Nature in the Frame | Getting birds off the feeder

Getting birds off the feeder

March 03, 2018

This winter has been notable for the frequency of visits by certain finches. I've already posted about Hawfinch and this time it's the turn of the Siskin to take centre stage. They are a rather smart, delicate, finch that in the past has been a very rare visitor to the garden with only the odd one perched briefly in a tree or flying overhead. However, this winter there's been a small flock coming sporadically to the feeders -- which translates into getting under the LensCoat portable hide (aka one large camo blanket) and sitting by the feeder for hours.

Once the birds found the feeders the next step was to encourage them onto settings that were, well, not on the feeder itself.

The first obvious opportunity off the feeder was underneath, but birds on grass, are, well, not very interesting. I mean take a look at the image below. It's nice enough as a photo, and a cracking male Siskin. But let's be honest, grass as a scene is, well, boring with a capital "B"!

Siskin (male), Mies, SwitzerlandSiskin (male), Mies, Switzerland

And while I'm being critical, the light's somewhere off to the left side - note that the right-hand half of the bird is in shadow. This individual just kept hopping closer and closer to the blind, and as it got closer it moved to my right, and hence the poor sun angle (when compared to my position relative to the feeder).

Next to the feeder used to be a mature sycamore, some 50 ft or so in height, towering over the back of the house. This tree fell a couple of months ago (narrowly missing the house - phew!) and what's now left are a handful of small stumps. In the clean up process these were rather over zealously pruned, leaving me with a couple of featureless perches, and providing, as beautifully illustrated in the next image, bird on stick, or more precisely, bird on big stick.

Siskin (female), Mies, SwitzerlandSiskin (female), Mies, Switzerland

Bird on stick = also BORING, although a (small) step up from bird on grass.

I'm not one for routinely messing with perches and so forth, but when in the garden I feel I can afford myself a little latitude - the birds are already attracted by seed, so a little creativity with the environment around the feeder seems ok.

Although we have a large garden, improving the photographic opportunities and getting birds off the feeders didn't require anything too elaborate. Birds are like labrador puppies - award them and they will (if you wait long enough) come and use the perch you provide, although they will also stand on the ones just out of site, or behind a twig or somehow hide from view. So one tip is to minimise the number of perch options with a little selective pruning.

All I did to improve the photographic options was move a couple of moss and ivy covered logs that were lying around the garden and place them under the feeder. In the end, I had the remnants of the sycamore tree and a couple of moss covered logs. These were obligingly used by the Siskins, which takes me nicely to my two favourites - one of a smart male, sporting its black crown and bib, and then a less colourful streaky female.

In the first, the male Siskin is perched on what's left of the fallen sycamore. The white out of focus circles are hail. The hail shower was super light and blowing around all over the place - simply too erratic to work with slow shutter speeds (for streaky snow) - so I went fast to freeze them. Canon 1DX Mkii with 600mm f/4 ISII + 1.4x. 1/1600 @ f/6.3, ISO 1600.

Siskin (male), Mies, SwitzerlandSiskin (male), Mies, Switzerland

And in the final shot, the female is perched on one of the old logs I'd simply positioned under the feeder. This Siskin spent most of its time hopping around on the ground, but for a few brief seconds it hopped up onto the log. Of course there were a few sunflower seeds strategically placed just out of view, to encourage such action. Canon 1DX Mkii with 600mm f/4 ISII + 1.4x. 1/1250 @ f/6.3, ISO 1600.

Siskin (female), Mies, SwitzerlandSiskin (female), Mies, Switzerland

What do I like about these two? Well, a couple of aspects that I think are worth mentioning - background and head turn:

*  Background: both images have a clean, out of focus, and light coloured background. This is not by chance. I've positioned myself under my camo blind exactly where these two elements come together. Due to the natural contours in the garden, the ground falls away behind the logs and stump, putting the background further away and ensuring it remains nicely OOF, even at f/6.3. This is all part of the planning.

*  Head turn: with perched birds I find that a slight turn of the head towards the camera is often an extremely important element to nail. The male's is good, but in fairness the female is closer to parallel than I'd like, although still not bad. This is all about timing. Little birds are nervous eaters, continually looking out for predators (neighbour's cat, Sparrowhawk), turning their head one way then the other. So I only press the shutter when they turn towards the camera. In practice, I'm often predicting the head turn, as it can be so brief that they turn towards you, and then turn back before you can react. Whilst fps help, it's actually being aware of this behaviour and depressing the shutter at the right moment that's key. Also, when under the blind I'm using silent mode at 5fps (the chatter of 14 fps will spook some birds).

For some final reflections, Siskins are not classically ground feeders, and so what I'm missing is a classic "Siskin feeding on a thin alder or birch twig" shot. There are some aspects of a shot that epitomise a bird's habitat, character and/or behaviour, and those to me are richer images. To get that shot in the garden will require dipping further into perch set-up than I typically like, although I'm not totally against giving it a go.

 

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