8.8 Planning a Bird Photography Trip

While many birders and bird photographers are entirely content to observe and photograph their favorite feathered friends in their  local parks and back yards, most bird enthusiasts will jump at the chance to visit a renowned birding destination in a remote location—whenever it’s both financially and practically feasible to do so.   For those who’ve never been on a serious bird photography trip, however, there are a number of useful tips that can help to make your  trip more productive and enjoyable, and hopefully to reduce the chance of an unforeseen mishap or planning error.  In this section we’ll very briefly survey some common-sense tips to keep in mind when planning your trip, and when you’re on location at the remote site.

8.8.1 Sources of Information

The first quandary is, of course, where to find the information you need in order to most effectively plan your trip.  In the absence of any other sources of info, your first choice should be Google.  Start with very specific searches such as
<site> bird photography (for example, everglades bird photography), and if these produce only meager results then fall back on more general searches based on just the site name and perhaps additional terms such as nature or wildlife.  For many sites you’ll be able to track down a park map showing trails and landmarks.  Try to find (via Google) any blogs or photo albums posted by amateur or professional photographers related to the site, to find out which parts of the site tend to be most productive for wildlife photography.  See if there are any photo blinds (small shacks with holes for photographing through while remaining unseen by nervous wildlife).  Search at flickr.com for photo albums having the site name in their title.  See if there are any banding stations nearby (you can find these by searching for banders blogs via Google); the people manning these stations can be great sources of information.  See if you can harvest any email addresses of photographers, birders, naturalists, or park rangers who have been to or even frequent the site, and send them a friendly email asking for any tips they may have about seeing and getting close to the birds at the site.  If they reply, thank them graciously and then file their email address away in case you come up with any specific and very pressing questions that you need to have answered before you leave for your trip.  If you’re lucky you may make friends with someone who lives locally near the site, who can appraise you of the changing situation at the site from year to year as you plan repeated visits.  These latter information sources are to be cherished and rewarded richly with your sincerest thanks and many lavish gifts!
    Once you’ve arrived at the site, be sure to put yourself in your most sociable and amicable mood.  Think of yourself as a CIA operative preparing to begin recruiting informants on the ground in enemy territory.  What types of secrets might your informants harbor that could be useful to your campaign?  Do not underestimate the value of the potential information that you might be able to extract from cooperative locals.  Remember that they live there, day after day after day, and you’re only a short-term visitor.  They almost certainly have information that could be useful to you.  As just one example, when I was photographing Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia) in Florida, a local resident walked by and informed me that she knew of a better site a block away where the owls tend to spend much more time above-ground than did the individual birds I was stalking.  She knew this because she jogged around the neighborhood every afternoon, whereas I had been in town a total of three days.  She had observed these birds every day for months, and therefore had information of great value to me.  Following her advice, I packed up my equipment and went in search of this other nest.  When I found the other nest I immediately saw that she was right: whereas the birds I had been observing stayed low down in the tall grass, the birds at this new site spent more time perched higher up on substrates where I could get much better photos.  The moral of the story is: respect the locals and their potential to provide what could be extremely valuable intelligence for your photographic campaign.

Fig. 8.8.1: Don’t underestimate the value of local residents for providing useful
information.  When trying to shoot burrowing owls in Florida, a local jogger
informed me of a nearby nest in which the birds were more cooperative than
at the nest I was currently working.  I followed her advice and ended up
getting much better photos at the second nest site as a result.

    Be especially nice to every photographer you meet at the site.  For well-established sites you’ll often find that there’s a group of photographers who visit the site annually, some of whom will possess the accumulated knowledge of years’ worth of trips to this very site.  If you’re nice enough you may find that one or more of them take a liking to you and will share their best secrets regarding the ideal places, times, and techniques to use within the site to obtain the best photographs. 
    Even park rangers can sometimes be good sources of information.  Those who spend all of their time in a toll booth or behind a desk as the visitor’s center are probably less (than) useful, but those who actually hike the trails every day often know quite a lot about things like the current locations of active bird nests, etc.  Just keep in mind that as non-photographers their advice on where to see birds in the park may not take into account your need to get close enough or to see the bird from an aesthetic angle.

8.8.2 Scheduling

For many birding destinations, there is an ideal time of the year to be there, and in the wrong season you may find that a given site is so unproductive for your photography goals that you end up wishing you hadn’t made the trip.  For example, Magee Marsh in northern Ohio can be an absolute nirvana for warbler lovers during the peak of spring migration (around the middle of May at that location), but virtually dead at other times of the year.  At other locations the issue may be less related to the timing of bird movements and more related to practical issues such as the growth of foliage (which can obviously impede efforts to get clear shots of birds without intervening leaves), the weather (e.g., the rainy season), or even the number of tourists present (such as at many coastal parks that attract hordes of beachgoers).  Figuring out what is the best time of year to visit a given destination shouldn’t be terribly difficult for popular bird-photography destinations.  If Google doesn’t find the information residing on some web page on the internet, a few emails to individuals (likewise found via Google) either affiliated with the site in some official capacity or at least familiar with the site (as attested by photo blogs) may be productive.
    When choosing the overall destination of your trip, consider selecting a region with diverse habitats and diverse species.  By doing so you may lessen the importance of arriving at precisely the right time, since different species in different habitats may be in different phases of their yearly schedules, and as a result you should improve the chance that there will be at least something interesting for you to see and photograph on your trip.  An example of such a location is southwest Florida.  At just about any time of year you’re likely, with a little effort, to find something interesting to photograph, though there are obviously peak times for seeing specific types of birds and activities (e.g., the shorebird migration, etc.). 
    For destinations featuring accessible nesting sites, consider spending several days at the same site, or perhaps even a week or more.  Nesting sites, especially those for small birds, can provide amazing opportunities for seeing (and photographically documenting) the rapid growth of young birds into adult-sized juveniles over a period of mere days.  Nests often serve as stages on which a vast array of bird behaviors can be observed.  Even if your photography goals are purely artistic, such a variety of behaviors will often produce a wonderful variety of poses that can lend considerable novelty to your photos.  And obviously the potential for some
wildlife photojournalism is a worthy consideration if you’re looking to write an article or produce a collection of images telling the story of a family of birds.

Fig. 8.8.2: Nest sites can be especially productive, but the timing is always
tricky.  For this owl nest, I got lucky and the chicks fledged the very day that
I was there.  If your destination features accessible bird nests, consider staying
for several days, to maximize your chances of seeing something interesting
at the nest site.  Behaviors can change significantly from day to day.

    The other important aspect of scheduling is the time-of-day component: i.e., finding out when the site opens and closes for the day (if it’s a park), how far the site is from your hotel, and how early you’ll have to wake up in order to be there at first light (or when the gates open).  Keep in mind that many (though not all) of the best bird photos are taken early in the morning or around sunset, and unfortunately there are sites that open rather late in the morning and close early in the evening.  Some such sites have special photographer packages that you can pay for, which allow you to get into the before the general public, and/or stay later in the evening.  Be sure to read the fine print for these packages, since they may require to to show up at a particular gate at a particular time, and if youre ten minutes late you may have to wait an hour or two to get in via general admission.
    When choosing a hotel, be sure to choose one as close as possible to the main site you intend to visit.  This will allow you to get to the site early in the morning and to stay as late as you need to.  On intensive shoots in spring and summer I’ve found that the long drive back to my hotel each night can severely limit the amount of time I have for downloading my images, backing up my files, buying and eating dinner, etc., and that this in turn affected how much time I had to sleep and regain my energy for the next day of hauling around my heavy gear in the hot sun for 12 hours.  Don’t underestimate the practical value of choosing a hotel closer to the site. 
    Also, if you’re a breakfast or coffee person, you may even want to consider which hotel offers a convenient route to the site that features a Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts on the way to your shoot site.  Caffeine and carbohydrates merit special consideration when your day plan includes hauling heavy gear around in the field for twelve-plus hours.  Obtaining your body’s fuel quickly allows you to dedicate more time to capturing images in whichever exotic location you’ve chosen to visit.

8.8.3 Accommodations and Pets

If, like me, the special someone in your life happens to have big, floppy ears and a wet nose, then finding a hotel that accepts
pets (I prefer the term significant other) may be important to you.  In the U.S., two popular chains that typically accept dogs are Red Roof and Travelodge.  Extra fees or deposits may be required when bringing a pet.  For long trips you’ll also need to find a local pet store to buy provisions.  Knowing where the local vets and emergency animal hospitals are located is also very wise.

Fig. 8.8.3: It’s an unfortunate fact that pets aren’t allowed to go everywhere
you are.  A few emails or phone calls may be necessary to find out where your
dog can accompany you in the field.  Make sure you have a backup plan in case
that information turns out to be wrong.

    You’ll obviously also need to find out whether your furrysignificant other is permitted to accompany you at the site of the shoot.  In many cases he or she won’t be allowed to walk the trails where the birds are located, but be sure to inquire as to whether s/he is at least permitted to stay in the car when you’re out on the trails.  There are a number of popular birding sites (such as Chincoteague NWR in Virginia) where pets aren’t allowed to enter the park, even if they stay in the car.  Other sites allow pets in the car but not on the trails, or may allow them on the trails but not on the beach, etc.  Some sites (such as Fort Desoto in Florida) have set aside a special dog beach so that your special friend can have his/her time in the sun after you’ve finished with the serious business of capturing stunning bird photos.  For national and state parks, this type of information is often available on the park’s web site.  For other types of locations, a few emails or phone calls may be needed to find out what the situation is regarding pets.  Often a ranger or park administrator can suggest options for entertaining or even boarding your pet outside the park if necessary (for example, Gatorland in Orlando, FL prohibits all dogs even in the parking lot, and recommends that you board your animal at a local shelter if you plan to visit their premisesthis is why I no longer visit Gatorland when Im in Florida).

8.8.4 Travel

Traveling with big lenses—especially multiple big lenses—can be quite a hassle, especially if you’re traveling by air.  For travel via automobile, there are a few suggestions that bear mentioning.  First, keep in mind that car accidents do happen, and that the $20,000 worth of gear packed into your trunk may be at risk if the driver behind you decides to plow into your sub-compact car rather than stopping when you unexpectedly do so.  (Insuring your gear is a very good idea, whether you frequently travel or not, and can often be done simply as an inexpensive rider on your renter/homeowner’s insurance policy).  Also, if you do drive a compact car and are forced to stow your gear in the open (such as in the cargo area of a hatchback or in the front passenger or back seats), be sure not only to cover your equipment with some type of sheet, but also to pile additional, non-valuable items on top of the cover, such as empty soda cans or the like, to give the impression to passers-by that the only thing they’d be likely to find if they broke in was junk.
    For air travel, the situation becomes more complicated.  Almost all of the photographers that I’ve talked to regarding this matter have indicated to me that the only way they’d take a $5000+ (US) lens on an aircraft is as carry-on luggage that they can monitor visually during the entire flight.  This seems to be based on the common perception (which may very well be quite true) that expensive camera lenses checked into baggage very often tend to be stolen either by the baggage handlers at the airport or by enterprising individuals monitoring the baggage claim areas for packages that look like they might contain camera equipment. 
    For the few photographic trips I’ve taken that involved air travel, I’ve taken my main lenses onboard as carry-on.  Many 500mm and 600mm lenses, without a camera attached and with the lens hood removed, become surprisingly compact and will often fit in the overhead compartment of large commercial aircraft.  For 400mm and sometimes even 500mm lenses it’s sometimes possible to simply hang the camera-mounted lens around your neck like an oversized tourist camera and to wear it thus during the flight.  Some airlines might not allow this, so be prepared in the event that you need to quickly pack your lens for storage either in the overhead bins or among the checked baggage in the plane’s baggage hold. 

Fig. 8.8.4: Lens cases like this are great for protecting your lens from
physical damage, and for attracting thieves at the baggage claim.  If
you use such an obvious container for your equipment, at least place it
inside a duffel bag or other nondescript container.

    For lenses in checked baggage you’ll obviously want to make sure that the lens is well-padded on all sides within its container.  Using a container (such as a large suitcase) without glaringly obvious advertisements such as Canon or Nikon is of course recommended if you’d prefer not to donate your equipment to local thieves at either departure or destination cities.  Detaching your camera from the lens prior to packing is also recommended, so as to avoid stressing the point of attachment via the normal shifting and jostling of luggage that occurs during flight.
    One alternative to taking your expensive lens and camera onboard your flight is to instead ship it to the destination city prior to your trip.  Some hotels will allow you to ship luggage directly to them once you’ve made a reservation.  Note that shipping expensive telephoto lenses with full-value insurance can cost in the hundreds of dollars (US).

8.8.5 Equipment

Though we’ve already discussed equipment issues extensively in this book, there are a few suggestions to be made regarding equipment to take on a long birding trip.  First, you’ll obviously want to take your laptop or some other means of downloading photos from your memory cards at the end of each day.  Although there are specialized devices that can be used to download your cards to a built-in hard drive in the field, whenever possible I prefer to use a laptop so that I can make multiple copies of all the files.  I take at least two external hard drives along, in case one hard drive fails during the trip; I’ve had numerous hard drives fail in the past.  I generally keep one copy of every file on the laptop (during the trip), so I have three copies of all files in total.  When I leave the hotel each day I lock the laptop and one of the hard drives in the in-room safe (if there is one) and take the other hard drive with me to leave in the car.  Note that in hot weather it’s generally a bad idea to leave a hard drive locked in your car all day.  There are now compact external drives that are small enough to place in a large pocket of your photo vest, and this may be a better option in hot weather (placing the drive into a sealed ziplock bag first, in case you get wet).  I also label both my drives and their corresponding power cords.  Since I always opt to use different brands of external hard drives (to lessen the chance that a single faulty production run at the factory will cause simultaneous failures in all my drives), the power cables are generally incompatible between the different drives, so it can be important to make sure you connect the right power cable to the right drive; unfortunately, the power cables are usually made by third parties and often don’t have the drive’s brand name on the cable itself.  White sticky labels are a simple solution.  When buying the drives, I usually try to choose a capacity which is roughly twice as big as I expect to need, based on my previous trips to similar locations. 
    If your laptop has a Firewire port, remember that Firewire is usually faster than USB, and this can be important if you get back to your hotel late in the evening and don’t have much time to download your memory cards before retiring to bed.  Most hard drives these days are USB-only, so you may need to shop around to find a Firewire-capable drive.  The current version of Firewire is
Firewire 800, which has a different plug size than the older Firewire 400 (though you can buy an adapter to plug a Firewire 400 drive into a Firewire 800 port), so make sure you get the appropriate version.  If your card reader is Firewire and you have only one Firewire port on your laptop, then you’ll need to either buy a Firewire hub (port replicator), or use a USB hard drive if you need to attach both the card reader and the external drive simultaneously (i.e., if you don’t have enough free space on your laptop’s internal drive to download the photos to first).
    In terms of memory cards, it’s obviously a good idea to have more than you need for a whole day of shooting.  I choose intermediate-capacity cards (i.e., not the largest currently available), because they tend to be much cheaper than the largest-capacity cards available, and they also allow me to avoid placing
all my eggs in one basket.  I did have a card fail once after I had put several hundred photos on it.  Ironically, it was the most expensive card I’ve ever bought (a Lexar premium model); none of the dirt-cheap cards that I’ve bought (from Transcend) have ever failed, so I don’t bother with the premium cards except when I want a card with a higher transfer rate (such as the Sandisk Extreme series) to use when shooting in spray-and-pray mode (see section 2.7.1).  If a card does fail, you can sometimes send it in to the manufacturer to have them attempt to recover your data.  For my card that failed, I was able to get all of the photos off of it myself, though I wasn’t able to write any more files to it until it was repaired by the manufacturer.

Fig. 8.8.5: If you use flash, remember that you’ll need some way to
re-charge all of your batteries every night in the hotel.  If the hotel
room has few electrical outlets (which they often do), you’ll need
something like the Sentry Power Squid to connect all of your chargers.

    If you’re a flash user, one essential piece of equipment is a power strip for plugging in multiple AA chargers.  I use the Sentry Power Squid (see section 4.3.4), because normal power strips generally don’t provide enough physical space for more than two or three chargers.

8.8.6 Necessities

For intense shooting situations, you’ll obviously need to make sure you have some fuel on hand to keep your body going, whether that means food or caffeine (or both) in your particular case.  If the site where you’re going doesn’t have a refreshment stand, you’ll want to pack a lunch and possibly even dinner if you’ll be shooting up till dusk on long summer days.  You’ll therefore want to think ahead about when and where you’ll purchase your foodstuffs when you’re at your destination city.  As mentioned earlier, you may also want to think about how you can get your breakfast and morning coffee (if applicable) in the morning without having to drive out of your way.  Remember that in many cases the best photos are taken in the early morning and late evening, so you don’t want to have to fiddle around too much on your way to the site in the morning.  My personal preference is to keep several 12-packs of Diet Coke in the trunk of my car for the purposes of obtaining my twice-daily caffeine fix, and to hit the nearest bagel or donut joint on the way to the shoot site for my morning carbohydrates.
    Another issue that may likewise seem overly mundane but is, I assure you, of prime importance, is to carefully take note of the locations of restrooms at or near the site where you’ll be shooting.  There’s nothing worse than finding the ideal bird in front of the ideal background, only to find that you suddenly need to relieve your bowels and that the nearest restroom is a two-mile drive to the other end of the park.  At the warbler mecca that is Magee Marsh in Ohio, a perennial joke among photographers is that with the length of the boardwalk and the difficulty making one’s way quickly through the crowds that gather there, it may be worthwhile to wear diapers or a urinary catheter.  Humor aside, there can be no doubt that large numbers of potentially great photos have been lost due to the necessity of making a long hike to the nearest restroom.   This is why it’s important to know where the nearest restroom is, and to think ahead about when you might need to use the facilities.  This may be especially relevant to caffeine addicts.

8.8.7 Weather

Even the very best laid plans can be thwarted at the last minute by Mother Nature.  There are, however, several things you can do to try to minimize the impact of weather on the success of your trip.
    First, consider buying a mobile device that can receive up-to-the-minute weather reports.  I personally use an Apple iPhone with a special weather application that can display animated radar.  Just seeing a static radar map can be useful for ascertaining whether there are any storms in the vicinity, but with an animated map you can also see the direction those storms are moving.  This is especially critical for those using cameras and/or lenses that are not weatherproof (i.e., are likely to be significantly damaged by rain).  Whenever I see dark clouds on the horizon, I check my iPhone and see if there’s any severe weather headed my way.  If there is, I bag each of my rigs in a large plastic trash bag and start walking toward the car.
    Second, on days for which the overall forecast includes a chance of rain, consider taking an umbrella with you.  Many umbrellas come with a bag and a shoulder strap, so you needn’t feel much more encumbered by carrying your umbrella with you.  I have a large
golf umbrella that I either tuck under my belt or attach to one of my tripod’s legs using velcro or automotive clamps. 

Fig. 8.8.6: Don’t assume that inclement weather means that you have to spend
the day in your hotel room.  Take an umbrella and some means of attaching it
to your tripod.  As long as there’s no wind and your equipment is weatherproof,
a bit of rain needn’t keep you from going out into the field for at least part of the day.
(Many thanks to Dale and George for demonstrating the use of umbrellas in the rain!)

    Third, on days in which inclement weather is virtually assured, don’t necessarily assume that you can’t do any bird photography that day.  If the inclement weather consists only of rain or snow (no wind), with a weatherproof camera and lens it’s very feasible to go out with a large umbrella and some trash bags (in case the wind picks up) and see if you might get lucky despite the weather.  For tripod-mounted rigs you can attach an umbrella to your tripod or tripod head (see section 4.4.2 and the figure above), which can work very effectively as long as there’s no wind.  For hand-held work in cool temperatures, I like to zip up my jacket and slide the umbrella’s handle down the front of my jacket, so that the umbrella stays upright over my head (and camera) without my having to hold it with my hands.  (My jacket has an inside pocket which I can slide the umbrella handle into, but even without this feature it’s often possible to keep an umbrella in place just by zipping up your jacket tighly around the umbrella’s handle.)  The main issue with umbrellas (besides the wind) is making sure your flash unit and fresnel extender clear the underside of the umbrella, so that you don’t end up with half-exposed images as the umbrella occludes the top of the flash.

Fig. 8.8.7: Precipitation can sometimes spruce up a photo, by letting
the viewer know something about the environmental context in which the
image was taken.

    Finally, keep in mind that inclement weather can sometimes be highly beneficial by injecting novelty into your photos, either due to the unique lighting, the presence of visible precipitation (especially snow), or any effects the weather may have on the bird’s behavior.  Caution is obviously recommended to ensure the safety of your equipment (and yourself), but beyond this it’s worthwhile to at least consider what you might be missing in the field by staying in your hotel on rainy or snowy days.

8.8.8 Safety

Ensuring the safety of both your equipment and yourself (and any companions) is obviously of the utmost importance when traveling to remote shooting locations.  There are a few safety-related issues that are worth emphasizing here as they related specifically to photography trips.
    First, let’s consider personal safety.  Obviously you’ll want to take along some effective insect repellent and sunscreen for those destinations involving lots of insects and/or exposure to the sun.  In the case of sunscreen, it’s especially important to find a brand that won’t run into your eyes (since you’ll depend so critically on your eyes during the shoot).  I’ve yet to find a brand of sunscreen that won’t run into my eyes, so rather than using sunscreen on my face I instead wear a wide-brimmed hat that’s flexible enough to bend out of the way when it contacts my flash unit (i.e., when I look through my viewfinder). 
    Insect repellant is important not only for banishing those annoying mosquitos, chiggers, flies, and gnats, but also for keeping disease-carrying ticks off of your person and clothing.  It’s especially important to spray your shoes with a strong DEET or Bio-UD based formulation to keep the ticks off (though ticks can also get on you from tall grasses and branches of trees, so you need to spray more than just your shoes).  Be sure to check yourself nightly for ticks back at the hotel.  Keep in mind that some diseases, such as Lyme’s Disease, are transmitted by the tiny deer ticks that can be very difficult to see without looking very carefully.  If you take your dog along on your birding expeditions, be sure to coat him or her with Frontline or a similar product, since any ticks that get onto your furry friend may later make their way onto you.  (Though I’ve yet to contract Lyme’s Disease, my dog has had it and recovered.  I’ve been bitten by untold numbers of ticks over the years, so it’s probably just a matter of time before I contract something).
    Finally, consider very seriously the issue of dangerous animals that may inhabit the site where you’ll be shooting.  Snakes are a prime concern in many locales.  A favorite technique of mine is to lie on my belly when shooting waterbirds and shorebirds, but I’ve been warned on multiple occasions by knowledgable naturalists at sites where venomous snakes are known to occur with some frequency.  If your site has venomous snakes or other animals such as scorpions or the like, take the time to research first-aid techniques for treating venomous bites, and be sure to know beforehand where the nearest hospital is located.  In places such as Florida it’s also important to keep an eye out for aligators.  In other locations you may instead be more concerned about bears.  Keep in mind that a number of photographers have been eaten by bears in the past.  It
s no joke: wildlife photography is dangerous, and you need to know in advance about the dangers you may face and how to successfully survive those dangers.

Fig. 8.8.8: Be sure to find out what types of dangerous animals are present
at your destination site.  If you like to shoot waterbirds or shorebirds while
lying on your belly, be on the lookout for snakes and gators.

    Now let’s consider the safety of your equipment.  First let’s consider theft.  Equipment can be stolen either from your car, from your hotel room, or directly from your person.  Though I’ve yet to hear of a photographer being robbed at gunpoint in the U.S. (I have heard of it occuring in South America), for those photographers carrying around several thousands of dollars worth of equipment it’s worthwhile to both obtain insurance for the equipment and to inquire as to whether theft is included in the coverage of the policy.  If it isn’t, you might consider changing insurance companies (mine covers theft, so it’s not impossible to procure such coverage).
    Theft from your (unattended) car or hotel is another possibility that you need to very seriously consider.  Many hotel rooms nowadays include in-room safes.  Of course, when you’re out in the field you’ll likely have all your cameras and lenses with you, unless you’ve brought backups (which I highly recommend, if you have them) on the trip.  Unfortunately, in-room safes are typically small, so they’re more useful for laptop computers and hard drives than telephoto lenses.  Some hotels have a larger safe on site that you can use, though typically for a fee.  Depending on the price of the lens and the coverage provided by your insurance, such a fee may be justifiable.  For rooms without an in-room safe, I usually request at the front desk that no housekeeping services be rendered in my room, just in case any of the housekeeping staff are less than trustworthy.
    Storing expensive photographic gear in your car is enormously risky.  There are several things you can do to reduce this risk somewhat.  First, make sure that nothing is visible from outside the car.  This includes not only the equipment itself, but any possible indicators that expensive equipment may be hidden within.  Anything that may advertise that the owner of a car is a photographer can be a detriment.  Second, store things only in your trunk, if you have one.  Hatchbacks and SUV’s lack true trunks, because the cargo area is physically accessible from within the vehicle’s cabin, which can of course be accessed simply by shattering some glass.  Even cars with true trunks aren’t completely safe, however.  Many cars have a trunk-release lever within the cabin that will give thieves access to the trunk once they’ve shattered some glass to access the cabin.  On some cars you can lock the trunk separately, so that the in-cabin trunk release will no longer function, and this is obviously useful (as long as you don’t forget to lock the trunk separately).  Also, on many cars today you can access the trunk from within the cabin by collapsing the rear seats; this obviously reduces the security of your trunk. 
    Keep in mind that any gear that isn’t stolen from your car may still be damaged by heat in the summer months.  Trunks tend to stay cooler than a windowed cabin, but can still become extremely hot in the summer.  Be sure also to adequately pad any gear that you’re storing in the trunk, since things tend to shift around while you’re driving.  Whenever feasible, it may be safer to carry back-up lenses on your person, though these are obviously not immune to accidental damage as you move about the shoot site.  Walking through a dense forest with extra lenses hung from every extremity can be frustrating in the extreme, as branches probe delicate surfaces of expensive pieces of equipment.  For tripod-mounted rigs, be careful when walking through forest settings that the legs don’t catch on any branches and jar the lens from its balanced perch on your shoulder.  And once you’ve reached the destination of your hike and your lens is safely supported by its tripod, be careful not to stray more than a few feet from the rig, in case anything—whether wind or an energetic child or dog—chances to push the structure past its tipping point.
    Finally, in the case of inclement weather, we’ve already noted the use of garbage bags for protecting large lenses from rain during the hasty walk back toward the car.  Ziplock sandwich bags (of any brand) are also extremely useful for protecting the smaller pieces of equipment such as teleconverters, extra flash units, and memory cards, not to mention cell phones and even wallets and passports.

8.8.9 Field Techniques

Though we’ve already covered general field techniques in Chapter 8, there are a few suggestions that bear repeating in the context of the remote photo shoot.  First, if you’re a fan of baiting birds with food (whether traditional birdseed for songbirds or the meatier variety for carnivores such as herons, egrets, and terns), then you’ll want to plan ahead by finding out where you can obtain your bait and when the shop opens for the day.  Since many bait shops open rather late in the morning, you may want to stock up the night before.  This will of course require a means of overnight storage, which might be a problem if your hotel room doesn’t feature a refrigerator.  A large cooler and a bag of ice may suffice, however.  As always, be sure to obey any local or federal laws governing the feeding of birds at your shoot site.  I’ve only used seafood to bait carnivorous birds twice, and it was only moderately effective both times, but other photographers swear by this method and insist it’s no different from putting a seed feeder and birdbath in your yard at home.

Fig. 8.8.9: If you plan to use bait in the field, you’ll need to figure
out where and when you can buy it, and how you’ll thaw it out and/or
keep it fresh over night.  And find out if it’s even permitted!

    Once you’ve got a bird to shoot (whether you brought it in with bait, with recorded song, or with your natural good looks), there are a number of things to keep in mind.  First, always respect the bird.  No matter how important it may be to you to obtain the perfect photo of the bird, it’s incomparably more important to the bird that he or she not be harassed or unduly inconvenienced.  Remember that at prime birding sites the birds will often be exposed to tens or even hundreds of viewers each day—you are only one of many.  If every photographer who encounters this bird harasses it with pre-recorded songs or even just pishing, the bird may decide to find a more private place to forage, leaving you (and the other photographers there that day) with one fewer photographic subject.  And if the bird has no other place to forage, the accumulated effects of so much intrusive human contact may result in undue stress on the individual.  That is to be avoided at all cost.

    Second, once you’ve found a good bird in a good setting, to the extent that you’re not harassing the bird in any way it’s often a good idea to work the same subject for as long as it allows you to do so.  Unless the site offers nearly unlimited numbers of accessible subjects, it’s often most productive to keep working a subject once you’ve got your exposure fine-tuned for the subject and its background.  Though you may be delighted at the first few images you see on your camera’s LCD, you may be glad later that you continued to take additional photos of the same bird, either because the first few images ended up not looking quite as impressive when viewed on the computer, or because the bird ended up providing some even better poses later in the session.  I like to invoke what I call the bird-in-the-hand principle: once I’ve got a subject that I’m successfully working, it’s usually better to continue working this subject than to move on and try to find another subject.  As with any rule of thumb, this can sometimes backfire, but as a general strategy I’ve found it to be highly useful.
    Finally, when on a serious birding trip (i.e., one involving a nontrivial expenditure of money or time), it’s highly advisable to be very careful about protecting your images and making backups of them as soon as possible.  For example, to make sure that I don’t accidentally overwrite a card I’ve already filled, I observe a strict discipline regarding the placement of cards in my vest pockets: empties are always stored in my left front pocket, and full cards in my right front pocket.  I also make sure to keep all full cards stored in a ziplock bag, in case of rain.  On remote shoots I also make sure to always download all my cards every evening, and to back up all files onto three different drives once a day. 

8.8.10 A Trip Checklist

If you’re at all like me, you never embark on any serious endeavor without an exhaustive checklist.  The sample checklist below may help you by serving as a starting point in itemizing a list for your next birding trip:
  • sunscreen
  • insect repellent
  • extra memory cards
  • redundant card readers
  • laptop and hard drives
  • photo vest
  • business cards
  • ziplock bags (both freezer size and sandwich size)
  • power strip (Sentry Powersquid or similar)
  • AA batteries and chargers
  • bucket or cooler for thawing out frozen bait
  • caffeine (soda or coffee thermos)
  • backup cameras and lenses (older models you’ve upgraded from)
  • flash units and flash extenders (beamers)
  • duct tape
  • mini bungee cords
  • umbrella
  • cheap, flexible clothes
  • bag/backpack for carrying extra equipment in the field
  • padded case and anti-static bags for hard drives
  • laundry detergent
  • extra camera straps
  • lens cleaning materials (blower, brush, fluid, microfiber cloth)
  • first aid supplies
  • field guides
  • hip waders
  • knee pads
  • wide-brimmed hat
Obviously, youll want to expand this list based on your personal needs and the dictates of the site.

8.8.11 Mitigating Expenses

Birding trips don’t have to be astronomically expensive.  There are a number of things you can do to reduce the costs of your next trip.  First, if feasible, consider driving instead of flying.  The advantage of driving is that you can take as much equipment as will fit in your vehicle, and you don’t have to rent a car when you get to your destination.  The disadvantages are the time it takes to drive there, the implicit cost of additional mileage on your personal vehicle, and the risk involved in driving long distances (i.e., due to the potential for traffic accidents, which may involve damage to your equipment or even personal injury to yourself or others).
    Second, consider staying in the cheapest hotels/motels.  If the primary purpose of your trip is to photograph birds, then you’ll be using the hotel room primarily as just a place to sleep.  When I go on birding trips, the only thing I make sure of is that the hotel accepts dogs.  Otherwise, I view my hotel room as nothing more than a bed and an electrical outlet (for my laptop and battery chargers).
    Finally, consider taking a large cooler along and buying food at the local grocery store rather than eating all of your meals in restaraunts.  The cost of eating out can add up to a considerable amount over a week or two, and of course eating out takes time (unless you’re into fast food).  Making your own sandwiches and/or salads can also be more healthy in some cases than eating at the local fast food joints.  If your hotel room has a fridge and a microwave, eating cheaper and healthier becomes a bit easier.

8.8.12 Clothing

There are a number of important considerations regarding how you dress in the field, especially for extended shoots in a remote location.  First is the issue of water.  In many environments clothes have ample opportunity for becoming wet in the field, whether by rain or by immersion in lakes or rivers.  Not only will you want to wear clothes that you don’t mind getting wet, but you’ll want to take along enough clothing to allow a dry change of clothes each day, if necessary.  Even if your hotel provides laundry services, consider whether you’ll have time to do laundry during your trip, or whether you have room in your car to bring enough fresh changes of clothing for the entire trip.  Also, if you wade or kneel in water, make sure that any pockets that might be even partially submerged don’t contain anything sensitive to water (like memory cards, your cell phone, or even your passport for international trips).  As mentioned previously, it’s a good idea to make liberal use of ziplock plastic bags to protect all of your water-sensitive belongings, especially those you’ll be keeping on your person. 
    The sun is another important hazard that you need to consider.  If you get easily sunburned, you already know the importance of wearing a wide-brimmed hat on sunny days (and even on slightly cloudy days).  The problem that many photographers have is that their on-shoe flash unit is positioned in the way of their hat’s brim, so that every time they put their eye up to the viewfinder, their hat pushes against the flash unit.  Many photographers solve this problem by wearing baseball hats that can be quickly reversed (so that the brim points backward instead of foreward) when switching between hiking and actually using the camera.  I personally like to wear an Indiana-Jones-type hat in the field, to provide visual protection from sun glare even from the sides, so this solution doesn’t work for me.  Instead, I wear a hat with a loose under-chin strap, so that when I start shooting I can simply flip my hat over my back and the strap will keep it accessible for when I need it.  The downside is that the strap sometimes tightens around my neck when I swing my rig over my shoulder, and this is obviously uncomfortable.  An alternative is to use a wide-brimmed hat having a brim that can be flipped up by hand when you need to use the viewfinder.
    An important aspect of any photographic clothing is the presence of pockets—especially pockets that are large and numerous.  I always wear a photographer’s vest that has many pockets in front, plus several in back and a few inside.  These are useful for storing teleconverters, extension tubes, memory cards (both fresh and used—in different pockets, of course), lens-cleaning supplies, large trash bags (in case of rain), air blowers, a lens brush, my wallet, and my cell phone.  Anything water-sensitive should go in a ziplock bag before being put into any pocket.  It may also be wise to put the more water-sensitive items in higher pockets if you think you might end up doing any wading.

Fig. 8.8.10: Wise choices for field clothing are important.  This image of
the author shooting birds in Florida illustrates several points.  A vest
with many pockets is highly desirable.  Knee-pads can be very useful as
well.  A belt that can be used to hang lens cases from may be valuable.
Long-sleeved shirts and full-length pants provide protection from the sun
and abrasive vegetation. 
(Many thanks to Brian and Judy Hermann for the photo!)

    Obviously, clothing that you wear in the field can get dirty.  In certain environments—such as in wetlands or coastal habitats—it may be wise to specifically plan on getting very dirty.  For waterbirds and shorebirds it’s often best to lie on your belly with your camera, so that you can get eye-level shots of the birds with maximally blurred backgrounds.  So if you think that wearing your favorite safari outfit in the field might make you pause when faced with the prospect of lying in thick, black mud in order to get a good angle, then you may want to opt for something less fashionable when you dress in the morning.
    Finally, keep in mind that photography can be physically taxing, and that clothes that are loose and flexible may better promote all-day comfort than clothes that are tight and restrictive.  I typically wear sweatpants (with pockets), hiking boots, a loose T-shirt, and a cheap dress shirt over top (to protect my arms from sun, abrasive foliage, and biting insects, and to ward against the wind and drops in temperature at dusk).  The sweapants are a godsend for when I need to contort my body into unpleasant postures in order to very rapidly get a good angle on a bird.  Wearing sweats in extremely hot temperatures can be unpleasant, though if they’re loose enough, the coating of sweat that you form underneath can actually help to keep you relatively cool.  If you opt to wear shorts, then I strongly encourage wearing knee pads in case you need to kneel on any hard surface.  Even with full-length pants, the knee-pads are still extremely useful.  I bought my knee pads in the gardening department at Wal-Mart.

8.8.13 Other Issues

There are just a few other miscellaneous issues that you might want to consider when planning for your trip.  First, if your destination is a zoo or other privately owned property, you should definitely research beforehand whether the owners permit photography and whether they place any legal limitations on your use of photos taken on their premises.  Many commercial sites, such as the San Diego Zoo and Seaworld, stipulate that any photos you take within their parks cannot be used for commercial purposes.  This would presumably apply to photos you intend to publish in birding magazines or to sell as prints. 

Fig. 8.8.11: One of my favorite early photos.  Unfortunately,
because it was taken in a high-profile zoo, my ability to publish it
in various venues is limited by the zoo’s restrictive photo policy.

    Finally, whenever I leave for a long birding trip I always try to ensure that I do two things.  First, I try to make sure that I do whatever it takes to get at least a few novel photos that I couldn’t have (and haven’t previously) gotten anywhere else, without inconveniencing the animals or other visitors (and without breaking any laws or park rules).  This is often useful for me to contemplate in the early mornings when I’m still feeling sleepy and lazy, and when a bit of extra motivation may be necessary before dropping myself onto an open mud flat, or before wading through a smelly pool of stagnant water. 
    Second, I always try to remind myself that the other goal of bird photography in the field—beyond that of getting some great photos—is to enjoy myself.  Whether you get a great photo or not, try to always enjoy the moment: spending time in the company of wild birds is an experience to be cherished.  Remember that above all else.