Newsletter #8



Northern Ohio Songbird Workshop 2009 Report

Grasshopper Sparrow Singing on Willow Perch

The workshop started with difficult light but great birds. In the first few hours we had a Cerulean Warbler and a Warbling Vireo on our setups. Later we found the one of the most cooperative Indigo Bunting I have ever seen pose for a nice while often only a few feet away.

 Indigo Bunting

A great find and a first for me was this Yellow-throated Vireo. This treetop species can be very very difficult to get out of the treetops and in the open and it was one of the few species that breed in Ohio that I had not yet had decent photo opps with up to this time. This individual, full of personality, gave multiple low passes on perches of his own choosing.

Yellow-throated Vireo

On the last day we headed out to Tri-valley and surrounding area to get some of the grassland species. We quickly crossed Grasshopper and Henslow’s Sparrow off the list and found a very nice Blue-winged Warbler. Prarie Warblers eluded us for several hours until we found two cooperative individuals near last light. All in all, it proved to be a very successful trip.

Henslow’s Sparrow

 Michigan Loons and Warblers 2009 Report


Strange incidents on Lake Nettie caused both pairs of loons to fail their initial nesting attempts this year. One male loon had become entangled in fishing line. The other nest may have been predated. Regardless, everyone walked away with many gigabytes of loons hunting, preening, calling, flapping, yawning, napping, and every other imaginable behavior right next to our boat, sometimes within minimum focusing distance!

 Common Loon wing flap

Many photographers have been able to do well with the Loons at Lake Nettie, but my research trips in 08 turned up a host of interesting songbird species in the area as well, and during the workshop we were able to photograph some true gems of the forest. One of the highlights was this Pine Warbler who had fallen out of the nest and was being fed by an aggressive mother.

Pine Warbler Female Feeding Baby on White Cedar

 Chris Hominuk left in order for us to be able to get some sweet shots of a Golden-winged Warbler. (inside joke – he often leaves an hour early, and we always seem to nab some great shots as soon as he leaves).

Golden-winged Warbler on Tamarak

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker on Sap Wells in Birch

The Perch – Notes on Using Perches in Bird Photography


Nearly all bird species sit on branches from time to time. In fact about 60% o0f all north American bird species fit into the category “passerines”, meaning “perching birds”. True to their name, most passerines spend their lives in trees. It is no surprise then, that the plants birds perch on end up being an integral element in many bird photos.

The perch a bird chooses can make or break a photo. A lot of times, photographing a bird on a beautiful perch is simply a matter of luck and persistence. During the may of 2006 I found several Indigo Bunting males establishing territories in one of my local parks. Like many male birds setting up territories, the buntings chose to sing from the most conspicuous perches around. In this case, early in the spring they chose tall pine trees and ugly, thick dead or bare branches. The few photos I managed to take of these males were less than desirable. I kept track of the males as the spring progressed with out much improvement. Then to my surprise, late that July, I found that one of the main bunting territories had sprouted up hundreds of native sunflowers. These tall beautiful plants proved to be perfect conspicuous perches for the males to sing from, and the blossoms attracted insects for the buntings to eat. The yellow flowers were the perfect complimentary color for the deep indigo of the males. The sunflower field had a small gravel pull off from the main road which allowed me to simply use my car as a blind and wait for the male buntings to use one of the nearby sunflowers for their perch. Luck and persistence paid off.

There are times when luck just doesn’t cut it. For the last 15 years I have made an annual spring visit to Magee Marsh, Ohio’s famous migrant trap. Thousands of Warblers, Orioles, Vireos, Hummingbirds, Kinglets, and Thrushes stop by this area at the tip of Crane Creek State Park each spring before crossing Lake Erie on their way up to their Canadian breeding grounds. While subjects are plentiful, perches and backgrounds are less than ideal. Photographing migrants basically entails following the bird as they flit along from tree to tree hoping that eventually the bird will chose a photogenic perch with a clean background. Seeing so many interesting species at close range is very exciting but good photo opportunities are often days apart. If I get one good image per weekend at a migrant trap like Magee Marsh I consider myself fortunate.

The Set Up

As my photography skills developed, I found myself spending less and less time at  migrant traps, and more time finding situations where I could photograph the birds on my own terms, control the perches and background to some degree, and net a higher percentage of “keeper” photographs per day. The thinking photographer can, at times, effect what the bird will land on and get a “shot of a lifetime” with great frequency and precision. Exercising this sort of control over the image is usually referred to as a “set up”.

This Wood Duck was attracted in to an area of the pond where we set out branches to match his colors and add to the composition. This is one of the more basic forms of a set up.

 The most basic form of control involves doing things like walking towards a tame Scrub Jay, coaxing it off a parking lot and into a beautiful field. The next level would be to put peanuts in that field to entice the jay on over. Then the photographer could put the nuts on a rustic, mossy branch in the middle of the beautiful field to try to get the bird to land on the branch. Finally, it they are allowed, the photographer could reposition the branch so that it is lined up with the sun and a beautiful background.

 Every photographer exercises some level of control over their images, by acknowledging that some images look good, and others should be discarded or never taken to begin with. There is a constant debate, however, as to how much control should be used beyond careful editing. One photographer may brag that they use some avian attractants and not others, or that they coax birds onto branches but never alter the branch positions, etcetera. In my mind, this sort of bragging is futile, although I hear it a lot both in the field and in online critique forums. Each photographer should exercise exactly the level of control he or she feels comfortable with and not badger or lecture others about it.

 Selecting a perch

If a photographer chooses to attempt to get birds to land on set-up perches, there are a number of guidelines for perch selection that can help make the image more successful.

 If you do want to create a setup you’ll probably end up having to bring a perch from home or private property with permission. To keep the perch from wilting, pick it as close to the photo session as possible. Always keep the perch in water and if you need to store it overnight, keep it refrigerated.

 Most photographers agree that hand picked perches should look as natural as possible. An ideal perch would be a native plant normally found in the bird’s habitat and should not show signs of clipping or modification. I always consider it a huge bonus if I can use a perch which also tells something about the species’ natural history or environment. For example, crossbills and many other northern finch species’ lifecycles are tied to cone bearing pines, so an image with a crossbill on a pine branch complete with pine cones can make for an incredible image.

Red Crossbill on Pine (attracted to water drip)
Deschutes National Forest, OR | July
Canon Rebel XTi | Canon 500mm f4 IS | 1.4xTC |

 If you hang around the major bird photography forums online you’ll run across the acronym BOAS meaning “Bird on a Stick”. Heated discussion often takes place as there are some photographers who exclusively use bare sticks for perches their entire careers. Many photographers feel that, while once in a while a simple stick may be the best visual solution, it can get boring. Live branches with leaves, buds, or interesting bark allow the photographer to make a more complex composition with greater color diversity. Also keep in mind your background and bird colors so that your perch colors compliment both.

 When using perches with leaves or blossoms, I find it best to make sure they are less than half the length of the bird. Giant flowers or leaves visually overwhelm the bird and disrupt the hierarchy of the image.

 Another good rule of thumb is to only use branches that are less than half the width of the bird. Using any larger perch will usually result in the perch appearing to have too much visual weight in the image and will distract from the bird. Usually the smaller the branch width, the more elegant the image will appear.

Setting Up the Perch

Once you have selected the perfect perch you need to decide how to position it. I usually carry a number of tension clamps in various sizes along with a few zip ties and bungee cords in my camera bag. Most of the time I set up an old or cheap tripod and simply clamp the perch securely to one of the tripod legs or tension knobs. When possible, I place the tripod in an open area with a clean background behind it. If I have to set up in an area where there are other perches nearby that the bird would likely land on, I place grass or leaves on the competing perches to make them less stable and desirable.  I also place loose vegetation over my tripod handle so that the bird doesn’t land on it. My wife even sewed a sort of cloth “skirt” which fits over my tripod legs and discourages birds from landing on the legs. During very windy situations it may be necessary to tie a weight or anchor the tripod down so that it doesn’t blow over and frighten away your subject.

 When fastening the perch to the tripod, I try to tilt the leaf surfaces towards the camera to better see the leaves.  I also try to place branches at a slight diagonal angle. When branches are exactly parallel or perpendicular (at 90 or 180 degree angles)  with the edges of your image frame, the image tends to look somewhat static and lack movement.

Getting a Bird to Land on a Perch

Selecting a beautiful perch and setting it is relatively easy compared to actually getting a bird to land on it. One of the most effective methods involves placing your perch next to a bird feeding station. Even better yet, attach your perch directly to the bird feeder. This gives the birds a sort of landing zone before proceeding to feed. Placing a perch over a bird bath or water drip can be especially effective in areas where fresh water may not be readily available for miles. In the eastern US and Canada such areas are few and far between, but nearly the whole southwestern US qualifies. A bird photographer can also use other attractants near the perch like mealworms or song recordings. Getting a bird to land just where you want it takes a lot of practice and patience, but the rewards are sweet. The learning process can be a long one. It took me years to consistently get the results I wanted. Seeing an experienced photographer go through the setup process and then successfully attract a bird can cut down on the learning time, which is why my workshops which deal with setups (especially my warbler workshops) are my most popular instructional photo tours.

Cerulean Warbler on Grapevine (attracted to warbler call)
St. Claire County, Michigan | May | Canon 40D | Canon 600mm f4 IS |


2 Responses to “Newsletter #8”

  1. Thank you for this post, I so absolutely have the same opinion! And it’s very stimulating for me. I’m just functioning on my opinion with this issue.

  2. a great workshop on birds. really a great collection of information about birds. well! very interesting site.

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