For the Birds (part 4)

Morkel Erasmus Morkel 15 Comments

Hey everyone! I’ve been bogged down and couldn’t find time to carry on with this series the past week or so, but here we go…

The response to this series of tips on bird photography has been overwhelming – thanks for following along and I’m glad I can assist in some way to help improve your efforts in photographing our feathered friends.

If you need to catch up (maybe you’ve missed an episode or 2), check these out:


This episode will focus on one of the most important aspects of bird and wildlife photography – knowing and reading your subject. As you can imagine, being able to anticipate behaviour will greatly increase your odds of nailing a photo of that behaviour if and when it does occur. Unfortunately there’s only so much I can convey in a blog post like this – this skill is mostly acquired through spending hours upon hours observing and photographing wildlife and birds. Nevertheless, there are some general pointers that hold true for many bird species. I will now look at certain generic behaviours and how you can approximate what’s about to happen – nothing is 100% guaranteed but I’ve found this to work well in the field in most cases.


1. The Takeoff

Many of the photo opportunities we have with birds arise from birds on perches. We get one or two nice portraits, perhaps some interaction with other birds, but most serious bird photographers will admit that they covet one decent takeoff shot of every species they photograph – it’s a joy to see the wings and primaries fully extended and the plumage in full show. How do you anticipate the takeoff? Many birds have a serious “tell” that reveals their intention to fly away: they poop. Yip, often a bird will jettison the additional weight in its rectum before taking to the skies. With birds who are on the hunt for insects, keep watching them closely as they will often swing their heads this way and that to follow the trajectory of insects flying by, before leaving the perch to make a strike. Yet another telltale signal of a possible takeoff is when the bird tucks its neck/head in a few times in rapid succession.



2. The Landing

Well, every bird that takes off has to go land somewhere eventually, right? Anticipating the landing is easy in some cases, and pretty hard in others. The easy ones are often when you spot a bird flying in, and there’s one quite obvious open branch where you predict with 95% certainty they will land. In these cases, you either track the birds and fire your shutter as it prepares to land, or you pre-focus on the intended perch (with enough DOF) and fire away as the bird enters the frame.



3. Fishing/Hunting

Many of the birds we love to spend time photographing are proficient and amazingly skilled hunters/fishers…but capturing these moments is something many photographers spend years pursuing and perfecting. It’s often something that happens in the blink of an eye, and it’s very hard to predict WHERE the actual “hit” will take place. Again, spending time with your subject is invaluable. Try to work out where the bird is looking, if there’s a pattern (many kingfishers use the same perches to hunt from routinely each morning for example). You need to make sure you have enough shutter speed and depth-of-field (see Part 2) to ensure you nail the action as well. Pied Kingfishers, for example, often hover above the surface of the water, and they will generally dive straight down into the water when they do, so this will give you a good idea of where to pre-focus on the water.



4. Moments of Madness

A great many birds are often quite silly. Think about your average pea-brained Coot or Egyptian Goose, running across the water and chasing away any bird that comes close. I also include any sort of altercation between birds of the same species under this category. Look at any rookery and you’ll see how often birds will have a good squabble over something as silly as a perch, when there’s a thousand good perches around them in any case. Vultures are also great exponents of the MoM as they will often fight over vast amounts of meat on a carcass they will never in a hundred years consume among them. I’ve seen vultures fight over an elephant…yes, an elephant carcass. Keep your eye open when there’s more than one bird within close proximity to another – sparks are bound to fly!


 5. Unique Behaviour

Lastly, there are certain bird species that are known for some pretty interesting behaviour. Knowing what to look for will greatly improve your chances of a unique photo. If you frequently visit the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, you will know about the Lanner Falcons and Southern Pale Chanting Goshawks performing amazing acrobatics to strike down doves and sandgrouse in the air as the latter come to drink in the morning. Ostriches are prone to perform strange mating dances and quirky dust-bathing maneuvers. Again, I can’t stress enough the importance of getting to know the subjects you photograph. The iconic images that inspire you are often the result of hours of observation, planning and practice. The images below show interesting bits of behaviour I was able to capture in the field.

The first shows a Lilac-breasted Roller flipping a grasshopper in the air before consuming it – something I had seen many times before, so when the bird perched close to me, I was able to plan and wait for this exact moment.


The second image shows a Fork-tailed Drongo harassing and chasing off a Yellow-billed Kite. These feisty little birds are fearless and will stop at nothing to drive raptors from their domains. I was photographing the perched Kite when I heard the Drongo’s distinct call, and I knew what was going to happen. I couldn’t have planned the drongo to hover in the perfect spot like it did, though (you still need some luck now and again, on top of all the planning and practice!)



There you go, that’s about it for this edition of For the Birds”. I hope you found some useful tips and food for thought in this one, and that you’ll go and practice hard when you head out with your camera to those birdies next time. In the next edition I will look at the qualities that makes for a good bird photo, and how to filter your great shots from your decent shots when you open them up in your image review software.


Morkel Erasmus

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Comments 15

  1. Laurette Theron

    Hi Morkel
    Thank you for the great information
    I really enjoy reading your blog and have learned so much.I do not have the opportunity to go out in the field but my garden has a variety of birds which I am practising on.
    Regards Laurette

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  2. Ken Haley

    Hi Morkel. I’ve really enjoyed reading this and your other informative “bird” posts. I’ve altered my camera settings following your earlier advice and am now hoping for a good opportunity to put the theory into practice.

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  3. Judy Royal Glenn

    Hey Morkel,
    I am a big fan of your photography and wanted to thank for sharing your knowledge in the series “For the Birds.” Your section of EV was very beneficial for me! I have a few questions for you in regards to how you use auto focus. I also shoot Nikon. Do you use a single point AF when tracking birds in flight and/or while they are perching or do you shoot using AF-C and use either the single point or the 9 point? I shoot a lot of hummingbirds, so would you change that based on the size of the bird you are shooting? Could you explain this in your next section or how you use autofocus in various situations? Thanks ~ Judy

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      Morkel Erasmus

      Hey Judy. Good point, I should have covered AF setup already and it’s not even crossed my mind yet. I will definitely cover it in the next (or another future) post. I shoot my Nikons on AF-C pretty much all the time, and also prefer using the AF expansion mode for better tracking, meaning I select a single point but the camera can expand that point to any of those immediately around it if my focus tracking skills are off-base.

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  4. Jon Bryant

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge Morkel!

    I really enjoyed reading these blogs and learning from them….as well as being inspired by the images you shared.

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  5. derekevens

    Hi Morkel,

    I started at No1 this morning and finished off here. A great informative series and thanks for sharing, you learn something all the time with this fantastic (for me a hobby) called “Photography”. For me personally the “EV” section something I have to give attention too, I often use spot metering for birds and look forward to bringing in EV settings more often as you pointed out.

    The whole Wild Eye concept fantastic please keep up the good work and look forward to the next postings.Thanks once again.


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  6. Leanne

    Thanks Morkel – very helpful. Would be great when you post a picture if you could share your exact settings. Bucket list to do a trip with you. Thanks and Regards

  7. Pingback: Wild Eye Photography For the Birds (part 5) » Wild Eye Photography

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