Chickadee take-offs and landings

I’m working on a system of capturing flight in the small birds in the backyard, using what I learned in the Alan Murphy photography workshop in January.  So far, I have only enticed the chickadees to use the set-up, and they really don’t like it as much as the birds in Texas liked theirs.

Black-capped chickadee

The set-up works great for birds that are relatively still, i.e., just landed and having a look at what’s available on the stump.

But because I don’t want to sit out in 30 degree F weather with wind chill, I’m photographing the birds from the comfort of my porch, shooting through window glass as the birds fly straight toward me (that means they are out of focus until just before they land — not a great technique!).  In addition, the background is rather ugly right now, owing to leafless trees and bushes back behind the stump.

But here are some of the interesting take-offs and landings I captured so far to illustrate Chickadee flight acrobatics.

Chickadee landings

Landing attempt #1 — pretty typical – outstretched feet, wings used for brakes. The bird is not very square coming in, but corrects nicely.  Stuck the two point landing in the middle of the stump.

Chickadee landings

Landing #2 — Look ma, I can land with just one wing…

Chickadee landings

Landing #3 — bird approaching too fast, had to use both wings to stop, unlike Landing #2.

Chickadee take-off

Take-off #1 — Usually chickadees fly in, pause, pick up a seed and dart off.

Chickadee take-off

This bird landed, but didn’t like what it saw, and immediately took off again, or rather fell off.

Let me explain briefly how difficult this is, especially if you don’t have lightning fast reflexes.

  • First of all, I shouldn’t be shooting through glass.  Second, I should have set up the camera perpendicular to the birds’ flight to the feeder, i.e., in the same plane of focus as the feeder.
  • Set up the camera on a tripod, focus on the middle of the stump (where you expect birds to land), hook up a remote shutter release that you hope is sensitive enough to fire when you really want it to, but not when you get excited about birds flying overhead, or leaves flying across your field of view.
  • Set the shutter speed for 1/4000, f-stop to 5.6-8 (higher for better depth of field), and let the ISO set itself (AUTO) to whatever the light conditions are.
  • Keep your thumb lightly pressed on the remote shutter and your eyes on the birds in the bush.  Then start firing the shutter as soon as a bird leaves the bush headed to the feeder.  Hopefully, some of the landings are in focus.
  • Now comes the tricky part — you have to anticipate when the bird will leave and start firing the remote shutter again as they hunch for take-off.  Very challenging for those without those lightning fast reflexes.

I hope to get better at this technique and capture a variety of birds coming to the feeder, but not until it’s warmer weather for sitting outside.  If you photographers out there try this and are successful, please let me know how you did.

3 thoughts on “Chickadee take-offs and landings

  1. Thanks, Sue, for sharing some of the “secrets” to getting shots like these. Despite knowing how it is done in theory, I gotta believe that it is tough to produce consistently good results even with lots of patience and good reflexes.

  2. Nicely done. I especially like the bokeh, the tight framing and sharp frozen wings. There is a school who enjoy the blur effects too — but no right way. Another technique is employing the Better Beamer light extender on a flash, which uses a low-cost Fresnel lens (on the flash) to focus light, and freeze frame motion in darker conditions, or use as fill in shadows. Or I’ve used reflectors outdoors to add light. So I prefer a multiple burst rate for lotsa frame choices.

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