About Bird Photography Finding The Birds

While birds are everywhere, they are also hard to photograph because they are small, fast, nervous and oh yeah – because they can fly. It's obvious that if you can’t find the birds, you can’t photograph them. So I thought I’d write something that explains how you might go about finding avian subjects to photograph.

Great bird subjects inspire great bird images. Pretty much anywhere in the world you can find birds. Since I live in the USA, I'll limit this post to that geographic area. But thats still a lot of ground to cover.

The great thing about photographing birds is that you can start in your own back yard. Plant a few bird-friendly plants, set out some birdbaths and feeders, and build or buy a portable blind to attract desirable subjects. If you want birds that do not inhabit your area, or you want more skittish birds like hawks, you will need to consider wildlife models and zoos.

One of the best ways to find birds of prey is to see if you have a bird rescue center in your area. These organizations typically provide medical care and shelter for birds that were injured or orphaned in the wild. These places can be an ideal source for photographers who want access to birds that are not normally approachable.

Call around until you find a rescue center and then introduce yourself. Tell the operators of the center that you are a wildlife photographer and would like a chance to photograph the birds they work with. Promise to follow any guidelines they establish, agree to give them copies of the images you make for promotional use, and if necessary, offer to make a donation to help them with their work. This can be a great way to get close-up portraits of birds under controlled conditions where you can predetermine the background and look for the right light. Try to find birds that have minimal injuries or that have been nearly rehabilitated. Even if a bird has a bad wing for instance, you may still be able to make a striking head and shoulders portrait.

Zoos are another great source for bird photography. Many zoos maintain large bird collections. In some cases, these birds may even be in areas that are photographically accessible. The San Diego Wildlife Park/San Diego Zoo have several bird exhibits with natural habitats that make great photographic backgrounds.

The San Diego Wildlife Park features an African bird exhibit that allows many great photo opportunities with general admission. When I was first starting out as a bird photographer, some of the best bird photographs I made were made at zoos.

If your local zoo doesn’t have the birds in an area that you can photograph, call the zoo society and see if you can arrange for special access through a docent or handler. Many zoos will make this access available to you in return for rights to use the images. Still others may charge a fee. If they have good specimens, it may be worthwhile.

Private game owners often will allow photographers access for a fee. The Valley Land Fund in south Texas works with ranchers offering some of the best opportunities to photograph songbirds you will ever find. http://valleylandfund.com

And don’t forget aquariums. They are likely to have water bird exhibits or habitats that attract non-captive birds. In Newport, Ore., at the Newport Aquarium, the puffin exhibit is superb.

Last but not least, there are the National Wildlife Refuges. Places like Bosque del Apache in central New Mexico have been known to be a bird photographers dream location.

No matter where you live, if you study, are informed and patient, you can find birds to photograph. To make it even easier I've got some guaranteed places to get you started.

Five places where you will almost certainly find birds to photograph...

1. Bosque del Apache, N.M., – this used to be the top bird hotspot in the west. Climate change along with some refuge managers who don’t appreciate photographers have turned the place into a hit or miss location but it’s still worth a look. Bosque del Apache (Woods of the Apache) is a 57,191- acre national wildlife refuge, 18 miles south of Socorro, N.M. More than 300 species of birds migrate to Bosque each year. Its a prime place to photograph blue herons, mallards, snowy egrets, sandhill cranes, roadrunners, Ross, Canadian and snow geese, bald eagles, Coopers and red-tailed hawks, and wild turkeys. Few places in the United States can deliver a greater concentration of birds and wildlife.

The migrating geese and cranes start arriving in earnest at the refuge in November. On any visit between mid-November and early January, you’ll see tens of thousands of birds. Visit www.friendsofthebosque.org for more information.

The J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge is located on the subtropical barrier island of Sanibel in the Gulf of Mexico. The refuge is part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the United States. It is world famous for its spectacular migratory bird populations.

The 5200 acre (21 km2) refuge was established in 1976, to protect one of the country's largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystems. The refuge is well known for its migratory bird populations. It’s almost impossible to visit this place in the late winter or early spring and not find birds.

3. The Alligator Farm, – St. Augustine, Fla., is an amazing place that offers bird photographers a chance to photograph birds in breeding plumage from as close as four feet. In late spring and early summer, you can photograph baby chicks at arms length. The birds nest here because of the alligators, who keep predators away from their nests. By the way, The Alligator Farm boasts every type of alligator and crocodile found in the world. The place is extremely photographer friendly. At the time of this writing, a yearly pass with early entry is only $60.

4. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum – in Tucson is more like a zoo than a museum. If you are patient, you can get shots of flickers poking holes in the aviarys resident cactus. They also have captive raptors that you may be able to photograph depending on the time of year and circumstances.

5. San Diego Wild Animal Park/Zoo – is a great place to photograph birds. Avoid the special photo tour, since it is not really geared toward photographers.


Photo Courtesy Levi Sim

Scott Bourne is a member of The Board Of Advisors at Macphun, an Olympus Visionary and a professional wildlife photographer, author and lecturer who specializes in birds. He was one of the founders of This Week In Photo, Founded Photofocus.com and is co-founder of the new Photo Podcast Network (photopodcasts.com.)

Scott is a regular contributor to several photography related blogs and podcasts and is the author of 11 photography books.

Scott is available to speak to your birding group, photography group and for both private and small group bird photography workshops. For more information on engaging Scott as a speaker or workshop leader, or for image licensing and print information, e-mail scott@scottbourne.com.


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