The Necessity of Patience
When it comes to bird photography, knowing where to be and being willing to wait is more than half the battle
Any amateur (and pro I would imagine) wildlife photographer knows the pain of a great photo opportunity happening where you aren't. For us newbies that can lead to us running all over the place trying to chase the action because we want that awesome shot. The fact is that if you aren't where the action is happening when it is happening, you've missed it.
What is the mind set that we need to be in to get great pictures of exciting things happening in nature? Preparation, observation, and most of all, patience. A good example of this shift in thinking is my long time love/hate relationship with Belted Kingfishers.
Belted Kingfishers frequent my home town in the winter and early spring and they are absolutely gorgeous, especially the females with their rusty brown belt and shiny blue plumage. For me, brand new in the hobby, that was my holy grail of photos. I chased those birds around for months but the best shots I could get of these beautiful little guys was from a great distance because they would fly away at even the hint of my presence. I would even keep my camera in my vehicle to try to catch one sitting on powerlines as I went about my day. I began to call them the "Jerk Bird" because it seemed that they were intentionally denying me my coveted capture. The best I could do was a distant shot with a small spec of a bird center frame.
As time went on I learned from other photographers, read articles and blogs, watched videos and picked up a lot of wisdom that now I see is common sense. Understanding a birds behavior as well as its patterns in places that you frequent can drastically increase your chances of being in the right place at the right time. By now you've probably come to the obvious conclusion; let the bird come to you. How?
Every sighting is information
Even if you don't get a shot of the bird, you still can make a notes of your sightings. Over time you'll see patterns and be able to make an educated guess as to where your bird may be. Couple this information with spots where natural light falls during those times and you can find yourself in the right place at the right time. This process can take weeks and even months but the payoff can be well worth it. Now if you are a professional wildlife photographer, 1) you wouldn't be reading this, 2) you can spend all day every day waiting for a shot and maybe get it in a week or two, so this is more aimed at those who can only enjoy this as a hobby weaved in among all our other responsibilities.
Keep a field journal with notes and observations. Even small details that seem inconsequential may help in the long run. Here are a few things I keep track of:
Regular perch locations
Time of day
Level of tide (especially if you want to catch a seabird hunting)
Sea conditions (calm or choppy, clear or murky)
Direction of flight to and from perches
With all this information you will see a pattern emerge and the odds of being in the right place at the right time get much better.
My wife and I found an area in our local park that seemed to be a favorite hunting area of Belted Kingfishers. We went later in the afternoon when the natural sunlight was falling perfectly on trees that they frequented as fishing perches. We even sat in a spot that was relatively hidden based on the direction they usually fly in from. In theory, we thought perhaps they would land before they got spooked by noticing our presence. My mind was made up to just enjoy the ocean breeze and other wildlife around me. If my holy grail showed up that would be a bonus. It only took 45 minutes for a beautiful female Belted Kingfisher to silently glide in and perch herself atop a branch just 20 yards away. And just like that, after months and months of being impatient and chasing these guys down, one comes straight to me.
From my limited experience, bird photography is definitely not for those who lack patience. But if you can manage to observe, position, and wait while putting up with a bit of heat, or perhaps some bugs here and there, you can really improve the images you get. I have found that wildlife photography is a lifetime hobby, not just a passing phase. If you approach it as something that can be mastered in a few months then you'll just frustrate yourself chasing down shots instead of letting them come to you. Enjoy the experience of watching nature and be happy that every once in a while you'll get a great picture.