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Location Scouting

Lesson 2 from: Beginner's Guide to Bird Photography

Ben Knoot

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Lesson Info

2. Location Scouting

Lesson Info

Location Scouting

We're here in the Methow Wildlife Area and I'm doing a pre-scout before I go shooting. It's something I normally do before my shoots, that way I know when I get there, what I'm gonna shoot, the time of day I need to be there, and kind of what I can expect. Right now, we're in this really nice canyon. It's midday which is not exactly the time I would normally get here to scout. But since I'm here, I've got my binoculars here and I'm gonna go see what I can find. I know the sun is gonna come directly about to my right in the morning, so I'll come back in the morning. So I've got that down. I'm in a really nice, low kind of bush habitat with a lot of, you can see these kind of sticks behind me poking out over the bushes. So from my research I know that with this type of habitat I can expect a certain amount of birds and certain species of birds, like western wood pewee, spotted towhee, western tanagers can be in the pines. Lazuli buntings in the kind of the lower bushes. American goldfinc...

hes love this low kind of scrubby bush. Birds like spotted towhee really like to perch on the tops. So going into a new area, if you're going into a new area, one thing you really want to do is look up the species that might be in that area, and then you can check sites like eBird or local list sites to see if those birds are there. Another thing you can do is you can look up your bird and then usually whatever site you've looked up your bird has habitat descriptions of that bird. So if you're going into a new area and you see that habitat is there, and that bird is also in that area, that would be a good bird to look for. Whenever I go to a new location I'm always keeping my ears out for either birds I don't know the sound of, or familiar birds to me. Those birds that I don't know the sound of I pay extra attention to cause it's like, I've never seen them before. So I'm always looking for new species. When I come to this type of area obviously I'm gonna look for those same birds. Or I'm gonna listen for those same birds. Western wood pewee, spotted towhee, American goldfinch, that kind of thing. When I'm scouting I look for a few key things to help me prepare for my shoot. I look for the light source. The quantity of birds, the species of birds, background opportunities, and more importantly, the perch opportunities. All of those things are gonna really help you prepare for your shoot that day. While walking the trail I heard the unmistakable call of a couple white-throated swifts flying in the cliffs above me here. And it's one thing to want to get a good photo of the bird, but first and foremost we're out here to enjoy the species themselves. So when they're that far away, it's time to just sit back and watch. While I'm scouting, if the light is good, I'll usually bring my camera with me. But right now, it's 1 pm or so, and it's not good light, so I just have my binoculars. Normally though, I try to scout at the time I'd like to shoot. And then come back the next day and try to get the good stuff. But that's why I have my camera with me. Now, when it's hot, birds are not super active, this is a good time to just see what's around. And what kind of habitat I'll be shooting in. So we're leaving the, kind of the low scrub bush area, and we're going into more of a pine forest. So in here we're gonna look for more, for birds kinda more like red breasted nuthatch, mountain chickadee. There's some lazuli buntings that just flew by us there. They like to nest kind of on these edge habitat areas. So when you're going into a different habitat, keep in mind that you're going to see some different birds. And also, when you've got your camera with you, that means your settings are gonna change, cause now you're dealing with different light. Your bird species are gonna change, which means you potentially have to deal with different shutter speeds, depending on what kind of bird you're shooting. When you're scouting locations and you see dead trees or kind of areas that look like they may have woodpecker activity it's a really good idea to keep an ear out for drumming. It's a form of communication between woodpeckers. And oftentimes in areas with vast expanses of dead trees you'll find a lot. Meadows like this are really good for house wren in particular. Especially with the pink flowers there, you could make a really nice composition if you could get one perched up. They're a little tricky but, if you spend a little time waiting it would be worth it to get that nice kind of, a little wider shot with the house wren singing under the purple flowers. The nice thing with this meadow is that if you look where the sun is now, all those flowers are really highlighted. So this could be a fun shot to shoot, actually into the sun, and get kind of a haloed edge. And with a house wren singing, you could get the edge of the beak highlighted and the flowers highlighted. It would look really, really nice. A majority of my scouting is actually just driving roads. I pretty much just drive roads until I find habitats that I think are really cool. Or if I'm driving and I have the windows down then I can listen for birds that I hear. If I hear something particularly cool I always stop, see if I can make it into a good photo opportunity. But really I mean, it's just driving roads. And I do a lot of recon trips. Most of my trips actually, for birding or bird photography, are really, don't end up yielding any amazing results. It's only until after I find a spot that I think'll really work and I can really plan that trip, that's when the results come. So you really have to put in a lot of pre-effort before you can actually do the shooting that you wanna do. I first came to this area about four years ago. We're in the area of Lake Pearrygin and I'm just kind of on these backroads here that I found one day after shooting at Lake Pearrygin. And I really liked it, so I just planned out another trip the following year during the time of year that I knew the songbirds would be here. And but that was still my pre-scout trip. I planned it for a few days. That way the first day could be the scouting trip and then I would spend the next two days shooting really well. So I would drive this road in the morning, and in the afternoon look for stuff like lazuli bunting, black-headed grosbeak, Lewis's woodpecker, all those kinds of birds that I would expect in the different areas. And then usually what would happen, would I'd be driving along and I would hear them, stop, get out, take my shots, continue on down the road. See one fly by, same thing. Get out, take the shots, and keep going. So it's really just a matter of going slow, being patient, and then taking the opportunities as they come. So the reason I come to this spot during this time of year is because birds like red-naped sapsuckers are nesting and there's one nesting in this tree right here. Right now and this afternoon the light is gonna be kind of right in front of the camera so we don't want to shoot it then. What we want to do is, we want to come back in the morning when the light is at our back and we can get some nice light on the hole. Spotted this nest driving from the other way actually, and I actually saw the adult flying straight at me. Low down, with food, and during this time of year that can only really mean that it's going to a nest. So, the car, I was able to park just actually behind the tree so that the car actually became my blind, and I could actually watch and observe the behavior from the safety of the car, or from the cover of the car rather. That way I wasn't disturbing the parent, I could watch and get the pattern down for my shot. So here's the marsh kind of pond area. And again, why specific times of year are super important is because this is actually pretty dry now, whereas a couple of weeks ago it actually had some water in it. So it's important when you're scouting. And if you see something that's opportunistic, that you take advantage of it right away. Because chances are in two weeks it could change. There's a nice, what is that? Oh there's a nice cedar waxwing pose right up here. Right here on this stick. Make for a nice photo. A nice brownish green background here. Oh there he goes. (laughs) They like these, there's bushes here with berries on them. I don't see any around us, but they like to feed on those, so they're often on the tops of bushes, so that's a good thing to look out for when you're driving around. So when I'm scouting and I find something cool like for instance right here that we have a Lewis's woodpecker that's nesting in this tree over here. When I find something like that, what I often do is, I go into my phone and I go into my map, and I'll just select my location and I'll save it as a favorite. So for instance I've got the Lewis's woodpecker nest here, along this road I've got a bluebird nest, I've got Virginia rail breeding kind of area, and then I've got a white throated swift colony that we saw earlier, and that kinda thing. So this is a really helpful tool, for me to just remember where I've been and what I've seen, and where. Another thing I do while I scout is I enter map mode and I look at the satellite. The satellite will tell me kind of what habitats I'm going into, and then that helps me determine what species I can expect in that area. So for instance, further along this road, the satellite shows Big Lake at the top, so I know there, probably gonna be looking for some water birds. Now that I've found this spot, what I'm gonna do is I'm gonna just sit and wait. Sitting and waiting allows me to observe the birds behavioral patterns. That way I can better shoot the bird. So what I've noticed while sitting here is that it has about four or five preferred perches. Two of them are too far away to shoot so I'm not even gonna worry about those. The other three, though, have good potential for a shoot in the morning. So this is a good spot to come in the morning when the sun's gonna be behind me and I can get some good, even light on it. So, one of the most important tools in my arsenal is actually a speaker, and my phone. (laughs) I use the phone to play the bird's call and the speaker just amplifies the call. So what I do with the speaker is I put it somewhere relative to where the bird is. And I know kinda how each bird reacts to the speaker, so what I'm gonna do with the bluebird, the bluebird likes to be kind of above and slightly far away from the speaker, so I'm usually gonna put the speaker about 15 feet or so away, and below where I want the bird. So in this case, I want the bluebird in this tree here, so I'm gonna put the speaker kinda down by the fence there. Once I've got the speaker where I want, I go into my app and I look up the species that I'm trying to attract, which in this case is a western bluebird. And this app has a variety of sounds. Knowing which one to use at what time is a little tricky. Ideally if it's breeding season and you want a male, ideally you'd play a female chip. That usually gets them going. Or you play a counter male singing, that really gets him going, cause then it's a territorial battle. So I think in this case, what we're gonna try to do, is we're gonna try to play their song and see what happens here. (bluebird call chirping) And also, when you're using a tape, it's really important to be respectful of the bird. So if I notice that it's coming in and it's kinda flying back and forth constantly, and not going where I want it to go, I'll stop. It's clearly not happy and it's not doing what I need it to do, so there's no point in aggravating it further. If the bird comes in right away, I'll stop right when I get the photo. So as soon as I snap it, it's done. There's no, let's do it again, let's try a third time, let's try a fourth time. It's, once you get it, you've had your opportunity, the bird's cooperated, just move on. You could try again maybe another day, but let it be for that day. If a call's not working, you can kinda give it a sec. See sometimes they fly in after the call. But if it's not working you can try a different call. So let's try a different one here. (bird call chirping) It's important to be patient with the bird, it's, you know? It's not a machine, it doesn't respond on command all the time. I just keep trying, but within the, within kinda the respectful timeframe. (bird call chirping) So we've got the male western bluebird here, and he looks interested in our little call here. So give him a couple minutes and see if he'll come down for a photo. Another good app to use for calling is the Merlin Bird ID app. One thing you have to do with Merlin is you have to tell it your location, and then it tells you the particular birds that you're likely to see in the area. So it's actually a pretty helpful identification app as well, but they do have western bluebird so we'll give this one a try here. (bird call chirping) So what you hear in the background there, that's me calling him in. He's just on the tree to the left, he's still pretty high up. Not a great photo, but he is making his way down, so it seems to be working. Once your subject gets into the position you want him in, or on the perch you want him in, once you get your shots it's my recommendation that you stop using playback and you let them fly away naturally. You don't scare them by walking away. You let them fly away naturally. You go and you pick up your speaker and you move on. It's not worth the bird's extra effort to give you four or five chances at a photo that you should have gotten the first time. So yeah. So there you go, he just took off after stopping the call. So I'm not gonna play it again. That was pretty good, he came down nice and low. Gave us a good show there. So while driving I noticed these really cool plants here. They have these really beautiful little yellow flowers. And what I've also noticed are a whole bunch of lazuli buntings around. Lazuli buntings have this really beautiful Rufous kind of coloration on their chest. And they have a gorgeous aqua blue coloration on their head and their back. So that yellow, green, blue, and Rufous are gonna look really good together. So what we're gonna do is we're gonna come back, the light's not bad on them now, but you see it's still pretty harsh, so what we're gonna do is we're gonna come back later when we have good light.

Ratings and Reviews


I liked this class. It gives beginners a great place to start photographing birds. I especially liked his lesson on post-processing. Too many classes skip that part. The use of bird calls is what it is. To be competitive in bird photography you probably have to use them. I personally won't; it's just not worth it to me. So nice to see a young person active in this field!

Colleen Church

This class is wonderful. Ben give you some very helpful information to starting your photo birding adventures. The apps he suggested are very helpful. The tips for scouting and what to look get you going. I will definitely be watching it again.

a Creativelive Student

I really enjoyed this course. The instructor doesn't beat around the bush. He gives you useful information that you can implement. I especially loved that he talks about apps on your phone that could be used to make your experience more fruitful. The only thing I didn't like was the advertisement for Olympus, but you can just skip that part.

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