Bird photography for city-slickers

waterfall

Backyard Aviary

I live in the city, in a relatively small townhouse. Besides a top floor that runs the length of the unit, where I’ve established my studio, the other selling-point on our first tour of the property was the small, 79 m² (850 ft²) yard where I imagined a little Japanese-style garden to replace the existing flower-beds and weedy lawn — a tranquil scene that could be viewed through the living room sliding-door.

It took ten-years to realize the dream, but last fall (2013) I finally put a shovel in the ground, labouring over 5 months to create a water-feature that immediately supported a whole ecosystem of (introduced) flora and fauna attracted primarily by the free-running H2O.

During a February cold snap, the ice-encrusted waterfall provided a scarce source of running water. (On the west coast, sub-zero temperatures rarely last long enough to endanger the function of the pump, a metre below ground level). Accordingly, birds from miles around flocked to my little oasis.

Who knew that birds bathe as enthusiastically in winter (at least in what we call winter in the Caribbean of Canada) as in the heat of summer? Robins arrived in such numbers that I briefly had to cover most of the stream for fear that “recycled” holly berries, plucked from nearby trees, would clog the works!

"Arctic" Robin

“Arctic” Robin

Anna’s hummingbirds, a year-round resident, who must keep their feathers free from sticky nectar in the interest of insulation, grab onto the lip of the main falls, letting water cascade around their tiny, iridescent bodies. I’ve yet to capture this amazing behaviour with the camera. When I do, it will be cause for celebration, and a new post here.

Having created a backyard environment that attracts wildlife, I can set up a blind on the deck and easily record avian antics.

My relatively modest wildlife kit includes Nikon D800 and D600 cameras, with Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II lens, coupled with the TC-20E III 2x Teleconverter. For garden “landscapes” and video, I add the AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED to the mix.

Recently, a Cooper’s hawk has discovered that my bird feeders are well-stocked with grain-fed treats. An extraordinary drama occurred on New Years Day when the jet-fighter-like accipiter took a poor Oregon junco right in front of my eyes, not a metre outside the living room window. Talk about a “Wild Kingdom” moment!

Depending on your situation, it’s possible to expand on my design (perhaps with pools and connecting streams, as I did with my first ambitious foray into water gardening) or, if your space is more limited than mine, install a small, balcony-sized unit — say, a half-barrel with pond plants and a small pump — all guaranteed to attract feathered, not to mention furry, visitors. If you do have enough room, the “pondless” option I invested in is compact, relatively low-maintenance, and child-safe. All have the added bonus of calming white noise.

In this regard, a neighbour thanked me for adding the sound of running water to her days. It had, she said, helped her through a stressful event in her life. Wow! If for no other reason, this effect alone made all my work worthwhile.

If you’ve got 14-minutes and you’re interested, I recorded the whole construction of my pondless waterfall and some of the wildlife it attracts in a video/slideshow:

If truth be told, many fine bird photographs are not the result of pure happenstance.

From owls attracted with mice, to introduced perches, countless great stills and wildlife films were helped-along by attracting the fauna to the vicinity of the camera. Though my little wildlife refuge in the city is “baited” with feeders and a faux stream, I suffer no ethical qualms. After all, I help endangered birds survive in increasingly uncertain circumstances at the same time as taking pleasure in recording their fascinating behaviour. Some of the images in my “Fauna” gallery were made, during its first evolutionary stage, after I plugged-in the pump.

I recommend reading articles on non-invasive ways to attract birds, like the excellent chapter in The Handbook of Bird Photography.

Not so much by luck but by choice, my home also lies a 15-minute walk from beaches and a park where harlequin ducks, sandpipers, oystercatchers, gulls, hat-snatching barred owls, bald eagles, and great blue herons abound.

Of course, I wouldn’t give up forays into the hinterland in pursuit of natural wonders, but daily I can rely on my city garden to provide a refuge for a variety of species, including my own.

Raymond Parker

Your email is never published or shared. Required fields are marked *

*

*

S u b s c r i b e   b y   E m a i l
L i k e   o n   F a c e b o o k