Photographing Nests With Old Birds And Their Young
( Originally Published 1902 )
FROM photographing the parent bird sitting peace-fully on her nest to the task of portraying the same bird standing nervously on the edge of the nest or on a near-by twig, while the young hold up their unsteady heads in anticipation of a meal, is but a step on the photographic ladder ; it is a difficult step, however, for the obstacles are many and not over-easily mastered. Apart from what we might term the natural difficulties, such as the stalking of the bird and getting the camera within suitable range, there is the question of light, for usually instantaneous exposures are necessary. Now we all know that most birds build their nests in shaded places, places chosen with-out the slightest regard to the needs of the bird photographer, and in these shaded places an instantaneous photograph is practically an impossibility. Then there is another difficulty, one even more serious:
In close-range work the depth of focus of an open lens is very slight. Objects to be in sharp focus at a distance of a few feet must be nearly on one plane ; three or four inches one way or another will make a very great difference in the definition. Now sup-pose you focus the lens on the near edge of the nest, so as to secure a sharp picture of the young birds when they raise their heads ; then the mother bird comes and perches either on the farther edge of the nest or on a twig several inches beyond. Under such conditions you may not stop down your lens in order to increase its depth of focus, owing to the lack of light, so you have to sacrifice the sharpness of either the old bird or the young. The method adopted by some bird photographers is to insure the correct lighting by removing the nest from its natural position and placing it where conditions are favour-able for photographing. This method is not to be recommended, as, unless done by an extremely conscientious person, one willing to guard the nest and its contents against risk even at great personal inconvenience, the resulting loss of bird life would be very great and quite uselessly so. Birds place their nests where the surrounding vegetation will shade the young from the direct rays of the sun, and should these shading leaves be removed, or should the nest be taken away from them, the young birds, in their anxiety to avoid the sun, will frequently scramble out of their nest long before they are fledged, and death is an almost certain sequel. Even by disturbing the surroundings of a nest there is danger to the young birds, as the nest is no longer so well concealed and is therefore more or less exposed to the many natural enemies that during the nesting season are ever on the hunt for young birds and eggs.
To any one who has not had experience with birds, it would seem an easy matter to coax the parent bird to the nest when the young are there to act as a lure. The camera, one imagines, would be utterly disregarded. But such does not happen to be the case, that is to say, it is not the rule. Certain birds, such as the yellow-breasted chat or the crow, cannot, according to my own experience, be enticed to the nest, and I fully believe that the crow would allow its young to die of starvation rather than visit the nest while the camera is anywhere near. Many birds, such as the blue-winged warbler, the wood-thrush, the chickadee, and others, display very little fear of either the camera or the man when their young need attention, so for this reason they are the most suitable subjects to practise on. If the birds happen to be tame enough, it is an excellent plan to use a white reflecting-cloth, throwing the light upward from it in order that the otherwise dark shadows shall be softened. A background cloth may also be used with advantage, provided it does not frighten the bird. This cloth should be white or gray, and of sufficient size to allow of its being placed not less than six or eight feet back of the nest, the farther the better, as the distance gives a soft effect in the photographs, making the bird and nest stand out fairly well defined against the indistinct grayish background. Any shadows thrown on the cloth are rather an advantage than otherwise, unless the cloth is near the nest, in which case they appear too well defined. In cases where the birds are very shy it is necessary to resort to some method of concealment for the camera and one's self. Perhaps the best device is an artificial tree-trunk, made of very light material such as muslin or even cheese-cloth. This is stretched over large hoops, which may be made of cane or strong wire, the former by preference, as it is more easily attached. Three uprights should be made of strong, stiff cane jointed in the middle with ferrules such as those used for fishing-rods. The whole structure ought to be not less than six feet six inches in height and large enough to allow of the camera being worked conveniently. The cloth should be painted to imitate a tree-trunk, and to carry out the illusion strips of bark might be attached by means of small wire hooks. Creeping plants, such as vines of different kinds, will add greatly to the realistic effect. Be sure to have ample openings for air at the base and let the top be open, otherwise the heat will be unbearable. A branch thrown over the top opening will be sufficient to conceal you from the bird's view. Several openings at different heights will have to be made through which the lens may protrude. When possible, it is as well to place this tree-trunk in position overnight or at least several hours before entering it, thereby avoiding the otherwise long wait, which will be found extremely trying, especially during hot weather, for the heat of these tree-trunks is their greatest objection. The use of any method of concealment aids one in securing photographs of birds, but at the same time it takes away a great deal of the excitement that is to be found in trying to make friends with the bird. Therein lies the principal part of the pleasure of this branch of photography : it takes one close to the bird during the most interesting period of its life, and one has the opportunity of studying the bird's habits to greater advantage than at any other time. The actual difficulties to be met with in photographing the parent birds with their young in the nests are not quite so great as when the young have left their nest. To this branch of the work we will devote the following pages.