Wild Bird Photography with the Nikon D5100

 Peruse enough websites on bird photography and you soon notice two consistencies:

  1. The authors stress the point that you don’t need high-powered expensive lenses in order to take great shots of birds.
  2. The authors examples were all taken with high-powered expensive lenses.

OK. So what can you REALLY accomplish using just the kit lenses that came with your camera, or with basic telephoto zooms?
In my case the Nikon D5100 I purchased through Best Buy came with two kit lenses: The Nikon DX AF-S Nikkor 18-55mm zoom and the Nikon DX AF-S Nikkor 55-300mm zoom.
Well let’s be honest here. 18mm may be appropriate for a wide-angle shot of a rookery, but for dazzling photos of individual birds even the 55mm end won’t cut it unless your subjects are either captive or, better yet, stuffed.
The 55-300 zoom is obviously better suited to bird photography, and the 300mm end at least allows you to relocate from your city zoo or taxidermist’s shop to the bird feeding station at your local metro park. Even then you’ll have difficulty getting really close shots, and you’ll soon grow tired of pictures of common birds picking seed off the ground at the base of a metal pole.
You can move out into a more natural environment and try to stalk your quarry, but that 300mm zoom is limited to F5.6 at full extension, and you’ll need to stop that down to 6.3 to hit its sweet spot. That means you need a lot of light, so open fields and shorelines provide your best setting. Unfortunately, the birds can spot you a quarter mile away in these environs, and only the tamest ones will stick around to show off their tail feathers.
The good news is that its true that you can elevate your bird photography to the next level without upgrading your lenses, but in place of a $8,000 Nikon 500mm F4 Prime you’ll need to substitute about $150 worth of equipment, a lot of patience, and the willingness to actually learn something about the behavior of the birds you want to capture. And frankly, if that last requirement doesn’t interest you, why are you photographing birds at all?
What follows is a journal of my attempt to photograph Megaceryle alcyon, commonly known as the Belted Kingfisher. This mid-sized bird is the fighter plane of the waterways. Its incredibly fast, incredibly agile, and even fires off bursts of rat-a-tat-tat calls as swoops by.
Its also very wary. Walk anywhere near the perch of this little spitfire and the first and last you’ll see of it is a flash of greyish blue as it heads to an alternate fishing site, usually accompanied by a raucous cursing that serves to alert all the other birds in the area to your presence.

Say goodbye to Cyril.

This is not your grandmother’s parakeet we’re talking about here.

My first stop was Wikipedia, where I learned some crucial facts about the Belted Kingfisher. Males and females appear nearly identical, except that the females have an extra belt of reddish-brown feather across their chests, and the birds nest in tunnels dug into high riverbanks.
Further internet research along with personal observation of local denizens revealed that these birds are highly territorial, to the point that even males and females will only tolerate each others presence during Spring mating season. Within this territory they pick out a few favorite perches, typically dead tree branches hanging low over the water, from which hunt for small fish.
Next I needed a way to get close to them without disturbing them, and a hunting blind seemed to be the obvious choice. These are cheap, typically costing between $50 and $100, and surprisingly sturdy and convenient for the price. I got the Ameristep Doghouse Blind from a local store because it got good reviews, was economically priced, and could fit two people comfortably. And since I wouldn’t want any local game wardens to decide to investigate my presence and disturb the wildlife around me, I painted PHOTOGRAPHER on each side and the top in large letters.

Should you decide to spend several hours sitting on a muddy riverbank in a tiny hunting blind, I highly recommend you bring along an attractive and intelligent companion. This one’s mine, you go find your own.

The blind sets up in 2 minutes and tears down in 5. It has four windows with detachable screens and has just enough room for two people to maneuver. Lastly, it packs into a flimsy but serviceable backpack (supplied).
To get the Belted Kingfisher’s attention I purchased a copy of the Audubon Bird Guide for the Android operating system (I’m sure they have versions for the iPhone as well). This application not only supplies a wealth of information regarding the bird’s habitat, range, and behavior, it also includes a half dozen or so bird recordings for each species. Unfortunately on my first excursion I found that the speakers on my tablet PC were just not loud enough for the bird calls to carry far outside the blind. So I took another trip to Best Buy and purchased an HDMX Jam bluetooth speaker which is cordless, rechargeable, portable, sturdy, and plenty loud. It has a range of 30 feet, allowing me to conceal it well away from the hunting blind should I choose to do so.

Are you still with me?
Now, the last thing you want to do after setting up this whole kit and waiting thirty or forty minutes for the birds to forget your presence is to suddenly lose your light as the sun shifts across the sky. To avoid this download a copy of The Photographer’s Ephemeris, available for desktop and PDA, and use its powerful interface integrated with google maps to find exactly which direction the sun (and moon) will be in at any time of the day for any spot on Earth. This program is simply amazing, and takes a lot of guesswork our of your excursion.

Google maps shows the reservoir nearly full, but low water levels in the fall allowed me to walk nearly across it.

 Are you ready? Let’s go!
I went out with my favorite photo partner early one evening to a local reservoir where I’d seen Belted Kingfishers before, and where a large open area ensured plenty of golden light well into the evening. Tall cliffs made great nesting spots, and a low water level in the lake left plenty of exposed branches and lots of shallow water and concentrated fish to make a fine dinner for Megaceryle alcyon.

Looking south west from the blind, and towards the Sun. Our shots were taken West and North, where the light was best.

We arranged the blind such that we’d have good sunlight as the birds flew up and down the waterway, and located ourselves about ten feet away from two likely perching spots. Zipped up and invisible, and with the bluetooth speaker placed just outside the blind,  we took a few minutes to arrange our equipment, check our camera settings, and take a few test shots. The Belted Kingfisher is pretty close to neutral gray, as are the Great Blue Herons that are common to the area, but I find the reflections off the water tend to result in over-exposures on my Nikon D5100. So I almost always stop down -1 EV which results in not only richer colors but also a faster shutter speed. For white birds such as Egrets you’ll need to stop down an additional -1 or even -2 EV in order to get anything beyond a pure white silhouette. For darker birds such as cormorants you’ll need to take it back to zero.
For flight shots I used continuous servo mode with 3D focusing, which worked best with the blank sky as a background. Foliage tended to confuse the tracking while during panning. For perching shots I switched back to single-servo single point focusing.
Our rig worked like a charm, and soon after playing a few Belted Kingfisher calls we had one’s attention. To say he was intensely interested in where this unfamiliar call was coming from would be an understatement. He gave us the full range of aerial acrobatics and poses as he swooped and hovered and perched on the branches around us. He didn’t seem to take any notice of the hunting blind, and we got many shots of him just ten or fifteen feet away.
Here are some of the results:

Low water exposed lots of perches. Some cropping on this shot.

One of many shots I captured in flight. About 50% cropping here.

Be aware of other birds in the area! The herons did not respond to bird calls, but did start making their own way back to our area after about an hour.