Best of the Tetons

Hairy and Downey Woodpeckers

Attracting and Photographing Wintering Back Yard Birds:

Srategies, Tips, and Lots of Photos!

White-breasted Nuthatch
White Breasted Nuthatch: Prefers suet and sunflower seeds.

Each winter, I get a cast of feathered characters in my back yard. They make great subjects for photos and are just plain fun to watch. Actually, I feed birds all year. I concentrate most on the migrating birds in late May and early June—plus the birds hanging around all winter. They are what I call my “gray birds”.

Black-billed Magpie
Black-billed Magpie: Likes suet, peanut butter, suet, and peanuts

Wintering birds “seem” grateful for the food. They tolerate me being out in the yard, even without a blind. Within only minutes of putting food in the feeders, a few of them will be feeding. Some, mostly Chickadees, will land within less than an arm’s length from me—as if coaxing to hurry up and get out of the way.

White-winged Crossbill
White-winged Crossbill: Like sunflower seeds

The Big Three: To attract birds, you need nearby water, cover, and food. I live next to Flat Creek as it winds through the Town of Jackson. It sometimes freezes, but there always at least some open water areas nearby. Ditch Creek runs through my property in the summer, but is closed off all winter. Both the ditch and creek are surrounded by willows and other trees. This cover protects them to some degree from predatory birds like Sharp-shinned Hawks. At least some natural food exists, but the seeds and suet I supply brings them up close and helps them through the Winter months.

Mountain Chickadee
Mountain Chickadee: Likes sunflower seeds, suet, peanut butter.

Baiting? Some people frown on photographers feeding birds to get shots. There might actually be some merit to the issue, but I prefer to look at it like a give-and-take proposition. They are wild creatures and have the opportunity to feed anywhere they want. They will move to another food source if one dries up. It costs me a lot of money to feed them throughout the year. In reality, I might spend a few hours a week in my own back yard taking photos, but they get fed all week. If I am lucky and patient, I get a few good shots of them. Win-Win! In some parts of the valley, it is illegal to feed birds. Feeders in some areas attract bears and can cause problems. In town, it is still legal and we’ve never had bear problems. We’ve had raccoons come to our feeders at night, but otherwise feeding birds has not been a problem.

Hairy and Downey Woodpeckers
Hairy Woodpecker (Male) and Downey Woodpecker (Male)

Natural Perches, Stumps, and Trunks: It’s fairly easy to photograph wild birds on bird feeders, but it doesn’t interest me much. I prefer to photograph them on something “natural”. I drag home tree trunks, branches, and occasionally buy a small trees or bush. My wife tolerates it to some extent. I am always on the lookout for a lichen covered branch, log, or stump. It’s illegal to take such objects out of the park, so I buy a “wood cutting” permit and go to legal areas of the valley to harvest them. Some of the smaller branches come from trees in my own yard.

Female Red Crosbill
Female Red Crosbill: Likes sunflower seeds

Matching Branches to Claws: Different birds go to different spots in my yard, often based on the size of the perches I put in each area. For example, Magpies, Ravens and crows prefer branches about 3/4″ in diameter. A small Chickadee will still land on the same branch, but the prefer much smaller branches.

European Starling
Starling: Likes sunflower seed, suet, and peanut butter.

Food: In the Winter, I can whittle the food list down to essentially sunflower seeds, suet, peanut butter and peanuts. Other than an occasional wintering American Goldfinch, not many of the wintering birds I get prefer Nyjer seeds, or thistle. I leave one or two thistle feeders out just in case. I am always on the lookout for sale prices on the food for the birds and stock up when I can afford it. I’ve shipped in 50 lbs of peanuts in the past, but by the time I pay for shipping, I can buy 8oz bags of peanuts at the Dollar Store and come out about the same. Last month’s “Red Hot Buy” at Ace Hardware was for black oil sunflower seeds. I have a couple hundred pounds of it stocked up now. I’ve purchased no name brands of peanut butter for 88¢ in the past, but it has gone up over the years. I buy it when I can afford it! My wintering birds don’t seem to be too picky when it comes to cakes of commercial suet. I buy the cheapest high-energy I can get and “grate” it into the suet feeders. Without grating it, the suet block will freeze as hard as a brick and will be essentially worthless until spring. Summer birds prefer the Orange Suet—especially Cedar Waxwings and Western Tanagers! It’s more expensive, so I watch for it on sale all year.

Web Back Yard Feb5

The Setup: The back yard is constantly in a state of change and experimentation. The photo above was taken last week. A few years ago, I bought a “Grill Gazebo” at Wal-Mart and converted it into a nice, semi-portable bird blind.

Summer Blind 2012

I wrap it with camouflage material and netting as seen in the 2012 photo above. In 2013, I added move cover at the bottom and some drink holders, chairs, etc. . It works great! Commercial blinds and tents are available, of course. Once my summer migrating birds move on, I take all of the wrapping off and we use it as a grill gazebo until winter. When it’s time to take winter shots, I put it out to keep the rain and snow off the gear and myself. The birds seem more interested in feeding than worrying about me. The somewhat skittish Blue Jay might have me rethinking the missing camouflage wrap, however.

Winter 2008

Winter 2008: I included a few of the early year permutations. In 2008, the game plan was to attract as many birds as possible. I eventually got a lot of birds, but photography was tough at times.

Winter 2010

Winter 2010: By 2010, I had eliminated most of the clutter in the middle of the yard, making it easier to shoot in multiple directions. I brought in quite a few more old trunk and interesting objects. The birds had definitely found my yard by that time.


Winter 2013: By 2013, I had begun to focus feeding zones to smaller areas. From one spot in the yard, I could photograph a bird on any of the target areas represented by the red ovals.

Eurasian Collared Dove
Eurasian Collared Dove: Likes sunflower seeds and most other seeds, even the cheap ones.

If you’ve ever been to a movie set, you quickly realize the goal of the director is to show you only “what they want you to see”. That’s my concept for the birding photos. There might be a feeder only inches out of the field of view of the camera, but the final image shows just the bird on a perch.

Northern Flickers
Northern Flickers: Female Left and Male Right: Prefer peanut butter and suet

The small birds develop patterns of going to a branch or stump to pause and make sure thing are safe, then go to the feeders. That’s usually a good time to capture them in a camera. After the feeders are in the same place for extended periods, they will often bypass the “staging” and go directly to the feeders. I often shuffle feeders around. That gives me different views and angles for my shots, plus they have to relearn their path to the feeders and stop more often in the process.

Clark's Nutcracker
Clark’s Nutcracker: Prefers peanuts and safflower seeds, but will eat suet and peanut butter.

This “movie set” concept works the same way on tree trunks and holes in the trees. I scrape suet or spread peanut butter into cracks and crevices in areas where I want them to feed—or where I want to photograph them. If I can stand the cold long enough, they eventually go there.

Red-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted Nuthatch: Likes suet, sunflower seeds, safflower seeds and peanut butter.

Many of my larger tree trunks have holes and grooves in them, slightly out of sight, where I press suet or peanut butter into the holes. I occasionally insert small tree branches or pine boughs into holes for additional temporary perches.

Crow on Stump
Crow on Top of a Tree Trunk: Like peanuts, suet, and peanut butter clumps.

Blurred Willows: There’s a row of naturally growing willows about 20 feet past my row of trunks and branches. They can give a pleasant, nondescript background. Many of the winter shots display the warm, rusty color. In the summer, the same trees are lush and green.

House Sparrow
House Sparrow: Likes about any kind of seed.

Photography: In the past few years, I have been using a Nikon D4 on most of my back yard bird photography. Before that, I used Nikon D300 bodies. My longest lens is a Nikon 200-400mm F/4 zoom lens. The 200-400mm can focus to within five feet, even at 400mm. I’ve had friends with long lenses visit my house and have to use extension tubes to be able to get shots. I find the Nikon 200-400mm lens to be a very good lens for back yard birds. The zoom feature allows me to zoom in tight on a Chickadee or pull back to get all of a Black-billed Magpie at the same distance. Last year, I purchased a Nikon D800 body. It works okay for my back yard birding, but the resolution is often overkill. It has a much smaller buffer and the frame rate is much lower than that of the D4. I usually shoot in three or four shot bursts, hoping the bird will turn into the best focus point at some point in the burst. Within a burst sequence, one is usually a bit better than the others.

Black Capped Chickadee
Black Capped Chickadee: Likes sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, suet, and peanut butter.

Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO: For many of my shots, I am only 10-15 feet away from the birds. That’s great for capturing lots of details in their feathers and eyes, but at 400mm, the depth of field is very limited. Shallow depth of field works great to soften the background. In my yard, willows on the other side of the ditch merge to a nice golden brown in the winter.  I shoot at F/7.1 or F/8 most of the time if I have enough light. Even then, if the bird is facing me or at 3/4 profile, the head might be sharp and the body and tail will go out of focus quickly. Shutter speed can be controlled by bumping up the ISO and opening the Aperture even more, but at the very close distances, it seems that “movement is movement”. It is hard to freeze a moving bird. Or maybe I should say I have trouble getting shutter speeds up to 1/1600th to 1/2000th of a second to freeze them. I tried stopping action on a jumping squirrel last year. I had to get the shutter speed up to 1/4000th of a second, or above to freeze him when I was set up at about 6 feet. That leaves ISO. I like shooting my D4 at ISO 400 and it does great up to ISO 1250. (That’s amazing). At ISO 1600 and above, I have to “work” the images a little more than I like.  In the end, I find myself shooting at F/7.1, ISO 400, and at roughly 1/250 to 1/500th of a second and hope to capture them at one of their split second pauses.

Grey-cheeked Rosy Finch
Grey-cheeked Rosy Finch: Likes sunflower seeds. Uncommon in my back yard.

Focusing: If the birds would hold still, I prefer to use single point focusing, whether in continuous or single servo mode and put the point on their eye, as I often do on a bull Moose. But, they move! The D4 does a good job of auto-focusing, so often set it to 9 point AF in Continuous Focus mode and “try” to put the center point on their eyes. The bigger birds, like Magpies and Ravens, move a little slower, but Chickadees move constantly. It is not uncommon for the auto-focus to grab a point on their shoulder and leave their head out of focus. If a perch is perpendicular to my camera, I can often get good results by focusing on the branch itself or their feet and claws on the branch. Their eyes are often directly over their feet and I can get sharp images even when their upper body is moving or feeding. The best image will occur when they pause for a split second. The AF Lock feature can help in this same scenario. In the end, I shoot a lot and keep just a few when it comes to the back yard birds. Maybe the professional avian photographers get a better percentage? I find the little Chickadees quite a challenge.

Blue Jay
Blue Jay: Likes peanuts. This one is out of its normal range.

Cold Weather Issues: Normally, I am only 20-25 feet from my back door when I am taking photos of the wintering birds. I can leave the camera set up and go inside to warm up, dump the cards to the computer, or get something warm to drink. Cold weather reduces the efficiency of the batteries, but that’s not really much of an issue here. Once the camera and lens has been outside in temperatures hovering around zero for an hour or so, it will have cooled to around 0°F also. When bringing the equipment back into the warm house, I have to be careful not to fog it up. One way is to put it in a jumbo Zip-Lock bag, or wrap it up in blankets and let it warm slowly inside. I usually take the gear to our front foyer and put it on the tile floor next to the door. That’s the coldest place in our house since we don’t heat the foyer.

Black-billed Magpie
Black-billed Magpie: Likes suet, peanut butter, suet, and peanuts

The Wrap Up: I offer this information in hopes it helps “someone”. Much of it will be self apparent. But, maybe some of it will supply some food for thought or inspire you in some way.  Give it a try in your back yard! As with anything to do with photography, just making the effort and being out in Nature is reward enough.

Steller's Jay
Steller’s Jay: Likes sunflower seeds and peanuts. Not common in my back yard

A Good Birding Web Site: If you want specific information on any of the birds above, go to Cornell Lab of Ornithology Type the name of the bird in the search box and you’re set!

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Comments (5)

  1. John Tienter

    Thanks Mike for the tutorial, great info. The images of the birds are a wonderful set. In your area looks like you have a diverse community of feathered friends, nice shooting.


  2. Mike, what a terrific post! I’ve read it a couple of times. Each time, I see something new. Not only are the photos terrific but the specifics of your shooting are appreciated as well. I only wish I could do the same in my back yard…. Well, maybe the neighbors won’t notice… Thanks again for sharing!

  3. Lowell Schechter

    Mike, great lesson in Bird shooting. And got and education on a lot of different kinds of birds. We have a Bird Sanctuary will I live and a group of us get together and set a make shift tree/ log and spread seeds and peanut butter on them and the birds come in droves.

  4. John Tebbetts

    Mike, this is yet another incredibly useful post that is loaded with great practical information. Although I like birds, I’ve never prioritized photographing the smaller ones, but your shots and now your practical advice on how you get them have got me totally rethinking and adding another dimension to my outdoor endeavors. Thanks a lot.

  5. Robert Huey

    Great tutorial and photos, thank you. New D7100 and new to me 300mm f4 w/1.4 TC are showing me how hard it is to capture the little birdies handheld. You inspire me to set up something similar so my frustration level goes down!
    Thanks, Robert

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