Thursday, 7 July 2016

Pertinent perches are paramount

Pursuing pertinent perches.

There are few articles on bird photography that features perches. What is so important about the stick that birds or other species, sit on? In my opinion it almost has equal importance to the bird itself and is like the director of the production in that it can provide clarity and direction.

Photographers pursue birds with expensive lenses and camera for several reasons;
1.     Recording the species in an area.
2.     Getting clear shots of particular species for publications
3.     Getting behavior or action shots….possibly for competition.

In all three of the above cases we want the bird as clearly presented as possible and that means clear of leaves and twigs or other distracting features including those in the background.

You really want the bird on a nice looking perch with no distracting elements in the background

To improve your images the following article highlights the power of;



My non-birding mammal- and reptile-seeking friend is not keen on placing perches but I deem it to be necessary and it is non-invasive, non detrimental to the well-being of wild animals. It is simply designed to enable unobstructed photography and is likely useful to the target species.


In the field
When I approach a possible birding situation on the edge of a forest I look for a clearing and in particular identify perches with a good background….in case a bird lands on it. If you don’t have any good perches apparent in your viewing area you are not going to get any good shots.

Two particular occasions are illustrated below. In the first a Crested Serpent Eagle was observed sitting on a favoured perch, a  tree protruding from a forest remnant. I moved to a position that was favourable for the light when a crow started mobbing the eagle, which is not an uncommon event. This elevated my shot from a portrait to an action shot

While shooting in a particular location at Fraser's Hill I had noted a fern tree and mentally lined it up to get a nice background. Later I noticed a Verditer Flycatcher was perched on a frond....I knew exactly where I had to move to get a nice shot.

On as second occasion in the same location a pair of Grey-chinned Minivets landed on a fern frond. These little birds are hyperactive but again having spotted the possibility I knew where to move to in order to get the shot I wanted.

Habitual perches
Various species like sitting on favourite perches and it is paramount to identify some of these perches to get that clear shot. In North Eastern Australia the Victoria's Riflebird males like to display to females on chosen perches. This is illustrated below with a male giving a vocal rendition on the stump of a palm tree near Lake Eachem in the Atherton Tablelands, Northern Queensland

Kingfishers of most species have favoured perches and tend to go back to those at various times, especially when hunting or fishing.

Stork-billed Kingfisher

Collared Kingfisher

Black-capped Kingfisher

Rollers (below a Lilac-breasted Roller) are part of the Kingfisher family and they too have favourite perches. They can normally be approached to get the right light and background

 Another African bird, the Yellow-throated Spurfowl likes to perform mating rituals from prominent perches

Shrikes have several favourite perches. This juvenile Tiger Shrike liked to look at its surroundings from this particular perch.

Bowerbirds are famous for their display rituals set around a Bower. The most perch-oriented Bower-bird is the Tooth-billed Bowerbird. The male clears the forest floor in an area and places upturned leaves on the cleared patch and sings loudly for a favoured perch to woo females.

The Spotted Catbird is a Bowerbird without a bower but it does prefer particular perches or display posts in it's domain

Another Bowerbird, the Golden Bowerbird has an elaborate bower but has favourite perches around the bower watching out for desirable females.

Songbirds also like to sit on tall perches and vocalize. In the case below a male Olive-backed Sunbird was seen to sit on a particular high perch regularly in the early morning.

Again with sunbirds I had identified flowering plants they liked to visit. I picked a flower with nice light and background and waited for the bird to do his rounds.

Flowers are also the natural perches for Masked Flower-piercers that puncture the flowers from underneath to steal their nectar.

The following 3 images all have something in common. All are on natural perches where the perch was identified before patiently waiting for a bird to occupy the space.

I had noticed Green-billed Malkohas many times in this location but it was usually intertwined with the vegetation. There was one small branch at the top of a tree that was free of obstructions when on one occasion I saw my target bird in the clear on that perch. I maneuvered my vehicle to get in position to get a shot when as luck would have it another bird appeared and some sort of display occurred. The perch has since succumbed to the ravages of the weather and is no more.

Raptors also have their favourite perches especially those near their nest. The image below shows a Changeable Hawk-eagle near its nesting tree.

The same scenario occurs on the Maasai Mara with Eagles such as the Tawny Eagle where trees are relatively scarce on the savannah

Perches relating to nesting sites
Nesting concentrates a bird activities to a particular location. Often various perches in the location are favourites and this can lead to clear shooting opportunities, at all times remembering the welfare of the subject is paramount.

Silver-breasted Broadbills when building a nest will perch often in the same location

Great Hornbill males will always perch on the same place when feeding their mate and chicks inside the nest


White-fronted Bee-eaters in South Africa are community nesters and will congregate on the few available perches near the nesting bank.

This Black and Red Broadbill pair were nesting on a fishermans mooring pole in the middle of an ox-bow lake in Sabah. The location made angling to get the light and background alignment easy as there was space in 360 degrees around the pole.

This pair of Striated Pardelotes were nesting in a hole in a tree in Tasmania. The adults tended to perch after feeding on this adjacent branch stump.

Unusual perches
Some birds use other living animals as perches. Oxpeckers provide a service for large animals in Africa and can be seen on anything from Giraffes to Cape Buffalo.

Some cheeky hummingbirds make use of the long bills of their compatriots to get a feeding advantage

Common Loon chicks are famous for employing their parents as the perch of choice. Well it is Canada and the ice and snow have just retreated.

Cheetahs are well known for using perches and it makes them much more photographable. They like sitting on termite mounds to look out for potential prey and it lifts them nicely above the omnipresent grass (never go to Kenya until the lawnmowers....the grazers have been through).

                                   JUDICIOUSLY PROVIDING PERCHES

Home feeders
In Northern America and Europe where it snows during winter months many folk set up home feeders and suitable perches for dependent bird species. 

These situations are prime for getting detail on images of the various species. Workshops are offered by some professionals who have mastered placement of the perches and how to induce various species to land on them. Alan Murphy is a leader in this art. Website here. Another of the masters of this technique is an Australian Greg Oakley and his images have a great clarity and WoW factor. Website here. While this type of image is sought by Image libraries I believe they don't reflect what is generally seen in the natural world.

Added perches are necessary for clear images.

Tunnel nesting birds
I have a local situation where a rarely used motocross track is used for 6 months of the year by several species of tunnel-nesting birds. The main species concerned are two species of Bee-eaters; the Chestnut-headed and the Blue-throated and the White-throated Kingfishers.

I noted some years ago that Bee-eaters will catch insects and sit on tall trees some distance from their nest. If provided with a perch quite close to the nest they will use that instead. In essence you are taking advantage of a perch desert to get the bird to sit where you want it.
I can drive my SUV around the field and can align perches so they are ideally placed to the sun direction and with a good background.

I use a 500mm lens with a 1.4x extender that helps blur the background. The same set-up works for Kingfishers but you have to have luck to get them with the right ‘personality’. I have photographed a pair that don’t mind the car nearby whereas another pair in the vicinity are very coy.

The Bee-eaters are very tolerant of vehicles, which are ideal hides. These species really like a perch within 20 feet of their nest hole. You cannot use bait with these birds as they only prey on flying insects.

With the Kingfishers they will forage the trees and fields for prey which includes frogs, insects and lizards. When they are feeding mature chicks they are grateful for provided frogs which are a local species caught by young boys.

Without provided perches you will not get clear images of these species. They sit higher up and are often concealed by annoying twigs or moth-eaten leaves. 

Below is a collection of behavioural images that would not have been possible without the use of introduced perches

What perches.
I have a collection of perches in my carport I add to or subtract from on a regular basis. Perches should be medium to dark without any light and distracting elements.

I carry a kit of tools for erecting perches in any suitable location. These essentials are; 
Manfrotto light stands
cable ties
Pointed stakes
Rubber mallet
Small Bungee cords

The adjustable light stands are particularly useful for the following reasons; (a) A sturdy base which can be used on concrete or sun scorched dry fields plus height adjustment.

(b) A screw to secure the branch and a moveable and lockable joint to angle the perch to suit.

Here it is in action with 5 bee-eaters sitting on the perch

or with the 500mm lens plus 1,4 extender.

Vertical perches...that Kingfishers prefer can be secured by driving a pointed stake into the ground and securing the perch by cable ties.

Here it is in action

Having discussed the mechanics of the perches it is relevant to give some examples of images that would not have been possible without such perch positioning.

(a) Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters

The perch does not have to be a stick

(b) Blue-throated Bee-eaters

(c) White-throated Kingfishers

Flight shots to and from perches
Another source of action shots derives from a bird leaving from or returning to an added perch. The direction of the flight is generally predictable and this enables the camera to be set up to freeze action as soon as it occurs.

Here is the positioning I use for such shots. I position my SUV in optimum position to use the strong sunlight and I make sure I have a pleasant but blurred background. The Kingfishers when they catch prey will fly to the tall central tree and fly to the nest hole. I found by erecting a perch nearer the hole that 70% of the time they will use this. This makes action photography easier as the flight line is more predicable.

Forest birds.
At a place like Fraser’s Hill a number of forest birds come into certain places like car-parks, where the light have been on all night, to prey on moths attracted to the lights. These species weave in and out of the vegetation but can be lured with into the open with mealworms. It is desirable to use small branches as perches or mossy rocks if available.


Examples of perch placement

The following are examples where perches have been use to get a clear shot of a particular species.

Red-eyed Tree Frogs
A beautiful frog species found in central America. These images were shot in Ecuador and although the perches are natural and the frogs are unrestrained they were brought together briefly for these colourful images.

Splendid Fairy-wrens
Fairy wrens generally are an interesting and often abundant species in Australia and have been widely studied. The males develop vibrant breeding colour but can be induced onto textural perches with the judicious use of mealworms

Pittas are colourful birds of the forest floor. Especially when they are feeding chicks they will pursue food placed in selected locations. Natural perches are used or branches were placed strategically
Playback is often used but I doubt the use and it generally is a general dinner gong for other perceptive species in the area.

Blue-winged Pittas

Banded Pittas (male on right)
Little Terns
This species nests in some restricted areas in Singapore. When the chicks fledge they are still dependent on the parents to deliver food usually via air mail. To speed up feeding the chicks will sit on the edge of the waterway where the parents are catching fish. In this case the chick was sitting on a railing. To give a more natural look a granite rock was sourced and provided the chick with a stable and more natural-looking perch.

Unexpected visitors
Often the perch is set up for a particular species when another takes advantage of the situation.
Plaintive Cuckoos are quite ubiquitous in the area I shoot the Bee-eaters but you seldom see them..until they land on Bee-eater perches.

Paddyfield Pipits are always present on wasteland and although mainly ground dwellers they like to look around from a loftier perch.

Hyperactive but diminutive the Himalayan Striped Squirrels are present in many places in Fraser's Hill and can make use of perches of set-up for forest birds.

In essence identifying natural perches where species frequent or placing perches adds clarity to images. Without such knowledge none of the images presented in this blog would be possible and they include a number of award-winning images.

I think the perch should be relatively unobtrusive, should be all in focus (I don't like out-of-focus parts to perches) and care should be taken with the background when placing the perch.

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