Thursday, February 4, 2010

Photographing Birds in Winter

The winter season calls for modifications to how you dress, how you handle your equipment and how you approach the picture-making process itself.  -Tim Fitzharris, National Audubon Society Guide to Nature Photography

In winter, even birds that don’t migrate can be hard to find.  On these cold and snowy days, we see little on our walks:  a junco pecking at frozen ground, a crow settled on a high tree limb.  We thrill to spot what turns out to be a mockingbird, hunkered down in branches to escape the wind.

There is a solution, of course:  a feeder.  We had a feeder up, but after a black bear came to visit one summer day, we took it down.  The advice on when we could put it up again was conflicting, so we left it down year-round.  In winter, I missed having birds as subjects for one of my primary avocations.

Sometime back, I moved from taking pictures of our Hudson Valley surroundings to photographing birds.  This was, at best, a Quixotic endeavor.  For a long time, I had only the lens that came with my camera, so the photographs were mostly bird-specks on a vast ground.  Still, I could enlarge them enough to check against a bird book or send to Mom for identification when in doubt.

In winter, without the feeder, our world felt blank without the birds.  So this year, when the cold and snow came back in earnest, we hung the feeder once again.  A tweet went out across the local avian community, and birds started visiting several times a day.

Fun for the whole family!  Our cats stationed themselves at windows, commanding the best views.  Their attention is fickle, though.  N. is easily distracted:  by a squirrel foraging for left-over acorns, by a blowing oak leaf, or by anybody passing through the room.  Mrs. D sits high on a chair back, but facing inward.  She’ll glance out the window now and then, but largely she’s preoccupied with keeping tabs on N’s whereabouts so she can nap in peace. 

You’ve seen the bumper stickers . . . My other car is a bird blind.  Well, it’s true.  -Tim Fitzharris

It’s an odd thing to bird-watch through the window.  The windows are well insulated, so no bird sounds get through:  no cheeps or caws, no whir of wings, no beaks tapping against the bark.  I was grateful for a break in the weather that allowed me to watch the birds outside.

Gone was the stillness; the air was full of sounds.  The snow had melted, and while birds still visited the feeder, they soared off confidently to search the further ground.  When the bitter cold returned, though, I was content to resume my indoor station, using the kitchen window as an ersatz blind.

I’ve more recently acquired a longer lens, but my photographic quest remains Quixotic:  I’m not an early riser; I don’t relish sitting for hours in the cold or standing thigh-deep in a swamp; my lens, while longer, isn’t long enough for photographing birds; and I lack all sorts of essential equipment.

It’s of no consequence, as the birds that visit our feeder keep me fully occupied.  And, as for the bear, unless better information comes our way, we’ll take Maxine Kumin’s advice on when to take the feeder down: 

Do not fail to take your feeders in on April One
despite the arriving birds' insistent clamor
and do not put them out again

until the first of December.


For some spectacular photographs of birds go to Audubon Magazine Photography Awards.

A wonderful book Mom discovered and sent to me is Bird Songs:  250 North American Birds in Song.  (Thanks, Mom!)

For an invaluable online guide to birds and birdwatching, go to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds.

The next Great Backyard Bird Count is February 12-15.  Anyone can participate, including from a kitchen window.  For more information, click on the GBBC button at the top of the blog.


  1. You certainly have a natural talent with photography, RA. I find your pictures just as impressive as those you link. Hawaii has an interesting mix of birds but limited compared to those you have captured in your neck of the woods. Interesting factoid about the bird feeder, I'll see how that translates here in the middle of the Pacific.

  2. A gorgeous collection of bird photos. It's hard to choose a favorite but, at the moment, it's a toss up between the Red-bellied Woodpecker and the Flicker. Honorable mention goes to N peering through the kitchen window eyeing a squirrel on her right and a Downy Woodpecker on her left!

    You have generously provided links to some wonderful sites which will amuse birders for hours on end. Thank you, Raining Acorns.

  3. I happen to know the author of this piece has taken some stunning images of birds... that could easily have illustrated this piece. I'm thinking of a pair of tree swallows in particular. And a sequence of fledlings... first flight. Maybe she'll post a few (I reprinted one image for the top of my Christmas tree this year... I wish I had taken a picture of that). Great post!

  4. So, Sue - when are the rest of us going to get a chance to see your photographs? I'd love to.

    I enjoyed a glimpse into your world, as always.

    And I wonder how the bird feeder tip relates to south west Florida? My son keeps his up year round - oops!

  5. Thank you all for the wonderful comments! I see it seems I may need to come up with additional bird-related posts in the future. I will certainly try to oblige.

    Jane M & Carol-Ann: Interesting to think about birds/feeders/bears in other places and climates; will look forward to hearing your reports.

    Elaine: I am very honored to have contributed a bird photograph to the top of your Christmas tree. I love that thought.

    Cybersr: And, of course, you are the one from which all bird knowledge in our household springs, including but not limited to putting me on to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's website. I think even those who are not avid birdwatchers will find they can get lost in that site for days--and of course the cats are endlessly intrigued by the bird sounds . . .

  6. Wonderful essay and photos! We do hang a feeder off the deck and it's hard to say who enjoys the view more, the humans or the canine in the house. Come fall and winter, we seem to attract flocks of turkey vultures - Raining Acorns will not want to waste her digital space on photos of those creepy birds, however.

    I am amazed that you can capture such great bird images from inside your house - your feeder must be well-stocked! I admire you for putting it back up after a visit from a bear. I would have second thoughts, no matter how much I missed the birds.

    I look forward to seeing more photos from you~

  7. Ah, turkey vultures! Yes, best seen from a distance. Though you bring to mind this passage from a Klinkenborg essay, in which he describes the beauty of vultures in flight: "I see a vulture looking side to side as it slides by overhead, and it looks to me as though it’s artfully and intentionally ignoring the skill of its flight."

    I don't know whether he's describing turkey vultures, but he certainly could be. (The entire essay, "Native Element," New York Times, April 5, 2009, can be found at:

    Or, for those pressed for time, the summary can be found at

    And for those who really don't have time, I quote the summary below:

    Verlyn Klinkenborg wonders what it is like to be a bird!

  8. Your blog seems tailored to win my heart, for you write about my favorite things: poetry, art, nature, & birds!

  9. "A tweet went out across the local avian community...." :D

  10. Kookaburra, What a lovely thing to say (and thanks for appreciating my little pun as well)! Thank you for stopping by, and for the lovely art you make and share with us every day at

  11. What a lovely post and links. I can hear the birds singing as I write this. Yesterday I watched them gathering long strands of dried plants in my garden as they start their nest building.
    I am loving the spotted feathers on your Common Flicker. Beautiful photographs. Thank you, I shall enjoy the links.

  12. Milly, thank you so much for writing. I like to picture the birds in your garden gathering dried plants for their nests. And thank you, too, for the lovely drawings from nature that you share with us at

  13. Ahh,bird watching.What a wonderful way (excuse)to idle and relax. I always like to start the day with my bowl of cereals, watching the birds through the wide patio doors of our back room. I've specifically geared the layout and position of my recliner to give this priority. It is quite mesmerising if you don't get hooked into wanting "a special". The "special" is the utter joy of the birds, seeing the garden change with the season,the clouds float by, the light change and whatever comes by. In addition to birds, we get squirrels doing tricks to get to the bird food and foraging for buried nuts and, often, a fox sauntering up the garden, having a sniff, scratch and a wash, clearly feeling at home. There's also a variety of local cats who call by, ears erect, eyes wide looking at us looking at them.Luckily we live in the relative safety of suburban London yet are surrounded by woods and green open spaces.So there are many birds to see and no bears, cyotes and all that fearsome stuff!!On a walk to the post office today I walked though hundreds of gulls, come inland from the sea, the grass dancing with fluffy white feathers glimmering in the sun. Jackdaws and Crows a-prancing with them. On the lake, a lone Grey-lag Goose paddling with some Canada as if part of the family. Swans, Moorhen, Coots, Gadwall, Little Grebes and Shovelers dipping in the water, calls, yaps and croaks echoing. The tits, Wrens and Robins sang out their Spring Songs from spikey Hawthorns still drapped in red berries. I recently found that when I take a picture my camera also records so I can sample all this again. All simply on a regular walk to the shops. Yet ifhen I make a deliberate effort to "go out and watch birds" I often return to find see more in my garden! So I try to take it as the river flows.That said, I am also very fortunate to have enjoyed many happy hours sampling RA's yard-birds too and her many brilliant bird pics. Though I love them all, my favourite here is the Flicker- its flashy outfit, and of course we have none here. RA keep those birds coming, fret not the equipment and enjoy as we all may.

  14. I have just received this report from the GBBC and felt I must pass it on:

    The 2010 GBBC has been one of the most exciting so far—your enthusiastic participation has been so valuable and we’ve all had fun reading your tweets, emails, and comments and seeing what the shutterbugs were able to capture this year.

    As of today (Feb. 24), nearly 91,000 checklists have been submitted and they’re still coming in. So far, the Northern Cardinal is the most-reported bird across the U.S. and Canada, as it has been for the previous five years. In Canada alone, the Black-capped Chickadee tops the list. The American Crow is higher on the list of most-reported birds (number 3 right now) than it has been since the West Nile virus appeared in North America and took such a toll on this species. Another American Robin roost topping one million birds has taken up residence near Saint Petersburg, Florida, pushing the city (and the state) to number one for reporting the most birds so far. The bird-watching bug bit hard in Tennessee this year and for the first time ever in the GBBC the state has broken into the top ten for most checklists submitted (as of today) and has already set a new state record! California, Connecticut, Kentucky, Manitoba, Missouri, Nova Scotia, Ontario, South Carolina, and West Virginia have also surpassed previous state checklist records. Nice going!


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