One thing quickly became clear to me when I first started photographing wildlife: it’s hard to get a decent-sized image of a bird. For one thing, most birds are small, so you have to get really close to them to get a good picture. But everything in a wild bird’s genetic makeup encourages it to flee at the approach of something as large and threatening as a human. I’ll never forget the disappointment I felt when I got my first roll of bird slides back from the processing lab. Although most of the images were in focus and well lit, the birds—mostly White-crowned Sparrows and House Finches—seemed almost microscopically small. I knew that if I was ever to have the faintest hope of producing publishable pictures of birds, I’d have to try something different, but just what I wasn’t sure.
The first thing I did was to buy some camouflage clothing—actually a set of Marine Corps combat fatigues I found at a war surplus store. They were great: tough, comfortable, and with roomy cargo pockets on the pants to hold film, lens caps, and other gear. The only problem was that the blotches of green, brown, and black camouflage coloring on the fatigues really didn’t blend in at all with the places where I was doing most of my photography—in the desert or on the beach. Camouflage is a relative term, and what blends in completely in one kind of habitat may stand out boldly from the background in another. So I learned my lesson, and now I always choose clothing that matches the area where I’m taking pictures (blotchy dark greens and browns for marsh and woodland habitats; tans for the desert; white for snow).
American Bittern. Photo taken from a blind. ©
But no matter how well your clothes match your surroundings, they won’t do you any good if your actions in the field make you too conspicuous. If you stand around in the open, if you’re noisy, and if your movements are too broad and quick, you won’t get close to many birds. Instead, try backing into some dense foliage in a likely looking area for birds. Then sit down and relax. Stay as motionless as you can and let your camouflage work for you.
If you have a pale complexion, sunlight reflecting off your skin can be a problem, advertising your presence like a bright beacon to passing birds. Some people smear sludge-colored face paint or even dirt on their faces to minimize this problem. I’ve never gone that far, but I do sometimes wear a camouflage headnet, which both hides my face and keeps mosquitoes away.
Shiny metal tripods also sometimes scare birds. Neutral gray or black tripods are much less noticeable than chrome-finished tripods. If your tripod is too bright or reflective, you can wrap camouflage tape around the top section of each leg. This tape is used by hunters to make their shotgun barrels less conspicuous and is available at most sporting goods stores. But be sure to get the kind of tape that comes off easily without leaving a gooey mess.
Of course, the most effective way to hide from birds is to use a blind, and every wildlife photographer should have at least one. I’ve had birds come so close to me while I was hiding in a blind that I couldn’t focus my telephoto lens on them and had to opt for a less powerful lens. You’ll find many ready-made portable blinds advertised in photography magazines and catalogs, and some of them are nice—lightweight, easy to set up, and extremely compact when disassembled and packed.
View from inside a blind. Pat Leonard © Cornell Lab of Ornithology
One commercially made blind that I often take with me on trips is the “Pocket Blind,” sold by L. L. Rue Enterprises. The big advantage of this one is that it has no framework and takes up about the same amount of space in your luggage as a pair of jeans. It’s basically just a large piece of camouflage material that you drape over yourself and your tripod and then attach snugly around your telephoto lens with Velcro. But even this simple blind is expensive, and sometimes you really want to have a blind with an internal frame so that you can move around inside it without disturbing the birds, and these are even costlier.
Personal and pop-up blinds
If you decide to build your own blind, many sporting goods stores sell camouflage material by the yard. I often carry a few yards of it in the back of my car, just in case I need to put together a quick blind in the field. Sometimes you can just drape the material over shrubbery to hide yourself, without erecting any structure at all. Or just hammer four pointed 3 1/2-foot-long 2x2s firmly into the ground, attach the camouflage material to them with a staple gun, and cut a slit for your telephoto lens. Voila! An instant blind. If you’re ambitious, you can design a more formal blind, using an elaborate framework of wood or PVC pipe to hold the camouflage material.
Burlap is an inexpensive alternative to camouflage cloth as a covering for your blind. Lawn shops and farm and garden supply stores frequently sell it by the yard. This drab brown material blends in well with many habitats just as it is, right off the roll. But, if necessary, it’s easy to change its color, using fabric dye in a washing machine.
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Always take time to study an area carefully before you set up your blind. Look for places where birds are present at particular times of day, and check out what the background is like and whether there are any objects that will get in your way when you’re taking pictures. If plant cover is available, try to set up your blind so that it blends in naturally with it. Whenever possible, let your blind stand in the field for a few days before using it. Birds quickly become accustomed to the presence of a blind.
This bird blind along the Cornell Lab of Ornithology trail was built by Eagle Scout Ben Miller. Charles Eldermire © Cornell Lab of Ornithology
And don’t forget to make your blind as comfortable as possible. You may be spending hours at a time in it. It should be at least three feet high, so you can sit up and change your position if you get stiff. In damp or guano-covered places, put down a waterproof ground cloth to keep you and your equipment clean and dry. And take plenty of water and snacks.
Whether you use an elaborate blind or simply wear camouflage clothing, once you learn the importance of blending into the background, you’ll find that your ability to get close to wild birds will improve enormously. But you must be willing to wait. Remember, patience is the greatest virtue and the supreme skill in bird photography.
Tim Gallagher is editor-in-chief of Living Bird magazine.
This article was originally published in the Autumn 2000 issue of Living Bird magazine.