Maybe there’s a grail bird that you’re determined to get. Or maybe you’d like to take full advantage of spring migration to photograph a hotspot of avian activity. Either way, your best course of action might be to pack your bags, hop in the car or on a plane, and head across the country. A bird-photography trip can be a great way to both enjoy a hard-earned vacation and expand your portfolio, but careful planning is essential to making sure that it's a success.
Pick Your Destination
First, you’ll need to decide where to go. If you’re after a specific bird—such as the California Condor, which makes its home at Pinnacles National Park—that choice might be made for you. But to maximize the variety of photos you can expect to get you might consider a destination well known for a range of different habitats and species. For example, Magee Marsh, a warbler-migration hotspot on Lake Erie in Ohio, features swamp, forest, and beach habitat, and in May you can see more than 30 species of warblers and vireos there, plus many other types of birds.
You can the assess the species diversity of a site by looking at eBird checklists, and you can get an idea of its habitats and shooting opportunities by searching Flickr for photos taken there. Blogs by birders and birding groups local to the site are also useful, and you can find these with a Google search. Try contacting the authors of those blogs to get more detailed information about the site and what you can expect to see there. To home in on good places to photograph a specific species, try searching Flickr for photos of that species and note where the best photos were taken.
Figure Out the Timing
Be sure to check what season—and even what month or week—is best for the destination or species you’re after. For example, migration hotspots can be great during either the spring or fall migration, but might be very slow at other times of the year. Also, many birds’ plumages can differ seasonally, with breeding plumages often more photogenic than their winter attire. Even within a season the timing can vary, so for migration hotspots it’s best to plan on staying for more than a couple of days to improve your chances of being there when a big wave of birds comes through.
Browsing seasonal checklists is one way to glean information about the timing of bird movements, but talking to other birders and photographers with firsthand knowledge is typically best, because they might know about other factors that are important. For example, foliage can be an issue in leafy habitats because it can obscure birds, so earlier in spring or later in fall might be better for photography.
Nail Down Logistics
Once you’ve settled on a location, arrange for lodging as close to the site as possible to reduce your drive time. Check what time the site opens and closes, and see if they offer a photographer’s pass that will let you in early or let you stay later (for sunset shots). Some birds are more active in the mornings, so being able to get on site early may be particularly important. A Google search will help you find that information, or help you find someone you can ask. And you might even find local birding guides who know all the best spots and can help you find the species you’re looking for.
Decide What to Pack
Make a checklist of everything you might need on the road or in the field. Your list will of course depend on where you’re going—for example, in places where the birds are extremely close you might need a lens with less magnification or a shorter focus distance. Choose warmer or cooler clothing depending on the habitat, and bring along waterproof boots and a waterproof camera bag if you’ll be in swampy habitat or on a boat.
Some basic items that should be on the list (in addition to your camera and lens!) include sunscreen and bug spray, comfortable clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty, a vest or coat with many pockets, knee pads for shooting while kneeling, a waterproof cover or plastic trash bags to put over your equipment if it rains, extra memory cards and batteries, lens cleaner, and a regional field guide.
You’ll need your laptop or other device to download the photos from your memory cards, and I recommend copying everything to multiple backup drives every night, in case one drive fails. If you have older cameras or lenses you’ve upgraded from, consider bringing them along in case your main equipment breaks on the road. You might also want to insure your most expensive items against damage or loss.
Finally, remember to act ethically and have fun! Wildlife photography can be challenging, and it’s possible to try too hard. Whether or not you get any award-winning photos, enjoy just being in nature and in the company of wild birds.
William H. Majoros has been studying birds and bird behavior for more than 20 years. This article is adapted from his online reference guide, Secrets of Digital Bird Photography: Tools and Techniques.