Thinking Like a Bird

Thinking like a bird isn’t being a bird brain… but rather attempting to put ourselves inside the thought process of an avian subject. Observing a bird in an openminded manner sometimes allows us to gain a deeper sense of what it is going to do. What is making it anxious. Or aggressive. Or feeling connected to a decision that it is pondering.

Earlier this week my wife spotted a raptor in one of our backyard trees. Since this is a rare backyard occurrence I grabbed a camera with the objective of capturing some images of it taking flight.

Sometimes we get so focused on a subject bird and our photographic goal that we can become oblivious to the environment in which the bird is immersed. And, we can miss a host of subtle movements and reactions that can help us understand our subject bird in more depth.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 @ 321 mm, efov 642 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, full frame capture, subject distance 14.7 metres

Our feathered visitor was in no hurry to leave. I kept looking for the typical signals that it was going to take flight. Waiting for my shot was akin to a track athlete tensed in their blocks focused on hearing the starting pistol. That level of concentration can only be sustained for a limited amount of time. At least with my old, porous brain.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, full frame capture, subject distance 14.9 metres

As I waited for the raptor to take flight photographic boredom soon set in. Rather than remaining focused on my photographic goal, I found myself studying the raptor for the sheer joy of observing nature. It was only at that point that I really started seeing the raptor. Even when staying on the same perch, birds are incredibly vigilant, continuously scouring their surroundings.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 @ 292 mm, efov 584 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, full frame capture, subject distance 14.8 metres

The raptor’s gaze was moving constantly as the bird reacted to different stimuli in the environment. Thinking like a bird began to take on a deeper meaning. Existing in nature is a life and death struggle every day. Lapses in awareness can end a life.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 @ 276 mm, efov 552 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, full frame capture, subject distance 14.5 metres

Thinking like a bird allowed me to be more aware of the branch structure of the tree. Sounds and movements in the immediate environment. I actually thought, “Where is my safest flight path? Should I launch and glide out from my perch? Or, immediately push off upward and extend my wings?” It felt a bit odd to ask myself questions as if I was the raptor… but the answers were immediate and crystal clear.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 @ 292 mm, efov 584 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, full frame capture, subject distance 14.8 metres

I understood the flight path the raptor would take. I knew it would launch and glide and not attempt to take flight immediately. Moments before it went into its pre-flight crouch I could sense that it had decided to take flight.

I focused my single AF point on the raptor’s head and began spooling Pro Capture H images into temporary memory. A split second later the raptor went into its pre-launch crouch… then took flight using the anticipated flight path and gliding exit motion.

Here are 12 consecutive photographs from my Pro Capture H image run. All of them were captured in a total of 1/5 of a second. They were Mother Nature’s gift to me for the 25 minutes I spent observing the raptor and thinking like a bird.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, full frame capture, subject distance 14.2 metres
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, full frame capture, subject distance 14.2 metres
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, full frame capture, subject distance 14.2 metres
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, full frame capture, subject distance 14.2 metres
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, full frame capture, subject distance 14.2 metres
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, full frame capture, subject distance 14.2 metres
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, full frame capture, subject distance 14.2 metres
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, full frame capture, subject distance 14.2 metres
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, full frame capture, subject distance 14.2 metres
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, full frame capture, subject distance 14.2 metres
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, full frame capture, subject distance 14.2 metres
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, full frame capture, subject distance 14.2 metres

It is true that the camera gear that we use can make a difference to the results that we achieve. It is also true that that we can get fixated on camera gear, and overlook how important it is to spend time studying and understanding our subjects. Our photographic opportunities can be fleeting.  Thinking like a bird can help us convert those opportunities into images.

Technical Note:

Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. All Pro Capture H photographs were captured using my standard settings for this mode: 60 frames-per-second, single AF point, Pre-Shutter Frames and Frame Limited both set to 15. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard approach in post.  Images were resized for web use. This is the 1,197 article published on this website since its original inception in 2015.

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4 thoughts on “Thinking Like a Bird”

  1. Sometimes you need to just sit and be to really see.

    I read somewhere to not take your camera on your hikes every time because it can cause you not to notice some things as it puts you into a different thinking mode.

    1. Hi Joni,

      I agree that there are significant benefits to just sitting and observing. I find that I do this very often so I can understand subject behaviours, then develop a corresponding photographic approach. I also like to pause and try to take everything in visually. This often leads to noticing areas of high contrast, colour combinations, and foreground elements.

      Tom

  2. Hey Tom
    Good post as usual with interesting observations. I have a great book called “What it’s Like to be a Bird” by David Allen Sibley. This excellent book is written on this subject which you study so much. If you have not read it and have a chance to get it, It is well worth a read for those of us that study or photograph birds.
    Joel

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