Setting up a drip system to photograph migratory birds

drip system

For me, there is nothing more exciting in bird photography than sitting in a photo awning and listening to the gentle sound of running water. When spring rolls around, I know that beautiful sound will bring with it the birds I love to photograph the most. The arrival of spring in the United States also means the arrival of our Neotropical migrants as they return from south of the border.

The color, beauty and diversity of North American migratory passerines are hard to match. Our warblers, tanagers, orioles, thrushes, vireos, sparrows, flycatchers, grosbeaks and many more travel hundreds or thousands of kilometers from their southern wintering grounds to their northern breeding grounds and then come back. During migration, they need important stopover areas for food and rest so that they can replenish their energy and continue their journey. By knowing where and when to anticipate these weary, hungry migrants, you can easily set up a portable drip system and hope to photograph some of them as they travel north.

A slow-flowing stream of water in a shallow pool in the spring is probably the most effective way to photograph a wide variety of landbirds in one fixed location. The beauty of a drip is that you can easily create an inexpensive drip system in your garden, or you can create a lightweight, portable drip to take on your next gardening adventure. bird watching and field photography. In fact, I use the same system both in the field and in my yard.

My favorite water drip system consists of a collapsible 2.5 gallon water jug ​​(with an adjustable spigot), a small flexible plastic trash can lid, or a flower pot saucer , and some very resistant elastic cords. This sturdy, lightweight, inexpensive and portable trio has served me well for almost 30 years. You should be able to find all three items at your local camping or sporting goods store.

First, I bury the trash can lid about 6 inches into the ground and hide it with dirt, vegetation, sand, rocks, leaves, and other natural materials. Then I fill the basin with water and place a few strategically placed photogenic perches on top, so approaching birds have a place to land and I have a place to photograph them. Finally, I use the rubber bands to hang the container filled with water from a tree branch about 5 or 6 feet above the lid of the trash can. That’s all we can say about it.

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The key to a successful drip is to open the faucet just enough to allow a drop of water to fall every second or so. The falling water drops splash the pool water, the sight and sound of the drip attract the birds and the magic begins. Before you know it, you’ll be photographing a surprising variety of birds on your own body of water.

Now that spring is upon us, you might want to install this simple drip system in your garden first to, pardon the pun, test the waters. The best way to experiment with new photo techniques is to try perfecting them at home first. Once you are comfortable with the drip system and how to photograph using it, you can then use it in the field and apply what you have already learned through trial and error in your garden.

A male Magnolia Warbler pauses on a branch during a migratory stopover. A slow trickle of
water in a shallow pool will entice birds to visit, providing photo opportunities for birdwatchers. Photo by Brian E. Small

Location is key

There are a few important photography considerations you need to remember when choosing a location for a drip. Find a spot in your yard that allows you to place the dripline close to surrounding vegetation. This will provide visiting birds with secure cover before and after they leave your water-filled pond. I also suggest looking for a spot in your yard where the sun will be out most of the day and where you can place your camera gear with the sun at your back.

It may also be helpful to place a few seed, suet, or fruit feeders near your drip. This will help bring the birds to the area, and once the birds see the water they will be sure to get there eventually. By providing food sources as well as water, you increase your chances of photographing a variety of birds. At this time of year, migrating birds are attracted by the activity of resident species that regularly visit your feeders.

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When you’re ready to try a portable drip in the field, the most important consideration is location. Installing a drip along a stream or at the edge of a lake will probably be a waste of time. Why would birds need to visit your facility where there is already plenty of water available? Experience has taught me to look for places where there is no visible water and that the water you provide is the birds’ only choice.

The most obvious place is a desert. Undoubtedly, you are guaranteed to attract many birds by providing water in the desert. I have also managed to set up my portable drip system in a dry forest, on a dry mountain slope, in a dry forest, in a desert oasis and even on a desert island. You may also find that the state parks and national forest campgrounds in these locations are ideal for installing a drip. Birds usually concentrate around campsites and if you provide a water source, resident birds and migrating birds are likely to find it.

Of course, using a drip system isn’t the only way to photograph migrants in the spring. I’ve spent many days on the breeding grounds following birds through the forests and woodlands of North America in search of a good photo. Finding singing males on the territory is a great way to create beautiful images of our spring migrants. This type of photography takes more work but can be just as satisfying. I have to admit that images created this way can sometimes look more “natural” than photography in a setup situation. In fact, in some ways, the challenges of breeding location photography are even more satisfying. But it would be better to leave this conversation in another column. For now, I hope you’ll try a drip system and see for yourself how well the water works!