9.2 Rustic Embellishments

While perches and other substrates provide places for the birds to loiter while you’re pursuing their (digital) capture, there are a number of other props that you might consider employing in order to spice up your images.  The screech owl (Otus asio) photo below illustrates a number of these.

Fig. 9.2.1 : Rufous-phased screech owl (Otus asio) perched amid a scene constructed of natural
and artificial props.  The bird is a rehabilitated animal on a leg-leash, or
jess (edited out of the
image via Photoshop).  Staff at the rehabilitation facility utilized spanish moss, garland greens,
and a portable tree stump to construct the scene; the rectilinear background colors are from
the visitor center building.  Note that photo-ops like this can be costly, but benefit the birds
housed at the facility.  The event also gives them a chance to escape their cages for a few hours.

    This bird was photographed during a photo-op put on by a local raptor rehabilitation facility; the photo shoot cost $65 (US) per photographer, and lasted about 4 to 6 hours.  The staff at the facility placed various photo props around the grounds of the facility, and then rotated their captive birds between the photo settings.  In this case, the tree from which the owl is emerging was a small stump which was placed on a table, and could easily be removed and carried away.  On either side of the stump you can see spanish moss that was draped over the stump, and at the bottom of the image (in the foreground, but out of focus) is a garland that was placed on the table supporting the stump.  In the background is some natural foliage, and behind that is the out-of-focus coloration of the facility’s visitor center.  Hundreds or perhaps thousands of images like this one have likely been crafted over the years at this facility alone, via the use of natural-looking props (together with some creative framing on the part of the photographer). 
    A good starting point for crafting a scene like this in your own yard is the installation of an exotic perch or a rustic-looking bird feeder or bird house.  As previously mentioned, bird houses serve not only as nesting cavities for birds with such proclivities, but also as roosting sites for birds in other months (particularly during colder months in the more extreme lattitudes or altitudes).  Birds can be productively photographed perching on, entering, or leaving bird houses.  Some birds will mate at or on their adopted residence.  The possibilities are probably wider than you realize.  Bird houses can be had very cheaply, and can be either nailed to a tree or installed on a pole (which can, unfortunately, cost significantly more than the bird house itself).

Fig. 9.2.2 : Wild house wren (Troglodytes aedon) emerging from a birdhouse.
Birdhouses provide not only nesting sites for cavity-nesting birds, but also
sheltered roosting sites for wintering birds in your area.  Shooting an emerging
bird from the side produces a nice profile of the subject; in this case, the bird appears
in front of a green background, thus offsetting the subject quite well, while a frontal
shot would have placed the rufous bird in the midst of a scene featuring a rufous
background, resulting in a far more cryptic composition (which may or may not
be desirable).

    When installing bird houses, be sure to keep the available backgrounds in mind when choosing a location for attachment.  In particular, if you prefer out-of-focus backgrounds then try to ensure that few objects appear close to the bird house from likely viewing angles.  In the figure below, the background is nicely out-of-focus (though with enough intriguing shapes and color gradients to give the viewer something to contemplate after s/he has taken in the bird) because there were no trees or other structures close to the birdhouse when seen from that angle. 

Fig. 9.2.3 : American kestrel (Falco sparvarius) perched on a nest box at
a raptor rehabilitation center.  When installing nest boxes on your property,
keep in mind the likely angles from which you’d be shooting birds emerging
from the box or perching on top of it.  Also, consider the ideal opening
diameter, in terms of the types of birds that you’d like to include or exclude
from entering the box.

    For any given substrate, there’s always the option of augmenting its appearance by draping various epiphytes over it, or by draping them from a higher support so that they dangle down to where the bird will be positioned when you photograph it.  Surprisingly enough, you can buy such epiphytes from—you guessed it!—WalMart and other commercial chains in their home furnishings department.  The bag of spanish moss shown below only cost me a few dollars (US), and provided enough material to liberally cover a three-foot branch.

Fig. 9.2.4 : Believe it or not, you can now buy spanish moss from your local
WalMart.  The quality isn’t the greatest; what you’re getting is actually
moss, as opposed to the vibrant, living moss you might encounter in certain
natural habitats.  Nevertheless, draping some of this stuff on your branches
can potentially improve the scenery impact of your yardbird photos.

    Besides the ever-popular spanish moss, there are a number of other mosses, as well as grasses (and grass-like fibres such as raffia and excelcior), that you can buy, by the bag, from large chain stores.  In the figure below, two varieties of moss are shown at top while two grass-like fibres are shown at bottom.  These can be strewn in any number of ways on perches—both natural and man-made—to improve the aesthetics of the substrate with relatively minimal effort and cost.

Fig. 9.2.5 : Four varieties of mossy or grass-like natural drapery that you can
apply to the perching substrates in your yard.  Clockwise from the 10 o’clock
position: spanish moss, floral moss, aspen tree fibres, and raffia.  Keep in mind
that in some environments these will fairly rapidly degrade in aesthetic quality
due to accumulation of mold and mildew; also, any wind may tend to blow them
off of whatever substrate you’ve aplied them to.  It
s also possible to buy sheet moss
(not shown here), which can be laid over smooth surfaces.

    I generally avoid the use of synthetic props such as plastic flowers and the like, because when seen close-up they always seem to look fake.  For wider shots, however, you may be able to get away with using these types of props.  For the owl photo below, the faux leafy branches were set up by the staff at a raptor rehabilitation facility during a photo-op.  Given the size of the bird and the framing constraints, the plastic foliage ended up being small enough that it’s marginally realistic-looking.  I don’t think I’d try this with small birds such as finches or warblers: the requisite focal length would magnify any imperfections in the synthetic material, likely resulting in unusable images.

Fig. 9.2.6 : Barn owl posing amid plastic foliage.  This captive bird was placed
by rehabilitation staff amid an artfully-constructed scene during a
photo op.  For
large subjects like this, plastic leaves and flowers may appear realistic enough, but
for small birds more tightly framed, the amount of magnification required to enlarge
the bird is also likely to enlarge any imperfections in the imitation foliage.

    Not all man-made objects are equally objectionable to all photo viewers.  Rustic wooden props such as barrels and the like, which might easily be found on any traditional farm, are often readily acceptable as photo props for bird images.  Wooden barrel-type planters are widely available, and can serve both as unorthodox bird feeders and relatively rustic perching substrates.  I recommend drilling a hole in the bottom, however, to avoid water build-up that might otherwise foster the breeding of mosquitos, and can also result in seed-rot (if you’ve deposited seed in the vessel).

Fig. 9.2.7 : Tufted titmouse (Parus bicolor) perched on the rim of a barrel planter
purchased at WalMart.  A bit of seed deposited in the bottom of the barrel will attract
birds, but making sure that water can drain from the vessel is important in making
sure that the seed doesn’t rot, and that mosquitos don’t end up breeding within.