Car-Bird Hide

Recently I was fortunate enough to see and photograph two species of birds known for their shyness, at least here in my home State of South Australia.  I had spent countless hours before that, trudging through muddy, swampy ground, watching and trying to get close too, these birds.

At times I was lying on my stomach in foul smelling mud hoping that the little devils would land close enough to me to snap a shot or two.  They often did come quite close, but it was nearly always when I wasn’t expecting it.  I managed a few images, but they were not the best I’d ever taken.

My next thought was a portable bird hide.  I found an excellent location for it; amongst a grove of stubby trees alongside the stubby salt and bluebush that the birds called home.  For two weeks I didn’t miss a day in that hide and I did take some photographs – over 100 in fact.  Out of them all, only one made the grade.  The rest were not quite good enough, although I did manage 3 shots of a fox that didn’t get the hint even after I had politely coughed to let him know I was there.

I was therefore extremely surprised when, driving slowly along a gravel back road, I saw my target species, along with another species, sitting quietly on a wire fence, not more than a couple of metres apart.  I stopped and watched for a minute or so, and the birds didn’t move, except for the occasional wing flap or preening.

White-fronted ChatCredit: Steven Pike

I removed the camera from its bag, set up the bean bag on the cars window frame, and rattled off a few shots.  I was very happy with them as I was quite close.  The birds seemed very relaxed, so I backed the car up, and then drove forward, this time stopping about 4 metres from the birds.  I looked up and was shocked to see one of the birds had been joined by its mate, and the other was still sitting there.  I took lots of photos then, and some I was really happy with.  The birds did move a couple of times during this ten minute period, but not very far.  They hopped down amongst the bluebush and then returned to their perch on the wire.  Both species have similar diets, so I assume they were sharing a common food source.

Since that day, I have returned to this area, and have managed photographs of quite a number of species, all taken from the car.  It seems the vehicle makes an effective bird hide.  The birds obviously notice the vehicle and will move off if you drive too fast or too close.  However, they are quick to return to what they were doing if you remain still in the vehicle.  The birds seem to be quite tolerant of the vehicle.

I have tried approaching these same birds on foot, as is my usual practice, but I do not get anywhere near as close to them as I did in the car.

The best method is to drive through the area, or along the road, as slowly as you can.  When you see a bird perched, slow the vehicle even more and stop a few metres from the bird.  Keep noise from the car to a minimum (turn off the radio – that seems to make a difference), and keep movements slow and controlled.  Slowly move your camera into the shooting position and keep it there whilst you are in position.  If the bird does not take flight immediately it will likely remain still long enough for you to take a few shots.  The birds of prey are an exception to this; they seem to be extremely cautious, but, even then, you will get much closer than you would if you were on foot.

Keep still as long as you can.  The birds really do seem to relax which may allow you to capture some natural behaviour in your photos. 

Cars also work quite well near water.  If possible to park near the water’s edge, remaining patient will often see the waders returning to the area and even moving between your vehicle and the water. 

Another proven method when using your car as a makeshift bird hide is to stake out a likely roosting place for birds, such as a bare branch or dead tree, and wait for the birds to come to you.  I was lucky enough to stumble across such a spot.  There is a large dead tree overhanging a small dam.  The dirt verge of the road runs parallel to this area and only about 5 metres from it.  It is situated in the corner of a farmer’s paddock.  Across the road from, and directly adjoining, this same paddock is acres of Conservation Park.

Early morning and late afternoon, it is possible to sit and watch an incredible diversity of bird life come to drink at this small water source, especially in the warmer months.  The local wildlife is also quite fond of this spot.  Late afternoon is best, as the direction of the light is far more suitable for photography.

If employing this technique, especially in rarely visited areas, it is best to arrive well before prime watering times otherwise you may disturb the birds and prevent them from drinking.

If intending to take photographs from your vehicle, make sure you are prepared before you see your first bird and pull over.  Have the window down and your camera set and ready to go on the seat next to you.  Use a bean bag, or even a rolled up shirt or jumper, to steady your camera on the window frame. 

Bird photography from a vehicle is not ideal.  It is restrictive and it is not often that the bird will be on the same level as your camera.  Shots from above or below the bird are not preferable.  There are times though, that you will be pleasantly surprised how effective your car can be as a bird hide.  Take advantage of it.