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Backyard Bird Photography

Updated: Jun 16, 2023

My post is about the birds that visit my new place of residence in Windhoek, Namibia, but some of it is also applicable elsewhere. Since the Coronavirus started to impact our lives and lockdown meant that we stayed home most of the time, as a photographer I saw the opportunity to set-up a bird feeding station at home to photograph visiting birds to the garden.

Lucky for me, there is a ravine running at the back of the house with thickets of trees and bushes close to the property. That also means that we have the red bishop birds breeding in the reeds that also grow there. I was immediately attracted to the red bishops as the males were in breeding plumage when we moved in the house recently.

Immediately after I started to put out food for the birds, they noticed and started to pay attention and once the others see that some birds move to a certain spot, the others follow suit. I have acquired a nice bird feeder stand with hooks for food and water and a dry fruit tree's branches make good perches for the birds.

In the beginning, there were mainly red bishops, southern masked weavers and doves that visited the feeders. But now it feels that the whole of Eros suburb's birds is drawn in at feeding time. I have started to also feed some fruit and suet, which I make myself and the birds love it.

Weaver birds fighting over suet.

The southern red bishop males are easy to spot with their bright red and black plumage during summer when the breeding is at a high which is from January through mid-May here in the southern hemisphere after which they lose their colourful dress. The female is rather pale in comparison.

Weavers like the red bishop like to build their nests in reeds as they can weave the grass and leaves into a nest using one or more stems of reeds.

Since the weavers bred in the reeds and other birds had plenty of cover with all the trees and bushes, it was ideal for me as a photographer to set-up a feeding station in order to get the birds to come to me, instead of me having to go and look for them.

The young red bishops that could fly were following the adults everywhere to be fed. They would sit close to an adult and try to entice them for food (regurgitated seeds) while clapping their wings rapidly. When the birds get into an activity like feeding or being fed, they are so desperate for food that they don't see me as a threat at all and I usually stand with my camera and tripod only about three meters away, while standing dead still, they don't mind my presence at all. By being close to the subject and by making sure to have the feeders quite a distance from the background trees and bushes, I am able to throw the background of the photo sometimes completely out of focus, which means that the birds stand out to be the focal point of the picture (experienced photographers know this of course).

With photographing small birds, the photographer has to think about a few things to be successful. The idea is not to photograph the birds on the feeders themselves, but rather on perches that can be set-up for them to land on before they go to the feeders.

The big advantage of perches is that you can change them often and place them exactly where you want them with regards to the background. When you walk around and photograph birds in their environment, you often end up with unwanted and distracting backgrounds of trees and branches in the background.

The feeding station consist of mostly seed feeders but I also put out fruit and suet. Birds get used to me putting out food for them and they hang around in the trees and bushes nearby. As soon as I step away, they come down, sometimes in big swarms to feed. The downside of the feeding is that the doves (speckled and laughing), who are not catered for, sometimes disturb the smaller birds as they try to get to the seeds.

Here are some of the feeders that I use. I purchased a metal stand especially made to hang feeders, which forms the main focal point of the feeding station.

Many bird photographers make use of some kind of blind to conceal themselves from the birds, but I guess I'm quite lucky because as long as I stand still behind my camera and tripod, the birds don't mind my presence there and that gives me a lot of freedom of movement (slow moves) and choice of shots that I wouldn't have from a blind.

Photographing wild birds in the backyard.
This is how close I am from the birds.

Let me tell you a bit more about my equipment and technique that I use for bird photography. Apart from a suitable place in your backyard to attract the birds, a long telephoto lens is vital to get small birds at a decent size on the picture. I use my Nikon D7100 DSLR camera and the new Sigma Contemporary zoom lens, 150-600mm and I shoot at 600mm most of the time, even at this close distance of about 4 meters away.

ISO is mostly set to 1000, aperture is set at f8 to compensate for the depth in the bird depending on the angle that the bird sits to the camera and in good light, the shutter speed is usually around 2000 to 5000/sec. The fast speed is inevitable to freeze the rapid movement of the wings when I try to catch them in flight. A lot of patience is required to be very still, sometimes for long periods, but the rewards speaks for themselves.

Below are a variety of birds that I have photographed in my backyard in Windhoek, Namibia. If you have questions or just want to chat, feel free to comment and maybe you have your own situation which we'd love to hear about.

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