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Photographing Birds And Their Nests

( Originally Published 1902 )


Outfit required.— Long-focus camera. Ordinary lens, the longer the focal length the better.. Plate-holders. Dark cloth (not rubber). Isochromatic plates. Tripod with fourfold telescopic legs and extra extension legs, attachable. Ball-and-socket camera attachment. Small mirror. White reflecting-cloth. Pair pruners. Lock-saw. Climbing-irons.

ARMED with this apparently elaborate outfit, we will begin with what may perhaps be considered one of the most simple branches of natural-history photography. Photographing a nest, though not difficult except in certain peculiar cases, calls for a consider-able degree of artistic sense, for so much depends on the composition of the subject and on the lighting. A nest properly lighted makes a beautiful picture, one that calls for the admiration of all who see it. But look at a photograph of the same nest taken without the slightest regard to the lighting, and it is absolutely uninteresting, at any rate from a pictorial point of view. Another thing to be borne in mind is the arranging of the surroundings. It is frequently necessary to remove some of the small branches and leaves that the nest may be seen to better advantage. In doing this the greatest care must be observed. The cutting away of much of the surrounding vegetation would leave the nest unprotected. It is therefore advisable to resort to tying back the branches that form the principal obstruction, cutting away only the smaller twigs or leaves. Don't break these twigs, for in doing so you are very apt to shake the nest, and perhaps loosen it from its support. Cutters, such as those used in pruning trees, are best adapted to this use. If a twig has to be cut, darken the white end with some wet earth that it may not show in the photograph, or, better still, arrange a leaf in such a way that the cut-off end may be hidden. Almost every variety of nest requires some special method of treatment, so it will perhaps be best to commence with the ground nests and work up through the most important types.

GROUND NESTS.— A typical ground nest of the simple form is the woodcock's. Placed, as it usually is, in fairly open wood or swampy land, it offers an easy mark for the photographer. The first thing to do after finding this or any other kind of nest is to select the most suitable point of view, one that shows the nest to the best advantage and at the same time gives a proper idea of the environment, which is a very important consideration.

Having chosen your point, remove or fasten back the intervening branches. The view of the nest being comparatively unobstructed, place your camera on a very low tripod or even on a pile of stones. The object of this is to avoid the effect of looking directly down on the nest, for that simply shows a plan of the nest and eggs, without giving a proper idea of either its form or its position.

In these plan-like photographs of nests it is some-times difficult to determine whether the nest is in a bush or on the ground. Some people have the idea that in order to obtain a good photograph of a nest all the eggs should be visible, and everything is sacrificed to that end. I have seen deep nests, such as the vireo's or even the Baltimore oriole's, photo-graphed directly from above, so that only the rim of the nest itself was visible. In this way no idea of the exquisite form of the structure was given. It is quite sufficient if about half of the egg shows in the picture. The nearer ground the camera is placed, to within about eight inches, the better will be the effect of ground; but it must be remembered that, in addition to the full use of the swing-back, the lens will have to be stopped down to its limit (i.e., the smallest diaphragm must be used), otherwise both the immediate foreground and the part a short distance back from the nest will be completely out of focus. The long exposure made necessary by the smallness of the diaphragm is a great drawback if there is much wind or if there are small plants whose leaves and flowers are affected by the slightest movement of the air.

Ground nests situated in fields or any place where vegetation is abundant are less easy to photograph. The best effects are secured on calm days. Direct sunlight is not only unnecessary, but scarcely to be desired, for the reason that the shadows are inclined to be too dark and the eggs will not show their markings. A bright cloudy day is the best for nest photography, but if the sun is shining the nest may be screened by means of a piece of thin white muslin. This will allow sufficient light to pass, so that it will be easy to make a brilliant photograph. On no account underexpose your plate when the subject is a nest flooded with sunlight. Much more satisfactory results are to be obtained by erring on the side of overexposure. Those hard black-and-white photographs so often to be found in amateur work are the result of under-exposure, coupled not infrequently with faulty development.

A nest that requires special attention is the exquisite little domed home of the oven-bird. It is not easy to obtain a really satisfactory photograph of this nest. If we expose for the interior, the exterior suffers, and vice versa. To hit upon the happy medium requires both care and experience. After trying various methods, I have found the most satisfactory thing to do is to throw a ray of sunlight into the nest by means of a mirror. This light should be allowed to enter the nest only during a small part of the time necessary for the exposure. For example, supposing your lens to be cut down to a very small aperture, when the correct exposure would be perhaps forty seconds; then while the lens is open and the exposure taking place, allow the sunlight, reflected from the mirror, to illuminate the interior of the nest from two to six seconds. Too much local illumination destroys the effect of the depth of the nest and is therefore to be avoided. While using the mirror, keep it in constant motion, so that the light will be diffused.

When photographing ground nests in open, wind-swept fields, it will sometimes be found necessary to place a cloth screen around the nest (far enough away not to interfere with the picture) to protect it from the wind. Otherwise only a very short expo-sure can be given.

NESTS IN BUSHES AND TREES.—Here we come to the most satisfactory nests from a photographic standpoint. The great variety of the nests themselves and the endless variety of the surroundings offer far greater possibilities than are to be found with the ground nests. All that has been said in regard to sunlight holds good with these nests, a soft, diffused light being in most cases the most effective. When direct sunlight is used it is a good plan to throw up a reflected white light that will soften the under shadows. This may easily be done by taking a yard or two of white muslin and fastening a stick at each end. The sticks should be pointed at one end, so that they may be put into the ground, and the cloth, tightly stretched, will be held at such an angle that the light will reflect from it upon the nest. A white cloth placed on the ground beneath the nest will reflect more or less light, and will in some cases be found to answer the purpose. A difficulty that will be the cause of frequent failures unless precautions are taken is the moving of the nest. This may sound strange, but it is nevertheless a fact that the nest does move, or rather its support moves. Take, for example, a nest built among the small twigs at the outer end of a branch. With the slightest breeze the branch sways slowly but surely, and the nest, which may have been in perfect focus when you looked on the ground glass, has moved several inches one way or the other, and consequently is out of focus. The most obvious way to prevent this is to fasten the branch by means of strong twine to some stationary object, such as a peg driven in the ground, one of these being used on each. side. It is need-less to add that these guys should not be included in the picture.

When fastening back branches that would other-wise obstruct the view of the nest, be careful not to alter the natural growing position of a plant or branch. For instance, a branch that is found growing horizontally would look somewhat peculiar if it were portrayed in a vertical position. It is safer to avoid, so far as possible, disturbing the surroundings of a nest ; for unless the changes are made with due care and knowledge of how things should be, the picture looks artificial and loses its value as a portrait of a nest in situ. It is permissible to introduce flowers into the picture if they serve to give a better idea of the nature of the surroundings. If properly arranged, these flowers add greatly to the beauty of the composition, but all depends on their proper arrangement. A nest may be situated within a few feet of a bush of blossoming huckleberries, and if there is no reason why it should not have been placed nearer, the bush may be transplanted so that part of it will show in the picture.

The same may be said of blackberry-vines, among which birds so often build. A sprig on which there are several flowers, if placed above or beneath the nest, adds not only beauty to the photograph, but at the same time shows that the bird nests during the season when that particular flower is in bloom. In adding flowers to the surroundings, the great difficulty is that they wilt so quickly after being cut ; so it is advisable not to place them in position until everything is ready for the exposure, and even then it is a good plan to wrap a wet cloth round the ends of the stems. So much may be done in the way of giving accentuation to the local colour: a plant of false hellebore introduced will show that the nest is near a stream or in swampy ground, while wild geranium will show that the nest is in a fairly dry situation. The presence of a dragon-fly near a red-winged blackbird's nest will add to the beauty and interest of the picture, for, as a rule, the nests are found in swampy places, where dragon-flies are abundant. It is not always easy to induce these insects to perch just where one wishes to have them, but it is worth while waiting some time in the hope that one will come. I remember waiting five hours before one perched just where I wanted it.

If the nest to be photographed is in a very low bush within perhaps twelve inches of the ground, the fact may be made apparent by placing a flower, such as a daisy, beneath the bush. The position of the flower will show the approximate height of the nest. These details, though not by any means necessary, are useful, for besides showing, as already stated, the local colour and the time of nesting as made known by the presence of the flower, if coloured lantern-slides are to be made the addition of the spot of bright colour, however small it may be, enhances the beauty of the projected picture more than is generally realised.

For contact prints or even for enlargements the image of the nest should be fairly large, that is to say, it should occupy nearly a third of the plate ; but if for lantern-slide use, it is advisable to show more of the surroundings. So for this reason, when photographing a nest, it is a good plan to make at least two negatives, one showing the nest large and one small. Should the nest be a rare one or a kind difficult to find, make several negatives, giving each one a different exposure. By this method the chance of failure is reduced to a minimum. Nothing is so unsatisfactory as to find, after taking a great deal of trouble in making the pictures, that one has failed through over- or underexposure, and this is likely to happen to any one, experienced or inexperienced. No one, however many photographs he may have made, can say that he is sure of his exposure under the ever-varying conditions that are to be met in the photographing of natural-history subjects. The question of exposure has been treated in Part II of Chapter I, but all that can ever be written on the subject will not show one the actual actinic power of the light at the time of making the exposure. Neither will it show how fast is the plate we are using, for plates, especially the isochromatic, vary greatly in their rapidity.

To go back to our subject. Any nest placed in a bush within four or four and a half feet of the ground is usually an easy subject, but when the distance is greater the difficulties increase. Extension legs to the tripod will be of great help if the nest is not more than six or seven feet from the ground. When higher than that it is usually necessary to attach the camera to a branch. This is done either by means of a ball-and-socket arrangement, such as is used for attaching the camera to a bicycle, or by fastening the tripod to the branches ; the latter, however, is an awkward and troublesome thing to do. In case there is no branch in a suitable position, the difficulty can be overcome by lashing a stout stick, which should be forked at one end, across from branch to branch, and attaching the ball and socket to this. Or if this is not possible, set an upright forked stick into the ground so that the crotch is at the desired height. Then the horizontal pole may be attached to a convenient branch at one end, while the other end rests in the upright crotch, or, if more convenient, two of these forked sticks may be used. In this way, if the camera is above our reach, the difficulty of arranging and focussing may be overcome by cutting a pair of stilts and using a third stick as a brace. This is not perhaps as easy as it sounds, but if the nest is a rare one it is worth the effort.

Occasionally we find a nest placed at the outer end of a branch that is just out of reach of the camera on its tripod. If the branch is not too thick it can be pulled down until it is within easy photographing distance, and secured by means of a cord. In doing this do not change the angle of the nest. Forcing up the end of the branch by means of a forked stick placed at the thick end of the branch will correct this defect. Do not move the eggs in. a nest, but leave them as they are arranged by the bird. We often see pictures of nests completely spoiled through this misplacement of the eggs. It must be remembered that, though birds turn their eggs very frequently, they never leave the small end pointing, upward, unless the bird, having been flushed suddenly, accidentally disturbs the eggs on leaving the nest.

Crows' and hawks' nests, and others that are placed at a considerable height, can, as a rule, be photographed only from an adjacent tree. It is not easy work,. requiring, as it does, that one should be a good climber and not easily made dizzy. Do not attempt to carry up your camera and other material. Attach a good strong cord, and leave them on the ground in such a position that they can be hauled up without catching in the branches.

NESTS IN HOLES.—These are the least satisfactory nests to photograph. If we wish to show the eggs that are laid in a hole in a tree, we can do so only by making an opening in the branch or trunk, and this is almost sure to cause the bird to abandon it. There are some few birds, such as the chickadees and occasionally the crested flycatchers, that will not desert their homes even on such provocation, but they are the exception. After the eggs are hatched it is different, but at present we are dealing only with nests containing eggs. One way is to wait until the young have left the nest and then place eggs (from a collection) in the nest, but even this cannot be done satisfactorily except in the case of woodpeckers and other birds that build no nest, but lay their eggs on chips or bare wood. The reason for this is that the nest after the young have left it is quite different from when the eggs were in it. Not only is it changed in shape, but it is strewn with the particles of sheathing cast from the budding feathers of the young birds. If an opening has to be made in a branch, do it with a lock-saw, by cutting out a clean square piece which can be fitted in place again. This answers perfectly when the young have left their eggs, and will sometimes answer when the nest contains only eggs. It is, however, not safe to try it unless there is some special reason why the eggs should be photographed.

With birds that will build in bird-boxes one may obtain photographs of the eggs without much risk. The way to do it is to make the box with a hinged lid which can be opened when the photograph is to be made. The box itself might also be made detach-able from its support.

Nests like the kingfishers', that are placed in banks, cannot be photographed except by cutting away the bank, when of course the nest is destroyed. So it is better to leave such nests alone.

Before leaving this branch of photography it would be well to draw attention once more to the fact that most birds will desert their nests upon very slight provocation, especially if the nest is handled. So on no account disarrange either the nest or the surroundings more than is absolutely necessary.

Do not make this work an excuse for destroying bird life. Let it, instead, take the place of egg-collecting, when, if properly and conscientiously done, both the birds and ourselves will reap the benefit.

Using The Ordinary Camera
Shooting With Reflecting Camera
Photographing Birds: Photography Guides

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