Bird Photography - Bringing the birds to you
I've been asked a few times where the best places are to photograph birds in Tucson. While I enjoy going out to Sweetwater Refuge or the local parks, I find myself shooting more photos in my own yard than anywhere else. For this main reason I would definitely suggest your own yard is probably the best place to photograph common birds. Grabbing the camera and photographing the birds is only a few feet away when the mood strikes me. That's a big plus for me. In all honesty though, I currently have an acre of property nestled in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains in Tucson. So being outdoors is very peaceful and serene without having that suburbia feeling.
While having property might help out some, you don't have to have a huge yard to attract birds to your area. In fact, just by putting up a feeder will help attract more birds to your yard for the simple pleasure of watching or photographing them. Below are a few tips to helping you bring them to your yard. I have to warn you though that once you get started, you may find that it is difficult to stop watching the birds from here on out. If you are wanting to photograph larger birds, such as hawks, eagles, etc., I suggest you check with your local Audubon society chapter to help you locate shooting locations in your area.
Before you place a feeder in your yard, the first question you should ask yourself is what type of birds do you want to bring in or photograph? There are all sorts of bird feeders, some are specific to the type of food you are going to serve. Sunflower, suet feeders and thistle feeders can be quite different from your common seed feeders.
Once you know what type of bird(s) you want to attract, the best solution is to figure out the food you are going to put out to attract your favorite birds. The food usually dictates what type of feeder to buy. Below is a list of food and the birds that like each particular one to help you get started. Keep in mind that not all birds will only eat only one type of food. For example, if you are trying to attract woodpeckers by putting out suet, you should know that quite a few birds like suet, especially during the winter months.
Cracked Corn: Doves, Jays, Juncos, Quail, Red-winged blackbirds, Sparrows, Towhees
Fruit: Catbird, Jays, Mockingbird, Orioles, Thrushes
Peanuts: Cardinal, Chickadee, Jays, Nuthatches, Woodpeckers
Safflower: Cardinal, Junco
Suet: Chickadee, Jays, Mockingbirds, Nuthatches, Thrushes, Woodpeckers, Wrens
Sugar Water/Nectar: Hummingbirds, Orioles
Sunflower Seeds: Cardinal, Chickadee, Grosbeak, Jays, Juncos, House finch, sparrows, and towhees
Thistle/Nyjer: Buntings, Goldfinch, Pine Siskins, House Finch, Sparrows, Towhees
The above list was compiled from various bird sites and I only included some of the common feed that you can purchase at your local bird stores. As I said before, you will find that birds will not just stick to one particular food. Just because you put out Safflower food, doesn't mean that only Cardinals and Juncos will come by to eat this. Expect other birds, sometimes many other birds, to come by and snack. The normal visitors to my yard visit almost all of my feeders. This includes the woodpeckers eating from my wild bird seed feeder, wrens, mockingbirds and lesser goldfinch eating from my peanut butter feeder to almost all of the birds eating the fruit that I've put out.
Once you've decided on which type of bird you want to attract, visit your local bird store to pick out a feeder and some food. Some bird food, especially Nijer (thistle) can be quite expensive. Look for places where you can buy in bulk whenever you can to save you some money. For example, a 50 lb bag of wild bird seed is only $7 at Cosco here in Tucson. If you want to come up with your own ways for feeding let me suggest a couple of things I've done that have been successful.
Food Suggestion #1: Put a long nail in a tree, leaving about half or quarter of the nail sticking out. Next, cut an orange in half and stick it directly into the nail through the center of the orange. Put the other half back in the refrigerator for the next day or week after the birds have finished with the first half. If you have a dead branch on a tree that you can cut down to size, then obviously the nail is optional and you can stick the orange through the thin dead branch. Both ways work well.
Food Suggestion #2: What works great in colder months, is to take the lid off of an empty peanut butter jar and drill a screw directly into the center of the plastic lid and into the tree. If you can place the lid at an angle, all the better, but not necessary. Then use a butter knife and spread peanut butter into the lid. As I said before, the woodpeckers, wrens, jays, mockingbirds, and even the goldfinch love this treat. Word of warning, if it's too warm out, the peanut butter will ooze out of the lid. This is why I mentioned putting it at an angle and serve it during the cooler winter months. Like peanuts and suet, peanut butter is a great source of energy for birds during the winter.
Food Suggestion #3: If you want to make your own hummingbird food, it's actually quite simple and inexpensive. Put 1 cup of sugar and 4 cups of water in a pot. Bring the water to a boil and then let cool. Now you have the perfect hummingbird recipe. The hummers in my yard absolutely love this. Then again, so do the woodpeckers, verdin, goldfinch and house finch.
Once you've decided on your food and have bought your feeder, you can pretty much place it anywhere you like that allows you to watch the birds from your house, bedroom window, patio, etc. The best suggestion is to place the feeder close to a tree so the birds have some sort of shelter to escape to from predators. If you are going to photograph the birds, consider placing your feeder somewhere you can take pictures without scaring the birds away. Some of my feeders are close enough to a window to where I can shoot from there. Although I normally try not to shoot through my windows and would rather be outside any ways. Once the birds get used to you, you can pretty much take photos from within 10-15 feet of them without scaring them away. This is fine if you have a long lens/focal length. When I only had my 300mm, I would lay on the ground close to a feeder (about 7-10 feet away) and wait for the birds to come in. Normally I'd only have to wait about 20 minutes, but for the quail, I ended up waiting a little over an hour. It all depends on how hungry the birds are and how timid they are. Whenever you go outside to photograph the birds, they will fly off. Not to worry though. Just pick a spot and wait a little bit for them to come back.
Expect anywhere from two days to a few weeks for the birds to discover their new restaurant. In addition to a feeder, a definite must is a bird bath. You can put out an extravagant bird bath with trickling water or a plane jane birdbath from Walmart. As long as the birds have some water is all that matters. Not only during the hot summer months in Tucson, but also during the winter months as well. Many birds die from lack of water after several days. Living in the desert, it only makes sense to put out some fresh water. Baths should be cleaned every week to avoid the birds from catching or spreading disease.