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Quest for the Belted Kingfisher

(Bird Photography Using a Portable Blind)

Steve Ellwood | E-Mail | Posted 01-07-2011

Belted Kingfisher Portrait

Belted Kingfisher Portrait - Steve Ellwood

Over the years few birds have presented a greater challenge for me to photograph than the Belted Kingfisher. Like many I was impressed by the speed and keen fishing skills these birds possess as well as their striking looks. I became convinced that if I were to approach carefully with enough patience I would succeed at capturing the close up that I pictured in my mind. It didn't take long to realize that my plan was seriously flawed and frustration set in. It quickly became a contest that they were winning every time, so it was time for a plan.

Blind Setup

Blind Setup Front - Steve Ellwood

First I had to locate a good fishing site, one that Belted Kingfishers worked regularly. Pond, creek, and river sides are particularly attractive locations and the birds will feed in both fresh and saltwater. Once a location was selected I observed from a distance during the morning and evening to confirm activity and get an idea which perches were preferred. These birds are extremely faithful to their productive perches and even when uneasy are driven to get to their "lucky" spot. Now I could choose the best vantage point to set up my gear based on the perch activity, the best light and the most attractive backgrounds. The next step was to decide the best way to blend myself and my gear into the landscape. The means of cover needed to be effective, portable, simple and quick to set up. When arriving on location it's best to get into position quickly and with as little movement as possible. To better blend into the surroundings I often look for some form of foliage to set up next to so that I'm not visible as a single vertical object and less of a change to the familiar area close to the perches.

I decided that a simple section of camo fabric draping myself and my gear was a practical solution to get the job done. I purchased a large piece of fabric from Bass Pro Shoppe for $25 (4.5 ft. x 11 ft.). The dangling leaf-cutout style was a good choice because it provides a way to see out and allows some ventilation when it's warm. I later added another layer of fabric of the screen-type material to add more cover, not a necessity but it can be helpful. Then I gathered a mini bungee cord and three small clips to use for securing the fabric in place.

Blind Setup Closeup

Blind Setup Profile - Steve Ellwood

On most days I arrive at the day's first light and set up my gear near my truck. I drape the fabric at the half way mark of the length across the lens, camera and tripod. Then I use the mini bungee cord to wrap just behind the lens hood and hook the ends underneath. Step two is attaching the three spring clips to close up the front seam, just below the lens at the front of the tripod. At this point the make-shift blind is ready to be carried into position near the perches. Once in place I lift the rear opening in the fabric to climb under, being sure to get as much of the fabric covering me on the backside as possible. It's best to get into position when there are no birds around to avoid the association of humans with the make-shift blind but there will be times when this isn't possible, especially in high-activity locations. It's very likely that a Kingfisher will not stay once it spots you setting up but don't be discouraged, their drive to fish those favorite perches is strong and they'll almost certainly return before long.

Once in position there's often a lot of waiting time which I like to spend metering and testing things to make sure I'm ready to go. Very often Kingfishers signal their arrival with their familiar chatter but occasionally they will use a more stealthy approach. Once a Belted Kingfisher arrives the instinct is to begin shooting, not a good idea, even swinging the lens over to the perch the bird chose is likely to startle it. Any lens movement should be done extremely slow and only when the bird is not fixated on the blind. It's very important to remember that you may be disguised in your blind but you're far from invisible and these birds are every bit as smart as they are skittish. They almost always take long looks in my direction when they show up so I wait and stay very quiet and still. As the bird becomes more relaxed it will either begin looking for fish below or start preening and that's when I slowly pan over, pause to see the bird's reaction and only then start clicking if it appears calm. A slight flinch reaction to the camera shutter is common and most times the birds will tolerate it, especially when they are fixated on fishing.

When it's time to leave, as I mentioned earlier it's always best to wait for the bird or birds to leave first if possible. If the location is to become a regular place to photograph these birds then it's wise to do whatever is necessary to disassociate humans with your photo blind. The more your set up becomes a visible part of the landscape the less it'll be perceived as a threat and should attract less attention or concern with time.

My quest to photograph these birds was a challenging and very gratifying experience. I hope that I'll continue to be blessed with time near these unique birds in the future. One day I hope to capture the ultimate Kingfisher photo of a female feeding her young. I can visualize the shot, with a good plan and a little luck who knows I just might get it.

Below are some examples of Steve's Belted Kingfisher study. Click here for More of Steve Ellwood's Photography.

Belted Kingfisher with Fish
Belted Kingfisher Preening
Belted Kingfishers on Perch

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