This is often the most overlooked facet of getting close to your birds. When approaching wild birds, it is important to respect their space and not scare them. You should never chase after them, or even move directly towards them. If you want to get really close to a bird, you need to wait until it feels comfortable enough to approach you or allow you to approach it without fear.
Focus on the bird’s face and body language. Make sure that the bird looks relaxed and calm. With a little practice, you can start reading their cues.
Some species are very tolerant of humans, while others will scatter in a heartbeat. Knowing which birds you can easily approach is helpful, although many times that is a matter of experience. Here on Bonaire, American Flamingos can be very skittish. If you are near to them along the road, consider using your vehicle as a blind and shooting from within.
Don’t wear white, or pink or red for that matter.
When we are in their environment, we want to try to blend in as much as possible. Wearing white, or other bright colors, simply puts us more in the limelight. The birds know the minute we arrive on the scene, but if are not constantly reminding them of our presence by being a big white blob moving along, they tend to forget about us and continue their normal activities. At the risk of looking like some mercenary, I personally prefer to wear camouflage when birding on the trail.
Don’t act like a predator–move slowly, quietly, and gently.
Predators make a beeline to their prey–they move in quickly and without fanfare. If you do the same, your bird will be sure to think it is under attack and hightail it off to safer areas. Maybe the best you’ll get is a butt shot of that rare bird.
So, how do you approach your subject without alarming it?
- Don’t change the speed of your walk. Slowing down greatly or hurrying up simply telegraphs that something has changed–you’ve spotted a photography subject. If you must change speed, simply gently slow down and do not make any sudden moves; even raise your camera slowly and deliberately.
- Do not walk directly to your subject. That looks just like a predator approaching! Instead, walk slowly in a zig-zag pattern, or move further away and then return and approach on a slowly closing parallel line.
- Do look around you as you approach and use your peripheral vision to keep an eye on the subject. Staring intently at your intended subject can be seen as a threat, in fact, that is true for many animals, including humans. Just saunter along the way–your subject will be much more comfortable with your approach. Read the signals they send! If the bird is standing upright and watching you, it is already worried. Stop your approach and wait until it is more comfortable and only continue again once the subject is no longer on alert.
Keep noises to a minimum.
Be sure your cell phone is on silent or you will be unhappy when it rings just as you get focused on that rare bird you’ve been stalking!
Another sound that alerts your subjects is from your camera. If your camera allows, switch to a silent shutter, and turn off the focus beep, to keep from alarming the birds in your area.