I frequently use black oil sunflower seeds and sugar water to lure birds within photo range at my home. For certain species of birds this strategy is effective. Sunflower seeds are eagerly devoured by blue jays, cardinals, evening grosbeaks, chickadees and many other species. Hummingbirds love sugar water. And I would use suet, but the black-billed magpies gobble it all up in minutes. Unfortunately, warblers, flycatchers, kinglets, and most other insect eating birds are not attracted to seeds or sugar water.
Seeds have other problems too. Most of the time bits of food appear in the image, either from seeds sticking to the bird’s beak or strewn about the photo setup. While it is possible to use software to remove unwanted food debris after the image is made, it is far more convenient to avoid food residue altogether!
All birds need water and mostly readily visit water sources throughout the day. Water is a huge attractant in dry areas like the desert or during dry periods of the year. I am fortunate to attract a horde of birds at my mountain home near West Yellowstone. Often summers are dry, and outside of a creek ½ mile away, water is scare in the forest around my home. In 2015, I decided to drip water into a natural cavity in a rock where a six-inch pool could form. I only had a few days to see how it would work before I had to go to Michigan to teach my annual autumn color workshops. But, in just three days, I became hooked on using dripping water to lure birds because it was enormously successful. For years I saw Wilson’s warblers flitting about the bushes in my yard during September on their southbound migration, but I could never get a decent photograph. Wilson’s warblers are readily attracted to water, though, so I shot many pleasing images of them right away.
As I write this, it’s early September in 2016, and my success has been stellar. In only a couple of hours at first light in the morning, and also during the last two hours of the day, I commonly shoot 1000 images of twenty species or more at the drip. My biggest problem is attracting too many birds who squabble over the water. I have hoards of pine siskins and Cassin’s finches. When a flock is at the water drip, which is most of the time, it is impossible to get a clean shot of a single bird with all of the splashing and fighting going on. And that can be frustrating when I have a gorgeous warbler bathing in the pool of water, but four out of focus pine siskins are standing in front of it. With each passing day, I continually modify my setup to improve my results. I am far from an expert at water drips, but it has produced many images I cherish. Indeed, as I use the drip, my questions are growing more rapidly than my answers, but that is part of the thrill of learning.
The key to using dripping water as a lure is to make sure the water drops make a loud noise when they hit. Dripping water on a rock isn’t nearly as effective. You need a small pool of water for the water drops to fall in. The aspen forest in front of my home is loaded with lichen-covered boulders and some have natural small cavities that have formed over the eons when rain water accumulates and slowly dissolves the rock. I selected a rock cavity that is several inches across and six inches deep. Using a flash stand and a wooden dowel rod, I suspended a water drip above the pool of water that forms when the cavity fills with water. I soon noticed that birds only bathed along the margin of the pool, instead of in the middle because six inches of water is too deep, so I filled in the cavity with clean gravel from my driveway until the pool was only ½-inch deep. The birds love it! This is a key point, so make certain the water isn’t too deep to encourage bird bathing!
Selecting a Photo Station
I have naturally occurring cavities in the rocks around my home to use. Still, I am already creating some attractive settings in my mind. As the fall colors develop and peak at the end of September, I plan to drill a small cavity into a colorful rock with a hammer drill and masonry drill bit to hold just a little water. Then I will cover the rock with brilliant yellow aspen leaves to photograph the birds and chipmunks that come to drink amid the colorful leaves.
I first used a water drip that I bought for $50 at Birds Unlimited. It worked pretty well, but chipmunks soon chewed up the plastic tubing. I needed something more durable. Fortunately, the Westmart Do-IT Center hardware store in West Yellowstone had everything I needed. I bought six feet of ¼-inch O.D. white poly tube (OD means outside diameter), a ¼” O.D. straight needle valve that lets me adjust the drip rate, and a brass ¾ FGH x ¼ OD fitting to attach to the end of my garden hose. All of it costs less than $20. To help you buy the correct equipment, the numbers on the brass garden hose adapter are FLF 766GH ¾ FGH x ¼ OD CO. The straight needle valve is DIB45-51-CLF.
I hung the drip about three feet above the pool and adjusted the needle value to allow a steady drip that makes a lot of noise when the droplets hit the pool of water beneath it. If it drips too much, the water can appear in the image and some birds shy away from it. I find having one water drop hit the pool every second is effective.
You could set up the drip where ambient light is bright enough to photograph birds. But, my boulder is in the dark woods and I want to be sure of making sharp images, so I use three Canon 600EX-RT Speedlites and control them with a radio signal from the Canon ST-E3-RT transmitter mounted in the camera’s hot shoe. Having radio-control is quite critical because a bag blind covers me and my tripod- mounted camera to avoid scaring the wary birds. Optical signals would be blocked by the blind fabric, and therefore would not control my flashes. Three of the less expensive Canon 430III RT’s would work just fine for this too.
After photographing the birds and the chipmunks at the drip about a dozen times over two weeks, I started to notice a couple of problems. Every once in a while, I seemed to have the perfect pose, but the image I captured was a split second later as the subject was leaving. It seemed like the bird or chipmunk saw the flash fire and started to leave before the shutter opened. I also noticed that my shooting speed wasn’t quite as fast as I expected. Since the subjects around the small pool of water that forms from the drip are close to the same distance, I tried it again, but this time did not use automatic flash exposure. I set my flashes to manual exposure. When the flashes are six feet from the subject, having birds a few inches closer or farther away did not really change the ideal exposure that much, so manual flash would work. With manual flash, I could shoot almost twice as many images per second, shoot more of them before the flashes could not keep up their energy requirements, and no longer did I capture images where the animal was reacting to the flash, at least not in the first image of a series.
Here is what I think is happening. Automatic flash sends out a pre-flash prior to the shutter opening. When the small pre-flash is emitted, the camera must wait for the light to bounce back to the camera’s meter, determine the optimum exposure, and then fire the real flash to expose the image. Although we cannot discern that two flashes are firing, I believe the birds and the chipmunks do and react quick enough to cause the flushing images I sometimes get. Plus, it takes more time for the flash to emit two flashes and determine the exposure, so that accounts for the reason it is possible to shoot more images per second with manual flash. Remember, with manual flash, the flash controller merely tells the flashes to fire now – there is no pre-flash and no flash metering. Plus, I found I could shoot seven images in less than a second before the flashes did not fire due to lack of power when set to manual flash exposure. With automatic flash exposure, the number of images than can be shot consecutively was only five, and that was at a slower rate. Remember some of the energy in the flash is used up when the pre-flash fires. So for situations like this now and in the future, I am back to using manual flash!
I set my camera to manual exposure to lock out ambient light. By using the maximum sync speed of 1/250th second and stopping down to f/16, very little ambient light will record in the image unless bright sun illuminates the bird. If you use any auto exposure mode – shutter priority, aperture, program – the camera attempts to make the exposure with the ambient light. Ambient light can cause ghosting where a blurry image from the ambient is superimposed on a sharp flash exposure. Get rid of the ambient and the ghosting problem is solved.
The lighting arrangement for three flashes is quite straightforward. First, the rock behind the pool of water is high, so the flashes can easily light the background. If the camera could see a background several feet away, then a closer background must be added to the set (perhaps a log or large piece of bark) or a fourth flash must be used to light the distant background. I have two flashes on the front of the bird and a third flash above and behind it to rim light the bird. One of the flashes on the front is the main flash. I pull the other back a few feet so it doesn’t overfill the shadows created by the main flash. Zoom the flash heads to the longest focal length – in this case 200mm – to concentrate the light on the bird. Be sure to aim the flash carefully at the pool of water. Concentrating the light on the target means the flash doesn’t need to emit as much light to make the optimum exposure. This preserves battery power, allows shorter flash durations to freeze motion, and enables a quicker full-powered second or third shot.
I find ISO 400 is an excellent choice to preserve both image quality and the batteries in the flash. If you used ISO 100, the flash must emit two stops more light which creates longer recycle times and depletes the batteries faster. F/16 provides depth of field without getting too much diffraction from the small aperture, and the maximum sync speed of 1/250 second with my Canon 1DX Mark II reduces ambient light to prevent ghosting.
Although I shoot large RAW files exclusively, and I know the white balance can be easily adjusted with the Canon Digital Photo Professional software I prefer, I still set it to the Flash WB to more closely match the light source.
I use continuous Low because I know I can get at least three optimally exposed images in less than a second. Due to the large boulder, I cannot place my flashes as close to the pool as I would like, so I mount them on flash stands about six feet away. If I could put the flashes closer, I might be able to get more than seven optimally exposed images in a second because the Speedlites wouldn’t have to emit as much light at the shorter distance. However, this might be of minimal help because the flash heads are already zoomed out to 200mm to concentrate the light at the pool anyway.
The Canon 200-400mm f/4 lens with the built-in 1.4x teleconverter is ideal for blind photography of small birds and mammals. When the smallest birds are present, I set the lens to 560mm by flipping the switch to insert the 1.4x converter into the optical path. When a larger subject is present, I take out the 1.4x. And if a really large subject arrives, such as a robin, red squirrel, or black-headed grosbeak, I zoom the lens to a slightly shorter focal length. However, the lens I use is expensive. Fortunately, any zoom lens that reaches 400mm works well for this sort of photography. If the lens doesn’t focus close enough, then add a short 25mm extension tube.
I use old Gitzo 1325 legs with a Kirk BH-1 ball head on top. Added to the ball head is a Wimberley Sidekick to convert the ball head into a gimbal-style head. Any gimbal head should be ideal for wildlife blind photography. Because the lens and camera are in perfect balance, it is easy to swing the lens side to side or up and down. It works really well! It is unimaginable to me to not use a gimbal head for wildlife photography!
This is a case where back-button focusing is king. Birds drinking water move quickly. When one takes a drink, they typically repeat the movement several times. I focus on the bird’s head as it sips the water, but I am too late to shoot the image the first time. I let up on the back-button to deactivate autofocus and fire as soon as I see the bird’s head move toward the water. In this way, I capture some sharp images of the bird drinking. If the bird is still, then I prefer to move my single AF point over to coincide with the bird’s face while composing the shot I want, push in the back-button AF control, and fire away. By the way, my camera is always set to continuous autofocusing (and not one-shot) when I am using autofocus. I also use manual focus a lot, but normally for landscapes and close-ups.
How do the Birds React?
Most birds will fly or jump back a foot or two to assess the situation at the first shot. They react to both the sound of the camera and the brief flash. Once they see the flash and hear the camera a few times, most birds quickly learn to ignore all of this and then you get to shoot a lot of images. However, when photographing during the fall migration, many “untrained” birds are present each day. Of course, some individuals are more sensitive to the flash than others of the same species.
What Species are attracted to the Drip?
Naturally, it depends on the species you have. My list over two years includes: lazuli bunting, western tanager, northern flicker, hairy woodpecker, goshawk, Cassin’s finch, red-wing blackbird, white-crowned sparrow, black-capped and mountain chickadees, ruby-crowned kinglet, American goldfinch, cedar waxwing, red-breasted nuthatch, evening and black-headed grosbeak and four kinds of warblers: Audubon’s, Wilson’s, Townsend’s, and yellow. The three mammals I have photographed at the drip are yellow pine chipmunk, red squirrel, and long-tailed weasel. Two common birds that I see regularly, but never at the drip are the house wren and gray catbird. Perhaps they get enough water from the natural foods they eat.
Another way to use the drip is to hide the drip behind an object – such as a cattail or a pine cone. Birds will perch on top of the cattail or cone to drink the water. When they look back over their shoulder, they offer a splendid pose to photograph. Chickadees like to hang upside down on the drip to drink.
Indeed, I don’t get many chickadees at the pool because they prefer to sip the water directly out of the drip – even if they must hang upside down to do it.
Remember I made the pool only ½ inch deep by filling the natural cavity in the rock with gravel. Making the water shallow is enormously helpful for bathing images. Wait for the bird to splash the water and try to capture the action. Shoot a lot of images because it is more difficult to sharply focus the bird while bathing – even though the flash freezes the fluttering wings and the flying water drops.
Unfortunately, birds tend to close their nictitating membrane over their eyes when actively splashing, so it is difficult, but not impossible to get one bathing with the eyes uncovered. If you shoot whenever the bird is splashing, you will capture some pleasing images. Good luck with drip photography and have fun.
Water Drip for Birds
By John Gerlach
My most recent images are posted on Facebook and Flickr