Birding 101

This describes the birth of my passion for these flighty little creatures. I also discuss the few essentials necessary for getting started. Birding is a lot like selling real estate. Location, Location, Location… and patience. Your backyard is the perfect place to start. Put up a few feeders, a birdhouse or two, a bird bath… wait.

One of my feeders

One of my feeders

  • Aperture: ƒ/5.6
  • Camera: X-S1
  • Taken: 22 July, 2012
  • Flash fired: no
  • Focal length: 158.6mm
  • ISO: 250
  • Shutter speed: 1/400s

To start birding, one needs a small amount of gear and a little patience. I am short on the latter, but birding has slowly taught me this personality trait. One does NOT need an extravagant camera or super strength long range binoculars to start the hobby. It does require a lot of passion, desire and the aforementioned patience. Getting up in the morning seems to be my biggest hurdle. I am a night owl on the weekends and one must rise early to be a successful birder during the summer months in my area. The heat drives them to shade. By mid-morning you will find the feathery beings mostly silent. During the winter, my finch feeders are covered through the noon hour. I find myself walking the baked street of my neighborhood and catching birds in heavy foliage and shade. Both horrible conditions for photography. So get up, grab a coffee and get moving.

MY STORY
My passion for birding all started with me simply trying to focus on a yellow breasted bird in a tree. I had NO IDEA what kind of bird it was, but it captivated my attention. This was approximately June 2012 and I was not into birding. My latest passion at the time was photography. I had bought a camera and the wife was tired of looking into the front of my lens. I needed a new subject. One thing led to another and I feel in love with birding and the need to identify the birds in my area. That simple. Back to this yellow breasted bird. So, here I am watching it. It kept jumping straight into the air from a tall dead tree branch and landing precisely back on its launch point. Another of the little beast kept trying to land in the same area. The bird would squawk and jump again. This went on for several minutes. What an act! The bird on the branch finally drove off the second bird. Since I knew very little about birds, I at least wanted to get it identified (Western Kingbird). The person that I sent the photo to asked my permission to add it to his site (Jim Peterson). It seems that the red crest on the bird is rarely seen (I actually thought it was a head wound). It was by pure accident that I captured it in one of my shots. Next, by pure accident, I caught the raptor that took the “victor” and made lunch out of the Kingbird. This fed my desire to identify and photograph the birds of Palo Pinto County; more especially, Mineral Wells, Texas and the surrounding areas. A passion is born.

The raptor was a Mississippi Kite. Over the next few days, I track the Kite and locate its nest and a fledgling. Continuing my journey, I discover yet another set of Kites just up the road from my house. These birds are not the norm for my area. So, why are they here? Research begins. All of the above caused me to dig up something called a bird list. Through further research, I found out that Texas is broken into regions (Palo Pinto county is in Region 2). There are bird list available by region. Cool! Through even further research, I discovered there is a bird list put out for Mineral Wells State Park and Trailway. That is practically in my backyard. These lists consist of more than names. They describe habitats where certain birds can be located as well as seasons and occurrences. Some like open fields, while others enjoy heavy vegetation or bodies of water. Some are here in winter, while others enjoy Texas summers. Some are migratory, while others are permanent residents, some birds only come around once every 3-5 years, etc. All of this leads to finding a birds list for your area. Parks and Wildlife is a great place to start.

PHOTOGRAPHY AND BIRDING

Fujifilm Finepix XS-1

Fujifilm Finepix XS-1

If you are a beginning photographer, you will want a long zoom camera for this hobby. I wanted a decent camera without the need for lens change outs. No need to tug around a ton of gear. I settled on the latest Fujifilm Finepix XS-1 bridge camera. The technology in this camera is crazy. It has the advanced abilities of a DSLR; like, shooting RAW, bracketing, fast auto focus, multi burst, etc. The XS-1 can be used as a simple point and shoot until you get grips with manual focus, ISO, F-stops, aperture, and shutter speeds. Though pricey at 800.00, this camera has decent long zoom capabilities and the ability to shoot super macro. The biggest cons are the slow saves (when in RAW/JPG) when burst shooting and the ISO (noise), and the price. There are other complaints on the camera. Experimentation has taught me how to avoid some of the more common problems. Avoiding halos is simple, keep your aperture under F8.0. It has never happened to me following this one simple rule. If you are shooting landscape, try a cloudy day or early morning. Sun plus F11.0 equals mud and purple spots. At times, hot spots and halos cannot be avoided. Birds will not land or pose upon demand. UPDATE: Moved on to a Canon T3i with a 70-300mm IS USM. Idea for birding photography.

Personally, I do not check off a bird until I have at least one photo for documentation. This is not a necessity, many birders do not even carry a camera.

binoculars

Must have binoculars

A must have for the serious birder is a good set of binoculars. Many mornings, I have sit and listen to a flock without being able to locate them. How can I not see 10 birds in a tree 40 yards away? Easy. Binoculars are the fix. Once located, you can manually focus your camera, set the fastest shutter speed based on lighting and wait. One other photography suggestion. To stop the average bird wing motion in a photo, the shutter speed needs to be at least 800 for a clear crisp wing shot. Hummingbirds are blurred at 1200. It is all about getting to know your camera and its limitations. Since my photos are mostly in shaded areas, I have the option of cranking up the ISO (creating a lot of noise) or use shutter speeds of 300 to 400. This means blurred wings and feathers. Find a happy balance between the two. For example: see feeder image above. The gibberish below it is the EXIF from my camera. It shows the shutter speed, focal distance and ISO. At this speed and ISO, I will have blurred wings and a bit of noise. I could up the ISO to increase my shutter speed. Then I am dealing too much noise and the wings would still be blurred. So, I concentrate on capturing a bird while it is perched. The 400 shutter speed is perfect and the ISO; thought not good, is still acceptable.

Lastly, a pen and paper are needed. If you are not shooting in your backyard, you will want to jot down locations, times, and species (if known). If you are not using a camera, you will need to quickly write down distinguishing features such as size, shape, color and markings. Always have a bird field guide by your side. I keep two specifically for Texas. The other three are for all North American species. Every time I come across one, I pick it up. A guide plus a checklist equals fun and success. One does not improve through osmosis but I keep trying.

Good luck and happy birding!