Let me say that my wife and I have been avid birders for over forty years. We pretty much bird every day – not all day, but most mornings and evenings. We learned a long time ago that we see more birds in our yard than we usually do out and about. Out and about has its own rewards in meeting new people, visiting new and favorite birding spots, and just enjoying being out together. But, it seems the more effort we put into our yard and gardens, the more birds will come to us! With our love of birding and my work photographing birds and other wildlife that dictates getting very close to make frame-filling images, then creating a "bird studio" is a must for me.
Out My Window
Here is the bird studio from inside the house. The large windows afford easy viewing and photo making opportunities. With my 600mm prime lens the background is totally blurred and unrecognizable.
Christmas Tree Stand
That's right, I use old Christmas tree stands I find at estate sales to set up some perches. I get them for around $3-$6.
So what is a bird studio? In its most simple form, a bird studio is a setup of a feeding station, a water feature such as a bird bath, and strategically placed perches for your subjects to "pose" on. A studio setup can be as elaborate as you want it to be, but I think simple is better. Whenever we are out and about we keep our eyes peeled for interesting limbs and branches that would look good in an image. These props must be natural to our area, and easy to transport home. Branches or limbs with lichens, moss and interesting bark patterns all work well. We switch these out as the need arises, or the seasons change. One of the cool things about branches is you can hide food in the bark, or drill small holes out of the camera's site to hide some tasty morsels for the birds to find. They seem to really enjoy the hunt for these tasty treats too.
Not that we go overboard, but we have about ten feeders of various types and sizes scattered around the property along with three birdbaths to provide water. Water can draw birds in even better than food sometimes. We also feed all year. What kind of food do we use? Always present is a good quality black-oil sunflower seeds. This is a staple throughout the year for many birds. We always have suet present in several locations with a peanut butter based suet, a raw suet, a suet with mealworms, and a cake consenting of fruits and nuts. In addition, we have white millet, safflower, and fresh fruit (oranges, grapes, and strawberries for Orioles). Several hummingbird feeders are switched out when they need to be cleaned or refilled. A note on feeding hummingbirds: Do not use the commercially produced nectars that have red dye (or any other dye) in them. The dye is really bad for the hummers. Just dissolve some regular sugar in water. It is also much less expensive to make your own.
We have had this bluebird box for many years – I think that is obvious. Our Eastern Bluebirds have produced 2-3 broods the past two years!
We found something about two years ago that is irresistible to every kind of bird — Bluebird Nuggets. Now, I am telling you that these little balls of suet are LOVED by every bird we see. In fact, we call this stuff "bird crack". We originally bought some for the bluebirds (who love them) but little did we know everything would eat them! Would you believe Robins, Cardinals, four species of woodpeckers, Blue Jays, Orange-crowned Warblers, Kinglets, Juncos, White and Red-breasted Nuthatches, Titmice, Grosbeaks, sparrows, Tanagers and more love these nuggets? We buy it by the case. Bluebird nuggets are easy to hide in drilled holes, tree forks, and under the bark. Once they learn where you hide it they keep coming back to the same spot over and over. That is how I get so close to the birds… They come to me.
This "studio technique" allows me to place perches where I want them to be — in perfect light with a perfect blurred background, at just the right distance from the camera. I can add flash if I need to (ninety percent of the time I don't), and I am always comfortable. It makes getting great images much easier. You will notice that there are never any twigs or leaves obscuring my subjects. That's because I prune my perches so nothing is in the way of my subjects. I strategically drill holes in the perches that are not only hidden from the camera but put the bird in the perfect spot. The birds are not always 100% cooperative – I get a few who always face away from the camera, never stop twitching, and a few that fly in and out in a split second.
Any truthful bird photographer will tell you that we throw away way more than we keep. That is just a fact of bird photography — you have to shoot a lot to get a little. I am not suggesting "spray and pray" here either. There are just so many aspects of photography that can ruin an image. An image can be blurred by a bird simply chewing seeds. I almost always shoot in Shutter priority to keep shutter speeds high, and ISO low. Which means I am usually wide open at f4 on my 600mm prime. My camera can shoot at 9fps – if the conditions are perfect for that speed – which they usually aren't. So I am not spraying and praying, I am just making lots of exposures to get it perfect.
When the weather allows me to be outside, I shoot outside. But when the weather or conditions are bad I shoot out my window. When it was time to replace the windows we chose large sliding windows that give us an unobstructed view. I can easily slide them open or shoot through them. I have spent many cold winter days sitting at the window photographing birds twenty feet away. It works well for us. Keep windows in mind if you have to replace them. You may as well put in a style that fits your home and allows you visual access to your bird studio.