Several years of regular travel to various parts of India with one single aim, photographing birds found in India, fetched me images of over 500 species. You can view them all at INDIA BIRDS.
Here, I share with you, how I have photographed these birds in India, even as I continue to photograph as many species as my time will allow!
Brown Fish Owl
Everyone has seen a Crow, but how many know the difference between a House Crow and a Indian Jungle Crow? A House Crow has a two-toned appearance while the Indian Jungle Crow is entirely black! Both these birds are commonly seen all over India and are therefore known as ‘Widespread Residents’. Welcome to the world of Birds!
Over 8600 species of birds have been recorded on our planet, of which, about 1300+ species are found in India. Several field-guides are available to help a beginner identify these birds. The one I currently use is the Pocket Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent by Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp, and Tim Inskipp (Second Edition). Thus, if you begin to look for these wonderful creatures in nature you will soon notice that they are of different shapes, sizes and colors. They behave differently and their calls are distinctive. They are found in different habitats and eat different foods. Some fly very high up in the sky while some cannot fly at all. The only thing common to all birds is that they have feathers and two legs! As you begin noticing details of these lively birds and learn to identify them with the help of the field-guides and fellow birders, you will be known as a ‘Bird Watcher’ or just "Birder". Bird watching is one of the most popular hobbies in the world and can bring you great joy.
Quite unlike bird watching, bird photography is one of the most challenging tasks any human being can undertake. If, for the first time you decide to go out in the open and try to photograph birds, the chances are you will return completely frustrated and find that the shots you actually managed to click are worthless.
So how does one photograph birds?
A. Set a goal
Now that you have decided to photograph birds, you need to set yourself a goal. If your goal is to photograph all the birds found in India, one lifetime will certainly not be enough. As many as possible is a more reasonable option (My goal!). Birds of a certain region, is another achievable goal.
A good bird portrait has these widely accepted characteristics:
1. The bird is in sharp focus from beak to tail along with feather details.
2. The bird is sitting on a natural perch.
3. The bird is at your eye level when you shoot.
4. The sun is at your back and light is on the bird.
5. A clear background frames the bird.
6. Equally important is the "stance" of the Bird.
Note the alert, yet not alarmed stance of this Common Kingfisher:
Though, images of Birds in Flight, behavioral and habitat images, action shots and creative images are all sought after, the most challenging are the portrait shots as these subjects are not at all cooperative.
B. Know Your Subject
It is best to begin bird photography by knowing a bit about birds. If you spend some time as a ‘Bird Watcher’ your endeavors as a ‘Bird Photographer’ will be far more fruitful.
You will notice many things when you are out in the field studying birds. It will help you if you pay attention to these details:
01. Apart from a few birds, most disappear upon approach by humans.
02. Many a bird’s survival tactic is to remain unnoticed.
03. Birds are varied in size. From as small as a human thumb to as tall as a human!
04. Bird habitats vary. Some live up in the sky, and some rarely leave the ground.
05. Bird calls are highly specific. You can soon learn to recognize birds by their call alone.
06. Some Birds nest several times a year. And most nest at least once a year.
07. If humans interact with the nest, the chance of it being robbed by other predators is doubled.
08. Most birds are approachable while they have young to feed.
09. Most adult birds give out a distinct alarm call if they sense danger (the normal call is different).
10. If a bird is carrying feed/nesting material, it usually means it is nesting in the area.
11. While some birds have stunning and varied colors, others are plain.
12. The male of the species is more attractively colored than the female in many species.
13. Many birds change color and grow extra feathers while breeding. Breeding plumage!
14. A young bird often looks different from the adult.
15. While both sexes look alike in many species, in others they differ significantly.
16. Some birds do not move much, while others rarely stop moving.
17. Birds are more active and more vocal during their breeding season.
18. Migratory birds, obviously, will be seen only during some part of the year, in a region.
19. Many birds fly out to feed and roost back at the same place, day after day.
20. Many birds are nocturnal and may never be seen in daytime.
21. Some birds can be identified easily, but others require minute details for their identification.
22. The food of birds is most varied: insects, seeds, fruits, berries, parts of flowers and their nectar, rodents, reptiles, fish and other aquatic insects, scorpions and snakes, dead animals…and other birds too!
C. Nest Photography
By this time you would have learnt that the easiest way to photograph a bird is to find its nest. If you visit any ‘Bird Sanctuary’ you will find plenty of birds like Egrets, Herons and Storks nesting on trees near water. The nests will be open (platform) and the parents will come repeatedly to the nest carrying food for the young. It’s a delightful opportunity for any bird photographer and a very good beginning too!
A good bird photographer must understand that while some birds can defend their nests from natural predation, most cannot. Several species like Lapwings and Plovers rely entirely on camouflage to counter natural predation.
For a large number of birds the most vulnerable time in their life is when they are in the nest or have just fledged. There are number of predators that these nesting birds have to outwit in order to succeed in raising their young. Mongooses, Monitor Lizards, Snakes, and other birds like Crows and Coucals are all constantly on the lookout to pillage a nest. The biggest challenge for these predators is to find a nest, and the biggest challenge for the bird is to remain unnoticed! A bird photographer may unknowingly provide a clue for these vigilant predators to find an easy meal.
It is for this reason that photographing nests is not encouraged by the community of birders. It is a fine convention to avoid this temptation to go after a vulnerable nesting bird that allows easy approach, and instead use other techniques to get a successful image. Remember that it is not good practice to put the birds in distress or danger just to get a great image.
The below image of the Bluethroat - Male is an example, that indicates, a decent image of a small migratory bird that does not nest in India can be made with some perseverance and technic.
D. Learn to outwit them to get into position
Once you have decided not to haunt nesting birds, but try to photograph birds as they go about living their vibrant natural life, your greatest challenge will be to get into the right position to focus and click. This means getting as close as possible to the bird while it is sitting on a natural perch with the sun shining on it and your camera at the same level as the bird! Does that sound tough? Yes, it is!
The challenges are many. The major one, at least in India, is that a large number of species are extremely alert to human activity. They will disappear as soon as they spot any unnatural activity, such as a photographer approaching to train a camera on them!
Once, I saw a group of 20 painted storks sitting in shallow water, in good light. They offered a great photo opportunity since I had mostly seen them before on trees at their nesting sites. I stopped my car and was considering my next move when a woman from the nearby village came with her buffalo and headed for the water. There goes my opportunity, I thought, as she and her buffalo went close toward the storks. But when the woman began washing the buffalo, the storks did not seem perturbed at all although she must have been only 20 feet or so away. Emboldened, I took my camera and tripod and walked towards the water. The storks, which until then had been calm, began to appear nervous at the intrusion. And before I could set up my tripod and focus, they were gone! They arose and circled high above the water and headed for another location.
Here is an image of a Painted Stork that remains calm as I shoot it from inside a vehicle.
Over time and after innumerable such experiences, I began to understand bird behavior a bit, and that has helped me to get into the right position before the bird disappears. Here are a few pointers:
1. Shoot from inside your vehicle
You will be surprised how tolerant birds are to vehicles. If you do not get down and are able to shoot from your vehicle without making much noise, chances are that the bird will offer you a good opportunity to shoot. Do be careful where you drive the car, many birds are ground nesters!
Here is a vehicle with an open top in the parking lot of a private resort. The camera is placed on top the vehicle and you can shoot from inside by standing on the rare seat.
Car as a hide!
2. Try using a Hide
In some cases birds use the same perch regularly. Here you can set up a hide and shoot from inside without scaring the bird. You will be surprised how many species you can shoot if you have the patience to sit for a day in a portable hide. Also, remember to wear clothes of muted color that will merge with the background when you are in the field. Yes, finding an undisturbed place to sit safely for a long time is in itself a challenge in India.
3. Food is the key
A great number of species of birds feed all day long! They have to drink water too. If you wait near a drying body of water, you will notice that as the water level ebbs the fish become more accessible to many species that feed on them. Kingfishers, Storks, Herons, Egrets – all haunt such water bodies, and you will be able to shoot them.
Similarly a tree or shrub that offers food, such as berries and flowers, attracts smaller birds, for example, Flowerpeckers and Sunbirds.
In grassy patches you will find Larks and Wagtails feeding on insects. Cattle Egrets and Drongos follow grazing cattle whose feet flush out insects, which the birds then pounce on.
Thus, understanding the food habits of different species of birds will help you get into position for a good portrait shot. Also, remember most birds have a favorite water hole where they land to drink water at least once a day. Please do not be over enthusiastic and deny your subjects their food or water!
This Spotted Dove is very alert, but it drinks from this water hole regularly.
4. Spot the bird before it spots you
Yes, it is needless to say that you will have to spot the bird to photograph it. However, in the case of Raptors and especially Owls, they will be sitting motionless on their favorite roost and you will most likely see them only when they move. They move because you are too close and you did not even know it. Thus, to spot a Raptor, watch carefully from a distance and act as if you have not noticed the bird, and keep approaching it without looking directly at it until you are ready to shoot. As soon as your lens points directly at the Raptor, chances are it will fly away. The lesson here is: ignore the watching bird and it will ignore you.
5. Attracting birds using calls
Sometimes you can play bird call recordings in the field to flush out birds. For example, if you play an Owl call, many birds will begin to mob the ‘Owl’ and thus approach close to the ‘call machine’, providing the photographer with an opportunity. Though I have not used this much, I am told it can be very effective in some difficult cases. Remember, causing any unnatural disturbance is risky to your subjects!
However, recording the calls of birds is in itself a rewarding avocation. You can learn more about recording bird calls at Nature Songs
E. Do your Homework
Once you are done with the common birds around you, you need to prepare yourself to go after the rare ones, the rarae aves. For this there is no other alternative than traveling to different parts of the country.
The more time you spend out there, the better!
Some birds migrate, while some stay at the same place all the year through. What you need to discover is where to find a particular bird. For example, the Sarus Crane, a magnificent bird that stands as tall as a human, is easily found in some parts of North India, while it is not found in South India at all. Birds are classified as ‘Widespread Residents’, ‘Winter Visitors’, ‘Endemic’ and so on. Copious data is available in the form of field-guides, check-lists and web-resources, regarding the distribution of birds found in India. Nine out of ten times I have been able to shoot rare birds that are found in restricted areas only. For example, I shot the Indian Bustard at Nannaj near Solapur in Maharashtra, the MacQueens Bustard at the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, the Lesser Florican at Sailana in Madhya Pradesh, the Bristled Grassbird in Van Vihar National Park, Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh and the Sri Lanka Frogmouth in the Anamalais, Tamil Nadu.
This Sri Lanka Frogmouth sits in the same area all day, day after day! All you need to do is, get there!
Sri Lanka Frogmouth
If you learn where to find a rare bird you are more or less sure that it will be there for you to shoot. However, you will need local help and support to locate the bird.
Another surprising factor is that the same species of bird behaves differently at different locations. You can be completely frustrated going after a particular species of bird in one area, but the same species will afford you a great opportunity in another area without your even having to try. A typical example is the Rufous Treepie. In most parts of South India this is a shy bird which moves up into hidden tree branches, but at Ranthambore, I saw them sitting on the steering wheel of my car!
F. Understand habitats and focus your effort
If you have a small garden with a flowering creeper in your house, you will notice Sunbirds visiting the flowers regularly to feed, giving you great photo-ops. You can shoot over fifty species of birds in most urban habitats. Bulbuls, Sunbirds, Mynas, Crows, Swallows, Kites, and Owls are typical examples. You can also use bird feeders and water spots to attract these birds.
If you drive a bit outside any city you will find agricultural habitat. Here there are lakes, paddy fields and grasslands. A large number of species of birds reside in these areas. Weavers, Larks, Egrets, Herons, Bushchats, Robins, and Kingfishers are typical examples.
Thus, you will encounter birds in every type of habitat from the deserts to the wetlands, from the crowded cities to the Himalayan peaks. The shrub jungles, thick forests, grasslands and sholas all offer unique opportunities and challenges. For example, if you enter the shola you will be stepping on leeches perhaps, but there on a branch, in near darkness, will be sitting the Oriental Bay Owl! The grasslands, more often than not, will have ticks, but in compensation they offer a large variety of birds such as the Zitting Cisticola and the Bristled Grassbird!
Very well known bird habitats are mostly areas where ‘water birds’ thrive. These bird sanctuaries soon become major tourist attractions. The Keoladeo Ghana National Park, Bharatpur is the most famous one in India for water birds, many of them migratory. In this area you can shoot a hundred species of birds in about a week's time!
Also, there is no point venturing out in the monsoon months on long journeys when you are sure to get rained out; conversely, it would be foolish to sit at home in the winter months when most parts of India are full of winter visitors. Remember, in some parts of India it never stops raining, while in others it may never rain at all!
The point is if you know where you are headed and for what and when, you can be well prepared to face the challenges.
G. Network with like minds
Bird watching is a very popular hobby. Almost every state in India has a local bird watching group. Today, egroups are also very popular and you can find very useful data about birds in a particular region from these groups. Several websites offer a great deal of information on birds found in India. You will be surprised at how soon you will be able to connect with helpful birders from a region you plan to visit. It is not uncommon to see small groups of bird photographer traveling together photographing birds and having fun over the weekend.
A kind nature lover from Mysore led me to this image of the rarely seen Baillon's Crake. I did not even know that, this bird is a winter visitor to Mysore city!
Do take a look at ORIENTAL BIRD IMAGES to see and enjoy the work of hundreds of Bird Photographers from across the globe. Thousands of images!!
INDIA NATURE WATCH is another great place to network with like minds.
H. Use Technology
The most exciting thing for any photographer today is the advance in technology. Digital Cameras offer so much flexibility that all you need to do is get into position and shoot. If you get the focus right, there are a large number of options for the Digital Shooter to ‘Post Process’ the images. That craving for good sunlight all the time is now a thing of the past with same fast cameras and VR/IS lenses.
For Bird Photography the appropriate lens would be a 600 mm, auto focus, telephoto. Combine this with any of the latest top-of-the-line Digital SLRs and you will have a winning combination. You can make do with a smaller lens, especially if you are after flight and action shots. Many of the lenses on offer today have Vibration Reduction (VR) technology that counteracts the slight shake in hand held shots, and reduces or eliminates the blur.
If you can afford it, please go for the best that money can buy in terms of equipment. So much effort goes into getting into position to shoot that there is no point using substandard equipment. The Internet is your best friend in helping you find the right equipment. For example, Digital Photography Review is an excellent website that provides current information on the latest models for you to select the best equipment based on your need and budget. A good place to learn ‘Post Processing’ techniques (not discussed in this article) is lynda.com
You will need an Auto focus lens because there will not be time enough to focus and shoot many of the smaller birds that keep flitting constantly. A Telephoto Lens is almost obligatory since most birds do not allow you to get too close.
I use the latest Nikon SLR Digital Cameras with a Nikkor AF-S Autofocus Telephoto Lens
Never use a Telephoto Lens without a good Tripod. The one I use is a Gitzo 1548 Carbon Fiber Tripod with RSS ball head.
Choose the fastest available digital storage for your camera. CFC or SD cards as they evolve.
I carry multiple batteries for my Cameras along with the chargers. And lastly, I use an inverter to power the battery chargers from my car.
Note that all the above technology keeps changing rapidly. Please do look for the latest data before making your buy decision.
I. Some "INDIA" Specific issues
India is a wonderland for birds, and it has over a billion people. If you plan well you will have a pleasant experience most of the time, although no two experiences will be alike even if you follow in the footsteps of another.
A few points to note:
1. The weather can be unpredictable. Even if you plan well you may get rained out.
2. Always be careful with your equipment. Avoid traveling alone if possible.
3. Always carry spare batteries and film. Power cuts or No Power are normal.
4. You will need permits to enter forests and you will be required to pay camera charges.
5. In most forests you are not allowed to dismount from your vehicle.
6. Elephants are the most dangerous threat in some Indian forests.
7. Watch out for mosquitoes, leaches and ticks depending on the habitat you are shooting in.
8. Always carry basic medicines.
9. Follow good food and drink hygiene.
10. Find and Follow all rules.
Although the obstacles and challenges are many, when you get a good bird portrait comparable with the best in the world, without bringing any harm to the subject, the joy you feel within will make it all worthwhile. Even better, share your work via egroups, websites, books, presentations or exhibitions.
Do you know that very few good images exist of the 1300+ species of birds found in India? Though this number is rapidly growing!
An opportunistic image. This highly active, tiny bird suddenly appeared on this tree, grabbed that insect and froze for just a moment. I was there, was I not ;-)
There is joy in nature, let us share this Joy!
August, 2007 (minor updates later)