During the past week there has been some remarkable hummingbird activity, which actually began weeks ago, but with winter weather affecting much of the northern tier of states and southern provinces, hummingbird sightings in Saskatchewan, North Dakota, and Massachusetts made me want to provide some insights about these extremely off-course cold weather hummingbirds. It started with an email that alerted me to the fact that the First State Record Anna’s Hummingbird, that was originally identified October 2nd, was still visiting a nectar feeder in my hometown of Bismarck.
Winter populations of Evening Grosbeaks have been present some years in Forest County, Pennsylvania, in the heart of the Allegheny National Forest at a site in the town of Marienville. The Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program documented the Evening Grosbeaks at this site during 6 of the past 13 years (during irruption seasons) with more than 100 recorded during the winter of 2012-13. During this study, researchers banded and tagged some Evening Grosbeaks using nanotag transmitters that provide location information through the Motus wildlife tracking system.
As if to celebrate the 10th season of Project Snowstorm, last week the first of the Snowy Owls fitted with transmitters migrated south from the Arctic, following what has proven to be a pretty predictable route to southwest Manitoba. Arriving November 13th in open farmland west of Dauphin Lake, this adult female was initially fitted with a transmitter by Project Snowstorm associates near Madison, Wisconsin in January 2020. The adult female’s location data shows she spent the summer in the Canadian Arctic north of the mainland on Prince of Wales Island.
The trail camera’s display was tiny, but there was no mistaking the creature it showed – a Black-naped Pheasant-Pigeon – a species that hasn’t been documented by biologists since it was first described in 1882! Dedicated researchers traversed narrow mountain ridges, crossed and re-crossed rivers that roared through canyons cloaked in dense tropical forest, and endured blood-thirsty mosquitoes and leeches for a month, all in search of a bird that might not exist. They had just hours of searching left before leaving Fergusson Island, located off the east coast of Papua New Guinea.
It’s been a tough week as winter gripped the northern plains, veiled by snow and ice and fueled by intense north winds. It’s a time of few birds in the open plains, but the birds we encounter are usually impressive. Thursday, during a cold drive north, I was surprised to see a big Merlin winging low in my direction, passing just above my car. I tried to re-find it, following its flight path, but not a trace could I find – yet the fleeting observation was remarkably exciting. Would this be the only bird I’d encounter? No, there would also be 2 widely separated Bald Eagles too, each in low flight.
During a special Black Friday sale Today through Tuesday, November 29th, Leica is offering an exciting $400 off their top-of-the-line Noctivid Binoculars! These premier birding binoculars are built with a compact design and ideal weight distribution for your handling comfort, and Leica optical engineers have integrated 12 glass lens elements in the new Noctivid Binoculars to achieve viewing excellence. Schott HT (High Transmission) glass provides 92 percent light transmission and ensures impressive natural color rendition.
As cold weather season is setting in, there is still time to invite small owls and kestrels to your yard with a nest box that can be used as a roosting site this winter, and as a cavity nesting site next spring with this Screech Owl, Saw-Whet Owl, and American Kestrel Nest Box from Best Nest. Its classic pine construction provides a traditional look, and small owls and kestrels can access the deep interior via the 3-inch diameter entrance hole. This dual purpose Roosting & Nest Box provides a great benefit to the birds while providing exciting opportunities to observe them closely.
You can attract a greater variety of birds by providing open water when natural water sources freeze with the Heated Rock Bird Bath De-Icer, available at Duncraft. Thermostatically controlled to conserve energy, this 75-watt bird bath heater maintains open water for your birds when the temperature drops below 35 degrees. The durable aluminum housing won’t calcify, rust, or stain your birdbath, and you can even paint the rock heater to match your existing bird bath or to add some extra color.
It was another exciting week for birders to find a variety of rare birds and establishing 7 new First Records, starting with a First State Record Pink-footed Goose in Kentucky, a First Provincial Record of a Costa’s Hummingbird in wintery Saskatchewan, a First Territorial Record Bobolink in the Yukon, and First State Records of a Lesser Nighthawk in South Carolina, a Tropical Kingbird in New Hampshire, King Eiders in Wyoming, and a Limpkin in New York! There were also 3 Second State Records, 3 Third State Records, and many other rare birds to review.

Last week, I remarked about how lucky we are to have the remarkable cameras available to photograph birds, and shared a wealth of insights about what’s available to birders who wish to shop for their next camera and lens as a starting point – a baseline. The idea for the article came from a birder who was looking for an economical “simple to use” camera to photograph birds, and I hope he and many other birders will be served well by the experience and information I passed along.

In that article I addressed the economics and quality interests to consider when shopping for bird photography equipment. But after sharing that information, I decided I wanted to provide a specific article to address the “simple to use” digital camera option. Certainly, anyone can get overwhelmed by the terminology and variety of features used to describe each camera model and lens, but for bird photography you can simplify your camera settings down to 6 choices. Then, once you are dialed in, you can keep them fairly standard.

Using the Al Servo setting to take multiple photos in rapid succession of the Marbled Godwit calling in flight, permitted the photographer to choose the best image among them. The fast shutter speed of 1/2500 of a second stopped the action while preserving the true plumage colors (aperture f-7, shutter speed 1/2500, ISO 400).

Granted, there are a lot of bells and whistles, and you may think you are missing out on something by not learning about every little aspect of the long list of features today’s wonderful digital cameras provide. But bird photography is a very narrow niche of photography, and the technical aspects of using your camera to photograph birds are really only related to 6 basic technical settings: Autofocus, Al-Servo, ISO, the Mode, the Aperture, and the corresponding Shutter Speed.

Autofocus – This is the simplest of all settings, you merely choose whether you want to use autofocus or manual focusing, which only requires you to move a tab to one or the other option. It’s almost always best to use the autofocus, which allows you to concentrate on the movements of a bird, or composing the photo with regard to the landscape surrounding the bird. Usually you need to hold the shutter button down lightly to employ the autofocus, and hold it down continuously to keep it focused on a moving bird.

After catching a vole a Rough-legged Hawk repositioned while balancing with its wings before take-off. The aperture of f-8 created plenty of area in focus to provide a sharp image of the bird and its wings. You can also see that grass in the foreground is sharp, but grass in the background becomes more and more blurred (aperture f-8, shutter speed 1/1600, ISO 400).

Al-Servo – The camera’s Al-Servo setting allows you to take a continuous series of photos. Then, when using this setting, you can take a single photo, but you can also take 2 or 3 at a time if you hold the shutter button down a moment longer. And when a bird is especially active, such as when it’s flying, you can hold the shutter release button down for the camera to take a continuous series of images at a rate of 3 to 15 photos or more per second, depending on the camera model you use.

This small Yellow-crowned Bishop is highlighted against a fairly uniform green background by using an aperture of f-6 that created a narrow area in focus that blurred out the distracting plants behind it (aperture f-6, shutter speed 1/1000, ISO 400).

Using the Al-Servo setting, I tend to take 2 photos at a time, which provides a second image that usually shows a wing position change during flight, or provides 2 images as a bird turns its head. But when photographing a bird or flock of birds in flight, I tend to take between a few images to several photos in quick succession to document split-second moments in a series of photos. This allows you to select your favorites, and disregard or delete others during the editing process. Each person finds there own way of using this impressive feature, and some prefer to take a single image at a time, which is always an option.

ISO – Personally, I find the 400 ISO setting to be the best general setting under good sunlight conditions. I tend not to photograph during low light periods, but if the sun goes behind a cloud, I increase the ISO to 800 if the shutter speed is reduced significantly by the shaded sunlight. I find that any setting above ISO 800 tends to produce grainy photos. Using an ISO of 200 or 100 provides better quality images, but these settings tend to limit your shutter speed and/or aperture a bit, so ISO 400 seems to be the best bet for me for bird photography with the sun at my back.

Mode – The Mode dial provides a variety of options ranging from automatic to manual. First, please don’t use the automatic setting on your camera. Instead, I always suggest it’s best to set the Mode Dial to the Av preference; then set your aperture (f-stop) and the camera will automatically provide the associated shutter speed as determined by the amount of available light. The Av Mode really works well for bird photography and other photo options, and it provides an opportunity for you to compose your image in a number of ways using the aperture as your guide.

Aperture – Aperture and shutter speed are inherently connected so when you change one, the other will change correspondingly, all tied into the amount of available light the camera’s light meter detects through your camera’s lens. Aperture alone will dictate the depth of the area in focus so it’s important to be aware of how to do this to improve a given photo as you compose it. During sunny days, I preset the aperture to a standard f-8, which provides a broad enough area in focus to include the bird and some background and foreground. If you wish to try to blur out the background, which will help to emphasize the bird, you can try dialing the aperture to f-6.

The importance of autofocus is sometimes overlooked, but it enters into every photo with just a light touch on your shutter button. Try to focus on the eye of one of the birds to make sure you get a sharp image – in this case the younger, more active Red-necked Grebe (aperture f-8, shutter speed 1/500, ISO 400).

Conversely, if you wish to increase the area in focus to include a sharper deeper landscape in the background, you can dial the aperture to f-10, or even f-12 or f-14. However, you should always be aware of how changing the aperture affects your shutter speed, which is also important to any photographs we take. So while you want to be aware of the shutter speed, you can easily check the shutter speed and aperture readings as you look through the lens, simply by pressing down lightly on your shutter button.

Shutter Speed – By using the Av setting, your shutter speed is provided automatically in reaction to the aperture you select and the amount of light available. As noted above, during sunny days, I preset the aperture to a standard f-8; and the resulting shutter speed will usually be between 1/1200 to 1/2000 – fast enough to stop most motion in a flying bird, and therefore fast enough to provide sharp clear photographs of birds engaged in almost any other activities, including simply perching, swimming, or resting.

You will quickly learn how dialing the aperture from f-8 to f-10 will change the shutter speed, as well as if you change the aperture from f-8 to f-6 for example. That information will become somewhat second nature after photographing a short time, and you can always double-check the aperture and shutter speed as it is provided on the side of the photo frame as you look through the lens.

By using the Av Mode and a pretty standard f-8 aperture to keep the flock of foraging White Ibis in focus, the resulting shutter speed of 1/1000 was plenty fast to stop the action of the Tricolored Heron chasing small fish in advance of the flock.

Ready for Action

I preset my camera so I’m ready to take a photo at a moment’s notice, which happens fairly often when photographing birds. Then, when I’m photographing a bird and have an extra moment, I double-check the settings and adjust any if needed before taking other photos.

I provide information related to camera setting options almost every week in this Bird Photography feature, which are often called out under a “Tech” heading. And if you have a problem or question, I can always try to help with some bird photography insights. We encourage you to contact us at the end of several articles, including this one, at

I liken the inherent reaction to all the bells and whistles on a camera to a similar situation we all face when using a computer, or even a cellphone, which is also a computer, albeit with a dandy telephone connection. We don’t need to learn about or know how to use everything these remarkable devices are capable of, we just need to concentrate on the aspects of the device that we use, or would like to use. Different people use different computer or cellphone programs, apps, and files for their personal needs – and that’s what we do when we narrow a camera’s many options down to the 6 basic technical settings that we need to learn about for Bird Photography.

Most of us should have a little extra time over the coming holiday weekend, and I encourage you to make some extra time to enjoy and practice bird photography, whether its in your yard, at a nearby natural area, or by stopping off at a refuge along the way to grandma’s house for holiday dinner – Happy Thanksgiving!

Article and photographs by Paul Konrad

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