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Photographing The Nest With The Sitting Bird

( Originally Published 1902 )

Outfit same as Part II, with addition of a telephoto lens and a long rubber tube with large bulb or hand bicycle-pump for releasing shutter.

Now we begin to realise the marked individuality of birds and to learn how this individuality affects our work. If the bird photographer commenced this branch of the art by attempting to portray a yellow-breasted chat or a crow on her nest, he might, were he not of a very persevering nature; give up for ever any hope of success. And, on the other hand, should he choose for his first experiment a bird such as the wood-thrush, he would underestimate the difficulties and have an entirely wrong idea of bird-on-the-nest photography. The actual photographing of the sitting bird is in itself a most easy task if the bird is willing, but how much depends on that if will be readily appreciated by the time one has made two or three attempts to secure such pictures. The first thing to do in order to insure success is to become friends with the bird ; let her become accustomed to your presence, then gradually introduce the camera, first placing it at some distance from the nest, then gradually bringing it nearer. The chances of success are far greater during the first few days after the young are hatched than when there are only eggs; for, as you well know, a bird will often abandon her eggs upon very small provocation, while she will seldom leave the young so long as they are alive and need her help. When the young are very small they need constant feeding and watching, and should the day be cold or damp the mother's warmth will be an absolute necessity. Relying on this, I would recommend such a day as affording the best opportunities for the work, but should the parent bird show such fear of the camera that she will remain away from her young more than a safe time, remove the camera rather than risk the lives of the fledgelings. It occasionally happens that when the nest is first discovered and the bird is sitting she will allow herself to be photographed without displaying fear, or, what would. perhaps be more truthful, she remains on the nest either because she believes herself unseen or because she is afraid to move. To take advantage of this, great-care must be observed. Not only must no sudden movement or noise be made, but the camera should be assembled at some distance from the nest, yet within sight of it, and then gradually brought nearer and nearer. The first exposure might be made while at some distance, in order to be sure of at least one photograph. This precaution is advisable because one can never tell exactly how near the bird will allow the camera to be placed. Having secured one picture, try another at a few feet nearer, and so on until either you are within the desired distance or the bird has flown..

The subject of exposure is one that requires a few words. Almost always people make the mistake of under-exposing, believing that because the bird is alive nothing but an instantaneous exposure can possibly secure a sharp picture. Such an idea is usually a mistake. As a rule, a bird on her nest remains absolutely still for seconds at a time, thereby allowing of a time exposure. I have given as much as sixty seconds, but of course this was an exceptional case, and indeed such an exposure is very seldom needed. Should the bird be restless, moving her head all the time (they usually follow your every motion with their eyes), you may attract her attention as you are about to make the exposure by holding something conspicuous, such as a handkerchief, in one position, and nine times out of ten she will watch it intently for several seconds, thus affording the desired opportunity.

As birds vary so greatly in their manner of manifesting fear or distrust of man, each one may be said to be a separate study and calls for a special method of treatment. Some will allow a person to come to within two or three feet of the nest without leaving, and yet will not remain if the camera is anywhere near them. Others show no fear of the camera, but distrust the man; while others again, and these are the kind we want, allow both man and camera to come within a very short distance. Sometimes it is necessary to place the camera in readiness while the bird is absent and wait at a distance for her return, and even then the exposure may have to be made with the aid of a long rubber tube. An extreme case of this kind I experienced when once I tried to photograph a Wilson's thrush on her nest. After trying various methods without success I placed the camera about ten feet from the nest and partly concealed it with branches. Then I attached fifty feet of rubber tubing to the shutter and retreated to that distance from the nest. After waiting for about half an hour I crawled very quietly toward the nest, but before coming within sight of it, I heard the bird leave. Once more I retreated, and after waiting another half-hour decided to press the bulb, making the exposure on the chance of the bird being on the nest. Whether she was I do not know, but I made several chance exposures during the day, and when I developed the plates there were many good pictures of the nest, but only one showed the sitting bird.

For photographs of birds on their nests, the lens used should have great length of focus, not much less than twelve inches. The single combination of almost any of the newer makes of convertible lenses gives excellent results. The object in using a long-focus lens is not only that a large image may be obtained while the .camera is at a considerable distance from the bird, but because the noise made by releasing the shutter frequently causes the bird to start, and of course the farther away the camera is the less will be the chance of her hearing the noise. The photographing of the sitting bird offers the very best opportunity for the use of the telephoto lens, but still it is better to use a good long-focus lens where the bird is fairly tame, resorting to the telephoto only when it is not possible to get as near as would be otherwise necessary.

Some birds, such as the yellow-breasted chats, I have never been able to photograph sitting on or near their nests, though I have wasted many hours in the attempt. With red-winged blackbirds I have had the same experience, and though this does not prove that they cannot be photographed, it shows that they are on the average far less tame than the wood-thrush, the blue-winged warbler, and some others with which I have had nothing but good luck. The main thing, therefore, if you wish to be always successful in photographing birds on their nests, is to find birds that are tame. Having found them, use a long-focus lens, give sufficient exposure, and you will be sure of success.

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