ARTICLES: THE JOY OF BIRD PHOTOGRAPHY
by Brian E. Small
While writing my bird photography column for WildBird magazine, I tried to help the readers gain a better feeling for some of the tools and techniques that have helped me improve my bird photographs over the years. However, it wasn¹t until I wrote this piece that I touched on one very important aspect of what helps me photograph birds successfully. In fact, I think it may the number one reason why both you and I take pictures of birds. The beauty of our subjects inspires us, we love being in the great outdoors and we simply enjoy taking pictures of birds.
Whether you are a beginner, intermediate or advanced photographer, I think we all share a similar passion for bird photography. From what many of you have told me, once you pick up a camera and begin photographing birds, it gets in your blood and is hard to put the camera down. That passion is the driving force that will get you up at three in the morning to go sit with your camera on a bitterly cold grouse lek or to wait for the dawn chorus at the edge of a marsh at sunrise.
Over the years, I have had to contend with Grizzly Bears in the high arctic, rattlesnakes in the desert southwest, mosquito swarms in the Florida everglades and horrendous weather in south Texas. But these obstacles only help me appreciate how wonderful it is to be experiencing all that nature has to offer when I am trying to photograph birds. Bird photography can be a real challenge and I think that is one of the reasons why it is so rewarding when you take a really great picture. I find a lot of satisfaction when I visualize a photo in my minds' eye and then am able to go out and take that exact photo.
You never know where that first spark of inspiration for birds will come from. Roger Tory Peterson used to tell the famous story of the time when he was a child, he unknowingly flushed a yellow-shafted flicker out of a tree. The bird exploded out of the tree in a blaze of golden feathers and that was it, he was hooked on birds for life.
My inspiration for bird photography came from spending time watching my father photographing colorful Neotropical migrants at a desert water hole. I had been birding with him many times as a child, but 10 years ago on one special spring morning, something just clicked for me and I knew I wanted to photograph birds. Do not be surprised if someday you have a specific photographic experience that somehow touches you that one time but lasts you a lifetime.
One of the best things you can experience through bird photography comes from meeting other people who share your passion. Whether you photograph at your local parks and refuges or travel the world looking for birds to photograph, you are bound to run into other people doing the same thing. Over the last 10 years I have made some of my best friends while I have been in the field photographing. I now have bird photographer friends all over the United States who will help me find outstanding photo opportunities when I am in their part of the country. It is also a great feeling to have a network of friends who can understand and share your photographic frustrations as well as the wonderful experiences that come with photographing birds.
During April of 1998, my good friend Alan Murphy and I were at High Island, Texas hoping to photograph migrant songbirds. I had met Alan the previous year and we became fast friends because we shared the common bond of loving to photograph Neotropical migrants. We spent our first couple of days mostly working on shorebirds because we weren't having much luck with the songbirds. Then one night as we were about to go to sleep, we began to see lightning flashes and to hear distant thunder. Within a matter of minutes the approaching storm was right on top of us and the howling north wind and driving rain shook our motel room as if a hurricane were coming. I was truly scared that we might not get through the night in one piece.
When morning finally came the winds were still blowing hard out of the north but most of the rain was gone. Alan and I looked at each other and both thought the same thing--perfect conditions for a "fallout" of migrants. The morning was actually slow for birds, but at about one in the afternoon we began to see the first waves of desperately tired birds coming in from the Gulf of Mexico.
Within and hour, the High Island woods were loaded with colorful warblers, thrushes, tanagers, grosbeaks, orioles, vireos, flycatchers and cuckoos. The open fields adjacent to the woods were covered with literally thousands of Indigo Buntings. It soon became apparent that we were in for what Texas birders would later call the best fallout of migrants in 15 years!
The fallout conditions lasted the next four days and we were able to take many wonderful photos together. It became a much more rewarding experience for me because I had a friend to share this once-in-a-lifetime avian spectacle with. A friend made because of bird photography.
I am fortunate because I make my living from lecturing about, writing about and photographing birds. However, if I never sold another photo or wrote another article, I would still take just as many bird photographs because it brings so much joy to my life. Photographing birds gives me a reason to travel all over the country, a productive way to spend my time and best of all, a great way to make new friends. I hope you will not only strive to take beautiful pictures of birds, but to also find inspiration through your photography and your time spent in the outdoors.