The Bird Photographer

“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty.”
    Aldo Leopold

A couple of years ago I was introduced to someone at a gallery show. He said, “Oh, you're the bird photographer.” I wasn't sure how to respond; I probably said something stupid, like, “I am?”. I make pictures of birds, but I never considered myself a bird photographer; I think it's an obvious distinction. Later, I looked through my work and discovered I print a surprising number of bird photos, some individuals, others of large flocks. I've built print inventory databases; I use them to keep track inventory, frames and mats, where pictures are (gallery locations), costs, and of course, sales. Looking through only the framed picture data (not including sales of matted or “raw” prints), I discovered more than half of my small print sales, and more than half of my larger print sales, were bird photos.

I was surprised to discover this. I think of myself as an omnivorous photographer; I'll photograph anything I find appealing. The landscape, anything with great sky or interesting weather, water/waterfalls, wildlife, anything that allows me to be outside working on my craft. This occasionally includes photos showing the “hand of man” on the landscape, although I usually avoid man-made objects or structures in my photos. A notable exception of derelict farm buildings, which I find fascinating.

Obviously, I also photograph birds. A lot more than I realized. Part of the reason I was surprised by this is my limited set of lenses. I don't have the lens and support gear die-hard bird photographers consider essential, that is, the 600mm F4, the heavy-duty tripod, and the gimbal head. My long lens is a zoom that reaches 400mm at F 5.6. I sometimes put a 1.4x teleconverter on that, giving me a 560mm reach at F 8. Unfortunately, my aging Canon EOS 5D will not autofocus with lenses slower than F 5.6, so I must manually focus that combination, making getting super-sharp bird photos even more challenging. I also have a light-weight carbon-fiber tripod—great for hiking, not great for monster lenses.

Birding the Big Valley

Hawk in Pablo NWR

A red-tailed hawk, unless it's a rough-legged hawk, or something else, in the Pablo NWR.

Part of the fun of photographing birds is simply being where the birds are and watching them. I live in northwest-Montana's Mission Valley, a wonderful area for this. While having separate names and political boundries, the Flathead, Mission, Missoula, and Bitterroot Valleys are geographically one long valley in the northern Rocky Mountains. It extends from Glacier National Park south to the Idaho border. We have a vast diversity of bird species, and endless beautiful places in which to view them.

I'm a novice birder, and always will be. I often have difficulty identifying the birds I see, especially the raptors, the myriad little brown birds, and other birds with wings. It's helpful and fun to scout an area, to locate and identify birds, with a group of knowledgeable people. Such outings are frequently arranged by local Audubon chapters, including the one to which I belong, the Mission Mountain Audubon Society. Five Valleys Audubon to the south, and Flathead Audubon in Kalispell also do these regularly. It's impossible, and unfair to everyone else, to take the time for serious photography while out with a large group. After such trips I often go back alone, on another day, with my gear to photograph some of the birds the group spotted and identified.


Around Christmas, 2011, a few snowy owls (Bubo scandiaus) appeared in the Mission Valley. Most of these beautiful birds concentrated around an area of houses high on a hill above Flathead Lake, in Polson, MT. Below this area is the Pablo NWR and some open fields in which snowy owls last appeared in large numbers in 2006. When I went up in mid-January I counted eight owls, most on the roof ridges or chimneys of houses. I've no interest in making pictures of birds on shingles or chimney caps, but the morning light was lovely and I enjoyed watching the birds. As many as 15 owls have been seen in the valley. No one knows how long they'll stay.

Snowy owl, January, 2012, Polson, MT

A snowy owl, with the Mission Mountains beyond, during the 2012 irruption in Polson, MT. I made this photo a week before the Five Valleys outing.

About 9:30 I found an owl on a large boulder, away from the houses. I was able to position myself so the Mission Range across the valley was the backdrop for my composition. The bird's face, and its amazing yellow eyes, were in shadow, but I still consider the photo a keeper.

The following Sunday, Five Valleys Audubon sponsored a tour of the valley, led by Denver Holt, who runs the Owl Research Institute here in the valley. I've met Denver a few times and walked through the Ninepipe NWR with him one morning looking for owls. He's great fun, a terrific and animated speaker, and of course very knowledgeable. My wife and I decided to join the group.

Owl watchers, January, 2012, Polson, MT

Owl watchers on a chilly January morning.

It was a lovely Sunday morning for January. Roughly 35 people showed up at the meeting place, and we set out in a 12—15 car caravan to visit the snowies. Out of respect for the resident humans we parked away from the houses and watched the birds through binoculars and spotting scopes. Denver provided running commentary and answered questions. Snowies are diurnal, but spend much of the daylight hours resting. They'll occasionally fly or otherwise move around, but generally there's little activity until late in the day. We watched and talked about the birds for 45 minutes or so, and then left them, and the home owners, in peace.

Raptors Everywhere

We spent the next three hours wandering all over Lake County looking at raptors, mostly red-tailed and rough-legged hawks. I've lived here over eight years and have explored the area, but Denver took us on out-of-the-way farm and back roads to places I didn't know existed. We made perhaps eight or ten stops, hauling out the scopes each time. We saw dozens of hawks, a couple of merlins, a few falcons, and a harrier.

Snowy owl, January, 2012, Polson, MT

Another snowy owl, photographed a few days after the outing with Denver Holt.

In addition to Denver's wonderful interpretive narration, I learned of some areas I'll go back to again and again looking for birds to photograph. Many of the best sightings were in spots much too far from public access for good bird photos, but there were exceptions, places where even my limited optics will be adequate.

I've returned to view and photograph the snowy owls several times, and will continue my attempts as long as the birds stay. In the 2006 irruption they stayed until early March. It's assumed they left then to return to their summer breeding grounds in the arctic. I've also taken advantage of the owls being near the Pablo NWR, which is a very good location for hawks and many other birds. Thanks to Denver I now know of a number of other good areas, to which I'll return when the weather and light are cooperative.

“Oh, you're the bird photographer.” It would seem so. It's hard not be, living around here!

January, 2012