Like a cat on the prowl, the ‘hunter’ was stalking toward a drying water hole. The ground was littered with fallen twigs and leaves and he had to step carefully. Bending to avoid a thorny branch, he momentarily lost concentration and ‘thud..’.. a mistaken step on a stick alerted his prey. With a loud flutter, his subject, a group of Green Imperial Pigeons drinking water, flew away. “Missed a great shot,” he lamented.

This is the frustration that wildlife photographers have to face when trying to ‘shoot’ birds for photographing birds is not as easy as photographing people. In Sri Lanka, bird watching has become a popular pastime. But what about photographing them? Is it only for the experts armed with high-end expensive camera equipment?

Learn to stalk

The most critical issue when photographing a bird is getting close, especially, if you do not have the support of high-end zooming lenses. Approach them slowly, and stop frequently. Birds are vigilant and ready to fly off at the first inkling of danger. Look for natural formations that break your silhouette like trees, rocks etc. Wear clothes that blend with the environment. Avoid jerky motions or making noises. A frequent mistake made is to shout and point towards the bird the moment you see one. You also need to read the bird’s movements and act accordingly. Before taking wing, birds usually show distress signs. Learn to identify such behaviour.

With experience you will learn to anticipate the signs, giving you those extra seconds to get ready. If a lone bird spreads its wings as you are getting close to a group of waders in a mudflat, you should stop immediately. The bird has sensed a danger, and it is a sign that it is getting ready to take wing and also a signal for others to follow suit. The whole flock may flash into the sky. But if you remain still for several minutes, some bird species will resume their normal activity. Be patient and wait. Remember, patience is essential in taking a good photograph.

Another way to get close is to use your vehicle as a hide. Birds are used to vehicles and will tolerate a vehicle. It also removes the human profile from their site.

Learn about your celebrities

It is necessary that the photographer be able to identify the birds, so as to learn and enjoy the experience more. The greatest wealth for a bird photographer in Sri Lanka is the high avian diversity – Sri Lanka has over 400 bird species, 25 endemic and over 200 migrant. The ability to identify them, know their breeding season, feeding behaviour and interpret their other characteristics is an added advantage in the field.

If you can distinguish their behaviour, like preening, foraging, hunting, courtship displays then you can manoeuvre your camera to get a better angle. Some flycatcher species for example return to the same perch. If you stay motionless for few minutes, you may get a second chance.

A good bird field guide book is a mandatory tool that every bird photographer should possess. It helps you to identify the birds and interpret their behaviour. Another good way to learn about birds is to become a member of a bird society.

While some societies require some expertise in birding as pre-requisites, organizations like the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) which is based in the University of Colombo is open for anyone who is interested on birds (see box for contact details). The Young Zoologists’ Association based at the National Zoological Gardens, Dehiwela also conducts weekly study groups. Those under 35 years of age can learn about birds by getting membership.

Where to shoot the birds

“Where should I take pictures of different kinds of birds? Is it necessary to visit places like Sinharaja, Udawalawe, Bundala” you may ask. But your garden may be the best playground for an amateur bird photographer. If you have a food table or a bird bath, it will provide great opportunities. Magpie Robins, Babblers, Asian Koels, Flowerpeckers, and Woodpeckers, Parrots all have their own tale to unravel. Photographing common birds is a good starting point. It is not only the rarity of a bird that makes an exciting bird photograph. But if you are aiming at photographing special groups of birds, you need to go into their habitats. It may be difficult for an amateur to spot birds initially, so it is always advisable to accompany a bird guide or a friend who knows about birds.

Another way to improve your chances of seeing more birds is to become familiar with their calls. Then one can ‘hear’ a bird before actually seeing them. Working with experts will also improve your birding knowledge in general and in particular your ability to identify species.

Ethics and wellbeing of the birds

Remember the welfare of the birds should always come first. A wildlife photographer should be ready to sacrifice his best shot for the wellbeing of the bird. If a bird is showing signs of stress, remove yourself as quickly as possible. Photographing of nests is always a subject for debate. The nests are usually built in a concealed place. During the attempt to take a good shot, the photographer may reveal the nest to the predators. Also some nests are built on unstable platforms and may easily be broken.

Some technical hints

Photographing birds also requires speed. A photographer will get only a fraction of a second to react in the field. You need to know the capabilities of the camera to react fast and not miss the best shot. Fast shutter speeds are always advisable. After some time you should buy the longest focal length lens you can afford. This will allow you to get closer without actually disturbing the birds.

Try taking challenging photographs

“If someone is at the right place at the right time with the advanced modern cameras, he will be able to photograph birds. But bird photography is something more than that. You should always try taking pictures that are challenging. Photographing a bird in flight or taking special behaviours which are uncommon need a lot of effort. You may fail nine times out of ten. But the satisfaction after taking a good challenging photograph is enormous,” commented expert bird photographer, Dr. Zylva.

Recalling memories of how he photographed the rare endemic Ashy-headed Laughing Thrush at Sinharaja, Dr. de Zylva said, “I was tipped off by a villager about an open patch of wet-zone jungle that these elusive Thrushes used to cross regularly. I built a hide and positioned two flashes to cover a short sapling where I expected the birds to briefly perch before they moved on to the other forest patch. Finally, my patience was fruitful. Two birds perched on those branches at the same time, giving me the opportunity for a very unusual shot. However, I had to patiently wait for three days before I succeeded.”

Bird photography is an art and a fascinating hobby of its own. Passion and patience are the main qualifications needed. Remember if you have these qualities, you could grab opportunities to take good bird photographs even using a basic camera.