the car window.
  9. Using a perfectly harmless technique in front of others who may not understand the technique or know how to do it properly. This especially applies to using recordings or using live bait. For example I would advise against trying to feed an owl a mouse in front of anyone ever. Too many people will fell sorry for the mouse and make a huge issue of the practice.

Unfortunately there seems to be a growing sense of “us verses them” in the birding community. This must stop. We are on the same team, we enjoy the same animals, and fight for the same conservation. There is much crossover between birders and bird photographers: Many birders take photographs and nearly all the best bird photographers are also birders. Each photographer must do their part to preserve their reputation and their right to access important birding areas.


Me, Alex, and Richard photographing a Short-billed Dowitcher

Photo courtesy of Michael Lustbader

Learn to Read Body Language.

When approaching a bird, by paying attention to the bird’s behavior and movements, it’s fairly easy to know whether you are at risk of frightening the bird. Very few birds suddenly stop what they are doing and fly away without warning. Before taking flight, they open their eyes wide, stretch out their necks, cease all movement, and look directly at their perceived threat. If you approach a bird and they exhibit at least two of these signs, stop what you are doing, stand perfectly still, and wait for the bird to break eye contact and resume whatever it was they were doing. Then proceed slowly.

Act Like a Cow

Have you ever seen birds in a field next to grazing cattle or deer? Birds trust these large animals mostly because these animals mind their own business.  When I was just starting to learn bird photography I spent over an hour trying to approach a Blue-winged Teal feeding in a canal next to a jogging path. Every time I would get close to photo range it would retreat. Then along came several women doing their daily exercises and the duck allowed them to walk right by it without even looking at them. I soon realized that I was acting like a predator by constantly staring at the duck and moving directly towards it. The walkers, however, never even noticed the duck and consequently the duck never perceived them as a threat.  Now when approaching a flighty subject, I bring to mind the behavior of cattle grazing next to flocks of birds. I try not to make unnecessary eye contact. I move randomly and slowing rather than in a direct line, building the bird’s trust, letting them get used to my presence. I stay as low to the ground as possible, and make no sudden movements. In this manner, the birds begin to trust me. After I have gained their trust, I am much more free to move about and reposition myself.

While leading one of my first shorebird photography workshops, I demonstrated this technique of acting like a large grazing mammal much to everyone’s amazement. We had over 8 species of shorebirds feeding in a small mudflat including Red Knots, Stilt Sandpipers, and a Short-billed Dowitcher. At first, the birds would raise their heads and sound an alarm call with our slightest movement. But after acting like large herbivores in about 30 minutes the birds were totally used to our presence. Least Sandpipers were walking around us in circles; Red Knots were feeding inside our minimum focusing distance, etc. After we had gained their trust we could even carry on normal conversations and get up slowly to get new batteries or cards from our vehicles as so forth. Now I demonstrate this technique on workshops whenever the opportunity arises.


Sora (Adult in not too shabby plumage out in the open at sunset.  That pretty much made my day!)

Conneaut, Ohio | Canon 40D | Canon 500mm f4 IS |

Disguise Your Form

If a direct approach is necessary, try to keep trees, poles, dunes, buildings, and other large objects between you and the bird. Even after passing the object you used to mask your approach, keep yourself lined up with it so that it hides your silhouette.  Another way to disguise your form when approaching birds is to drive up to them in your car. Some birds seem to not recognize humans or see them as much of a threat when we are riding in a vehicle. Cars make excellent mobile blinds – simply photograph out an open window.

Predictability is your Ally

Birds often set up routines and have favorite places to eat just like humans. Songbirds will usually have several favorite branches to sing from. Ducks or shorebirds often favor a small shallow area in a pond. Raptors may choose a favorite tall perch to hunt from. By sensitive observation of your subject, you may discover their favorite hang out, and then set up your camera accordingly. Even if the bird is temporarily frightened away, it will probably return soon. A blind may be especially useful or even necessary in order to make the bird feel safe to return and continue using its prized location. Some birds use a favored resource every few minutes (like hummingbirds to hummingbird feeders), others only every week (such as raptors and a hunting perch). If you set up nearby and the bird doesn’t return at the next likely time during its routine cycle, back off and try something else. If the bird is forced to vary from its routine for long, it may expend unnecessary time and energy to find a replacement resource which may compromise its ability to survive or reproduce.

New Workshop Focusing on Loons and Warblers of Northern Michigan

While in Churchill , Manitoba I fell in love with the Pacific Loon family who accepted me as one of them and let me spend many hours in the crystal clear northern lake while they dove around me. While I won’t be able to run a Churchill workshop this year, I found an even better loon photography opportunity right here the Great Lakes area. I have worked out an agreement with the famed Nettie Bay lodge to run a workshop which will include the cost of lodging, amazing meals cooked by Jackie, and use of a pontoon boat designed for photography and operated by Mark who has a great deal of experience helping photographers get into the perfect position on the lake to photograph their loons. We’ll time the workshop so that the loons will be feeding their downy-feathered young providing incredible opportunities for every manner of loon image imaginable. During my research and boat rides with Mark, the loons were diving right under our boat and practically yodeling in our ears – amazing! As you know there are a couple other workshops from Nettie Bay , so why take mine? Reason #1 – I only schedule four participants. Other workshops schedule 8 people and make them take turns. We’ll essentially get twice the shooting time per session. Reason #2 – I’m very experienced with songbird photography. It’s my forte; it’s what I do best. The songbird sessions won’t just be filler while you’re forced of the loon boat half-way through the afternoon, and we won’t be photographing chickadees. I’ll take you right to the best photo opps for warblers and help make world class images of some of the most difficult species to photograph on the continent. As always, we’ll be shooting for quality over quantity with the warblers and northern songbirds.


Common Loon with Bass

Northern Michigan | Canon 40D | Canon 500mm f4 IS


Common Loon Underwater

Northern Michigan | Canon 40D | Canon 18-55mm |


Common Loon in Mist

Northern Michigan | Canon 40D | Canon 500mm f4 IS

Other Bird Photography Career News this Month

Look for my work to be published in the forthcoming field guide Birds of North America published by Dorling Kindersley of London and New York

Equipment for Sale

Buy one of my used Canon 500mm f4 IS lenses here on ebay:

I certainly don’t need two, and may upgrade to the 600mm soon.

Where to Photograph in Ohio in September:

-Check your local mudflat for shorebirds. Classic mudflats in Ohio include Berlin Reservoir, Hoover Reservoir, Ottowa National Wildlife Refuge, and Conneaut. Be ready to get dirty.

-Ceder Waxwings often stage on dead logs overlooking open water or marshland.

-Hummingbirds are finishing their migration south and my reach peak numbers at local feeders at the beginning of the month.

-September ushers through large numbers of neotropical migrant passerines like warblers, along with many raptors. Photographing migrants is a challenge, but with persistence and lots of time can be accomplished at migrant traps like Magee Marsh. Another method for photographing these migrants is to set up a water drip and possibly set out mealworms or grubs for birds such as bluebirds. The Maslowski Brothers in southern Ohio have had luck with both techniques.


Wilson’s Snipe

Conneaut, Ohio | Canon 40D | Canon 500mm f4 IS |

Wood Duck Workshop Update – there is still one spot open on each weekend of the wood duck workshop should anyone wish to join us.

Weekend of October 11-12, one spot left

Weekend 18-19 one spot left – $600/Weekend includes all group meals, in-field instruction, and mid-day slideshows and Photoshop demonstrations.

Perhaps the nation’s best location for Wood Duck Photography – visit as the foliage around the ponds turn the water into crimsons and oranges while the ducks swim close enough to touch.

New URL – My Website Dilemma

While moving into my new house my old URL expired and was purchased by an online casino to take advantage of my site traffic without my knowledge (my hosting company was unable to reach me). I will not be able to reclaim this old URL for a full year, so my new URL for bird photography will be Sorry for the inconvenience, please update your internet browser bookmarks accordingly. It might be a little while before all the pages in the gallery section are updated as I have to edit the html page by page (a process I need to revise and streamline – any ideas anyone?).

2009 Workshop Schedule Now Online

My workshop schedule and details can be found here:

  • April 25-26 Southern Ohio Warblers and More – Shawnee Forest
  • New May 2-3 Southern Ohio Warblers and More – Lake Hope
  • May 9,10,11 Northern Ohio Warblers and More
  • June 2-6 Arizona Songbirds
  • New June 17-21 Loons and Warblers of Michigan
  • August 15-16 The Shorebird Workshop
  • October 17-18 The Wood Duck Workshop

2 Responses to “Studebaker Bird Photography Newsletter #5”


    Good morning Don from South Florida here, I’d like to here about your michigan 2010 workshops please.. thks don 561-212-7358
    I’m a newbie, but focused on learning!
    Thks don

  2. I really enjoyed reading the article on Photographing birds. Very informative for beginners as well as advanced amateurs.

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