Other than birds living in the campsites of popular reserves or island nesting sea-birds, both of which have little to fear from man, successful bird photography requires some means of making oneself invisible. Even using the most powerful telephoto lenses, you will rarely be able to get close enough to wild birds to take worthwhile pictures if the human form is visible.
From the earliest days of bird photography, hides have been an essential tool of the trade. One pioneer bird photographer even went to the trouble of making a dummy cow that he sat inside. Apparently it worked well but we now know it is rarely necessary to go to such lengths. The key is to disguise the human form so even a simple box structure will usually be accepted by the birds.
Before looking at purpose built hides, there are a few other easy options available. One, of course, is to use your car as a portable hide just the same as in animal photography. In game reserves that see a fair amount of vehicle traffic, this can work fine for perched raptors. As these birds are fairly used to cars, a slow approach is often tolerated. Also, in the busier reserves, pans and dams can at times provide worthwhile waterbird photography. The Sunset Dam at Lower Sabie in the Kruger is a well known example and has been popular with photographers for many years. There is a constant stream of cars at the parking area so the birds have become oblivious to all the activity and often feed well within camera range.
In recent years, large permanent hides have been springing up in many of our reserves. These are an excellent idea as they give visitors an opportunity to stretch their legs and have a break from incessant game driving. Some are magnificent structures that I could quite happily live in - at least they have more floor space than my little duplex! However, from a bird photography point of view, most are utterly useless. More often than not, the birds are too far away. Often the hide is built on stilts which makes for a good observation platform but a horrible angle of view for photography. Lastly, there is frequently no consideration given as to light direction. Some permanent hides are so badly situated that it is impossible to take good pictures at any time of the day. Noted exceptions to the above are some of the hides erected by the Natal Parks Board. The KwaMsinga Hide at Mkuze and the enormously popular Lammergeier Hide (just try to get a booking these days!) at Giant's Castle are both excellent photographic venues. Well done, Natal Parks Board!
So, using your car as a hide only works for certain species in reserves where the birds are habituated to vehicles. All but a handful of the permanent hides are a waste of time for photography. There is only one solution - build your own! That way you will have total control over distance from the subject, angle of view and light direction.
My basic hide is simply a square canvas box tent. Four alloy poles support the tent and the top of the poles, which are pointed, poke through eyelets in the top corners of the hide. A guy rope is attached to each of the pole tops. This satisfies the first golden rule of hide making: the hide fabric must be taut so as not to flap in the wind. Not only will a flapping hide scare the birds and transmit vibrations to the lens causing camera shake, it is also exceedingly annoying for the photographer!
The second golden rule of hide making is to use a totally opaque fabric otherwise the birds will easily see movement within the hide. I favour a heavy, close-weave, green canvas. It's terrible to sew but, once made, lasts for years. My prototype hide is now in its seventeenth year of intensive use. The once green canvas has sun-bleached to a dirty yellow but the birds don't seem to mind at all.
Some photographers make hides from camouflage fabric. Whilst this may have a slight advantage for animal photography, in my experience this makes no difference to the birds. It seems that as long as the human form is disguised, everything works just fine.
The third golden rule of hide construction is to make the hide as small as possible. The smaller and less obtrusive a hide looks to the birds, the more readily it will be accepted. I generally sit on a thick foam cushion when photographing and even this gets pretty uncomfortable after several hours! Although I am sitting almost at ground level, the hide is designed so that the roof is only a few centimetres above my head. As well as being less obtrusive, this low angle makes for attractive photography.
In order to photograph, you will need to add a lens funnel with a drawstring to fit tightly around the lens hood. Also, of course, it is necessary to be able to see out without the birds being able to see inside the hide. I cut out a panel above the lens hood and replace the canvas with several layers of shade cloth. This acts as a very effective "one way glass".
When photographing in areas where there is public access, it is likely that a beautifully made canvas hide will disappear if left unattended for a few days. If there is a chance of a hide being stolen, I use a really scruffy makeshift affair made from old wooden poles and dirty hessian sacks. Understandably, as yet, no one has thought this worth stealing. Unfortunately a lot of light shines through hessian so it needs to be backed with black polythene bin liners to prevent the birds detecting movement within the hide.
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Text and photographs © Nigel Dennis