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Bird-Lore/Volume 01/No. 1/The Camera as an Aid in the Study of Birds

< Bird-Lore‎ | Volume 01‎ | No. 1

The Camera as an Aid in the Study of Birds

BY DR. THOS. S. ROBERTS

Director, Department of Birds, Natural History Survey of Minnesota.

With photographs from Nature, by the Author.

ANYONE having an earnest interest in both natural history and photography can find no more delightful and profitable way of spending leisure hours than by prying into the secrets of Dame Nature with an instrument capable of furnishing such complete and truthful information as the camera. Delightful and fascinating, because it not only gives worthy purpose and charming zest to all outing trips, but yields results that tell in no uncertain way of things and incidents that it would be well nigh impossible to preserve in any other manner. There is no department of nature-study in which the camera cannot be turned to excellent account, and while records of lasting and scientific value are being made, the devotee of amateur photography has at the same time full scope for the study of his art. What may, perhaps, be considered the greatest value, albeit an unrecognized one, of the present wide-spread camera craze, is the development of a love for the beautiful and artistic which may result, and along the line of study here suggested may surely be found abundant material to stimulate in the highest degree these qualities. Too much time is spent and too much effort expended by the average ‘kodaker’ in what has been aptly termed " reminiscent photography," the results being of but momentary interest and of no particular value to anybody.

In the present and subsequent articles, it is intended to illustrate by pictures actually taken in the field by the veriest tyro in the art of photography, what may be accomplished by any properly equipped amateur in the way of securing portraits of our native birds in their wild state and amid their natural surroundings. Supplemental to such portraits are the more easily taken photographs of the nests, eggs, young, and natural haunts of each species; the whole graphically depicting the most interesting epoch in the life-history of any bird. Words alone fail to tell the story so clearly, so beautifully, and so forcibly. And, best of all, this can be accomplished without carrying bloodshed and destruction into the ranks of our friends the birds; for we all love to call the birds our friends, yet some of us are not, I fear, always quite friendly in our dealings with them. To take their pictures and pictures of their homes is a peaceful and harmless sort of invasion of their domains, and the results in most cases are as satisfactory and far-reaching as to bring home as trophies lifeless bodies and despoiled habitations, to be stowed away in cabinets where dust and insects and failing interest soon put an end to their usefulness. It is not intended, of course, to reflect in any way upon the establishment of orderly and well-directed collections, for such are absolutely necessary to the very existence of the science of ornithology. To such collections the great body of amateur bird students should turn

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CHICKADEE AT NEST-HOLE, WITH FOOD FOR YOUNG

for the close examinations necessary to familiarize themselves with the principles of classification and the distinctions between closely related species. Indeed, it is impossible for anyone to be intelligently informed as to the many varieties of birds, and their wonderful seasonal changes of plumage, without having actually handled specimens.

The growth of avian photography has been of short duration,—only a few years in this country and not much longer in England, where it seems to have had its inception. But there are already one or two good books dealing with the subject; and a goodly number of ornithological works of recent date, and especially the pages of the journal literature of the day, bear excellent testimony to the merit and beauty of this method of securing bird pictures. Attention, however, has thus far been directed chiefly to obtaining illustrations of nests and eggs and captive birds, to the neglect of the more difficult but more interesting occupation of securing photographs of live birds in their wild state. Herein lies the chief fascination of this branch of photography, for good photographs from life of any of our birds, even the most common, are still novelties.

The successful bird photographer must possess a good camera, including a first-class lens, with at least an elementary knowledge of how to get the best results from it; some acquaintance with field and forest and their feathered inhabitants, and a fund of patience, perseverance, and determination to conquer that is absolutely inexhaustible. No matter how well equipped in other respects, this latter requisite cannot be dispensed with. As to the technique and many details of the art of photography, the writer is still too much of a novice to speak very intelligently. Suffice it to say, that the general principles governing other branches of photography are to be consulted here. One great difficulty to be encountered is that there is little opportunity to arrange the lighting or background of the object to be photographed, and as the latter is apt to be either green foliage or the dull ground, with the camera very near the object, the beginner will be much perplexed to determine the proper stop and the right time of exposure. With the usual appliances a wide open stop will be found necessary with the rapid exposure required, and this will detract in a disappointing manner from the beauty of the negative as a whole. But every determined student will try in his or her own way to lessen these defects, and will find in failure only increased incentive to discover better methods and better appliances. Cameras and lenses especially devised for this kind of work are promised in the near future. A rapid telephoto lens is a great desideratum, and there is reason to believe that in the near future such an one will be available. Those to be had at present increase the time of exposure too much to be generally useful in bird work. The writer has used a 4x5 long-focus ‘Premo’ with Bausch and Lomb Rapid Rectilinear lens (Zeiss-Anastigmat, Series II-A, 4¼ × 6½), the focal length of the combination being about 6¼ inches. Many kinds of plates have been used, but any good rapid plate will do. For those who are willing to take the additional care necessary to handle them successfully, rapid isochromatic or orthochromatic plates are undoubtedly to be preferred, as they preserve quite clearly the color values.


A consideration of the actual field difficulties, rather than the more purely photographic problems to be encountered, is more within the scope of the present paper. To this end a rather detailed account is given of just how each of the following groups of photographs was secured, hoping that others better equipped, with a better knowledge of photography, and with more leisure, may be encouraged to go and do likewise and present us with the results.

One of the greatest of these field difficulties is that the camera is rarely focused upon the bird to be taken, but is either snapped at random or focused upon some spot to which the bird is expected to return. The latter, in the great majority of cases, is the nest; at other times a much-used perching-place or feeding-ground. Success depends, therefore, very largely upon the nature, disposition, and habits, especially nesting habits, of the particular bird being dealt with. Some birds are of a confiding, unsuspicious nature, and easily reconciled to quiet intrusion ; while others are so timid and wary that hours of time have to be expended, and all sorts of devices resorted to, in order to get the coveted ‘snap.’ Of the risk of life and limb necessary to reach rocky cliff and lofty tree-dwelling species, the recital must come from such daring and fearless devotees of this art as the Kearton brothers of England, and others nearer home.

The nest being the lure usually employed to bring the bird within range of the camera, it will follow that the nesting season is the time of year when most of this work must be done. Thus, spring and early summer are the harvest time of the bird photographer, and as it happens that these, of all the seasons, are the most delightful in which to be afield, the bird - lover, with glass, camera, and note-book, can leave care behind and find contentment, rest, and peaceful profit in the glorious days of June, so happily styled the rarest of all that come.

Leaving general considerations, let us first study a series of photographs that well illustrates what charming and dainty little pictures can sometimes be secured with most trifling effort. Success in this instance was easily attained because the little ' sitters ' were not very unwilling and because the conditions under which they lived were more than usually favorable. The subject of these photographs, the little Black-capped Chickadee, or Titmouse,—Panus atricapillus, the scientists call him,—is familiarly known to almost every one who has given even casual attention to birds. Its generally common occurrence throughout the United States, cheery, happy disposition, and lively notes as the little band, for they usually travel in companies, goes roaming through woodland and

copse, endears it to all. All through the long, dreary winter, with its short days and perpetual snow and ice, they are the same sprightly, contended little fellows, and refreshing it is to meet and visit with them at such times as they come ‘chick-a-de-dee’-ing right into our very presence in their familiar, confiding way.

CHICKADEE LEAVING NEST

Springtime finds them with a mellow, long-drawn love whistle of two notes and thoughts of home and home like things. Soon,

down by the lake or brook-side, or in some moist woodland glade, where birch and willow trunks long since dead and soft with age stand sheltered among the growing trees, the little Black-cap and his chosen mate pick out a cozy retreat. This, perhaps, is some deserted Wood-pecker den. decayed knothole, or more often it is a burrow of their own making, and here they assume the delights and cares of wedded life. A snug, warm nest of rabbit's hair or fern down is quickly built, and in this softest of beds the five or six rosy white, finely speckled little eggs are laid. Before very many days, eight or ten at most, the old stump exhibits unmistakable signs of being animated within, and in a wonderfully short time the little nestlings are as large as their parents, and full, indeed, is this family domicile. Owing to the cleanly habits and care of the old birds, the dresses of the youngsters are cleaner and brighter than those of their hard-worked, food-carrying parents. It was just at this stage in their progress that the little family, whose portraits are here shown, was discovered one late June day, snugly ensconced within the crumbling trunk of a long since departed willow tree. With a bird-loving companion, Mr. Leslie O. Dart, the writer was drifting idly in a little boat through one of the many channels of the Mississippi river, which cut up into innumerable islands, the heavily wooded bottomland of eastern Houston county, Minnesota. Being in search of the nests of numerous Prothonotary Warblers, which were flashing hither and thither across the channel, we skirted the shore closely, tapping on all likely-looking stubs.

Now the tapping brought to view a Downy Woodpecker, then a beautiful Golden Swamp Warbler: sometimes unexpectedly a great gray mouse scrambled out and plunged boldly into the water beneath; but this time the blow was followed by a subdued hum from within, and an inquiring, anxious parent Chickadee appeared suddenly on the scene, joined in a moment by a second, and we had the family complete. It was near noon, the sun was shining brightly, the hole was on the water side of the stub in the light, and we had no Chickadee pictures; so we camped at once and prepared to ‘do’ the situation. A little investigation showed the nest to be too high for setting up the camera satisfactorily, as the tripod legs sank deep in the mud and water. But our kit included a saw for just such an emergency, and sawing off the soft stub at the proper height, it was lowered gently until the hole came just on a level with the camera, placed horizontally and at a distance of about three feet. Propped with a forked stick, it rested quite securely on the soft bottom. This was better than tipping the camera and employing the ‘swing back,’ as the sun was nearly overhead. After focusing carefully on the opening in the stub, attaching to the camera fifty feet of small rubber tubing with large bulb, in place of the usual short tube and small bulb, setting carefully the trigger and other accessories of our harmless gun, and covering the whole camera with a hood of rough green cloth, the lens alone visible, we retreated to a convenient vantage point among the small willows close by. But a few minutes elapsed before the old birds were on the spot peering at us and the big green object from all sides. In an incredibly short space of time, considering the great liberties that had been taken with their habitation and door yard, they became resigned, and one of the birds, which we assumed to be the female, flew straight to the stub, and, with a last suspicious glance at the great glistening eye so near at hand, disappeared into the hole with a large brown worm in her bill. But that momentary delay was the looked-for opportunity, and all-sufficient; for with a quick squeeze of the bulb, click went the shutter, and in the twenty-fifth of a second the bird was ours; shot without so much as knowing it, without indeed the ruffling of a feather or the drawing of a drop of blood, and preserved lifelike and true to nature for all time to come.

From this time on the birds came and went without hesitation, the only serious delays in our operations being due to the drifting clouds, which now and then obscured the sun and rendered the light too weak for the rapid exposures necessary. One of the birds, the one we took to be the female, was a little more courageous

than the other, and it is her picture that appears oftenest. The timid one,—the male,—even went so far on several occasions as to himself devour the worm he had brought rather than trust himself at close quarters with the unknown enemy, although his mate was at the time coming and going industriously and keeping the little folk well supplied with the great larvae. Surely personal traits and individuality are quite as well marked in the bird world as higher

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YOUNG CHICKADEES.

in the scale I After we had made several more exposures similar to the first, one of the best of which shows the bird, worm-laden as before, balanced on the edge of the hole and taking the usual last look at the camera, we turned our attention to catching her as she was coming out. This required quicker cooperation between eye and hand, as the exit was generally made with a dash; but the accompanying picture, with head just emerging, will show that we were fairly successful.

Having concluded from all indications, chief among which was the immense number of huge caterpillars carried in to the young,

that the latter must be fairly grown, we decided to expose the nest and complete our collection by securing the entire family. So carefully sawing away the front wall of the cavity with a keyhole saw carried for just such purposes, we gave the little fellows within their first view of the outside world. I fear they must have thought the manner of opening their second shell a rather rude one, and the outlook somewhat forbidding. They were pretty little youngsters, fully grown, with clean, jaunty coats, and a grown-up ‘chickadee-dee,’ just like the old folks. Though somewhat dazzled at first by the sudden flood of bright sunlight, they were, after a little coaxing, induced to sit out on the veranda that had been improvised for them; but, like youthful sitters generally, they were hard to pose, and after many exposures, we succeeded in getting no more than two of them at once. The prettiest one of all, showing two of the little fellows as they finally settled down contentedly in the warm sunshine, was obtained at the expense of much patient effort and a great deal of slushing back and forth in mud and water between boat and camera, and it was gratifying to find that one at least of the negatives did fair justice to the situation.

The old ones came and went after the mutilation of their home, just as before, and, indeed, apparently found the new arrangement much more convenient than the old. In one of the photographs

CHICKADEE FEEDING YOUNG

here presented, domestic affairs that had before been entirely concealed from view are fully revealed, and had not the plate been light struck by one of the many aggravating accidents likely to occur in the outdoor work of the beginner, the picture would have been the best of the series. The courageous parent is attending to her maternal duties under circumstances which must appear most appalling. The little fellow sitting so contentedly by has undoubtedly had his share of the huge juicy caterpillars, and patiently recognizes that it is not his turn.

(To be concluded)