Bird Photography at Prince Edward Point
A guide for participants
If you signed up for a photographic birding event as part of the Nature Matters event schedule, welcome to this information site.
My name is Ian Dickinson and I have been photographing birds in the South Shore of Prince Edward County for 10 years.
The South Shore is one of the most exciting places to find and photograph birds during spring migration. Prince Edward Point is, in my opinion, the best place in Ontario to photograph songbirds in May.
The South Shore stretches from Prince Edward Point in the East to Point Petre in the West. Much of the land is private and not easily accessible so for this event, we will stay in the National Wilderness Area of Prince Edward Point - specifically that magical place known as Point Traverse Woods, and the area from the banding station to the Lighthouse.
The appearance of migrants is unpredictable and most days when you encounter a fellow birder on arrival, the greeting is likely to be ‘it’s very quiet’. This is not like a visit to the zoo and one cannot conjure up wild birds on demand. I’m just setting expectations. Be prepared to shoot wildflowers on some days. On other days however, as you step into the the Point Traverse Woods, a window to another world opens. The sounds are overwhelming and a birder’s heart starts to beat faster. You know that this is going to be a magical day.
Now that the birds are here, we have to open our ears and eyes and pay attention. If you haven’t done this before, the initial attempts to photograph the Warblers flitting around may be disappointing at first. Even with the most powerful lens, shots taken at a distance fill a tiny portion of the frame and may produce an image that is barely recognizable. That will be the fate of most images. Then suddenly, a bird appears on a branch or bush close by. You hold your breath and try to get as many shots as you can before it takes off. These are the keepers and they are few and far between.
What to bring.
A camera of course. There are so many options and combinations of camera/lens that I assume that, whether experienced or novice, you know the game and have the right tools. There are so many choices.
An appropriate lens. Bird photography is all about lenses and some of us can be somewhat obsessive. There are so many choices and the only real requirement is a focal length of over 300mm.
A cloth to wipe your gear if it rains.
Water, and possibly lunch in case you plan to linger after the event.
There are different kinds of Bird Photography each requiring different techniques. I’ll touch on a few of these and then focus on the kind of photography that we will mostly encounter on this walk.
You may encounter large birds here but as we will see later, we are mostly looking for smaller passerines (perching birds).
This Sharp-Shinned Hawk was cruising for Blue Jays and this Cooper’s Hawk was waiting patiently for his turn.
Turkey Vultures cruise above the trees, looking for what? - I don’t know. There never seems to be sufficient carrion to feed these large birds, but their numbers increase year after year.
There is always an opportunity for a Turkey Vulture shot in the open, but also among the trees so don’t be shy to look up – way up.
There are a lot of waterfowl off the coast the South Shore but most are outside of the scope of this walk. As we walk along the ‘bluffs’ of the Traverse Woods look out for Scoters, Mergansers and Long-tailed Ducks.
Although you are on the top of a cliff and these birds are far below, they sense when you get close to the edge and scurry off if you do not approach slowly and quietly.
This is one category of birds that you are unlikely to see at the Point but keep your eyes open. A sandpiper might show up on the rocks around the harbour.
Birds in trees.
This is the fun game that we will play in this event. Birds in trees are generally small and afraid of us. Some are more afraid of us than others - species have different distances of approachability. That’s important to know, as to photograph these ‘birds in trees’, you have to be always aware of how close you can get before they flee.
Alertness is important. You need fast and accurate focusing and the ability to handhold and point in any direction.
Challenges abound. As we walk through the narrow trails and look up into the trees, birds flit from branch to branch, sometimes singing and sometimes not. The fact that birds are singing at this time is critical to finding the bird and identifying the species.
Some of these are larger and some are super tiny. Tanagers and Orioles will likely be present along with other ‘larger’ birds like Blue Jays and Brown Thrashers.
Photographing Warblers requires a particular level of tenacity, they are tiny and move around a lot. First you have to find and identify them, then you have to acquire and keep them in focus while they are moving behind leaves and tree branches.
Most photographers don’t use binoculars and depend on the magnified view through their telephoto lens to acquire the subject. I find that a good pair of binos helps, especially for an old guy who’s eyesight is not that great. The view through binoculars is much brighter than even the fastest lens and the field of view is wider. Getting a good initial view also allows a decision to be made as to how much time and effort should be invested in that particular subject.
As you look for Warblers, the other tiny birds that may confuse you are the Vireos that are every bit as interesting if not as colourful. Look for the hook at the tip of the beak.
Most birders initially get their attention drawn to birds by sound. Birdsong is heard even when the bird is not seen. It takes a lot of practice to identify all of the birds in these woods, but at the minimum, the sounds pull your attention to the correct direction. Be quiet and listen.
Photographing birds is different than other types of photography in some ways but surprisingly similar in others.
The primary objective is to get a sharp, properly exposed image. In bird photography the emphasis on sharpness is paramount because you are most likely to crop the image. Composition is king for other genres but with birds, the opportunity to proactively compose is somewhat limited as the birds are moving and not usually very co-operative. If you are lucky you can compose after the fact by cropping and processing.
Camera settings.These are personal and there are many ways to achieve the same goal. This is my approach to camera settings but please think and develop your own style.
FocusingAutofocus – single point continuous. I am focusing on a tiny object and need to be precise.
These birds are moving behind branches and the focus mechanism can ‘hunt’. This is when I use manual override.
I switch to multipoint (9 point) for birds in flight.
Many professionals swear by manual exposure only. I am too old and slow to do this.
I use Aperture priority.
I use Aperture priority.
Why control the Aperture?
The size of the aperture controls ISO/noise, background blur and sharpness. In addition, all lenses have a particular aperture for maximum sharpness which is usually about 1 or 2 stops from wide open. This is good to know when you are striving for maximum sharpness.
On the other hand, wider apertures have shallower depth of field and produce more blurred background which is very desirable for the ‘look’ of the image.
Exposure area is set to centre weighted. This picks up the bird and a small area around it. Centre weighted may also include some of the background so you have to make some allowance for this. I do this by manipulating the exposure compensation.
If I am shooting into a uniform background into the foliage, no compensation is required, but often the bird is set against an open sky.
Blue sky +0.3
Overcast sky +0.3 to +0.7
Bright white sky +1.0 to +2.3
The parameters vary but could be something like this for my Nikon D7100.
Maximum ISO 1600
Minimum shutter speed 1/800 sec or faster. If the light is good the minimum shutter speed can be changed to 1/1600.
The camera will then use the lowest ISO that will maintain a 1/800 sec shutter speed and then boost the ISO if it cannot. At ISO 1600, it reduces the shutter speed below 1/800 sec in order to maintain proper exposure. If the minimum shutter speed is set faster, the camera algorithm takes care of maintaining the correct exposure.
RAW or Jpeg.
Shooting RAW allows recovery of bad exposure decisions and no doubt many will be made. Whether recovering details from the shadows or controlling blown out highlights, RAW processing allows much more flexibility.
Although there are birds landing all along the shoreline of Prince Edward County we obviously cannot cover the complete South Shore in a couple of hours. The best and most concentrated birding is at these two spots; the Point Traverse Woods and the trails around the Banding Station. In the bleak topography of the south of the County there are very few pockets of trees, and most birds like trees. You can see from the above image that there are small pockets of trees among the scrub, and the migrating birds tend to concentrate there.
The other reason that these are the prime areas along this coast, is that there are trails that crisscross these small areas. The trail system in the Point Traverse Woods was created by volunteers many years ago and allow you to get really close.
Around the banding station there are trails that are much better maintained. These are the ‘official’ trails that the NWA would like you to use but the birding there, for some reason, is less productive than at the Traverse Woods. Many of the trails are closed due to the mist nets and the trees are higher.
The Banding Station allows you to see the birds close up and you soon get an appreciation of how tiny and delicate these creatures are.
At the entrance to the Point Traverse Woods is this ominous sign warning about black-legged ticks that may cause Lyme disease. If you are squeamish you may turn back but I will talk about ticks later.
The trails are not marked and it is possible to get disoriented, but fortunately the area is small so there is always a way out. Unlike some of the other locations like Point Pelee, this area is not nearly as popular among birders and it is easy to find nooks of solitude. This is important as birds tend to flee from large groups of noisy people. You will soon realize that bird photography is best done in quite solitude.
A few more bird photography tips.
You heard that ‘the early bird gets the worm?’ Well the early photographer gets that bird that got up early to look for worms, (or flies or grubs). Start at sunrise if possible, but activity will pick up and peak mid-morning. By noon most of the birds would have disappeared (gone for a rest from the hot sun) but the light would be horrible anyway.
Keep the sun to your back. When planning a route try to keep the sun behind as much as possible. Shooting into the sun is no fun.
Wear dark clothing. Many birders now go full camo but I find that a bit geeky. Whatever works for you but not white.
Wear a hat or cap. The hat casts a shadow on the eyepiece improving contrast. Remember, not a white hat.
If your lens is heavy, bring a monopod. Make sure that the monopod is tall enough to shoot up – high up.
A word about ticks.
Black legged ticks can cause Lyme Disease which is very frightening. This is a fact of life but should not be a reason not to enjoy the outdoors.
Cover most of your skin, tuck your pants into your socks. One of the general rules is to wear light clothing but that is the opposite of what I said about wearing dark clothing. The rationale for light clothing is that the ticks are more visible and the rationale for dark, or neutral, clothing is that you want to be incognito.
My number 1 tip for avoiding ticks is to use lots of bug spray.
DEET is your friend. Spray all open skin liberally with bug spray. Spray your clothes where bugs can enter – your hat, your cuffs, your socks even your shoes. DEET is safe – probably no other chemical has been studied as much and there were no adverse effects found. If you have safety concerns, shower as soon as you get home. This is also recommended as a way to remove any ticks that may have gotten through your DEET barrier.
If you do get a tick, consult the internet for how to remove it and seek medical attention.
All Photographs were taken in Prince Edward County by Ian Dickinson.