When photographing birds in Japan I use a super telephoto lens because birds generally have a fear of humans. For them, keeping their distance from humans is a protection. However, you can reduce the distance between you by using a camoflage or slowly drawing close. In this lesson, I will explain how to determine the appropriate distance when photographing wild birds.
I took this shot at the port of Hahajima Island in the Ogasawara Islands. Brown Boobies are sometimes diving in the harbor but this time I captured one standing right beside a young boy on the quay! It looked like they were even having a conversation. After this his friends came along and were standing looking at the bird, but when a young girl who looked to be his sister ran up, the Brown Booby took off as if it had just been handed the baton in a relay race.
What would you do if a stranger came up to you without saying anything? First, you would likely feel uncomfortable. You would probably want to maintain a safe distance even more if that person looked dangerous. The same can be said about birds too. For them, humans are something scary. Normally, you can observe such wary birds as sparrows, bulbuls, and falcons at the zoo or in a park at a surprisingly close distance. This is because they have not had any bad experiences with humans. However, different birds have different tolerance levels for human interaction; while some allow you to get up close enough to almost touch them, others maintain a constant distance.
When photographing birds, you should be able to capture natural scenes and behavior if you maintain a distance that does not cause alarm.
Confirming the direction a flock of feeding Sanderlings was headed, I lay down on the ground just ahead of them and waited, and they quickly came closer. When they got right up next to me they naturally noticed my presence and flew away.
It is probably safe to say that raptors are the most challenging. One reason they are considered to be wary even though they are at the top of the food chain might be that they do not stay long in a conspicuous place when hunting prey. However, there is an exception: the Crested Serpent Eagle of the Nansei Islands. The reason may be that eagles reign supreme at the top of the food chain there, and it may also have something to do with the fact that they are not under any threat from humans; they actually get food through work humans do in the fields and elsewhere.
On the other hand, the most wary species of raptors include the Mountain Hawk-eagle, the Golden Eagle, and the Northern Goshawk, which lives in remote places. Even familiar birds such as the Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Brown-eared Bulbul, Large-billed Crow, and Carrion Crow are also wary, making them difficult to photograph. In contrast, in autumn when juvenile Sandpipers and Plovers migrate on their own you can sometimes get up close enough to touch them.
A Northern Goshawk was perched in a tree along the river. After passing by it once in the car, I set my camera on the tripod in the car. I turned the car around and approached slowly. I managed to get a shot from the window but I definitely sensed that the bird was on alert, and it took off in less than a minute.
As I was driving along a forest road while looking for birds on Ishigaki Island in Okinawa Prefecture, a Crested Serpent Eagle was perched on a tree branch. I drove past under it once but it did not fly away. Thinking this was my chance I turned the car around and slowly came back. Since it still did not fly away, I changed to my 24-70mm lens and was able to get a shot from the inside of the car. The Crested Serpent Eagle might be the only kind of raptor in Japan that you could get such a shot of.
Birds are afraid of the human silhouette, so it is a good idea to hide it as much as possible. The easiest way is to spread a cloth or something like that and hide behind it. If they do not see you, they will be on low alert and you can get them in a relaxed state. If you want to get a little more serious, I recommend using a tent-type blind.
I often shoot directly from my car. I rest the lens on the window frame when shooting, and approaching by car can even enable you to get fairly close. But if you stop suddenly when close to a bird, it will feel threatened and fly away. If you set your lens on the window frame ahead of time and approach slowly while keeping an eye on the bird's reaction, the probability of it flying away on you will decrease significantly.
One thing you must be careful of is the traffic situation around you. You should take care to avoid braking suddenly or causing inconvenience by haphazard parking, and especially avoid getting in the way of farm vehicles and workers on farm roads. For example, even if you can get really nice shots, if you are going to interfere with farm operations, you should give up that spot and go elsewhere. Farm roads are actually working roads so please do not forget your manners, considering yourself a guest “being allowed” to take photos there.
A Common Kingfisher was sitting on a boat by the boathouse at Shinobazu Pond in Ueno Park (Tokyo). Despite the fact that the birds find no food there and many people are coming and going in the area, they do not seem to feel threatened by humans, so I was able to get this shot of a bird in a clearly visible location.
When birds feel threatened, they fly away. When they are alarmed but unsure about whether to fly away or not they flutter about nervously. If they accept your presence without flying away, their vigilance softens, their wings loosen or stretch out, and if you are lucky, they may even take a little nap.
If you confirm that a bird is relaxed by observing this kind of behavior, approach slowly, and by switching from a super telephoto lens to a telephoto lens you should be able to capture some of the surrounding scenery as well.
A Kittiwake made a rare appearance at a port in Aichi Prefecture. It started to fall asleep beside a car stop, perhaps feeling sleepy after feeding. I approached the bird slowly so as not to wake it, and in this last shot, taken at a low angle using the vari-angle monitor, I was able to capture it seemingly sleeping.
I was waiting for a Ruddy Kingfisher to come to a branch on the opposite shore but there were absolutely none coming. But as I was just sitting there waiting, a Grey Wagtail came and sat on the branch of a tree submerged in the pond, and after grooming its wings it started stretching. I did not have my blind up but since I had been just sitting there quietly for some time and the bird realized that I meant it no harm, I was able to get this shot of it relaxed.
Early in the morning I went looking for fledgling Ural Owls and found an adult owl first. That day there were few photographers around, and as I was shooting another bird came and perched beside it, and before long they started grooming each other. They were probably not nervous since there were few people around. I was able to capture them in a relaxed state that we usually do not get to see.
When I go abroad, there are occasions when birds that do not have any interaction with people or have not had a bad experience with humans come around when they see humans. Many bird species, such as sea birds that breed on remote islands, are curious, and they will sometimes come to check you out.
Once when I was lying down while shooting on Midway Atoll in the North Pacific Ocean, a Laysan Albatross walked right up over my back and kept going. One of the least wary birds in Japan is the Rock Ptarmigan. You can shoot it even with a wide-angle lens, but no matter how close to it you are able to get, it is a wild bird, so please do not ever touch it. The reason is because bacteria that humans carry can have a harmful effect on the bird.
Since the Rock Ptarmigan lives in high mountain areas and does not normally come to harm from humans, many of them do not fear people. Birds that have their territory near pedestrian walkways in particular do not seem to be bothered at all by people. One such bird came walking in my direction. Since it passed right by me as I stood still I was able to get a shot from directly above with a short lens.
A pair of Crested Kingfishers was resting on a branch among the colored leaves of autumn. I slowly approached them in the car with my lens resting on a beanbag in the window frame so as not to scare them away, and was able to a shot of the couple together. Since I was shooting with a focal length of 1000mm and did not crop the photo at all, I think you understand the rather long distance between me and the birds from looking at the size of the birds in the middle of the frame. Since they are a very wary bird, I was happy that I could get the shot.
It seemed as though the birds were not very bothered by me as I was looking for a perched Naumann's Thrush from the car window. Since I was shooting from the car and in super telephoto range at 700mm in APS-C image format, I was able to get a shot of them relaxing and stretching.
After waiting at the feeding spot of a Common Kingfisher with my blind up, one came along, got its prey and then sat on a perch. I was able to easily get this kind of relaxed shot because my friend was letting me use a tent-type blind that he had just been using. Since the birds will be alarmed and not come if you suddenly put up a blind, getting them accustomed to it is the first most important thing.