Practical Caravan

Capturing our wonderful birds on camera

Keen to snap a brilliant bird? Matthew Stadlen has practical tips and destinatio­n advice for your next tour


WHEN YOU SEE a bird, do you really see it? I ask because it’s perfectly possible to go through life with an almost complete disregard for birdlife.

I’m not an expert – about either birds (although I’m beginning to hold my own with those who are) or photograph­y. I’ve only recently worked out how to use the manual focus on my Nikon camera, but I do have a strong sense of what I think is beautiful and a passion for birds that has its roots in my childhood.

What I lack in expertise, I make up for in enthusiasm, and here I hope to explain and illustrate how to become a chronicler of the breathtaki­ng beauty to be found on our doorsteps and beyond.

Countrysid­e birds

It’s so easy to take the British countrysid­e for granted. So why not revel in its beauty and close proximity?

If you’re a Londoner like me, you don’t have to head for the Scottish Highlands to immerse yourself in stunning landscapes. The Welsh hills are three hours or so away.

Closer still are the fields and hedgerows of Buckingham­shire and Oxfordshir­e. And where there is countrysid­e, there are still birds, despite our farming practices.

One piece of advice? You should always remember to listen. For decades I ignored my ears and relied entirely on my eyes to spot and identify bird species. More recently, I have listened ever more intently to the sometimes nuanced, often very obvious difference­s between the birds I’m hoping to photograph. Frequently, I now hear a bird before I’m able to see it. And capturing a bird in song – a sedge warbler, say, in full voice on an Oxfordshir­e reserve – can infuse a photograph with a certain energy and personalit­y.

Raptors and owls

The most magnificen­t birds in the sky, raptors capture our imaginatio­n through the ferocity of their hunting, the speed of their flight and the span of their wings.

Frustratin­gly, for all their fearsomene­ss, birds of prey can be extremely shy. When I spot one on a roadside telegraph pole, it almost always seems to fly once I’ve pulled over safely and left the car. If you do find yourself struggling with moving shots, however, try waiting patiently for the raptor or owl to land on a tree or fence post and then advance with care.

It’s a balance between getting within comfortabl­e range and not frightenin­g the bird off. I tend to stop several times to take shots as I carefully make my approach, lest I miss out on the species altogether.

Water birds

As a boy wandering the hills and fields of mid-wales, I would grow frustrated by the limited species I spotted. Why were my binoculars filled with common buzzards, ravens and, if I was particular­ly lucky, a distant sparrowhaw­k? What about reed buntings, merlin and warblers of every variety?

I didn’t hit upon the answer to this question until I started photograph­ing birds in my mid-30s. Suddenly it was obvious. Water and nature reserves!

If you want to add species to your list or photograph rare birds up close, the nearer you can get to water, the more prosperous you’re likely to be with your sightings. It’s no surprise, therefore, that many of this country’s nature reserves, whether they’re run by the National Trust, the RSPB or another organisati­on, are located on wetlands and or are to be found somewhere on the coast.

If you’re looking for spectacle, you can do worse than spend the day at Bempton Cliffs in Yorkshire, where gannets, puffins, guillemots and razorbills perform or pose in sometimes staggering displays.

For the iconic shot of a puffin with its beak stuffed full of sand eels, I travelled by land and sea to the island of Skomer, off the Pembrokesh­ire coast. Although I struggled to focus on these little birds as they wheeled at speed above the cliffs, I did manage to photograph a puffin set against a surprising backdrop. Where you might expect the usual blue of the sky, there is a delightful­ly vivid bottle green instead.

Visitors and foreign birds

One of the greatest excitement­s for the birdwatche­r and photograph­er has to be new arrivals. Each spring and autumn, birds flock to our shores from faraway lands. Warblers, swallows, and sand and house martins arrive between March and May.

In September and October, migrant birds reach our coast to feed in great numbers along the winter wetlands and mudflats that so beautifull­y frame the British Isles.

Garden birds

As farming continues to eat into natural habitats, birds seem to be flocking ever closer to us, finding refuge in our towns and cities and then treating us to their comings and goings in our backyards. Gardens in both town and country are visited by woodpecker­s (green and great spotted), grey herons, blackcaps and mistle thrushes. And don’t ignore the everyday beauty of our most common birdlife. Take the magpie, glossy in blacks, blues and greens. Or the starling, iridescent in rainbow colours as it catches the sun.

Our cameras can reveal unexpected treats to the unsuspecti­ng human eye.

The goldfinche­s that nest in the wisteria running up the front of my house are

‘There is a lot of luck, and often just as much patience, involved in capturing a strong image’

painted in the colours of the German flag – red, gold and black – and the trick is to picture them with all three hues showing.

There is a lot of luck, and often just as much patience, involved in capturing a strong image, but you can work to make circumstan­ces turn in your favour. I try to position myself, quietly, to avoid the sun shining from behind the bird and creating a silhouette – although a backlit subject edged in a golden light can also yield very rewarding and satisfying results.


Among our more regular visitors, rarities also make it here each year. Some catch the keen eye of a twitcher and as news travels, birders from up and down the land will themselves flock to the shrub or clifftop where the unexpected migrant has briefly made its home. Millions of miles are travelled each year as twitchers pursue their passion.

Keep an eye out on social media for accounts that are invaluable if you want to photograph more unusual species.

In recent years I’ve crossed countless counties in search of vagrant species and spent hours on wetlands simply humming with visiting water birds. From a sighting of the rough-legged buzzard on the Essex coast, to a morning spent with the bearded tits that appeared one year in the reed beds of London’s Hyde Park, I have had some memorable experience­s after setting off in search of unusual visitors.

From the photograph­er’s perspectiv­e, it doesn’t get much better than the wonderful

February afternoon I spent with a quartet of waxwings on an Oxford street. I was just about close enough to shoot the birds feeding on plump red berries; eventually, after overcoming the challenges of the bright afternoon light, I finally managed to avoid merely capturing a collection of bird-shaped silhouette­s.

The author

Matthew is a radio and television presenter, producer and writer. His book, How to See Birds (Papadakis, RRP £20), is out now and a must-read title for any bird lover.­dlen

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