Image created on September 11, 2013 at the Singapore Chinese Garden with Canon EOS-1D Mark IV and Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L. ISO 2000, f/5.6, 1/320s, Evaluative metering.
Kingfishers are challenging birds for photographers, they are shy and tend to take off as soon as they see a human approaching them. I find these skittish birds to be an ideal subjects to strengthen birding skills and with their features and colours an image of them is a great reward after the efforts put in the hunt.
One thing that I’ve found particularly difficult was to make progress at so called ear-birding: recognising birds by their call only. It takes time to recognise birds call, some of them being similar, other very different from one member of a family to the others (in particular Kingfisher have quite a large range of calls from one species to the other). When doing the effort it becomes easier with time and after awhile you might hear better familiar birds than humans 🙂 I think a good way to gauge how much progress one makes is when visiting a new places with many unknown birds one think “Wow! There are a lot of birds I don’t know here!” rather than “I hear birds singing”… It is the same as with a visual collection, it grows over time.
Once you have identified the location of a bird, you can start closing on the bird. There are challenges when starting with ear birding: the birds are moving, the birds are calling and responding: you might be chasing several individuals… so take your time first listening to the calls to figure out which situation you are in before heading for the bird.
When going to the Singapore Chinese Garden I have come across a bird which was always rather challenging for me, very skittish and taking off very quickly upon my approach: the Collared Kingfisher. It has a very recognisable call which is powerful and can be heard from a rather long distance. That day, about an hour before sunset I was able to locate and approach the bird for the first time. I’m honestly not sure whether this bird was particularly tamed or whether my technique has improved so much, let’s assume it was a bit of both.
I usually go in the field with two camera bodies, the Canon EOS-5D Mark III mounted on a tripod with the Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS and on a shoulder strap a Canon EOS-1D Mark IV with a shorter lens (either the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L or Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS) mostly for birds in flight, when I noticed the bird after a call and seeing him fly at a distance, I grabbed the Canon EOS-1D Mark IV with the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L and went to meet the bird perched on a medium tree nearby. The bird was looking away from me, which allowed me to close fairly quickly on him. But then it noticed me and went flying on a another perch, human made that time, all along I was taking multiple images (as the light was going down and the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L is not stabilised it is better to shoot several images to later select those which are the sharpest) taking one or to steps toward the bird and shooting again, until the bird became perceptibly more nervous. Then it was about waiting a few seconds staying “behind” my camera until the bird seems to accept my presence and then I started to advance again.
The bird went on 3 perches until it flew away and by then the light was much too low to shoot handheld without stabiliser. When the bird went to the third perch, it allowed me to approach significantly more which led to the image heading this post (the image is un-cropped as well).
A few things made all the difference: I was wearing pant and t-shirt darkish/greenish, not being any camouflage but I was surely not wearing flashy colours. Also I was wearing one of my Tilley hats, a green one, which breaks a bit my profile, against the horizon and during most of my progression, I was holding my camera against my face and pointed toward the bird (a bit like playing peek-a-boo) which might sound a bit silly as the rest of my body was showing, however it is only when I let the camera dangle on my side that the bird flew away. Finally as much as possible I tried a curved approach: not walking in a strait line toward the bird but rather moving on a spiral with the bird placed in the middle of it: most birds will feel less threatened with this approach compared to a bee line toward them. This technique has another advantage: trying different background as you are approaching the bird to try to find the optimal angle between you and the bird (of course there is always the risk that the bird turns while you are approaching forcing you to start over again…).
There are other ways to spot a bird: the easiest might be to be member of a bird photographer club or to go where some rare bird is known to be and then to follow all the big camera and long lenses going there. It is great to share (and easier to go birding with other people) but at times it is also great to be alone with bird, as common as it might be.