My bird feeding station consists of a steel beam with the capabilities of screwing pipe to the upper portion so I can extend it as high as I want. I can also screw pipes at right angles to create branches to hang the feeders from. While it is great for keeping critters from climbing the feeder and keeping bears from reaching the food it is not so great as a perch for photographing birds. Photographs of birds on feeders are not all that interesting and no one wants to see a photo of a bird perched on a pipe.
After photographing birds at the feeders for several months I decided some changes were necessary and I really needed something to photograph the birds on besides the feeder and the pipe. The best approach seemed to be to add some branches to the top of the pipe so the birds would be sitting on a branch rather than a pipe. Now I install branches across the entire top of the feeder and extend them beyond the feeder so the birds have a place to land and to also provide more places to hang feeders. When I’m out walking in the woods I’m always looking for interesting branches that would make good perches.
In all cases I am looking for a perch that will add something interesting to my photographs. I’m normally looking for a perch with color or character. In selecting branches I try and locate some that are interesting and also have the branches arranged in such a way that they won’t be seen as clutter in the photograph. In other words I don’t want a branch that provides a perch where the bird would be obscured by another branch or where branches would clutter up the background. Having branches in the same focal plane is the best of all worlds.
Spring Perch Gathering
Spring is one of the times I go out looking for perches. There are no leaves on the trees and there are no bugs in the woods so it makes for a pleasant time to be in the woods and it is easy to spot branches that would make a good perch. Normally these are branches that have fallen on the ground. Any branch with character is a potential perch.
One of my favorite perches is the sumac. I was out today cutting some sumac, with berries, to use for my spring and summer perches. I also usually gather mature dead sumac branches in the spring for use at and around the feeder throughout the year. I’ve found that mature dead sumac branches make very nice perches. They have a lot of character to them and the woodpeckers seem to be attracted to them.
I discovered that birds really like sumac berries by accident. On a winter walk through the woods I found a variety of birds feeding on the sumac berries. It seemed like a great idea to cut a few of them and place them at my bird feeding station. I used to good old duct tape to attach them to the station. As it turned out, when given a choice, the birds much preferred black sunflower seeds to sumac berries. I left the sumac up during the winter with the intent of removing it when spring came.
Before I had a chance to remove the sumac branches the birds of spring arrived and I found that Robbins and more importantly Eastern Bluebirds just love sumac berries. They went through them within a short period of time. I was able to get some great pictures during that time. Now each spring I gather enough sumac branches, with the sumac berries, and store them so I can use them throughout the spring and early summer when the Eastern Bluebirds are nesting around the farm. Not only do they like them but the bright red colors make for a great perches for photography.
Fall Perch Gathering
The fall is the other time I gather perches. My goal is to find things that birds actually perch on in the wild and to find perches that would make interesting photo compositions.
During the fall I like to gather branches with leaves on them to give the photographs a little fall flavor. I usually cut some branches before the last of the leaves fall off of the trees. In our area oak trees seem to keep their leaves better than other species.. One year early in the fall we had heavy wet snow which brought down a number of large oak branches with the leaves still attached. I went out into the woods and cut a few of them and stored them for later in the season. I discovered that when cut before the leaves start falling off of the tree the leaves stay on the branches a lot longer. I’ve been able to store these oak branches for several years and reuse them from year to year without the leaves falling off.
I also gather pine branches in the fall and early winter. The pine branches are installed around the feeding station in the fall. They were originally intended to provide some green color to photograph the winter birds.
The Northern Cardinals really photograph well on pine boughs. The last few years I’ve added more pine boughs to provide cover for the birds coming to the feeder. There have been some Coopers Hawks hanging around the feeding station and since it is about seventy five yards from the station to the nearest trees it is important that I provide some additional cover for the feeding birds.
In the fall I am also looking for dried flowers and plants that are sturdy enough to hold a bird and would provide an interesting perch. Some of my favorites are milkweed, Common Mullein and cattails. I normally gather these after they have dried in the field and then store them over the winter for use in the following spring and summer. It is important not to wait too long after they dry to gather them because some of the dried flowers deteriorate quickly and then can’t be used.
Serendipity Perch Gathering
One day while walking in the woods I found a number of old wooden fence posts that were just rotting away. I thought they would make a great bird perch and they weren’t doing much good in the woods. I removed the fence posts along with some of the barbed wire. I then installed them near the bird feeder. To do this I drove a steel fencepost into the ground and used a couple of metal bands to attach the wooden post to the steel post. Using metal bands allows me to change height of the post depending upon what type of background I want in my photographs. Over the years I have collected a variety of posts so the posts can be changed from time to time.
Another winter day when I was out photographing birds I noticed that the birds liked to perch on wild grape vines. The problem was that none of the birds landed on the right place on the vines so I could photograph them. I realized they would make a great bird perches for bird photography so the next fall I started looking for some grape vines. I found some that had fallen on the ground so I cut about a ten foot vine and strung it up by my bird feeding station. This allowed me to get the shots I wasn’t able to get in the woods.
Hairy Woodpecker male
This year for the first time I added a homemade suet feeder. I went out to the woodpile and looked for some old logs with character. I found one that was almost rotten and another that was a nice birch log. I drilled holes about one inch in diameter and about two inches deep at various places on the log. I then attached a hooks on the top so the logs could be hung from the feeding station. This replaced the traditional wire suet feeder that worked well but didn’t offer much in the way of photography opportunities.
I tried a couple of types of suit in the logs. New this year are round compressed suet cakes shaped like logs that were designed to slip into holes drilled in the wood. If the hole is the correct size you can just slide the suit cake in and cut them off to fit flush with the outside of the hole. The advantage is they are quick to install and since they are a dry compressed suit they are not messy. On the other hand my birds didn’t appear to like them as well as the traditional peanut suit cakes. The latter are messy to install because you need to remove the suit from the cake and fill the holes with it.
I also use flowers that grow around the feeding station. The most common are the Sunflowers that grow from the fallen bird seed. I let them grow and use them perches when the birds start feeding on the seeds. The last couple of years I had some catnip growing in a half barrel that the birds seem to like when it was flowering and when it went to seed. From these experiences I plan to grow additional flowers in half barrels to provide additional perches.
Having spent considerable time talking about creating perches for photographing birds I should mention that you can also make use of natural cover in the area of your feeding station. I have some Red Twig Dogwood bushes in the feeding area. I also have a Dwarf Lilac bush that the birds like to perch at while eating. I usually go out in the fall and trim the bushes so they provide a good place for the birds to perch and to clear away unwanted branches so they don’t interfere with photography. This can take some time because I need to watch where the birds like to perch before doing any trimming.
Installing the Perches
Once the perches are collected the final step is to install them. How to install the perches is almost as important as the perches themselves. You are going to want to install them so you have a clear shot at the perch, good light and a good background. You also want them installed so you can get a good photograph with the lens you will be using. Keep in mind your are trying to eliminate some of the problems you encounter when photographing in nature.
I can’t emphasize enough having a system that can be easily changed. It is important that you be able to easily change the height and location of perches. I can’t count the times that I installed a perch that I thought was in a great location only to find when I setup my camera that it wouldn’t work because there was something in the foreground or background or that the perch needed to be closer or further from the camera.
The perches are going to have to be attached to something As I mentioned I attach some of the perches directly on my bird feeding station using duct tape. This works well and is easy to remove when changing perches. Sometimes string or twine also works well for attaching branches.
I also mentioned that I use steel fence posts to hold the larger perches such as my wooden fence posts. My preference would be not to use steel fence posts because they are harder to install and move but they are the only thing strong enough to hold some large perches.
One year I noticed that some Eastern Phoebes had build a nest above an outside garage flood light. I sat and watched them for several weeks but couldn’t get a shot because there was no really good place for them to land. A simple solution was to install a perch in the yard where they could land before going to the nest. The problem was finding something to use to hold the perch. It needed to be strong enough so the perch would remain upright. Since it was going to be installed in the middle of the yard I wanted something that could be easily removed before mowing the lawn. I found that plastic electric fence posts will hold most of the perches I put in the yard. They have steel point that allows the post to be easily pushed into the ground using a step in flange. They can easily be pulled up and moved. Duck tape can be used to attach the perch to the post.
Gathering and creating bird perches can almost be as much fun as photographing the birds. More bird photographs can be found on my website.