Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Canon Rebel and the Zen of Bird Watching

I am a photo birder.

Though I've gotten better over the last year (mostly from learning what to look for) I'm still a little weak at "on the wing" identifications.  I have photographs (not always good photographs) of every single bird on my yard list and most of the birds on my life list.  I feel more confident that way.

Technically, this is not a great photo, but it captures something so specific to the species -- the Junco's tendency to dive straight down toward the ground -- that I really love it.

Plus, you can learn a lot from photos.  You can see things -- details of markings, movement, flight and behavior that are hard to catch in real-time observation.  And though I like to take a beautiful shot as much as anyone, that's not really my point in shooting wildlife.  My goal is to use the camera to expand my ability to see.

The camera that I use is a Canon Rebel XTi.  I bought it several years ago and the salesperson described it as the "top of the line of amateur cameras".  (It's at least one generation back now, but I'm very happy with it.)  The next step up, he said, was to the low-end professional cameras.  The XTi is lightweight, which makes it easy to carry, even with a large lens (although you have to learn to compensate for overbalancing when the lens far outweighs the camera).  Lately, I've been using a Sigma50-500 HMS lens, a step up (in size and range) from the Canon 75-300mm lens that I used for so long and was very happy with.  The reason I switched, initially, was not because I was dissatisfied with the smaller lens, but because it developed a glitch and stopped working with the camera's auto-focus.  Otherwise, I would probably still be relying on the 75-300.  It is light and versatile -- but mostly because I am a creature of habit.  

One of the nice things about Canon is their EOS lens system.  Basically, all Cannon SLR cameras use the same set of lenses, which gives you a very wide range of options.  They are also compatible with a wide array of lenses from third-party producers.  As I said, I've had good luck with my lens from Sigma.

This Bushtit behavior would be very hard to see with the naked eye.
My technique, so far, is really not much of a technique at all.  I take my camera with me to all sorts of places -- and most importantly I keep it close to the front door, so that I can get out onto the deck in a hurry.  My front yard provides a big part of my birding excitement lately -- I make as many discoveries there as I do when I go on excursions.  (Which maybe means I should broaden my areas of excursion?)

This photo is not clear and hard to identify, but along with the next one ...

It makes a positive ID:  Black-headed Grosbeak

With the possible exception of writing and playing with my dogs, there is simply nothing in my life as healthy and calming as bird watching and photography.  I find that the stillness that it takes to really see the birds around me is meditative.  I'm generally not a person who finds it easy to stay still -- much less quiet.  Really hearing the birds requires that I stop talking to myself, at least for a little while.  I wear glasses -- I see pretty well close up, but not at a distance -- but I have my camera focus adjusted for my uncorrected vision.  The slight blurriness of the world when I take off my glasses is actually an asset, I think.  (And I can now identify a number of familiar birds without my glasses -- House Sparrows from their markings and their sound, Juncos from the charcoal cowl and the flash of white on their tails, chickadees with the sharp pattern of black-and-white).  It allows me to relax and focus more on the entire space around me, rather than the details of one thing.  What I'm looking for is motion.  Songbirds are all about motion.  

In Zen and the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel's archery teacher told him, "Don't think of what you have to do, don't consider how to carry it out! ... The shot will only go smoothly when it takes the archer himself by surprise .... "  I like that kind of photography.  

This Chickadee seems confused, landing on the wrong feeder.  But I would guess he's looking for ants.

A flash of yellow could be anyone -- too fast for the eye to tell.
Last week I was out on my deck and I noticed movement in the tall bushes by the sidewalk.  Bushtits often forage in those bushes, so that's what I expected at first.  As I was bringing the camera up, I saw a flash of bright yellow.  Definitely not a bushtit.  The bird was moving so fast though, flitting around in the bushes so much that it was almost impossible to get a good look at him.  Even through the powerful lens, my eyes couldn't catch him.  This is when the features of the Cannon Rebel really come into their own.  With the settings on automatic (I usually use the "sports" setting because it shoots so fast), you lose a lot of control over aperture and film speed and such, but the auto-focus is very good.  I simply track the motion, shooting as fast as I can.  The 50-500 lens takes some getting used to, because of its length and weight.  Some people prefer to use it with a tripod, but with small songbirds I find that too restrictive.  (Although it could work well at a hummingbird feeder).  I have learned to handhold this lens, and I can keep it steady now while I shoot.  Don't think of what you have to do, don't consider how to carry it out.  The great joy of this kind of shooting is when it takes the photographer himself by surprise. I shot hundreds of frames of my little yellow visitor, and even after I finished, I didn't have a clear idea of who he was.  He was moving too fast.  With my naked eyes (even with glasses) I never would have gotten a good enough look at him to identify him.  Binoculars probably wouldn't have helped much either.

But when I started looking through my shots I found wonderful surprises. 

Unmistakably a Wilson's Warbler.

The camera captures what the eye could never see.

If you like Birdland West, you might also want to check out our sister blog Books and Beasts, which focuses on reviews of books about animals and related topics.

(Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at  If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I'll let you know about availability.)


  1. Good post! I definitely used to rely heavily on photos for ID-ing birds.. I still like to have a photo of every bird on my list, but I try to remember to take time to turn off the camera and just watch. That has really taken some practice on my part.

  2. I do that a lot more with the birds I know best. Chickadees, Juncos, Crows -- but I still see things in the photos that would have been hard to catch just watching.