Close Focus Bird Portraits

Just like when you are photographing humans, your focus is on your subject and the background is for framing it. Your goal is to make the bird stand out from the background.

When photographing birds, it’s usually a matter of trying to get close enough to get a quality photo—and that’s even with the aid of a lens that provides ample magnification. Too often we get documentary photos of a distant avian subject but once in a while we get lucky and encounter a trusting bird, sometimes even a bird that walks, swims, or flies closer.

Having photographed extensively in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Florida, I must say that wintering birds that get familiar with people walking by or photographing at birding hotspots are more common in these states with high human populations than anywhere else.

Roseate Spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From my experience, there is no question that Florida and Texas birds—some resident birds even more than wintering birds—lead the way in the trust department to the point where it’s possible to get especially close photos of some individuals. This is especially true at some of the well-visited birding hotspots like the Venice Audubon Rookery and the World Birding Centers in South Texas but it can happen anytime, anywhere.

And with many species taking advantage of wetlands and impoundments created to hold water in low-lying housing developments in many suburbs, the birds get very accustomed to people who generally are excited or uninterested in seeing them in their yards or near their property.

Great White Egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Avian portraits

When I refer to the idea of close-up photos, I mean portraits of just the head, neck, and shoulders of the bird like your high school graduation photo so taking that kind of photo is usually going to be a larger bird to manage that level of close photos. The simple trick to taking advantage of such a trusting bird is to make the most of the opportunity.

Stay with it, don’t cause any level of alarm, and move slowly if you move. Focus on the bird’s eye and watch your background. In most cases, take some initial photos; then, if you have a chance to adjust it’s best to try to dial the aperture to f5 or a similar setting to reduce the area in focus. That technique will keep the bird in focus while blurring the background and it will increase the shutter speed to ensure the photos you take are sharper.

However, if your background is a uniform color, say a sky or water background, the aperture is less of a concern. The idea is to try to pop the bird apart from the background even beyond color differences. The bottom line is always “take what you can get and improve if possible.” In the moment it’s thrilling to be so close and to get optically closer yet with a telephoto or zoom lens zeroing in on the bird’s face, focusing on the eye.

Whistling Duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The key to sharing close photos of birds is that you need to have a photo of a bird with a sharp eye. That’s true if you are using a photo as is or if you are cropping the photo which is a secondary way to create a close-up of a bird’s face and neck, or face, neck, and shoulders—a portrait.

I must share that it’s especially fulfilling to take portrait photos like the images that illustrate this article. You feel close to the birds, in company with them as they permit you into their inner sanctum; and if you can just walk away without disturbing them or let them walk away as they wish, it’s especially gratifying.

The idea for this article came to mind after reviewing the photos of birds I had taken in various locations over our many years of RV travel. I noted the many large birds—the Wood Stork, Sandhill Cranes, Great White Egret, Great Blue Heron, Ibis, and a couple of others.

Wood stork © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For example, we were casually driving along Lake Okeechobee when I spied a pair of wood storks resting in the meadow near the lake. We quickly pulled off the road and suddenly sighted more storks on the edge of a pond closer to the large lake.

Quickly parking, I checked my camera settings and walked cautiously from the car for a closer view of the birds. I was immediately surprised by how close I was to the storks, so quickly zoomed down from my 400mm magnification to 200mm and took a couple of initial photos.

Then I quickly zoomed out to get a full-sized view and photos of the impressive Wood Stork as it waded a couple of steps in my direction. The grand bird was surrounded by sky blue water with barely a ripple on it which made for an especially pleasing background that was emphasized by the beautiful late afternoon light.

Wood Stork © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The chance opportunity to photograph the very trusting wood storks provided the best photos I’ve taken of the species to date of a bird on water or land.

Using a zoom lens was key to taking full-frame photos of the stork as well as being able to get portrait photos of the bird that show a lot of detail of the dinosaur-looking face of the big wading bird. Even I am impressed with the quality of sharp images produced during the few minutes I had in the stork’s company but you will find that the closer you are to a bird the better your lens seems to work. And if you are close, you don’t need to do any cropping to zero-in on the bird a bit more.

Before I sign off, I feel somewhat compelled to share with you that although the photos I selected to illustrate this feature are super-sharp on my big-screen laptop computer sometimes there seems to be a bit of a loss of image sharpness in the translation between my digital photos as viewed on my computer compared to when the same photos are published in a magazine publication.

That said, the birds’ eyes in each of these photos are remarkably sharp; if they don’t look absolutely sharp, it’s because of a difference between my original digital image and the online image but hopefully that won’t be a factor in the photos illustrating this article.

Sandhill Crane © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then too, maybe it’s because over the years of photographing birds, I have developed a fine-tuned eye for photo sharpness and that’s an important point to keep in mind; be sure that you don’t over-enlarge a given photo. Share sharp, clear photos that don’t show a grainy background or body lines which is a sure sign of over-enlarging a photo.

I find taking photos of birds entertaining partly because of the many variables. From dealing with awkward lighting conditions to creating blurs and flight shots the photography opportunities are endless. And any time we get close enough to take a head and shoulders portrait of a bird, it’s a great breakthrough that we will likely remember forever especially when you have a quality photo to share and display as one of your favorites.

Green Jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although this niche is fun, it requires technical knowledge from every photographer. Go out and practice. Get familiar with your camera and play with the camera settings for bird photography.

Good luck as you search out photo opportunities and if you’re not in Florida or Arizona, stay warm!

Worth Pondering…

In my view you cannot claim to have seen something until you have photographed it.

—Emile Zola

The Complete List of Bird Photography Tips for RVers

It’s an exciting time of the year with new birds arriving at favorite local birding hotspots as well as in your yard and at your feeders. Are your bird photography skills amped? Are you planning an RV road trip to an exciting birding location?

It has been a while since I’ve posted an article on bird photography due in part to not taking a recent road trip to a bird-rich area. But with a variety of bird photography opportunities ahead, I’ll provide photo insights in a concise, fairly organized list of tips and techniques.

When I bought my first DSL camera eons ago, I certainly wish someone had offered this photography list to me; then, or at any time since then, it sure would have come in handy and made me a better photographer much quicker.

With that in mind, I want to share my best bird photography resource, a list I’ve created based on years of experience mixed with tips shared with me over the years by professional and hobbyist friends and other techniques gleaned by reading extensively in books, photography magazines, and online. I hope this information will give the reader a basic introduction or a helpful review of all the things you can do to improve your chances of getting more quality bird photos—now and for years to come.

Western scrub jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not every tip listed below will be useful for every photographer but anyone will be able to glean some valuable pointers and I hope this collection of photo methods also offers a bit of inspiration and enthusiasm for you to search for your next photo opportunities on your next RV road trip. Many of these methods become second nature with time like making sure the sun is behind you as you focus your lens on birds; checking to see where your shadow is pointing periodically, and holding your breath when you press your camera’s shutter button.

This is the kind of article that offers such a variety and thorough collection of helpful tips that I encourage you to print it out and post a copy on your bulletin board, and fold another copy to make it easier to keep it in your camera backpack, glove compartment, or your back pocket; and share it with other bird photographers too. This list will truly help make you a better bird photographer and I hope it adds a new level of enthusiasm and enjoyment for you with renewed and improved production from your camera and lens.

Greater roadrunner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bird photography tips

Keep your camera within reach at all times. I never want to say: “I wish I had my camera!”

Quality photos require good sunlight. For optimum lighting, I make every effort to position myself between the sun and the bird with my shadow pointing at my subject.

The best time to photograph during any given sunny day is when the sun is at a 30- to 60-degree angle above the ground starting an hour after sunrise and again during late afternoon until an hour before sunset. This practice will provide more direct lighting for bird photography while eliminating most shadows. Avoid photographing during midday when the sun is overhead or mostly overhead as that’s when the effect of shadowing on the bird and in the scene is greatest.

Be aware of shadows on the bird you are photographing which may be caused by the overhead angle of the sun or when you’re not in the best position concerning the direction of the sunlight. In the field, you often don’t notice a shadow but because shadows are more pronounced in photographs, it’s good to watch specifically for shadows and adjust your position to avoid them when possible.

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Check your own shadow periodically; try to keep your shadow pointing at the bird or birds you are photographing as this shows you are in the best position for optimum lighting and you are less apt to have shadows affecting the birds.

Keep in mind that when birding and especially when photographing birds, the welfare of the birds should be paramount. It’s always most rewarding if you can photograph birds without displacing them and you definitely want to avoid disturbing them if they are nesting, hunting, or feeding. Always live by the motto, “the birds’ welfare comes first.”

At the same time, there are always hyper-wary birds that will react to any outside activity and birds are constantly on the move so don’t over-react if a bird flies from a perch while photographing; often they just move to the next perch.

Wood stork © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Try not to get too close to birds; allow them to behave naturally. When you stop short of making birds fly, they may move closer in your direction. Give birds sufficient time to adjust to seeing you.

If you try to approach a bird, keep a low profile, move slowly, and don’t walk directly toward the bird; move at an angle to the bird that gets you ever closer. If necessary, walk slowly in a long zig-zagging fashion as you move closer while keeping the sun at your back.

Anticipate the next move of the birds you are photographing and be prepared to react to that fast action.

Focus on one eye of the bird to be sure your focal point is centered on the bird. If the bird’s eye is not in focus, your photograph will suffer overall.

Hold your breath any time you press the shutter button to help eliminate body motion.

Lightly squeeze your finger down on the shutter release button to reduce any jerky motion on the camera as you take photos.

Black-bellied whistling ducks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When photographing birds, stabilize your camera and lens as best you can to reduce body shake that can be transferred as you hold your camera. Body shake includes your beating heart, other natural internal movements, and breathing.

To brace your camera, lean your lens against a tree, post, window frame, or another stable option. When photographing in the open, you can brace your elbows against your chest or sides to provide more stability as you handhold your camera and lens (rather than holding your elbows out to the sides).

Some birders use a tripod to help stabilize their camera and lens but for many of us using a tripod is cumbersome at best especially when photographing flying birds. Dealing with a tripod, frankly, takes much of the fun out of bird photography. If you use a tripod, select one with thick strong lower legs to make sure the tripod is as stable as possible. When you use a tripod, you should also use a shutter release cable and that’s no fun either.

Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Simple camera tech

Please don’t use the automatic setting on your camera. Instead, it’s best to set the Mode Dial to Av (aperture priority) then set your aperture (f-stop) and the camera will automatically provide the associated shutter speed as determined by the amount of available light. Watch how your shutter speed changes as you change the aperture setting in case you wish to use a faster shutter speed.

Preset your camera so you are ready to take a photo at a moment’s notice which happens fairly often when photographing birds. During sunny days, I preset the ISO to 400, and use an aperture of f8, and the resulting shutter speed will usually be between 1/1200 to 1/2000—fast enough to stop most motion. Then, when I’m in a position to photograph and have an extra moment, I double-check the settings and adjust any if needed. I also adjust settings if a change in the sunlight level or weather indicates a need for change.

Blue-winged teal © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I find the 400 ISO setting to be the best under good sunlight conditions. I tend not to photograph birds during low light periods but if the sun goes behind a cloud I increase the ISO to 800 if the shutter speed is reduced significantly by the shaded sunlight. I find that any setting above ISO 800 tends to produce grainy photos. Using an ISO of 200 or 100 provides better quality images but these settings tend to limit your shutter speed and/or aperture a bit so ISO 400 seems to be the best bet for me for bird photography with the sun at my back.

I keep my camera’s Al-Servo set so I can take a continuous series of photos. Using this setting, it’s possible to take a single photo but you can also take two or three at a time if you hold the shutter button down a moment longer. And when a bird is especially active such as when it’s flying or displaying, you can hold the shutter release button down for the camera to take a continuous series of images at a rate of three to 10 photos or more per second depending on the camera model you use.

Using the Al-Servo setting, I tend to take two photos at a time which provides a second image that usually shows a wing position change during flight or provides two images as a bird turns its head.

Mourning dove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Composing your photos

Try not to center a bird in the middle of the photo; leave a little more space in front of the bird for it to look into, walk into, swim into, or fly into. It tends to create a more pleasing composition.

To better understand how to position a bird within your photo frame, I suggest taking a quick look at the rule of thirds which artists often use when composing their artwork. Photographers also use this technique for photo framing and design although it’s just a guide to be aware of when composing photos. Ultimately, do what looks best to you.

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Using a zoom lens can be helpful when positioning a bird in the photo frame, zooming in and out to include more or less background. But you can also reframe a photo and thereby reposition the bird in the frame by cropping it using photo editing software. By simply cropping extraneous sky, water, or plants surrounding the bird you can position the bird off-center, up or down as you wish by cropping the original photo and you will enlarge the bird’s size in the photo in the process.

Keep aware of the background as you are composing photos. Try to eliminate distracting twigs and grass from view which may simply be a matter of moving your camera to the right or left, up or down, or taking a step left or right to get a clearer background that is less distracting. However, in some cases, a twig with budding leaves or other vegetation can add a natural element to bird photographs.

Black-necked stilt © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Getting a more uniform background can be accomplished with some success by reducing the area in focus (depth of field) to throw the background out of focus. This blurred background effect helps to emphasize your subject and is accomplished by setting your aperture to a narrow f4 or f5. That aperture should keep your bird in focus while blurring the background although this technique works best if there is ample space between the bird and the background elements.

Using a narrow f4 or f5 aperture also provides a faster corresponding shutter speed which helps stop any motion and create sharp images.

Plants and other natural elements are often a welcome background for bird photos. When that’s the case, you may wish to increase the area in focus around the bird by dialing the aperture to f11 or f14 as long as you have plenty of shutter speed to work with—say above 1/400 for a motionless bird and 1/1000 or faster for birds in flight.

Green heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While watching the area behind the bird for any distracting elements or unnatural colors watch for distracting shadows on the bird or around it as you get into position. Reposition as needed to avoid shadows and other distracting elements.

When photographing birds positioned on the ground as they swim in water or wade along a shoreline try photographing from your knees, in a sitting position, or even a prone position to get closer to the birds’ eye level. Try photographing from a bird’s eye view at times.

Golden-fronted woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mobile photo blind options

I like to use my vehicle (both car and motorhome) as a comfortable mobile blind. Birds tend to react to people but mostly ignore a parked vehicle. I have a few birding hotspots where I can park next to flowering trees, a wetland shoreline, or prominent perches where birds create fine photo opportunities.

Your vehicle provides the option to reposition a few feet forward or backward when needed or to drive onward to look for the next photo opportunity.

Turn off your vehicle’s engine any time you are photographing to minimize vibrations so you can keep your camera and lens as stable as possible.

Black-crested titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Also, stabilize your lens by holding it on the top of a slightly raised window or against the side or top of the window frame to reduce body shake that may be transferred as you hold your camera.

Hold your breath any time you press the shutter button to reduce any bodily vibrations and press the shutter button lightly to avoid a jerking motion.

Stay inside your vehicle and reduce any motions to make birds less wary. While birds often accept a parked vehicle, that changes if you open a door or get outside. (If you do need to step outside to photograph, don’t slam the door.)

Using your vehicle, explore a more expansive area occasionally to monitor where the birds are and where they aren’t. Take advantage of photo opportunities you encounter along the way and at the same time plan for future photo opportunities concerning the time of day the sun will best illuminate a promising area.

If you see a promising photo op as you are driving be especially aware of any vehicles driving behind you and keep safety your priority. You may need to drive by a bird, find a safe place to pull over then return to the bird’s location to try for a photo op. Pull safely off the side of the road in the best possible position to photograph your subject concerning the direction of the sunlight, but always keep vehicle safety a priority.

Vermillion flycatcher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Photo editing: composition, design, and filing

When using photo editing software, I alter the photo as little as possible; but simple cropping of an image can improve a photo immensely and it can increase the size of the bird(s) within a photo frame by cutting out extraneous parts of the background effectively zooming in on the bird.

Try to keep up with your photo review and editing process which is usually best performed as soon as possible after each photo session. Keep your photo files orderly, organized, and easy to access.

Use a uniform naming system—perhaps one that identifies a bird in a photograph along with the location (state followed by location) and year and month it was taken. An example of my naming system is AZ, Catalina SP_cactus wren­­_2022_11.

Green jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I keep three copies of all my photos in different locations to ensure I never lose any of my valuable photos due to damage by fire, flood, or theft. I keep my photo files on an external hard drive with my computer that travels with me in my motorhome, on a second external drive located in my home, and in the cloud.

Enjoy sharing your bird photographs. Attach a photo or two to your emails, and texts, and by all means share them on social media applications. Bird photos are interesting and inspiring; they may open a line of conversation or lead to learning more about the species. You may even be surprised (and gratified) when people start introducing you as a photographer.

Photographing birds is usually not easy and in addition to all the other things that contribute to getting quality photos of birds, there is always a definite Luck factor—Good Luck!

Royal tern © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I have posted a variety of tips and techniques in previous articles:

But in this article you have an easy to refer to reference list—the best I can offer to anyone interested in photographing birds—whether you are a beginner or a seasoned pro.

Have a lot of fun, get excited, display your favorite photos, and share your photos with others— it’s all part of the joy of photographing birds!

Worth Pondering…

We don’t take pictures with our cameras. We take them with our hearts and we take them with our minds, and the camera is nothing more than a tool.

—Arnold Newman

The Best Basic Tips for Spring Photos

Are you ready? New birds will be arriving at favorite local birding hotspots as well as the feeders in your campsite.

With another spring season of bird photography opportunities ahead, I’ll revisit what I consider to be the basics of bird photography. I wish someone had offered such a list to me when I bought my first SLR camera and zoom lens. I’ve created this list using my experience along with tips from professionals and others I gleaned by reading extensively. I hope this information will give you a good introduction or a helpful review of all the things you can do to improve your chances of getting quality bird photos this spring.

Yellow-rumped warbler © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not every tip listed below in short, concise form will be useful to every photographer but everyone will be able to glean some pointers. I hope the list also offers a bit of inspiration and enthusiasm throughout spring migration and beyond. Many of these methods become second nature with time like making sure the sun is behind you as you focus your lens on birds and holding your breath when you press the shutter button.

This list will help make you a better bird photographer and add a new level of enthusiasm with renewed production from your camera and lens.

I keep my camera within reach at all times. I never want to say: “I wish I had my camera!”

Rose-breasted grosbeak © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Quality photos require good light. For optimum lighting, make every effort to position youself between the sun and the bird with your shadow pointing at the subject.

The best time to photograph is when the sun is at a 30- to 60-degree angle above the ground—during morning an hour after sunrise and again during late afternoon until an hour before sunset. This practice will provide more direct lighting for bird photography while eliminating most shadows. Avoid photographing during midday when the sun is overhead or mostly overhead.

Be aware of shadows on the bird you are photographing caused by the overhead angle of the sun or when you’re not in the best position concerning the direction of the sunlight. In the field, you often don’t notice a shadow but because shadows are more obvious in photos it’s good to watch specifically for shadows and adjust your position to avoid them when possible.

Ladder-backed woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you try to approach a bird, keep a low profile, move slowly and don’t walk directly at the bird; move at an angle to the bird that gets you ever closer. If necessary slowly zig-zag from side to side as you move ever closer while keeping the sun at your back.

Don’t get too close to birds; allow them to behave naturally. When you stop short of making birds fly they may move closer in your direction.

Anticipate the next move of the birds you are photographing and be prepared to react to that fast action.

Green heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Focus on one eye of the bird to be sure your focal point is centered on the bird. If the bird’s eye is not in focus, your photograph will suffer overall.

Hold your breath when you press the shutter button to help eliminate body motion.

Lightly squeeze your finger down on the shutter release button to reduce any jerky motion on the camera as you take photos.

Peregrine falcon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When photographing birds, stabilize your camera and lens as best you can to reduce body shakes that can be transferred as you hold your camera. (Body shake includes your beating heart and natural internal movements.)

To brace your camera, lean your lens against a tree, post, window frame, or another stable option. When photographing in the open, you can brace your elbows against your chest or sides to provide more stability as you handhold your camera and lens (rather than holding your elbows out to the sides).

Some birders use a tripod to help stabilize their camera and lens but for many of us using a tripod is cumbersome, especially when photographing flying birds. Dealing with a tripod, frankly, takes much of the fun out of bird photography, at least for me. If you use a tripod, select one with thick strong lower legs and you should also use a shutter release cable—that’s no fun either.

Black-crested titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Simple camera technique

Don’t use the automatic setting on your camera. Instead, it’s best to set the Mode Dial to Av (aperture priority); then set your aperture (f-stop) and the camera will automatically provide the associated shutter speed as determined by the amount of available light.

Preset your camera so you are ready to take a photo at a moment’s notice which happens fairly often when photographing birds. When I’m in position to photograph and have an extra moment I double-check the settings and adjust any if needed. During sunny days, I preset the ISO to 400, use an aperture of f8 and the resulting shutter speed will usually be between 1/1200 to 1/2000—fast enough to stop most motion.

Blue-winged teal © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Personally, I find the 400 ISO setting to be the best under good sunlight conditions.During low light periods or if the sun goes behind a cloud, I increase the ISO to 800 if the shutter speed is reduced significantly by the shaded sunlight.

I keep my camera’s Al-Servo set so I can take a continuous series of photos. Using this setting it’s possible to take a single photo but you can also take two or three at a time if you hold the shutter button down a moment longer. And when a bird is especially active you can hold the shutter release button down for the camera to take a continuous series of images at a rate of three to 10 photos or more per second depending on your camera model.

Black-necked stilt © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Composing your photos

Try not to center a bird in the middle of the photo; leave a little more space in front of the bird for it to “look into, walk into, swim into, or fly into.”

To better understand how to position a bird within your photo frame, consider the rule of thirds which artists often use when composing their artwork. Photographers also use this technique for photo framing and design although it’s just a guide to be aware of when composing photos.

Be aware of the background of your photo. Try to eliminate distracting twigs and grass from view which may simply be a matter of moving your camera to the right or left or taking a step right or left to get a clearer background that will be less distracting. However, in some cases a twig with budding leaves or other vegetation can add a natural element to a bird photograph.

Willet © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Getting a more uniform background can be accomplished with some success by reducing the area in focus (depth of field) to throw the background out of focus. This blurred background effect helps to emphasize your subject and is accomplished by setting your aperture to a narrow f4 or f5. That aperture should keep your bird in focus while blurring the background although this technique works best if there is ample space between the bird and the background elements.

Using a narrow f4 or f5 aperture also provides a faster corresponding shutter speed which is helpful in stopping any motion and creating sharp images. Adjust your ISO if necessary.

Whistling duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mobile photo blind options

You can use your vehicle as a mobile blind. Birds tend to react to people but mostly ignore a parked vehicle.

Your vehicle provides the option to reposition a few feet forward or backward when needed or to drive onward to look for the next photo opportunity.

Turn off your vehicle any time you are photographing to keep your camera lens as stable as possible.

Cassin’s kingbird © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stabilize your lens by holding it on the top of a slightly raised window or against the side or top of the window frame to reduce body shake that may be transferred as you hold your camera.

As mentioned earlier, hold your breath any time you press the shutter button to reduce any bodily vibrations and press the shutter button lightly to avoid a jerking motion.

Stay inside your vehicle and reduce any motions to make birds less wary. While birds often accept a parked vehicle, that changes if you open a door or get outside.

When you see a promising photo op be especially aware of any vehicles driving behind you and keep safety your first priority. You may need to drive by a bird, find a safe place to pull over, and return to the bird’s location to try for a photo op. Pull safely off the side of the road in the best possible position to photograph your subject with respect to the direction of the sunlight. Keep safety a priority, as always.

Royal tern © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Photo editing: Composition & design

When using photo editing software, alter the photo as little as possible. Simple cropping of an image can improve a photo by increasing the size of the bird within a photo frame or by cutting out extraneous parts of the background—effectively zooming in on the bird.

Try to keep up with your photo review and editing process which is best performed as soon as possible after each photo session. Keep your photo files orderly, organized, and easy to access.

Little blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Use a uniform naming system—perhaps one that identifies a bird in a photograph by its location or name along with the year and month the photo was taken. An example of my naming system is: AZ, Catalina SP_2023_03.

Keep at least two copies of all your photos and preferably keep them in different locations to ensure you never lose any of your valuable photos due to a computer crash or damage by fire, flood, or theft. I keep my photos on my laptop for easy access and on external hard drives.

When photographing birds, there is always a definite luck factor. Good Luck!

I provide a variety of tips and techniques on an occasional basis usually mixed into narratives describing photo opportunities but here you have an easy to refer to reference list.

Common moorhen © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Following I offer additional posts for your photographing and reading pleasure:

Have fun, get excited, display your favorite photos, and share your photos with others—it’s all part of the joy of photographing birds. Enjoy this spring season!

Worth Pondering…

Photography is the beauty of life, captured.

—Tara Chisholm

Best Bird-watching Trail in Arizona

Arizona offers some of the very best bird watching in the United States

Blame it on the state’s remarkable diversity. Soaring mountains, warm deserts, deep canyons, and rolling grasslands provide welcoming habitats for a wide range of birds. Arizona’s species list of around 550 is the highest of any state without an ocean coastline.

Mourning dove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Important Bird Areas, identified by the National Audubon Society, can be found throughout Arizona but there’s an especially high concentration amid the sky islands in the southeastern corner of the state. These forested mountaintop habitats are surrounded by seas of desert and grasslands creating tightly stacked ecosystems, distinct and isolated. This is the Arizona rainforest, a hotbed of life.

To enjoy an assortment of feathered friends grab your binoculars and cameras and hit some of Arizona’s best birding trails. And these are birding trails, not birding hikes. Birding is hiking interrupted. Finish the trail or don’t finish; it doesn’t matter. Birding is all about the pauses—the stopping and listening and, most importantly, the discovery.

Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Patagonia: Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve

The Nature Conservancy protects a stretch of Sonoita Creek at the edge of Patagonia and the verdant floodplain adjacent to the stream as its first project in Arizona.

More than 300 bird species migrate, nest, and live in this rare and beautiful Fremont cottonwood-Goodding’s willow riparian forest where gray hawks like to nest. Over 20 species of flycatchers have been recorded in the preserve along with the thick-billed kingbird and Sinaloa wren.

Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are several gentle paths including one along the old railroad grade, another that follows the creek, and a one-mile connector to the Paton Center for Hummingbirds. If you want to stretch your legs a little more, the Geoffrey Platts Trail makes a 3.2-mile loop through mesquite-covered hills with views of the mountains and valley.

Details: Hours and hiking access points vary; closed Mondays and Tuesdays. 150 Blue Heaven Road, Patagonia. $8, free for age 12 and younger.

Vermillion flycatcher at Paton Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Patagonia: Paton Center for Hummingbirds

The Paton family began welcoming strangers to their backyard feeders swarming with hummingbirds in the 1970s. After Marion Paton died, neighbors kept the feeders stocked until the Tucson Audubon Society took over.

Visitors travel from all over the world just to sit quietly in a small Arizona backyard and watch clouds of hummingbirds. It’s a lovely, small town way to spend an hour.

Details: Open dawn to dusk daily. 477 Pennsylvania Avenue, Patagonia. Free; donations are appreciated.

Acorn woodpecker at Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sierra Vista: Ramsey Canyon Preserve

Almost 200 species of birds have been seen in high-walled Ramsey Canyon, a lush defile in the Huachuca Mountains south of Sierra Vista that’s managed by the Nature Conservancy.

A single trail starts from the back of the visitor center past several hummingbird feeders buzzing with activity. After all, Sierra Vista is known as Arizona’s Hummingbird Capital where 15 species of small winged jewels have been sighted.

Mexican jay at Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The path moseys alongside Ramsey Creek for about a mile beneath a canopy of shade. Big sycamore trees drape the stream with oaks and pines filling the canyon. Summer avian visitors include the painted redstart, black-headed grosbeak, and black-throated gray warbler. Surprise visitors like the flame-colored tanager and Aztec thrush are occasionally seen.

Past the small ponds that provide habitat for the threatened Chiricahua leopard frogs, the trail turns into the woods and switchbacks up to an overlook with nice views.

Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays to Mondays from March 1 through October 31; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. the rest of the year; Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 27 E. Ramsey Canyon Road, Hereford. Parking is limited; try to arrive early. $8 per person, free for ages 12 and younger.

Sierra Vista: Brown Canyon Trail

If the small parking area at Ramsey Canyon is full, the trail to historic Brown Canyon Ranch makes a nice alternative. Meander through rolling grasslands dotted with manzanita and oak in this shallow canyon.

Resident birds include the Mexican jay, bridled titmouse, and Montezuma quail. Look for elegant trogon and Scott’s oriole in the summer. A small pond at the old ranch site attracts many water loving species. Trailhead is on the north side of Ramsey Canyon Road, two miles from State Route 92. 

Lesser Goldfinch at San Pedro House

Sierra Vista: San Pedro River

The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area protects a 40-mile stretch of the San Pedro River. This slender forest of cottonwood and willow trees creates some of the richest wildlife habitat in the Southwest.

Start at the historic San Pedro House and, as with all birding trails, go only as far as you like. Follow the path through the grassy meadow to the river.

Curved bill thrasher near San Pedro House © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A network of trails follows the bank of the San Pedro in both directions skirting oxbows and loops around a pond named for the elusive green kingfisher. Other sightings might include vermilion flycatchers, lesser goldfinch, summer tanagers, and yellow-breasted chats.

Details: San Pedro House, operated by The Friends of the San Pedro River, is nine miles east of Sierra Vista on SR 90. It will be open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Sandhill cranes at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wilcox: Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

A 1,500-acre wildlife habitat, Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area is famous for the large population of sandhill cranes during the winter season of October through February. Whitewater Draw lies in the Chiricahua desert grassland habitat of the Sulphur Springs Valley.

The Sulphur Springs Valley, west of the Chiricahua Mountains between Bisbee and Douglas to the south and Willcox to the north, is great for bird watching. The valley’s highways and back roads offer access to a variety of habitats including grassland, desert scrub, playa lake, and farm fields. A wide variety of birds winter here alongside permanent residents.

Sora at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in the southwestern part of the valley, the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area lies within a desert grassland habitat. Nearly half of the Wildlife Area falls within a floodplain. Over 600 acres of the area is intermittently flooded wetland with two small patches of riparian habitat. The surrounding agricultural community of the valley enhances feeding opportunities for wintering birds.

Whitewater Draw has a one-mile boardwalk trail that takes you around cattail marshes, shallow ponds, and eventually to several viewing platforms. Here you can use permanently-mounted spotting scopes to observe the wintering sandhill cranes and the flocks of snow geese and tundra swan that share the sky with the cranes. This is also a great place to see avocets, stilts, and yellowlegs. Wetland birds include egrets, great blue heron, black-crowned night heron, ibis, soras, terns, and other shorebirds.

Green teal at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Overnight camping is allowed in designated areas only, for no more than three days within a seven day period. Camping is free; however, no utilities are available. There is a vault toilet on site. Open fires are allowed in designated areas only.

Details: Open 7 days a week, 24 hours a day

Related article: Southeast Arizona Birding Hotspot: Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Green Valley: Madera Canyon

South of Tucson and west of Green Valley, Madera Canyon is carved from the Santa Rita Mountains. The road into the narrowing gorge climbs from desert grasslands to mixed woodlands shading a seasonal stream.

More than 250 species of bird have been documented in these varied habitats. Favorite sightings include elegant trogon, elf owl, sulphur-bellied flycatcher, and painted redstart.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Madera Creek Trail follows the stream and has multiple access points. The Carrie Nation Trail branches off from Old Baldy Trail, tracing the creek bed deeper into the canyon. It’s a good place to see elegant trogons in April and May. 

Non-hikers can enjoy the picnic areas and the free viewing area at the Santa Rita Lodge, filled with hummingbirds and other desert species.

Old Baldy Trail at Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details: $8 day-use pass for Madera Canyon is sold on site.

Related article: Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains

Read more: Now is the Time to Discover Madera Canyon, a Hiking and Birding Paradise

Gambel’s quail at Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oro Valley: Catalina State Park 

Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invites camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home. The park provides miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails which wind through the park and into the Coronado National Forest at elevations near 3,000 feet.

Western scrub jay at Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Because of the high diversity of bird species, the National Audubon Society has designated the park as an Important Bird Area (IBA). The species count has reached 193 and includes several much sought-after birds such as Gilded Flicker, Rufous-winged Sparrow, and Varied Bunting. 

Gilded flicker at Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The makeup of birds in the park varies with the seasons. Spring and summer birds include noisy Brown-crested Flycatchers, beautiful Blue Grosbeaks, and the tiny Lucy’s Warblers. In the early fall, waves of migrants pass through including Lazuli Buntings, Western Tanagers, and several kinds of warblers. Winter brings in a variety of birds that nest in the north such as Red-naped Sapsucker, Green-tailed Towhee, and several species of sparrows. Permanent residents include Great Horned Owls, Red-tailed Hawks, and many other Sonoran Desert species.

The many trails in the park provide great opportunities to see birds. In addition, there are regular bird walks from October into April led by local experts. The park is located within minutes of the Tucson metropolitan area.

Related article: Catalina State Park: Sky Island Gem

Read more: Flooding Strands Campers at Catalina State Park

Red Rock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sedona: Red Rock State Park

Red Rock State Park is located 5 miles west of Sedona off State Highway 89A on the lower Red Rock Loop Road. A bird list is available upon request. This park makes a great introduction for novice birders. Guided bird walks take place at 8 a.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays.

The park has an abundance of resident and migratory birds that can be appreciated by park visitors. A five-mile network of trails loops through this park. The Kisva Trail and Smoke Trail are easy strolls along the banks of Oak Creek beneath the shade of cottonwood, sycamore, velvet ash, and alder trees where you might spot wood ducks and common mergansers.

Red Rock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Non-hikers can settle in on the patio beside the visitor center. It’s with hummingbird feeders.

Details: 4050 Red Rock Loop Road, Sedona. $7, $4 for ages 7-13. Pets are not allowed. 

Related article: Color Your World at Red Rock State Park

Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Sedona

Conclusion

No matter if you’re new to bird watching or are an avid birder looking to check rare species off your life list, Arizona is your place. A day pack will help stow your creature’s comfort items: snacks, water, a sweater or light jacket, a birding field guide, binoculars, and camera. Bring enough gear to ensure your stay in the field is as comfortable as possible.

The last piece of the birding equation is totally up to you. Just get out there and enjoy nature. Hike around while peering into the brush, on the water, or in trees for Arizona’s diverse bird species.

Plan your trip:

Worth Pondering…

Legends say that hummingbirds float free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy, and celebration. The hummingbird’s delicate grace reminds us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, every personal connection has meaning and that laughter is life’s sweetest creation.

—Papyrus

Tucson Is For the Birds and Birders

The Tucson area has so many excellent bird-watching spots that I can’t list them all but here are a few favorites to get you started

Tucson, Arizona, isn’t just a haven for snowbirds. It also is known as a birdwatcher’s and nature lover’s paradise.

Tucson is for the birds, or maybe better said, Tucson is for birders. With the area’s desert, mountains, forests, mild winters, and proximity to tropical Mexico, sightings of more than 500 species of birds have been recorded.

Mexican jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s a surprising diversity of birds here, thanks to what Tucson Audubon calls a perfect storm: varied elevations; generally mild climate; Sky Island ranges linking the Rocky Mountains to the Sierra Madre; influences from Sonoran, Mojave, and Chihuahuan deserts; migratory flyways; and tropical areas south of the border.

I enjoy capturing photos of everything from butterflies and dragonflies to reptiles and mammals and that includes birds. As a person who likes being out in nature and one who appreciates observing and photographing wildlife, here are five of my favorite nature spotting and birding locations in and near Tucson.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sabino Canyon

Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is located in northeast Tucson at 5700 N. Sabino Canyon Road. This picturesque canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains, part of Coronado National Forest, is one of the premier natural areas in southern Arizona. Although no private vehicles are permitted in the canyon, a tram service is available. Visitors can take an enjoyable and educational 45-minute, 3.8-mile narrated tram ride through the canyon. Trams stop at several trailheads, providing access to 30 miles of trails throughout the canyon.

Vermilion flycatcher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to the wide variety of mammals in the canyon, birders might spot vermilion flycatchers, pyrrhuloxias, gray hawks, western tanagers, phainopeplas, and peregrine falcons.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

Many folks picture the saguaro cactus (the largest cactus in the United States) when they think of Tucson. One great place to see a vast collection of these majestic plants is another of my favorite spots, Saguaro National Park which actually is two parks in one. One district lies east of Tucson (Rincon Mountain District) and the other is to the west (Tucson Mountain District); approximately 30 miles separate them. Both have well-maintained roads and numerous hiking trails. Note that vehicles more than 8 feet wide and trailers longer than 35 feet are not permitted on Cactus Forest Drive (east park) or Bajada Loop Drive (west).

Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each of the districts has distinctive characteristics. The west park has the greatest number of saguaro cacti, as well as an ancient petroglyph site. Visitors may spot birds and other wildlife in both parks. Keep your eyes open for the distinctive Gambel’s quail, Gila woodpecker, American kestrel, northern goshawk, and cactus wren, among many other species.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park 

Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invite camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home.

Western scrub jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina provides miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails that wind through the park and into the Coronado National Forest at elevations near 3,000 feet. The park is located within minutes of the Tucson metropolitan area and Saguaro National Park West. This scenic desert park also offers equestrian trails and an equestrian center provides a staging area for trail riders with plenty of trailer parking.

Mexican gray wolf © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum 

On my “must visit list” is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum at 2021 N. Kinney Road in Tucson (adjacent to Saguaro National Park West and Tucson Mountain Park). The gardens at the museum have walking paths through a vibrant Sonoran Desert ecosystem that is home to native plants, butterflies, and birds. The museum also has natural enclosures (not traditional zoo enclosures) with mountain lions, bobcats, Mexican gray wolves, gray foxes, and other mammals native to the area, plus a free-flight bird aviary and a hummingbird aviary.

Raptor free flight demonstration © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A highlight of this is the raptor free-flight demonstration which provides an up-close look at hawks, falcons, and owls native to this part of Arizona. It was such an amazing display and photo opportunity that you plan to return a second day to take more photos.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon

The fifth location is widely known among birders—Madera Canyon in the Coronado National Forest and the Santa Rita Lodge. Madera Canyon lies south of Tucson in the Santa Rita Mountains. Santa Rita Lodge (located at 1218 S. Madera Canyon Road in Madera Canyon) offers overnight accommodations, as the name would suggest, but it also has a bird feeding area that is open to the public. Free parking is available for those visiting the viewing area which has limited seating and is wheelchair accessible.

Birding at Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here, you can view and photograph a wide variety of birds in a natural setting. A telephoto lens in the 400mm to 500mm range works well. Among the wide variety of birds attracted to the area are the yellow-eyed junco, flame-colored tanager, painted redstart, Mexican jay, crescent-chested warbler, and 15 species of hummingbirds. You might also get a glimpse of an elegant trogon, a prized sighting for birders in southern Arizona.

Coronado National Forest offers several trails in the area with limited parking at the trailheads.

Acorn woodpecker at Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucson boasts a wide array of natural and man-made attractions with something to interest everyone, including those who enjoy getting outdoors in nature. It is a renowned birding destination for visitors from far and near. It also is popular among snowbirds and other RVers, and RV campgrounds and resorts abound in the area.

Sandhill cranes at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As mentioned earlier, the Tucson area has so many excellent bird-watching spots that I can’t list them all. In addition to the five birding locations listed above, you may wish to explore the following:

  • Tohono Chul
  • Tucson Botanical Gardens
  • Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve
  • San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area
  • Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area
  • Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge
  • Ramsey Canyon

Worth Pondering…

Legends say that hummingbirds float free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy, and celebration. The hummingbird’s delicate grace reminds us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, every personal connection has meaning and that laughter is life’s sweetest creation.

—Papyrus

Guess Who? 12 Texas Birds to Know

A short starter list for those who long to put a name with a beak

Everyone is familiar with Texas icons like the Alamo and River Walk but how many of their feathered friends can you identify? Northern Cardinal, Grackle, Northern Mockingbird…those are pretty easy but there are so many more!

Birding is one of the fastest-growing outdoor activities in the US. With 639 species of birds documented in Texas, things really are bigger and better in the Lone Star State. Birding in Texas is year-round thanks to its location and diverse eco-regions and can be rewarding in every corner of the state. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) Wildlife Trails make it easier than ever to find the best birding hot spots.

Little blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nine Interactive maps are available on their website:

  • Far West Texas
  • Upper Texas Coast
  • Central Texas Coast
  • Lower Texas Coast
  • Heart of Texas West
  • Heart of Texas East
  • Panhandle Plains
  • Prairies and Piney Woods West
  • Prairies and Piney Woods East
Pied-billed grebe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whether you are a birder, a wildlife enthusiast, a photographer, or just want to see the wild side of Texas, these nine driving trail maps will lead you to the best spots to see birds, butterflies, bats, pronghorns, and more. What will you discover?

Learning to identify all of the state’s birds can be a daunting task, so here’s a list that’s been trimmed down to some of the more commonplace and easily seen species.

So, armed with this starter list and a helpful birding guidebook and a pair of binoculars and a camera head out and see how many you can spot and identify. Bring family and friends and turn it into a contest. You’ll find being bird-brained is fun for everyone.

Northern mockingbird © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Northern Mockingbird

Such a list, of course, has to begin with the state bird of Texas. This gray and white bird makes up for its drab appearance with a voice that could compete in any singing competition. The Latin name (Mimus polyglottos) which translates loosely to “the many-tongued mimic” really sums up this songster. Instead of singing its song, this bird performs like a tribute band playing an original band’s song note for note. A seasoned male Mockingbird can sing the songs of dozens of other species found nearby and make a variety of other vocalizations from frog sounds to car alarms.

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roseate Spoonbill

No problem or hesitation about picking the roseate spoonbill. One of the most striking birds found in North America, they demand attention and they get it. The roseate spoonbill is a large, visually striking bird having a pink body red patches on wings, a white neck, and a flat, spoon-shaped bill. It can often be seen in small groups where they swing their spatula-like bills to and fro searching shallow water for crustaceans. They are often seen perched in trees in swampy areas, foraging in shallow fresh or salt water, or flying in small groups overhead.

Related article: What Is Birding?

Green jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Green Jay

Unmistakably tropical, the brilliantly-colored Green Jay ranges south to Ecuador but enters the U.S. only in southernmost Texas where it is fairly common in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Green Jays are colorful birds with a pale green back and underside, a black chest, a blue and blackhead and face, and yellow sides on their tail.

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Kiskadee

The Great Kiskadee is a treat for visitors to southern Texas—and the birds won’t keep you waiting. Kiskadees are an eye-catching mix of black, white, yellow, and reddish-brown. The black head is set off by a bold white eyebrow and throat; the under-parts are yellow. These are loud, boisterous birds that quickly make their presence known.

Yellow-crowned night heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

When it comes to patience, no bird can outdo the Yellow-crowned Night Heron, a short, stocky wading bird about 24 inches in length with a wingspan of a little under four feet. It has long yellow to orange legs, red eyes, a thick black bill, and a short neck. It has a slate-gray body, a dark bluish-black head with a white streak along the cheek, and a very pale yellow (sometimes so pale that it appears white) crown that extends back from the head in the form of a few wispy feathers. The wing feathers have a grey and black striped appearance.

Vermillion flycatcher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vermilion Flycatcher

Most flycatchers are drab but the male Vermilion Flycatcher is a brilliant exception. It is usually seen perched fairly low in open areas near water making periodic flights to nab insect prey. As if the male’s bright colors were not advertisement enough, he also displays by puffing up his feathers and fluttering high in the air while singing repeatedly. Fairly common in parts of the southwest and Texas, the vermilion flycatcher is also widespread in Central and South America.

Black-bellied whistling duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Black-bellied Whistling Duck

The Black-bellied Whistling Duck is a boisterous duck with a brilliant pink bill and an unusual, long-legged silhouette. Also called a Mexican Tree Duck, watch for noisy flocks of these gaudy ducks in yards, ponds, resacas, and, of course, in trees. Listen for them, too—these ducks really do have a whistle for their call.

Related article: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Tricolored heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tricolored Heron

The Tricolored Heron is a medium-sized wading bird named for its three main colors: bluish-gray, purple, and white. Its head, back, and wings are a dark bluish-gray. The back of the neck is purple. The belly is white. The tri-color also has a narrow white streak with delicate rust-colored markings down the front of its neck. The tri-colored is more active than the larger herons. This bird does not patiently stand and wait when feeding. It walks through shallow water in a jerky fashion, crouching and darting as it moves along. It lunges and then shoots its bill into the water to catch a fish or an aquatic insect. 

Altamira oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Altamira Oriole

The Altamira Oriole is a bird of Mexico and Central America whose range just reaches southern Texas. The largest oriole occurring in the U. S. makes the longest nest of any North American bird: its woven basket-like nest can reach 25.5 inches in length. The Altamira has a black back, wings, bib, lores (the region between the eyes and nostril), a bill; orange head, nape, and underparts.

Golden-fronted woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Golden-fronted Woodpecker

A stripe-backed woodpecker of eastern Mexico and northern Central America, the Golden-fronted Woodpecker reaches the U. S. only in the brushlands and woodlands of Texas and southwest Oklahoma. Very noisy and conspicuous, the Golden-fronted has barred black and white back and upper wings, the rump is white, and the tail is usually black.

Crested caracara © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crested Caracara

Related to falcons but very different in shape and habits, the crested caracara reach the U. S. only in Texas and Florida. A large, long-legged raptor, the Crested Caracara has a black cap with a short crest at back, pale sides of back and neck, bare red skin on the face, black body, white tail with wide black tip, white patches at ends of dark wings, and faint barring on upper back and breast.

Related article: My Top 10 List of Texas Birds

Reddish egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reddish Egret

A conspicuously long-legged, long-necked heron of shallow saltwater, the Reddish Egret is a very active forager. Often draws attention by its feeding behavior: running through shallows with long strides, staggering sideways, leaping in the air, raising one or both wings, and abruptly stabbing at fish.

Great blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Blue Heron

More old-timers refer to this species as a “blue crane” but this heron is not related to cranes. This tall wetland inhabitant will hunt for fish, frogs, crayfish, and the like in just about any creek, pond, lake, or roadside ditch. With an overall grayish color, this bird does have hints of blue-gray here and there. In flight, the Great Blue Heron might conjure up beliefs that pterodactyls still fly in our friendly skies. When waters freeze in winter, don’t expect these birds to chip away at the ice. Instead, watch them switch to dry upland settings in search of rodents. Who knows, maybe a switch from slimy fish to furry rats every now and then breaks the monotony!

Black skimmer © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Black Skimmer

The remarkable bill of the black skimmer sets it apart from all other American birds. The large orange and black bill are knife-thin and the lower mandible is longer than the upper. The strange, uneven bill of the skimmer has a purpose: the bird flies low, with the long lower mandible plowing the water, snapping the bill shut when it contacts a fish. Strictly coastal, Black Skimmers are often seen resting on sandbars and beaches. 

Black-necked stilt © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Black-necked Stilt

“Long” and “thin” are the best adjectives for describing this elegant black and white shorebird: long neck; thin, needle-like black bill; and long, pink legs. Black-necked Stilts have the second-longest legs in proportion to the bodies of any bird—only flamingoes are longer. The Black-necked stilt wades in shallow water as it feeds, probing with its long, thin bill for insects and crustaceans on or near the surface of the water. It finds most of its food visually, picking insects, small crustaceans, and tiny fish from the surface of the water or mud.

Great horned owl © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Horned Owl

With its long, earlike tufts, intimidating yellow-eyed stare, and deep hooting voice, the Great Horned Owl is the quintessential owl of storybooks. This powerful predator can take down birds and mammals even larger than itself, but it also dines on daintier fares such as tiny scorpions, mice, and frogs. It’s one of the most common owls in North America, equally at home in deserts, wetlands, forests, grasslands, backyards, cities, and almost any other semi-open habitat between the Arctic and the tropics.

Royal tern © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Royal Tern

A large, orange-billed tern, the royal tern is found only along ocean beaches. Common along tropical and subtropical shores, the royal tern is a characteristic sight along the Gulf Coast and southern Atlantic Coast. It forages mostly by hovering over the water and plunging to catch prey just below the surface. Sometimes flies low, skimming the water with the bill; occasionally catches flying fish in the air, or dips to the water’s surface to pick up floating refuse.

Long-billed thrasher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Long-billed Thrasher

A resident of dense brushy habitats, the Long-billed Thrasher is found only in southern Texas and eastern Mexico. There it is a common permanent resident of native woodland and thickets, foraging on the ground under dense cover, often singing from a hidden position within the brush. Uses its long bill to flip dead leaves aside as it rummages in the leaf litter for insects; also will use its bill to dig in soil within an inch of the surface. And it’s often seen perching in shrubs and trees to eat berries.

Related article: World Migratory Day: Texas Birding Trails

Turkey vulture © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Turkey Vulture

Early American settlers from Europe confused this carrion eater with the “buzzard” back home but the two aren’t alike. Though the name “buzzard” is used in other parts of the world for hawks, it refuses to be erased from our vocabulary for vultures. When soaring, this vulture has a silvery tinge to the trailing edge of the entire wing. When they’re feasting on roadkill, notice their milk chocolate coloration and, in adults, a red featherless head. Only a mother could love a face like that. There is another species of vulture in Texas: the black vulture. The black vulture sports a gray featherless head and is dark black. During the flight, black vultures also have a silvery tinge to their wings but only on the outer tips. If we didn’t have vultures, our roadways would soon be overrun with smelly, unsightly roadkill.

Killdeer © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Killdeer

How great would it be if every bird were named for its vocalization, like this one? A resounding “kill-dee, kill-dee, kill-dee” can be heard not only in natural settings but also in ball fields and parking lots. In flight, watch for the fiery orange rump and pointy wings and, when perched, watch for two distinctive black bands across the breast resembling wide necklaces. If you approach one and find it limping away with a drooped wing and loud cries, know that you’re being duped. This action — called feigning — is designed to lure you away from a nearby ground nest or nestlings, so tread lightly.

American coot © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

American Coot

I don’t think it’s a compliment to be called an “old coot,” but it’s OK to spot some on a nearby lake or reservoir. Since this bird needs a running start to take off from the water, it doesn’t hang out in small bodies of water. If you find one there, it’s usually an indication that inclement weather grounded the bird and the runway is too short for it to take off again. Commonly occurring in rafts, or large floating flocks of birds, this all-dark bird has a pale white bill and feeds on aquatic organisms and vegetation. This species, no relation to ducks, pours into Texas during fall to spend the winter months where water doesn’t freeze, but watch for most to head north in spring. Some stick around throughout the year and raise a family. The young look similar in shape but have a whitish head that distinguishes them from mom and dad.

Mourning dove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mourning Dove

With a long, pointy tail and a small, beady head, this dove enjoys sunflower seeds whether the seeds are at the feeder, on a fresh sunflower stalk, or the ground. The best feeders for a flock of these are rural sunflower fields in late summer or early fall; their Columbidae relatives line up shoulder-to-shoulder on the power lines and fences, assessing the danger before dropping down into the field.

Tufted titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tufted Titmouse

It’s fun to watch this feisty, crested bird feed on sunflower seeds. With one foot, they pin a seed to the limb they’re perched on and begin to hammer away to open it, using head and bill like an all-in-one hammer and chisel. After all that work, they gobble down a tasty seed that’s rich in fat, fiber, protein, several vitamins and minerals, and, most importantly, calories to get them through tough times until Mother Nature can again provide her buffet.

Worth Pondering…

A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

—Chinese Proverb

World Migratory Day: Texas Birding Trails

Texas has an extensive series of birding and wildlife trails covering scores of sites over the entire state

Birding is one of the fastest-growing outdoor activities in the US. In celebration of World Migratory Bird Day on the second Saturday of May (May 14, 2022), here is a look at the nine eco-regions and birding trails in Texas which hosts more bird-watching festivals than any other state.

Turkey vulture © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Lone Star state is home to some of the most famous birding sites in the country: High Island, Bolivar Flats, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Big Bend National Park, and Lower Rio Grande Valley. The list could go on and on.

With 639 species of birds documented in Texas, things really are bigger and better in the Lone Star State. Birding in Texas is year-round thanks to its location and diverse eco-regions and can be rewarding in every corner of the state. 

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is where it all started—where the birding trail concept was pioneered in the 1990s. Still luring birdwatchers from all over the world, the Great Texas Wildlife Trail offers good birding throughout the year but the upper coast is at its best in spring migration when songbirds crossing the Gulf of Mexico make landfall. When the timing is right, you’ll find trees filled with colorful congregations of warblers, orioles, tanagers, and buntings.

Reddish egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most famous for water birds, the central coast is highlighted by the wintering population of whooping cranes centered in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Now readily seen from November to March, the cranes are not the only spectacles here; you might also encounter shaggy-plumed reddish egrets, blazing pink roseate spoonbills, and beautifully patterned white-tailed hawks.

Ibis rookery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The lower coast trail takes in a magical region where dozens of species spill across the border from Mexico, enlivening the landscape with a mosaic of surprises—noisy ringed kingfishers like belted kingfishers on steroids, great kiskadees that seem too colorful for the flycatcher family, and green jays which provide a shocking departure from their relatives’ blue and gray tones.

Related Article: My Top 10 List of Texas Birds

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) Wildlife Trails make it easier than ever to find the best birding hot spots.

Pied-billed grebe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nine Interactive maps are available on their website:

  • Far West Texas
  • Upper Texas Coast
  • Central Texas Coast
  • Lower Texas Coast
  • Heart of Texas West
  • Heart of Texas East
  • Panhandle Plains
  • Prairies and Piney Woods West
  • Prairies and Piney Woods East

Whether you are a birder, a wildlife enthusiast, a photographer, or just want to see the wild side of Texas, these nine driving trail maps will lead you to the best spots to see birds, butterflies, bats, pronghorns, and more. What will you discover?

Greater roadrunner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Far West Texas: Encompassing an area from El Paso to Midland-Odessa and down to the Rio Grande’s border with Mexico, the Far West Texas interactive map helps visitors discover a blend of natural and cultural resources such as historic structures, forts, and ancient pictographs as well as a chance to trek through the rugged outdoors. Watch for Montezuma quail, curved-bill thrasher, greater roadrunner, and ladder-backed woodpecker.

Recommended birding site: Big Bend National Park

Curv-billed thrasher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend ranks with America’s great birding destinations and if offers endless opportunities for hikers, geology buffs, photographers, history-lovers, and people who enjoy rugged landscapes.

Big Bend comprises three main ecosystems: Most of the park is Chihuahuan Desert, a terrain of cactus and shrubs. In the center, the Chisos Mountains rise to more than 7,000 feet with oak canyons and ponderosa pine. Along the Rio Grande is a lush green strip of cottonwoods and willows. All this contributes to Big Bend’s great diversity of birds.

Mexican jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birds of the Chisos include acorn woodpecker, cordilleran flycatcher, Mexican jay, and painted redstart. More likely in lower elevations are such species as scaled quail, greater roadrunner, elf owl, vermilion flycatcher, cactus wren, curve-billed thrasher, pyrrhuloxia, and varied bunting.

Egret rookery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Upper Texas Coast: The Upper Texas Coast region takes you close to the Louisiana border to Beaumont and Houston then along the coast from the birding hotspots of High Island and Bolivar Peninsula continuing down to Galveston and the Brazosport Area. Visit heron rookeries and be wowed by the number of egrets, herons, and Roseate Spoonbills visible from viewing platforms. You may even get a glimpse of an alligator (from a safe distance, of course!).

Recommended birding site: Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge

Fulvous whistling duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the must-visit sites of Texas, Anahuac protects 34,000 acres of marsh, prairie, and scattered woods. A small sampling of breeding-season birds found here includes black-bellied whistling duck, fulvous whistling duck, wood stork (post-breeding visitor), neotropic cormorant, least bittern, roseate spoonbill, clapper rail, purple gallinule, and black-necked stilt. 

Related Article: What Is Birding?

Black-necked stilt © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Central Texas Coast: Explore well-known birding sites and hidden gems throughout the Coastal Bend from Kingsville and Corpus Christi up to Goliad and continuing through the coastal communities of Port Aransas, Rockport-Fulton, and on to Bay City. Observe vibrant migratory birds during spring and fall migration as well as over-wintering whooping cranes, all while enjoying year-round birding opportunities and events.

Recommended birding site: Brazos Bend State Park

Sites on the Texas Gulf Coast get most of the publicity but this state park 30 miles southwest of Houston is well worth a visit for its attractive scenery as well as its birds. Here, live oaks draped with Spanish moss and other hardwoods ensure a lush landscape along the Brazos River and its tributary Big Creek.

Anhinga © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Look on park lakes and wetlands for black-bellied whistling duck, pied-billed grebe, neotropic cormorant, anhinga, many species of waders including both night-herons and roseate spoonbill and Purple Gallinule. Some of the breeding birds here are least bittern, Mississippi kite, black-necked stilt, yellow-billed cuckoo, prothonotary warbler, and painted bunting.

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lower Texas Coast: Spend some time getting to know the diverse landscapes of the Valley from Brownsville and South Padre Island to Weslace, McAllen, all the way up to Rio Grande City and inland to Raymondville and more. See some of the south Texas specialties such as the green jay, great kiskadee, Altamira oriole, and plain chachalaca in addition to the occasional Mexican rarity in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Recommended birding site: Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

Clay-colored thrush © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So many wonderful birding sites are located in the Lower Rio Grande Valley that it’s hard to single out one or even a handful. Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge comprising 2,088 acres on the Rio Grande south of Alamo has long been a favorite destination of birders from around the world.

Altamira oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many of the region’s specialties are seen here including plain chachalaca, white-tipped dove, common pauraque, buff-bellied hummingbird, great kiskadee, green jay, clay-colored thrush, long-billed thrasher, and Altamira oriole, to name only a few of the most regular species.

Related Article: Discover Over 500 Bird Species in South Texas

Common pauraque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heart of Texas West: Covering an area from San Angelo and Sonora east to Junction and then over to Fredericksburg and Uvalde and down to Del Rio, this region offers the well-known central Texas while learning about cave formations.

Recommended birding site: Lost Maples State Natural Area

The beautiful Texas Hill Country is worth visiting for its scenery and rivers and it holds great rewards for birders. Lost Maples State Natural Area is one place that combines beauty and birds. Named for the bigtooth maples, it’s especially popular and crowded when the trees change color in fall.

Western scrub jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nesting birds here include wild turkey, greater roadrunner, ruby-throated hummingbird, black-chinned hummingbird, Hutton’s vireo, western scrub jay, black-crested Titmouse, Louisiana water thrush, Rufous-crowned sparrow, painted bunting, Scott’s oriole, and lesser goldfinch.

Black-crested titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heart of Texas East: This region runs from Brownwood near the Panhandle down through Marble Falls and Johnson City before heading east to Austin and Bastrop and south to San Marcos and San Antonio. Tour native nature centers, private ranches, and state parks or go right into the heart of Austin, the state capitol to see the largest urban population of Mexican Free-tailed Bats. Head down to the South Texas brush country near Laredo for a more rugged terrain.

Recommended birding site: Mitchell Lake Audubon Center

Yellow warbler © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An all-around birding site just south of downtown San Antonio, Mitchell Lake Audubon Center includes woodland, wetlands, and a 600-acre lake. At the center of the area are former wastewater-treatment ponds, now renowned for shorebirds from late summer through spring.

Some of the birds often seen on the lake and wetlands include black-bellied whistling duck, least grebe, neotropic cormorant, anhinga, American white pelican, and many species of wading birds.

Ladder-backed woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Among nesting, birds are greater roadrunner, black-chinned hummingbird, Golden-fronted woodpecker, Ladder-backed woodpecker, crested caracara, scissor-tailed flycatcher, cave swallow, verdin, long-billed thrasher, painted bunting, orchard oriole, and Bullock’s oriole.

Sandhill cranes © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Panhandle Plains: Enjoy the expansive views available in the northern part of the state including Amarillo, Lubbock, and south to Abilene. Here, get a glimpse of scenic canyons, mesas, and river corridors and keep an eye out for coyote, pronghorn antelope, sandhill cranes, black-tailed prairie dogs, meadow larks, burrowing owls and more in the wide open spaces of Texas.

Recommended birding site: Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge

This refuge 25 miles southwest of Amarillo protects a 175-acre tract of native shortgrass prairie of such quality that it has been designated a National Natural Landmark. It’s a good place to see many open-country birds as well as seasonal waterfowl and shorebirds.

Golden-fronted woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From fall through spring many species of ducks use these wetlands and some such as cinnamon teal and redhead remain to nest. Some of the nesting birds here are wild turkey, Mississippi kite, greater roadrunner, burrowing owl, Golden-fronted woodpecker, Ladder-backed woodpecker, Say’s phoebe, scissor-tailed flycatcher, Chihuahuan raven, rock wren, and Bullock’s Oriole.

Burrowing owl © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prairies and Piney Woods West: Extending from Wichita Falls in the north, down through the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, and into Waco and Temple before continuing to College Station. View some of the few remaining Blackland Prairies and experience the native habitat that once covered most of north Texas. Watch for grazing bison, caracaras, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and more. Also, reconnect with urban nature at a variety of Dallas and Fort Worth parks, zoos and nature centers.

Recommended birding site: Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge

Five species of geese winter on this refuge, at times in enormous flocks—up to 10,000 have been estimated in one field, for example. Hagerman lies along the shore of the southern arm of Lake Texoma on the route of the Central Flyway so waterfowl find it a welcome rest stop on migration and a hospitable home in winter. A four-mile wildlife drive passes along the lakeshore and several hiking trails access woodland (including some bottomland forest), grassland, and ponds.

Tri-colored heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hagerman’s bird list of 338 species includes more than 35 species of shorebirds that feed in shallow water and mudflats along with more than 15 species of wading birds attracted to the wetlands. Nesting birds at Hagerman include wood duck, Northern bobwhite, wild turkey, pied-billed grebe, tricolored Heron, common gallinule, black-necked stilt, least tern, greater roadrunner, red-headed woodpecker, loggerhead shrike, prothonotary warbler, and painted bunting.

Related Article: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Cooper’s hawk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prairies and Piney Woods East: Travel through a region that goes from Paris to Texarkana and down through Tyler, Nacogdoches, Lufkin, and Huntsville. Spend time in east Texas to explore the Big Thicket and hardwood forest for a variety of raptors, warblers, woodpeckers, and other woodland species. Or, take time to fish one of the many lakes, rivers and streams and maybe spot an eagle soaring above.

Recommended birding site: Lake Tawakoni

Crested caracara © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This reservoir northeast of Dallas is a favorite destination for local birders. On the west side, 376-acre Lake Tawakoni State Park is one spot from which to scan the lake for wintering waterfowl, loons, grebes, American white pelican, and bald eagle. Osprey is seen in migration. Neotropic cormorant is seen year round, and crested caracara is found regularly. Nesting birds include Cooper’s hawk, blue grosbeak, indigo bunting, painted bunting, and orchard oriole.
A few miles southeast, Highway 47 crosses the dam for the lake. The woods below the dam along the Sabine River can be excellent for spring migrants. Nesting birds include wood duck, pileated woodpecker, prothonotary Warbler, painted bunting, and orchard oriole.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

There is nothing in which the birds differ more from man than the way in which they can build and yet leave a landscape as it was before.

—Robert Lynd, The Blue Lion and Other Essays

Tips and Techniques for Improving Bird and Wildlife Photography

Taking your wildlife photography to the next level

Spring is on the horizon and although wildlife photography can be a year-round activity, I’m excited for the warmer weather, blooming flora, and lots of critters being up and active. We’re gathering our cameras, lenses, and other photo gear and itching to get outdoors.

Photographers at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Yet, no matter the season, I am always excited to grab a long lens and explore nature and hopefully come away with some bird and wildlife photos. As I’ve said before, I’m not a professional photographer by any means. However, I certainly put myself in the enthusiast category and I’ve been photographing wildlife for many years.

Gilded flicker at Usery Mountain Regional Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife photography is more than just having a camera and pointing it at an animal. There are tips and techniques, both in terms of composition and gear that can help make wildlife photography easier and hopefully help you be more successful in capturing great photos of birds, critters, and other animals.

Elk at Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Below is a list of important tips and techniques for birding and wildlife photography that I’ve learned over the years and try to keep in mind whenever I’m out photographing birds and other animals. Keep in mind that this list of tips is by no means exhaustive but it does cover some important guidelines and suggestions for gear selection and shooting techniques as well as artistic and creative tips for improving your wildlife and bird photos.

Related Article: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Now, without further ado…

Photographers at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Buy a telephoto lens

This first tip is, perhaps, a somewhat obvious one, especially if you’re already familiar with birding and wildlife photography but one key piece of photo gear for a good wildlife photography experience is a long, telephoto lens. There isn’t one particular focal length that works best for all situations; however, I’ve found that a solid starting point is a focal length of 400mm.

Wood storks at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Depending on your camera system, the options for a 400mm telephoto lens can vary quite a bit but be aware that supertelephoto lenses can often be expensive. You also have the option for a prime lens or a zoom.

Rocky mountain sheep in Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In most cases a zoom lens is a great choice that gives you some versatility. A fantastic choice for a great wildlife-centric telephoto zoom is a 100-400mm-style zoom or a 150-600mm zoom. Several manufacturers make these types of lenses at both affordable and high-end price points. Some options may make optical comprises to some extent in order to make such a long-zoom lens reasonable lightweight and usable handheld so you’ll need to weigh what type of budget you’re comfortable with and what kind of image quality performance you’re looking for.

Inca doves at Edinburg Wetlands, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Use a tripod or monopod

Since many full-frame format supertelephoto lenses are large and heavy, consider using a tripod or monopod or some form of support. Many of these lenses can hit in the 6, 7, or 8-pound range which can get very tiring to use handheld for any length of time. And birding and wildlife photography takes patience.

Related Article: Photographing Wading Birds

Mourning dove at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tired arms and general soreness means less steady hand-holding resulting in missed shots, blurriness, or missed focus, and just generally less enthusiasm to keep shooting. A good monopod or tripod can help get you sharper shots and keep you shooting for longer.

Roseate spoonbill in flight at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Use fast shutter speeds

Be aware of your shutter speed, and in particular, use a faster shutter speed for sharper photos especially for birds in flight. The traditional rule of thumb has been using a shutter speed of “1 / the focal length” (in terms of a 35mm full-frame camera). For example, if you’re using a 400mm lens on a full-frame camera, a good starting point is 1/400ths of a second in order to avoid blurring from camera shake. However, that means the longer the lens, the faster the shutter speed needs to be. For birds-in-flight, however, a good starting point here is at least 1/1000s, but I’d recommend shooting with even faster speeds, such as 1/2000th of a second. But 1/1000th of a second at the minimum for birds in flight is a good starting point.

Yellow warbler at Benson-Rio Grande State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pay attention to background elements

With a telephoto lens, you are able to bring faraway subjects closer and one of the best creative benefits to such a lens is the ability to isolate your subject and create smooth, blurry backgrounds. The ability to remove distractions is one of the great benefits to a telephoto lens. Be mindful of objects in the background. When photographing perched birds in trees pay attention to leaves, tree branches, and other objects that are positioned behind your subject.

Great horned owl at Estero Llano Grande State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Get creative with your shooting angles

When photographing birds, you’ll likely find yourself pointing upward into the trees. While this can work and make for some interesting images, you’ll often end up photographing the underside of the animal which might not be the most attractive pose or position or you may have to contend with your subject being heavily backlit with a bright sky. 

Green jay at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If possible, try to position yourself at a different elevation or more at the same level as your subject. As you might expect, this is easier when photographing ground-based animals as you can more easily get down to a lower position and more at their level. For birds up in trees, this can be a difficult task depending on your location and surroundings. Getting level with birds is more easily accomplished when photographing near bird feeders or if you’re fortunate to find yourself in a location with elevated walkways or trails that put you more up into the trees. For shorebirds, water birds, or other ground birds, again, the key is to go low and close to eye level.

Related Article: Bird Photography Basics: On Camera Equipment and Shooting Techniques

Plain chachalaca at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Keep the sun at your back

When possible, position yourself so that the sun is behind you and illuminating your subject. You don’t want to be photographing a bird or other animal with the sun behind it as it will likely be harshly backlit and underexposed. With the sun illuminating your subject you’re able to capture the beautiful colors and the sharp detail in fur or feathers of your subject.

Curved-billed thrasher at Whitewater Draw, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Seek out good light

Consider the time of day when photographing birds in flight. Much like the golden hours rule for landscape photography, these are also ideal lighting conditions for photographing birds in flight. Light is softer, has a warming glow, and properly illuminates the bird. If the sun is too high in the sky, the underside of the bird will likely be in shadow.

Black-bellied whistling ducks at La Feria Nature Center, Texas

Research your shooting locations

Research your location before you go. You’ll be more comfortable and aware of your surroundings and you’ll have already scouted some good locations for wildlife and be prepped to set up shop and wait for photo opportunities.

Western scrub jay at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

State and national parks, national wildlife refuges, and nature preserves are prime locations for birds and other wildlife and are conducive to photography. They often provide bird blinds and feeding stations which are ideal for observation and photography.

Birds sometimes land right where you want them © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be patient, be quiet and take your time

Last but definitely not least: be patient.

Related Article: The Basics of Bird Photography: Before, During, and After Photo Sessions

Birds and wildlife are unpredictable and they won’t often land or appear right where you want them. But that’s part of the fun of this type of photo subject, the unpredictability of it all. However, wildlife photography takes patience. Traipsing through the woods will alert most animals to your presence and so you’ll want to get into a good spot and then wait, quietly. Eventually, the birds and animals will likely start to ignore you or become okay with your presence, so long as you’re calm and quiet. 

Ground squirrel at San Pedro House, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the same lines as being patient, it’s also important to be diligent and observe your subject once you’ve spotted it. Don’t just snap a single frame and call it a day. Watch for interesting behavior or certain poses that can bring the subject to life and show some of its personality.

Worth Pondering…

Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.

—George Eastman

Bird Photography Basics: On Camera Equipment and Shooting Techniques

In bird photography, the camera should have a fast frame rate to capture the fleeting moments of birds

Photographing birds often encourages us to spend more time with them, study the birds closer, and appreciate the importance of watching and waiting to see what might happen next—or what different birds might slip into view. Photographing birds make birding more enjoyable in the field—and as you review and edit photos after your close encounters of an avian kind.

Cerulean warbler © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capturing great bird photographs has its own set of challenges. Many beginners wanting to try their hand in bird photography may have a perception that they need to buy an expensive camera and lenses to match. While it is true that the top-of-the-line cameras and premium lenses produce superior results in challenging conditions, still don’t expect it to be the end-all-be-all. And a lens alone can set you back over $10,000.

Greater roadrunner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For successfully photographing wild birds in the wild, you need a camera, a long focal length lens, and a good tripod. Once you are confident about handling your camera and lens, you may wish to use them free-hand. But in the beginning, a tripod can benefit your photography especially with the composition and low-light situations.

Related Article: The Basics of Bird Photography: Before, During, and After Photo Sessions

Inca dove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you feel carrying a tripod around is too cumbersome, you can also try handheld photography. But you need to maintain optimal body stability and posture to minimize the associated camera shake. Another option is to carry a monopod which would give you excellent results.

Tufted titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Personally, I have not used a tripod for 99.9 percent of the pictures that I have taken. They are not perfect but are reasonably sharp and focused. This is because I have developed hand and body posture stability through years of experience and practice.

Pauraque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are a few things to remember about the camera requirements when aiming for bird photography. The camera should have a fast frame rate to capture the fleeting moments of birds. Anything upward of 8 frames per second is good.

Green-winged teal © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With few exceptions, most common birds move around quickly. Their pictures can be blurry by the subject movement if the shutter speed is not high. A 1/2000 of a second shutter speed is a safe starting point. A camera with good ISO performance can achieve that. So aim for the one giving low noise results at ISO 1600–3200 range.

Cooper’s hawk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When considering the sensor resolution in megapixels, most cameras now offer plenty. A high megapixel count is beneficial when you want to crop the picture in post-processing. Look for cameras with more than 15-megapixels. Be mindful that large megapixel cameras produce large image files. You will need a powerful computer to process those images. A camera with an inbuilt GPS is an option to consider. GPS enables the camera to tag the location where each photo is taken. It also sets the time automatically.

Related Article: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Great horned owl © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Keep in mind that a camera is only one of the ingredients of photography. To make your photo stand out, you need good soft light. Soft ambient light conditions are available when most birds are active, mornings and evenings. So be prepared to wake up early.

Cactus wren © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The next ingredient in the recipe is a long focal lens. Wild birds can be very skittish and are hard to approach. A lens of at least 400mm focal length is a good start. That way you also have the flexibility to approach the birds from a reasonably good distance.

Western scrub jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usually, when we have smaller focal length lenses we tend to go overboard and approach the bird too close for their comfort. You don’t need to spend a fortune to buy a prime wide aperture lens. Most camera manufacturers offer budget options in the popular focus length ranges.

Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shooting technique becomes paramount in the field. By carefully selecting the shooting angle, it’s possible to separate the bird from the cluttering background. You can try to move slowly to find the best possible background. I have observed that abrupt lateral movements alert the birds to take off immediately. Thus, a patient and calm approach is necessary to obtain the best results under the given conditions.

Related Article: Photographing Wading Birds

Yellow-crowned night heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A background blur can be created even with narrow aperture lenses. A word of caution here; you don’t want to stress a bird or an animal in the process of getting your best photo. If the bird or animal shows any sign of discomfort, back-off or leave the area.

Royal tern © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even with a good camera and a lens, an incorrect exposure can ruin the picture.

Mirrorless technology is the latest in advanced cameras. You can also try these models as they are light to carry and offer great results and quality.

Little blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take advantage of the photo surprises that unfold, and be prepared for the next rare, unusual, or profound bird you get to see—and document it with photographs.

Related Article: The 10 Most Beautiful Birds

Worth Pondering…

We don’t take pictures with our cameras. We take them with our hearts and we take them with our minds, and the camera is nothing more than a tool.

—Arnold Newman

A Photographer’s Focus on Wading Birds

The watery world of wading birds

Tall wading birds—herons, egrets, bitterns, ibis, spoonbills, storks, and cranes—are among the most popular birds for birders and photographers—and for everyone. They are large and fairly obvious attracting our attention wherever we encounter them. They have long necks, long legs, long bills, long wings, and in-flight wading birds are most impressive—singularly and in flocks.

Ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As photographers, we are always hopeful of photographing wading birds to show their majesty, to document them catching prey, and to show them in the throes of mating displays in advance of the nesting season.

Reddish egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As winter melts into spring along the shallows of wetlands adjacent to the warmer areas of the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts, bright colors are flushing bare skin on the face of many species of wading birds with deeper colors accenting their legs and bill while some species grow feather plumes on their head, throat, back, or breast, providing ever-more impressive birds to photograph. As spring progresses, the wading bird progression will anchor the migration north with camera-toting birders intercepting their flight paths and stopover sites.

Great white egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wading birds are large, they are impressive, and they provide a variety of photo opportunities. Wading birds are among the first birds we hope to photograph—great blue herons, tricolored herons, great egrets, sandhill cranes—and we eventually seek out wood storks, roseate spoonbills, and yellow-crowned night herons—then we try to photograph all the wading birds. So we make it a point to seek them out, visit locations where we hope to find them, and marvel as we photograph each one.

Related Article: The Basics of Bird Photography: Before, During, and After Photo Sessions

Sandhill cranes © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Because many wading birds are among the largest birds we encounter, they are a good group to start with as beginning photographers, but ultimately, we never get enough photos of wading birds. There are always more opportunities in different settings under different lighting conditions with the birds engaged in an array of activities. Wading birds as a group are just plain exciting to behold and to photograph.

Yellowlegs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Locations: Wading birds are usually associated with water—the shorelines of shallow ponds and marshes, tidal flats, and lakeshores—these are the primary habitats to visit regularly to photograph wading birds.

Whimbrel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Timing: Pick the time of your visits for the best possible lighting—mornings before 11:00 and afternoons after 2:00 are best now. As the spring season progresses and we adjust to the daylight savings change of time, we will need to adjust the periods we devote to photography.

White-faced ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sunlight: The need for good sunlight originating from behind you is essential to capture the best colors on all wading birds and that’s especially true with birds that have any iridescent plumage. In addition to providing more vivid colors, sunlight provides more contrast between colors and shades of colors too.

Related Article: Photographing Wading Birds

Green heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shadows: Since sunlight also produces shadows, be aware of shadows on one side of the bird. After taking an initial photo, you may want to move to avoid shadowing. I also like to refer to my own shadow when positioning myself, so try to position directly between the bird and the sun—that’s when my shadow is pointing directly at the bird.

Tri-colored heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Overcast Conditions: When overcast it’s best to re-schedule for a sunny period. The quality of any resulting photos will have muted colors, low contrast, and dull surroundings. Any photos you take will be subpar.

Little blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Water Reflections: Blue sky sunlight produces blue-colored water which provides a great setting for wading birds. At the same time, wading birds are the prime interest and whether the watercolor is blue, green, brown, or gray is less important. Water has unlimited variations produced by calm or variations of windy conditions, water flows, or waves. While you are focusing on the bird be aware of the water and its movements for enhanced photo quality. At times, when the water is calm, you may be able to take photos with the bird reflected in the water in front of it.

Willet © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vegetation: Be aware of the background and foreground. Plants in your setting can be a welcome addition to add some contrasting green, yellow, or tan coloration while showing the bit of habitat. In some cases, plants may not be welcome if they hide parts of the bird in a distracting manner. If necessary, reposition to get a better background after taking a couple of initial photos. Or you may be able to simply wait for the bird to move to a better location. As with any composition, take the photos you can and try to improve on them if possible.

Related Article: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Yellow-crowned night heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Positioning: When photographing wading birds, take some images from a low position—kneeling, squatting, sitting, or lying on the ground—to get closer to water level or ground level and thereby closer to the level of the bird.

Immature White-faced ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stabilizing: Stabilize yourself while holding your camera by bracing your elbows against your chest when standing or bracing one elbow against a knee while kneeling. Bracing your lens against a tree, pole, fence, or car window will help too. Hold your breath when pressing the shutter button to help stabilize your camera and lens.

Great blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Action: Take several initial photos, then wait to see what happens next—wait for the action. Perhaps the bird will try to catch a fish; perhaps it will take a few steps as it hunts providing another angle to photograph, or maybe it will decide to take a flight to reposition to a new hunting area. Spend ample time with each photo subject and you will often be rewarded with another, possibly better photo opportunity. Also try to anticipate the birds’ next moves, rather than react to their movements a step behind the action. Action photos are always the most interesting and most revealing.

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Flight Photos: Your best bet for getting multiple opportunities to photograph wading birds in flight will come when you can find a flight path the birds follow between feeding areas and nest sites. Then it’s a matter of spending some time in position and watching for birds you can focus on and follow through your lens, taking multiple photographs of each bird in flight if possible.

Wood storks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Approach: Avoid alarming a bird as you approach it, especially if it is feeding—the bird always comes first. Keeping your distance and allowing birds to behave naturally will provide the best photo opportunities. If you try to approach a bird, move slowly and don’t walk directly at the bird; instead, move at an angle to the bird that gets you ever-closer.

Black-necked stilt © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cropping: When reviewing your photos some simple cropping can improve the quality of your final images. A simple crop to remove extraneous background area will enlarge the bird within the photo frame. It’s best not to center your subject in the frame. Instead, leave some space in front of the bird (consider the Rule of Thirds).

American Avocet © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

March and April provide a great time to photograph wading birds as many species migrate north. The weeks ahead should provide a variety of species for you to photograph. Waders are most active during May and June as they begin nest-building at rookeries and the variety of wading birds should keep your attention through the summer months. There’s a great wading bird photo season ahead, so embrace this exceptional group of photo subjects as often as you can, and Good Luck!

Read Next: The 10 Most Beautiful Birds

Worth Pondering…

A wonderful bird is the pelican
His bill will hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week,
But I’m damned if I see how the helican.

—Dixon Lanier Merritt