Birds have incredibly good eyesight so you have to make yourself as inconspicuous as possible to get close to them. Birds will move away if you get to close too them so they always have the upper hand in this game. If birds are nesting, then don’t move in quickly for a photograph. I don’t photograph nests, but if you do you need to follow set guidelines so you don’t flush the parents off the nest, leaving the young vulnerable.
"Rare leucistic fantail" by Guy Vickers
"After weeks of visiting this birds feeding area, I gained enough trust for it to come in really close and by having my camera already at eye level was able to secure this shot as the sun peeked out from storm cloud late in the day."
It is best to cover any white lenses with a camouflage cover - waving a white lens around in front of a bird acts like a warning signal to them. In cooler months I wear black softshell gloves so that my hands don’t stand out as bright moving subjects.
You can get closer to many birds by changing the shape of your human form. There are many ways to do this and the most effective is to get down to ground level and crawl. This technique has two benefits firstly, you become a smaller shape and secondly, you are at eye level with the bird (or lower) and therefore less of a threat to them.
Another way to make yourself less human-like is to stand with the sun directly behind you at sunset. If you tuck your arms in, you appear as a dark tree-like shape and can wait quietly or approach birds slowly for an increased chance of success. Also, birds are more tolerant of people near sunset as they are more focused on feeding before daylight runs out and they have to return to the roost or nest to avoid nighttime predators.
"White faced heron" by Guy Vickers
"Summer colours of the Pohutukawa tree compliment this bird-a great example of going where the birds are used to humans. This one was next to a children's playground and the tree was planted by council staff."
It isn’t easy crawling along the ground with bigger lenses so having your camera mounted on a gimbal head which is mounted on a skimming device is a great way to reduce the workload. A skimming device is anything like an old frypan, a plywood skimming board, or a commercially available skimming device.
If you are not keen on crawling along the ground, you do have other options, but they aren’t as productive. Other options include waiting in a hide made from camouflage material or natural foliage. The material or foliage needs to be dense enough so birds cannot see you moving inside it, most birds detect humans blinking from 20-30 metres away. Using a hide requires a lot of patience and time. It is always best to get into the hide during darkness so the birds don’t know you are in there. If you are building a natural hide, it is best to do it gradually over several weeks, so the birds aren’t scared off by sudden changes to their environment.
"Rare leucistic fantail" by Guy Vickers
If the birds are semi-habituated then it is much easier to get closer to them. On a recent trip to Foxton Estuary, I noticed how the birds were a lot more tolerant of humans and vehicles and by using several of the strategies above was able to get great photos with a 400mm lens. However, I didn’t approach the migratory birds as I didn’t want to disturb them during their long flight recovery. Going to a bird sanctuary like Tiritiri Matangi Island is often very productive. But always follow the warning signs, staff advice and stay behind any barriers or fences erected to protect the birds.
If you go out without a camera and observe bird behaviour, you will get to know what natural behaviour looks like. This is important so that when you are trying to get close you know when they are displaying signs of stress like birds moving away from you, head bobbing up and down, pooping, looking around, squatting ready for takeoff etc. Once you see signs of stress it’s time to back away or stay still until they settle back into natural behaviour.
Ultimately to succeed in getting close to birds, you need to become one with nature, this means no perfume or deodorant, wearing worn out natural looking clothing, and lots of face and hand cover. I prefer to photograph birds on my own so I can slow down, hide in the foliage, breathe at a slower rate and although it sounds weird, I try and relax my mental state to a calm level too. Having grown up on farms I know animals can “sense” when we are stressed. This contrasts significantly to most people I see photographing birds, who look like they are dressed for the cafe with their big white lenses flashing around! If you come away from a bird shoot, relaxed, tired and grubby, then you have done it right!
"White fronted tern preening at dusk" by Guy Vickers
"I used a plywood skim board to get close to this shore bird, in fact so close in the end that I couldn't fit all of the bird in the frame. Staying low to the ground is a sure way to not stress the birds."
I think that it's totally ok to let everyone know when there is a rare one in your neighbourhood. When we found the rare white fantail here in Stratford, we went to the press to share our photographs and excitement for such a rare bird. That progressed into online articles and a television interview for me along with many happy visitors who came to experience the wonder of this beautiful animal.
I got to know the strategies that worked to get close to the white fantail, these were quite different to most visitors. When visitors got too close to the bird, or there were too many people, it would fly away and not be seen for an hour or two, sometimes a day or so. It would always come back and continue feeding in the area near its nest.
In the case of migratory birds or extremely rare birds like fairy terns some discretion is needed, then it would be wise to keep the knowledge among people who are concerned for the welfare of the subject.
View more of Guy's work on Excio: https://excio.gallery/guyvickers