In early April we traveled to SE Arizona (SE of Tucson) to Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains. This is one of the “mountain islands” ( higher elevation areas than the surrounding desert) where species from the Sierra Madera Occidental of Mexico range northward into the U.S.
You can stay at the 5000 ft elevation Santa Rita Lodge, which caters to birders, with lots of hummingbird and other feeders to attract birds from the surrounding wilderness or Madera Kubo Bed and Breakfast just up the road. Both are reasonably priced and comfortable spots to spot some of the birds including the Elf Owl, Northern Pygmy Owl, the Elegant Trogon, Violet-crowned Hummingbird, Lucifer Hummingbird, Blue-throated Hummingbird, and 10 more Hummingbirds (mostly Summer). You can hike the canyon woodlands for many miles or hang around your motel and see many birds in your own “backyard”. Many rare birds show up during the late Winter and Spring migration. It is cooler here than Tucson in the Spring and Summer and can snow in the Winter.
We used a guide- Laurens Halsey of Desert Harrier Birding and Nature Guides http://www.desertharrier.com/ who was very knowledgeable and helped us find the Elegant Trogon and many other difficult to find rare birds. If you have limited time an expert who knows the local area can save you time and enable you to find and photograph birds that you might not find on your own.
Black-throated Gray Warbler
We saw this Vermillion Flycatcher at Lake Patagonia ( about 1 hr drive from Madera Canyon)
Chased by a Skunk
When we hiked at the lower elevation of Madera Canyon road we were chased by this skunk for at least 1/4 mile all the way back to our car. I guess it didn’t like being photographed! He would not give up, and it was both comical and dangerous; as it might have been rabid. Skunks normally can spray if you corner one but aggressively chasing people is not typical behavior
Red Shouldered Hawk
- Hawks on Power Pole
Find out where they perch, whether it is a tree, power pole, or fence post and approach extremely slowly. Stop and take one or 2 steps at a time. The bird will flush if you just keep moving. I try to keep the hawk in focus so that when it does fly I can start shooting. The first second or two when the wings are unfolding gives some of the better images. If you have a camera that fires 6-10 frames a second then you have a better chance of getting a good shot out of many. Sometimes I am able to find hawks flying in or out of their nests or with young. Do not approach too closely as you may cause the Hawk or especially Eagle to abandon their nest. The most sensitive time is before the eggs hatch so do not approach then unless you are in a blind. When the young are larger they are less sensitive but still retain caution as some raptors will defend their nest if they think that you are a threat. A sharp talon can cause a nasty wound.
Great Horned Owl landing
A Photo Blind in your backyard or the wild can get you closer to birds and enables shorter lenses, even point and shoot cameras. A sporting goods shop sells these for duck and other hunting for around $35. This one is very light weight and folds up enabling it to be carried in a backpack. Set it up near a water (birdbath) or food source- berries, bird feeders and wait for the birds to come in. I arrange large branches about 20 or 25 ft away and smear peanut butter mixed with sunflower seeds so that they are on the backside of the branches. The birds will land on branches to get the food. The lens you use will determine how far the blind should be from the target. This Spring I set up my blind near a Mulberry Tree and got some images of Cedar Waxwings feeding from only 15 feet away. They just go about their business and don’t recognize the blind as a threat. See Photo below.
Annas hummingbird nest
Annas hummingbird feeding young
Attract hummingbirds to your yard with feeders and have other flowering plants nearby (reds or oranges). Instead of shooting while they are on the feeders wait until they back away just a little and then shoot to avoid having the feeder in the shot. Autofocus on the bird in the correct position and then switch to manual focus to avoid losing focus to the distant background.
My goal when photographing birds is to avoid unnatural backgrounds including feeders.
Another approach is if there is one shrub or flower that a hummer frequents then sit or stand quietly and be focused and ready for the bird when it feeds. They are more likely continue feeding if you don’t approach any closer. Try and keep the sun behind you so that the bird is lit from the front or side which can show off the bright colors of the neck or head. To freeze the wings in motion I try for 1/1600 sec exposure or 1/2000 sec. If you want some wing blur then experiment with slower shutter speeds.
Great Egret Leaving Nest
Egrets taking off or landing in a tree or nest provide one of the best opportunities to show their grace in flight. Be sure and check exposure as it is easy to overexpose their white feathers. You want the pure white areas to be around a stop over or you can take an exposure from a neutral gray tree trunk and set your camera to manual exposure at that reading. A shutter speed of around 1/1600 or 1/2000 is needed to freeze action.