Vibrant and Subtle Beauties
If you are lucky enough to live in an area where the Northern Cardinal live then you know what a sight these birds are, and according to the statics on habitat range, the Northern Cardinal can be found in nearly half of the United States from the East Coast, down to Florida and up to the edge of Canada and as far west as Arizona. It appears the Northern Cardinal's habitat Range is slowly increasing each year.
Where I live I four distinct pairs visit my backyard on a regular basis and at least one pair remain throughout the year the other Cardinals are visitors through the winter months taking turns at the feeder. It is quite amusing to watch the interactions between these Northern Cardinals. What normally occurs is the Male Cardinal will feed for a few minutes while the Female waits until the feeder is available and then takes her turn. In a Platform feeder the size of a one-foot square, the Female will stand on the edge and feed at the same time as the male.
Intruders - Northern Cardinals are somewhat territorial and when other Cardinals get too close to each other a short-lived fight might break out. Skirmishes occur more often as Spring gets underway as the dominant Cardinal will attempt to chase the other Cardinals out of the area but the other Northern Cardinals will eventually return for some food when the Dominate Cardinal is away doing other things. Sometimes the Male Cardinal will see his reflection in glass windows and begin to fight with himself.
At the feeder, Northern Cardinals will take a variety of food, Sunflower seed, shelled peanuts, bird food blends and even Safflower seeds. Attracting Cardinals to your yard is quite easy if you follow a few simple rules. First Cardinals are somewhat shy and reluctant to feed when people are close but over time the Cardinals will become more relaxed after becoming acquainted with your presence. Secondly, place the feeder somewhat close to an area that offers safety in case the Cardinals need to retreat, close to bushes, shrubs, or a tree. Third, Cardinals offer a variety of bird food that features sunflower seeds and other seed types, like peanut pieces. Cardinals will at times even nibble on Suet if they can reach and perch near it.
In winter the subtle and brash colors of Northern Cardinals stand in contrast to the grey winter days and brighten your views of Nature and when Spring arrives the Male Cardinals will perch high in the tree in the early morning sunlight and serenade anyone in the hearing distance with their beautiful voice.
Photography Tips for Northern Cardinals and other Birds:
The Camera and Lens
Establishing the feeding area - if you have the room you can set up a purpose-built landing zone to make getting better bird photos easier. Find a few fallen branches cut to size for the birds to land on with a platform type feeder right below - make sure the birds can not fly directly to the feeder, you want to encourage the birds to land on the "posing perch" then jump down to feed, for best results use shelled peanuts and sunflower seed cardinals love this combo. Birds will normally land on the perch take a look around then jump down to feed. At the moment the bird is on the branch is your opportunity to snap the photo and your reaction time needs to be pretty quick. Having the camera set at the ready makes the task easier and the birds landing on the perch will provide for a more pleasing and natural photo. Also, allow a couple of days for birds to get accustomed to the new feeder and relax feeding in the location. I like establishing a new shooting position and watching the birds from a short distance for a few days so they become used to me being around which makes it easier to photograph later.
Establishing the location - It is best to position your feeding area where the early morning light shines and if at all possible position the landing branch in such a way to encourage the bird to land facing toward the sun. The secondary position I use is a location where the late afternoon sunlight shines, Northern Cardinals enjoy stocking up on food in the afternoon, and once again position the landing branch in such a way to encourage the birds to land with the sun to their front. I prefer the early morning or late afternoon as the quality of light is much softer and better for bird portraitures.
- Not everyone has access to the same gear so this advice is relative to what you have. If at all possible use a camera with an interchangeable mirrorless or DSLR camera, either camera type works equally well. The lens selection depends on how close your birds allow you to get - Personally I use a 70-200mm or a 300mm - the objective is to fill the camera frame while the bird is perched.
** In the event you do not have a camera and lens suitable for bird photography - I have used my smartphone and a GoPro camera, I mounted the GoPro on a gorilla tripod close to the bird perch and remotely fired the camera from my smartphone using the GoPro App.
If you don't have a DSLR/Mirrorless camera or lens see below for a good starter kit.
Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO: I almost exclusively shoot in manual mode, but if you are still learning your camera try Aperture Prefered Mode and adjust your ISO to keep the shutter speed up around 1/200 at a f/stop that has the bird in sharp focus. For the right depth of field, you want the bird's eyes and full body, side to side in sharp focus I use an f stop between f/5.6 and f/7.1, and depending on what your backdrop is you may be able to get away with a higher f-number. The objective is to pull details from the bird's feathers and ensure the eye is pinpoint and sharp - without including any distracting background. You want the background to fall out of focus right past the bird.
Shutter Speed - Depending on your camera/lens combo a good rule of thumb is to shoot at a shutter speed of at least the focal length of the lens. Thus if you have a 200mm you should try 1/200s. With newer lenses and cameras now having image stabilization built-in you can get away with a little slower shutter speed. If not it may be worth mounting the camera on a tripod to make things more steady, but it is not a necessity.
ISO - Friend or Foe?
Older cameras may show noise images taken with ISO past 800, while newer cameras have good images even at ISO 6400, the more noise in your image the less sharp your pictures will be. What I am getting at is to only adjust the ISO up when necessary to reduce image blurring from camera shake, higher shutter speeds help eliminate blurry photos. Thus to maintain that 1/200s shutter speed at f/5.6 you may need an ISO of 400 for example, your mileage may vary depending on your lighting situation and in-camera image stabilization or vibration reduction.
Test Shots - After you have everything set up take a few test shots and check for sharpness and focus, look carefully at your histogram to ensure proper exposure, and zoom into the image and check if the eye is in sharp focus if the bird's eye is not in focus those pictures are normally throw-outs. Once you start taking great bird photos you will most likely become hooked and want to venture out in nature and take even more bird pictures.
Practice makes perfect - so get out there a take some bird photos, challenging and fun!- good luck.