Photo of Indigo Bunting by David Jonathan Cohen.
Five Things I Learned from Five Years of Photographing Birds
by David Jonathan Cohen
In the last five years, I photographed birds in parks and wilderness on three continents. Here are five things I learned.
Use the light. Where are the sun, the clouds, the shadows, my lens, and the bird? In a photo of a downy woodpecker, I see a sequel to days of rain, sleet, grey, and snow: a soft, bright, translucent light that cherishes every feather. Time flies – and so do birds. When the light is good, every moment counts.
Keep your focus. I scan the brush, trees, water, and sky, and look for motion, flight, ripples, or a splash. When I began, I deluded myself that stepping softly might allow me to come closer to birds. Now I know better. The birds see me long before I see them. Now I move quietly, stand quietly, and listen quietly to concentrate. I am looking for a bird and its eye.
Seeing patterns takes time. A great blue heron, a great egret, and a belted kingfisher each toss a fish in the air before swallowing it. Each bird wants its fish headfirst so the bones can slide down its gullet. It took months for me to recognize the pattern. It took more months before I saw that birds engage in aerial combat over prey one captured and another wants. Recognizing migrations took me years. To see a roost or nest to which a bird returns after I spook it, or the circuit a bird traces and retraces, may take me hours. Seeing the patterns brings better odds of making a photograph I want.
Look around you. Sanibel Island, Florida, and its Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, sparked my passion for photographing birds. Sydney, Cairnes, Port Douglas, Darwin, and Kakadu National Park confirmed it. My admiring comment about birds on Oahu brought a veteran birder’s gentle response: “You’ve got some pretty nice birds where you are, too.” He meant, “You’re clueless.” He was right. I had to go to Oahu to start to see my backyard. Pileated woodpeckers, northern flickers, downy woodpeckers, barred owls, brown thrashers, brown cowbirds, American goldfinches, Carolina wrens, robins, cardinals, house finches, starlings, and sparrows of endless variety all pass through.
Photos recall memories that put things in perspective. Editing my pics from an outing shows me the bad (some), the mediocre (most), and the memorable (one in maybe ten thousand). Regardless of quality, the images hone my eye for next time. They bring me back to the light, the focus, the patterns, and the setting. When things are grey, bad, or ugly, a memorable image, like a memorable melody, can conjure up a magical reminder. There is more than this moment. There was that moment. With luck, time, patience, and a willingness to look, there will be again.
For a look at some of David Cohen’s incredible photography, click here!