Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, contests and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Setting up a drip system for photographing migrant birds

drip system
Male Baltimore Orioles vie for space on a branch in Galveston County, Texas. The birds were attracted to the spot with a nearby water drip. Photo by Brian E. Small

For me, there is nothing quite as exciting in bird photography as sitting in a photo blind and listening to the sweet sound of flowing water. When spring has sprung, I know that this beautiful sound will bring with it the birds I love to photograph the most. The arrival of spring in the United States also means the arrival of our neotropical migrants as they return from south of the border.

The color, beauty, and diversity of North America’s migrant passerines are hard to match. Our warblers, tanagers, orioles, thrushes, vireos, buntings, flycatchers, grosbeaks, and many others travel hundreds or thousands of miles from their southern wintering areas to their northern breeding grounds and then back again. During migration, they need important stopover areas to feed and rest so they can refuel their energy supply and continue their journey. By knowing where and when to anticipate these tired and hungry migrants, you can easily set up a portable water-drip system and hope to photograph some of them along their northbound journeys.

A slowly dripping trickle of water into a shallow pool in springtime is probably the most effective way to photograph a wide variety of land birds at a fixed location. The beauty of a water-drip is that you can easily create an inexpensive drip system in your yard, or you can make a lightweight and portable drip to take on your next birding and photographic adventure in the field. In fact, I use the same system both in the field and in my backyard.

My favorite water-drip system is made with a 2.5-gallon collapsible water jug (with an adjustable spigot), a small, flexible plastic trash can lid or flowerpot saucer, and some extra-strength bungee cords. This sturdy, lightweight, inexpensive, and portable trio has served me well for close to 30 years. You should be able to find all three items at your local camping or sporting goods store.

First, I bury the trash can lid about 6 inches in the ground and conceal it with soil, vegetation, sand, rocks, leaves, and other natural materials. Next, I fill the basin with water and set a few strategically placed photogenic perches above it, so that the approaching birds have a place to land, and I have a place to photograph them. Lastly, I use the bungee cords to suspend the water-filled container from a tree branch about 5 or 6 feet above the trash can lid. That’s all there is to it.

The key to a successful drip is to open the spigot just enough to allow a drop of water to fall about every second. The falling water drops splash the water in the pool, the sight and sound of the drip attract the birds, and the magic begins. Before you know it, you will be photographing a surprising variety of birds at your own water feature.

Now that spring is upon us, you may want to first set up this simple drip system in your yard to, pardon the pun, test the waters. The best way to experiment with new photo techniques is to try and perfect them at home first. Once you are comfortable with the drip-system and how to photograph using it, you can then take it in the field and apply what you have already learned through trial and error in your yard.

A male Magnolia Warbler pauses on a branch at a migratory stopover. A slow trickle of
water into a shallow pool will entice birds to visit, offering photo opportunities for birders. Photo by Brian E. Small

Location is critical

You should remember a couple of important considerations for photography when you choose a location for a water-drip. Look for a spot in your yard that allows you to place the drip close to surrounding vegetation. This will provide visiting birds with secure cover before and after they leave your water-filled basin. I would also suggest you look for a place in your yard where the sun will be on your drip most of the day and you can place your camera equipment with the sun at your back.

It may also be helpful to put up a few seed, suet, or fruit feeders close to your water-drip. This will help bring birds into the area, and once the birds have seen the water, they are sure to make their way to it eventually. By providing food sources as well as the water, you increase your chances for a variety of birds to photograph. At this time of year, migrant birds are attracted to the activity of resident species that are regulars at your feeders.

When you are ready to try a portable water-drip in the field, the most important consideration is location. Setting up a drip along a creek or lakeshore will probably be a waste of time. Why would the birds need to visit your set-up in a place where there is plenty of water already available? Experience has taught me that you need to look for locations where there is no visible water, and the water you provide is the birds’ only choice.

The most obvious location is a desert. Without a doubt, you are sure to attract many birds by providing water in the desert. I have also had success setting up my portable drip system in a dry forest, on a dry mountain slope, in a dry woodland, at a desert oasis, and even on a desert island. You may also find that state park and national forest campgrounds in these locations are great for setting up a water-drip. Usually, birds concentrate around campgrounds, and if you provide a water source, both the resident birds and migrants are likely to find it.

Of course, using a water-drip system isn’t the only way to photograph migrants in spring. I’ve spent many days on the breeding grounds following birds through the forests and woodlands of North America in search of a good photo. Finding males singing on territory is a great way to create beautiful images of our spring migrants. This kind of photography requires more work but can be equally satisfying. I must admit that images created this way can sometimes have a more “natural” feel to them than photography at a set-up situation. In fact, in some ways, the challenges involved with photography on the breeding grounds are even more satisfying. But that conversation will be best left to another column. For now, I hope you’ll give a drip system a try and see for yourself how well water works!

Read more stories about bird photography

Read our newsletter!

Sign up for our free e-newsletter to receive news, photos of birds, attracting and ID tips, and more delivered to your inbox.

Sign Up for Free
Brian E. Small

Brian E. Small

Brian Small is a Los Angeles-based bird and nature photographer whose photos appear in the “ID Tips” column in every issue of BirdWatching. His work has been published in Time, The New York Times, Audubon, Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife, Wildlife Conservation, and many other publications. His photos also illustrate many field guides, including Kenn Kaufman’s Birds of North America, a series of state bird identification guides published with the American Birding Association, and his own Eastern and Western photographic field guides to the birds of North America published in 2009 with author Paul Sterry and Princeton University Press.

Brian E. Small on social media