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Laura Erickson: How photography can open up a whole new world of birding

An Anna's Hummingbird shines in bright California sunshine in this photo by Laura Erickson.
An Anna’s Hummingbird shines in bright California sunshine in this photo by Laura Erickson.

When I started birding, in 1975, I wasn’t interested in photography. I was a college student and couldn’t afford a telephoto lens or the expenses of film. More important, during that acquisitive period, I wanted nothing more than to see lots of birds and didn’t want fiddling with a camera to slow me down.

I birded for more than two decades before I rethought things. I still didn’t want to be a photographer; I just wished I had amassed the wonderful fruits of being a bird photographer without any of the hassle.

In about 2005, I began taking photos — first with an extended-zoom digital camera and then via digiscoping. I still didn’t think of myself as a photographer, and even now, I call myself a birdwatcher who takes pictures.

Read Laura’s article about using an extended-zoom camera.

At first, I wanted to get shots of as many species as possible. After I had taken decent photographs of the birds in my backyard, I left my camera on a closet shelf unless I was going somewhere good.

Tiny details

Then I bought a digital SLR and started shooting multiple shots of even the most common birds with the setting on burst. Suddenly, a whole new world opened up for me. As I viewed my photos on my computer, I noticed tiny details — ticks on a songbird’s eyelid or face, for example — and quick actions, such as a hummingbird’s tongue protruding to its full extent. Preening was easy enough to watch through binoculars, but all the interesting postures, too fleeting to absorb in the field, fascinated me. I took photo after photo of whatever birds were there.

In southern California, I photographed an Anna’s Hummingbird that perched briefly on a spiky plant. In eight seconds, I took 26 photos, including one that captured his gorget in full, dazzling color as he faced into the sun and several that showed the gray pigment of those same feathers when he turned his head — a vivid lesson in iridescence. When I shot Atlantic Puffins on Machias Seal Island in Maine, I got close-ups that revealed the spiny roof of the mouth and the expandable gape. The adaptations help the bird carry a dozen or more fish at once without losing any of them.

Now I spend as much time or more photographing birds in my backyard as I do farther afield. Year-round, I lean out the open upstairs window, clicking away at birds in my box elder and cherry trees, and I sit for hours in my portable blind near busy feeders or shrubs. Wherever I happen to be, I photograph anything that holds still long enough to let me.

As Forest Gump might have put it, taking pictures of birds is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get, but it’s certain to be sweet.


This article from Laura Erickson’s column “Attracting Birds” appeared in the March/April 2015 issue of BirdWatching magazine. Subscribe

Read more by Laura Erickson

Why even a Big Year can’t compete with birding at home.

Bidding farewell to a favorite birding spot.

How habitat created by one neighbor brought birds to a whole neighborhood.

A joyful return to a long-neglected feeder.

What to look for when buying Nyjer.

  Originally Published

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Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson is the 2014 recipient of the American Birding Association’s highest honor, the Roger Tory Peterson Award. She has written many books about birds and hosts the long-running radio program and podcast “For the Birds.” Her column  “Attracting Birds,” about attracting, feeding, sheltering, and understanding the birds in your backyard, appears in every issue of BirdWatching. “Snow Bird,” her first article in the magazine, appeared in December 2003. It described the migration and winter habits of the American Robin.

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