Urban Wildlife Photo Project
As mentioned in my last newsletter, in recent months I have reconnected with an old friend who has been allowing me to photograph on her property. She lives nearby and owns several acres of land with an open area, vegetable garden, flower beds, woods, and a pond by the house with aquatic plants, dragon flies and frogs. She has two permanent bird feeder locations that are near bushes and tall trees. One is located at the far end of the yard with the other near her house. Bushes and tall trees were nearby both. They provide cover from which the animals could safely approach the feeders as well as escape if threatened by hawks, foxes, or other predators. When the weather allowed from late April until today, I would spend several hours early in the morning or late in the afternoon photographing in her yard. In July when, temperatures soared into the mid to high 90s and humidity rose feeder activity slowed and was limited to the cooler times of the day and after sunset. The drop in activity seemed to continue into September.
In late April, I began photographing at the bird feeder nearest the house. It was close enough that I could photograph from my friend’s dining room window. In addition to standard bird seed and suet feeders, we hung a thistle sock on a branch to attract gold and purple finches. The non-melt suet, that could withstand the summer heat, attracted the small woodpeckers, chickadees, and nuthatches. At times we added meal worms to the mix, which seemed to be a favorite of the Carolina Wrens. The bird feeder at this location was elaborate with arms and multiple hooks from which to hang a variety of feeders. I added a few natural perches for the birds to land on, but to my disappointment, they seemed to prefer sitting on the iron appendages of the feeder stand. After several days shooting, I concluded that the way the sunlight hit the area was not ideal for it cast unwanted shadows on the birds. In addition, the bushes behind the feeders were very close making it difficult to blur the background even with the lens wide open and a shallow depth of field. It became even more distracting when hit by bright sunlight.
Adaptability, perseverance, and patience are all keys to successfully photographing animal behavior. When I failed to get satisfactory results at my first location, I shifted my attention to activity around the permanent feeder at the far end of the yard. Nearby, there was a bird bath and kiddy pool filled with water to attract wildlife on hot dry days. Since I did not want to photograph the birds at the feeder, I created what I have affectionately call my animal jungle jim. With logs, tree roots, branches, other items that I collected roadside and from nearby woods, I created a setup where I hung additional feeders and provided a safe place for the birds to perch. At key locations on the logs, I smeared peanut butter and suet. For the squirrels, raccoons, and jays, I added unsalted, raw peanuts to the wildlife buffet. After watching squirrels for an extended period of time, I am convinced that they are smart and agile and that very few bird feeders are squirrel-proof.
Urban Wildlife Photo Project (cont.)
Periodically, I changed the arrangement to vary the background in my photos. For variety, I added a vertical 4-foot-long tree trunk cemented in a bucket that I could move to different locations. I baited it with a peanut butter/suet mix and placed a cage filled with suet nearby hoping woodpeckers and other birds would first perch on the trunk before jumping to the feeder. I added a small tree to the mix for birds to perch in, hoping to vary the appearance of my images.
A couple days when activity at the feeders was low, I switched my attention to smaller subjects, dragonflies and frogs. But I only had my Nikon 200 to 500 mm lens with me instead of my 200 mm macro lens designed for close focusing. When I moved forward towards the subject to increase magnification to what I desired, the autofocus could not lock on it. Remembering a similar situation in the past, I switched to manual focus and discovered I could get closer to the subject and still keep it in focus. For the dragonfly, I had to avoid my shadow falling on it. I took advantage of the fact that if it flew away, it typically returned to the same spot. For the frog photos, I had to be careful to stay low and move slowly. The biggest problem was finding a camera angle where the background was satisfactory.