Beaks, Feathers and Talons

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The world of bird photography

Ever wondered what it would be like to be a bird? To be able to fly and glide above every other living thing without the need to sit in a pokey little seat with annoying people sat around you, complaining about how long the flight is? To be honest, as much as I would love to fly, being a bird from day to day is a lot harder than it looks. But one things for sure, I really enjoy capturing these agile and elegant creatures on camera. After all they were the very first subjects I targeted (excuse the pun) to help me find my cameras strengths and to also get used to its functions.
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The first birds that grabbed my attention were Seagulls of all birds, which many people see as vermin. I on the other hand started seeing them in a very different light. For a start there are many different breeds of gulls ie Black-headed gull, Common gull, Glaucous gull, Great black-backed gull, Herring gull, Yellow-legged gull, Lesser black-backed gull, Little gull are among them. The more and more I focused my lens on these cheeky but amazing birds, the more I saw how agile they were when in flight. Especially in the blustery windy conditions, when I could barely stand while holding my camera, these pirates in the sky could just glide gracefully.
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At first I simply put the camera onto sports setting and it worked well enough for a while, but then I became creative and started playing with the manual settings and adjusting the ISO, Shutter speed and aperture.
I was using a 300mm lens on a camera with a crop factor of 1.6x, so the effective focal length will be around 450mm, so I needed to set a shutter speed of at least 1/450 sec. If your camera or lens features image stabilization, you may be able to get away with much slower shutter speeds, while for moving subjects you may need slightly higher shutter speeds – 1/500 sec may be fast enough to eliminate camera shake, but it might not be fast enough to freeze the motion of a swooping bird of prey, for example. For the likes of the Swift picture seen below I used a shutter speed of around 1/2500 at F5.5 and ISO on Auto.
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Basic camera settings checker;

Static birds
1. Aperture priority mode
2. Single shot AF mode
3. Image stabilization (If your lens has it)
4. ISO 100 or ISO 200
5. Maximum aperture

Moving birds
1. Shutter priority mode
2. Continuous shooting
3. AI Servo mode
4. ISO 100 for motion blur, at least 200 to freeze motion
5. 1/125 sec or slower to render motion as a creative blur
6. 1/500 sec or faster to freeze any fast-moving action
I found that using the above settings have been useful for producing the best results for my bird photography.
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I also found that different birds produced different challenges. The likes of smaller birds such as Swifts, Swallows and robins act more erratically and are very quick in flight, where as larger birds such as Herons, Egrets and Swans are more graceful and rather slower in flight. Preparation is everything when taking photos of birds. Make sure you check all settings are correct with the light levels before shooting. There’s nothing worse than seeing a flock of ducks in flight above you, take your shot only to find it was under exposed or worse over exposed. I know because I have done it and ended up getting very frustrated.
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Above right is a photo of a Robin that I took back last Winter. As you can see, the rain was captured falling around him, giving it a little more atmosphere. Commonly known in Europe simply as the Robin, is a small insectivorous passerine bird that was formerly classed as a member of the thrush family, but is now considered to be a chat. Next to the Robin is a Great Tit, which really surprised me given the fact that it was taken in a Tigers pen at Dublin zoo.
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This Grey Heron took me by total surprise one day and luckily I had the settings just right as I panned the camera to capture this cool almost prehistoric looking raptor passing by. Later I also caught him landing on a structure on the pond. It is a wading bird of the heron family Ardeidae, native throughout temperate Europe and Asia and also parts of Africa. It is resident in the milder south and west, but many birds retreat in winter from the ice in colder regions.
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This above shot of a Moorhen was taken last Summer at an estate owned by the National Trust and the other Moorehen on the left was taken at a local wildlife sanctuary and again it took me by surprise while I was sat on the bank of the pond. Moorhens are blackish with a red and yellow beak and long, green legs. Seen closer-up, they have a dark brown back and wings and a more bluish-black belly, with white stripes on the flanks. Sometimes called marsh hens or river chickens, they are medium-sized water birds that are members of the rail family Rallidae. Most species are placed in the genus Gallinula.
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Oystercatchers are among my favourite of birds with their vivid black and white markings and comical sounds. I took these shots down our local beach on the Ards Peninsula. The oystercatcher is a large, stocky, black and white wading bird. It has a long, orange-red bill and reddish-pink legs. In flight, it shows a wide white wing-stripe, a black tail, and a white rump that extends as a ‘V’ between the wings. Because it eats cockles, the population is vulnerable if cockle beds are overexploited. Breeds on almost all UK coasts; over the last 50 years, more birds have started breeding inland. Most UK birds spend the winter on the coast; where they are joined on the east coast by birds from Norway.
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These Cormorants kept grabbing my attention every time I drove up the east coast of the Ards Peninsula, Northern Ireland. Large and conspicuous water birds, the cormorant has an almost primitive appearance with its long neck making it appear almost reptilian. It is often seen standing with its wings held out to dry. Regarded by some as black, sinister and greedy (not me), cormorants are supreme fishers which can bring them into conflict with anglers and they have been persecuted in the past. The UK holds internationally important wintering numbers.
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Ducks are to me the comics of the bird world, as they always make me laugh when they are in flight. They always look frantic when in flight (the thought of a shotgun blast might have something to do with that), and they make such a comical noise to. I caught the one on the right just landing and the other having a bath, so perfect timing on my behalf.
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These Bean Geese are the perfect security if you live out in the sticks and better than any dog. I remember getting chased by a number of geese on a farm once and I never moved so quick in my life. The first pic shows a group just landing as I paned the camera onto them. The other pic is of a young one just simply having a bath. The bean goose is one of the ‘grey geese’. It tends to be darker and browner than the other species in this group, and to have a darker head and neck. It breeds in north Scandinavia, north Russia and north Asia, and visits Britain in small numbers in autumn and winter. Most of the birds that winter here come from Scandinavia, where the breeding population has declined in the last 20 years. Possible reasons for this decline include increased human disturbance, changes in agriculture and direct persecution.
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Flamingos are among the world’s most beautiful tall birds. One can easily recognize them because they are famous for spending so much time standing on one leg. Covered with pretty pink plumage, black-tipped bills and a large downward-pointing beak, flamingos can often be seen flying in large flocks. With their long neck and legs, they look very attractive when in flight, particularly with their black flight feathers. These shots was taken on safari down at Dublin zoo.
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Curlews are such an interesting bird and it took me a while to get the perfect shot of one in flight, like the picture above. I took both pictures while walking down my local beach. They are the largest European wading bird, instantly recognisable on winter estuaries or summer moors by its long, downcurved bill, brown upperparts, long legs and evocative call.
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I have only caught a few Swans on camera and will continue to find new exciting opportunities to capture more at a later date. Swans are birds of the family Anatidae within the genus Cygnus. The swans’ close relatives include the geese and ducks. Swans are grouped with the closely related geese in the subfamily Anserinae where they form the tribe Cygnini. Sometimes, they are considered a distinct subfamily, Cygninae. There are six or seven species of swan in the genus Cygnus; in addition there is another species known as the Coscoroba Swan, although this species is no longer considered one of the true swans. Swans usually mate for life, though ‘divorce’ does sometimes occur, particularly following nesting failure. And if a mate dies, or is killed by a predator, the remaining mate will take up with another; however, if all goes well in the pairing, they indeed will stay together “for life
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Finally I wanted to talk a little about Owl World near Randalstown, Northern Ireland. The primary aim of the “World of Owls” is to ensure the survival of owls throughout the world. This objective will be achieved by rescue, conservation, education, research and restoration of their natural habitat. I had the pleasure of visiting this amazing place where I was able to focus my lens on some of the worlds most predatory raptors. Apart from Owls they also had Eagles, Hawks, Kestrals, Falcons, Buzzards, Caracaras to name but a few. This is a place well worth viewing, even if you aren’t a photographer. Below are just a handful of photos I took while on my first visit there and I intend to visit again around this Summer.
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Well that’s it for this blog and I hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing and sharing it. No matter how bad you feel you are at photography, just get out into the country and give it a go, barring in mind my basic tips. You shouldn’t go wrong.

The tips in this blog are based on my personal experiences and may have to be slightly adjusted to suit various conditions. They act as a guide only.

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