How to Attract Birds to Your Garden for Photography
We often think of wildlife photographers being on their own, maybe in a hide in the middle of a remote wilderness hoping to get an image of a very rare or extremely desirable creature. Yet, I can say with absolute confidence that the one place in the world where I have taken most photographs of wildlife is in my garden.
There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, it is the outdoor space to which I have easiest access, and secondly – after 25 years living in the same house – it is the place over which I have had greatest control.
In short, I have used my garden as a place to attract and photograph wildlife. In this article, I will share some of my strategies and show you how to attract birds to your garden for photography.
Deciding on the target species
It is helpful, before you start trying to encourage birds into the garden, to have some idea of the species you are likely to be able to attract. This will depend upon where in the country you live, and what habitats are close by.
In this article, I will focus on the most commonly occurring garden birds (in the UK) to make it appropriate to as many people as possible. If you think you might be able to attract uncommon birds, or birds in another country, then you will need to adapt the strategies mentioned here and research the requirements of those species.
How to attract birds to your garden
To attract birds we must first understand what they need. All birds that we are likely to see in our gardens need fresh water to drink, and the vast majority also want water in which to bathe.
They need food, but the type of food they require varies between species (and even varies for some species through the year).
So, for example, a finch will primarily eat seed – especially through the winter – but, when feeding their young, the same birds will collect insects as food.
Thrushes can be seen collecting worms and snails in summer, but in winter they are just as likely to be feeding on berries in shrubs and trees.
Birds also need somewhere to nest and, in spring, the access to resources from which to make their nest. They also need safe places where they can roost, or simply flee to when danger threatens.
Let’s look in more detail at each of these requirements and how we might use them to help us attract birds to the garden for photography.
When I first thought of providing water for birds, I immediately thought of a garden pond. I would encourage anyone with an interest in wildlife to have a garden pond, but this isn’t necessarily the best way of attracting birds for photographic purposes.
Read more: How to Build a Bird Reflection Pool
When I made my garden pond, I specifically thought of taking photos of birds bathing and so made it a raised pond at which I could get eye-level views. I used railway sleepers at the front and dug the pond into a bank of earth at the back. This ensured I could get the views I wanted from the front, and the wildlife could get easy and safe access through the vegetation at the back.
However, I still find the pond quite limiting for bird photography. The edges of the pond tend to be quite overgrown (because that is best for other forms of wildlife), and I can only really view the pond from one side. So the pond is excellent for wildlife, but limited for photography.
I have found that I take many more photos of birds bathing and drinking at bird baths than at the pond. Bird baths are flexible; they can be moved around to suit the light and can be lifted higher or lower depending upon the viewpoint of the camera.
Strangely, I also think birds prefer to drink and bathe at a bird bath rather than at the pond, though I can’t fully explain that. Maybe it’s because I tend to have the bird bath close to the bird feeders so it is easier for them, or maybe it is because the water is regularly refreshed and always the same depth.
The typical bird bath on a pedestal can look quite attractive. I have experimented with a variety of techniques, such as using a telephoto lens at eye-level or using a wide-angle lens with a remote release. But, generally, I want to try to get shots which look a little more natural and so I have an ‘infinity pool’ bird bath. This is essentially just a very big bird bath which can be adorned with pebbles, leaves, or mossy branches to make it look natural.
To make an infinity pool I use a plywood base which must be at least 50 inches long, but preferably longer (because of the angle of view and not wanting the front edge to be in the photos), and at least 24 inches wide. I screw some 2-inch high timber around the edge and then use pond liner to make it hold water. This can then be positioned somewhere convenient. I have my current infinity pool outside my conservatory on two up-turned dustbins – an attractive garden feature!
Over time you will develop strategies for making this pool work more effectively. In mine, I have flint shingle in the water at the far end to enable the birds to get into the water and to mask the far edge of the base.
Along the two sides I have put planks to stop birds gaining access along the edges where they would look unnatural. Even with this level of planning, some birds land at the near edge which is no good for me – but the majority learn to approach from the far end.
2. Bird feeders
The simplest way to provide food is to put out bird feeders, and this is the easiest way to get photos because feeders can be replenished regularly and moved around the garden to the best photographic locations. Photographing birds on feeders can be rewarding, but won’t satisfy our photographic creativity forever.
Well-positioned bird feeders will give us the opportunity to photograph birds in flight. To do this, reduce the access points on your bird feeder to one hole and place the feeder somewhere that you might be able to predict the bird’s flight path. Set up your camera on a tripod, use a remote release to take a quick burst of photos as the bird flies in, and Bob’s your uncle.
If you’re struggling freezing the birds in flight, you might prefer something more sedate – though, believe me, bird photography can never be described as sedate.
Place your feeder somewhere close to the house and watch how the birds approach. Position a natural prop on their approach path and photograph the birds as they land on that.
Natural props can be as creative as you want them to be. I have used everything from spade handles to lichen-covered branches, but I have also used boughs of blossom.
From other places around the garden I might cut a small branch with blossom on it. I then put this into a small plastic bottle of water to keep it fresh for a day or two, and then position the whole thing on the flightpath of the birds near the feeder.
Bird seed, peanuts, niger seed, mealworms, and fat balls can all be used to attract birds to feeders – but they can also be placed in such a way as to be hidden from sight whilst still attracting birds.
You can drill holes into a log and push peanuts or fat in to attract tits and woodpeckers. You can sprinkle niger seed into teasel heads to keep goldfinches coming back to feed. You can find logs with natural holes in which to put bird seed. I have even drilled holes into fork handles (I’ll try to avoid mentioning ‘The Two Ronnies’ sketch!) to get birds to perch on top.
Once you have birds coming to a particular ‘set-up’, think about how you can adapt it. For example, last autumn when I had woodpeckers coming to a log I surrounded the log with autumnal foliage; this spring when I had young woodpeckers coming, I dressed it by placing foxgloves in buckets of water underneath.
3. Planting food sources
All of these food-based strategies so far have been short-term. In the longer term, we should all aim to provide natural food for birds by growing appropriate plants.
I will give some examples of plants that provide food and photographic opportunities, but as a general rule – when stocking your garden with plants – ask the question: ‘What will they provide for wildlife?’.
Plants will also create habitats for insects. I believe that we must support as large a part of the ecosystem as we can in the space we have available to us. In a nutshell, more birds will visit our gardens if there are more insects.
Berry-bearing trees for thrushes, blackbirds, robins and blackcaps. The most productive in my garden is the pyracantha. I also have a cherry tree which has fruit in early summer, an elder which has fruit in late summer, a couple of small apple trees which provide fruit in autumn, a small holly tree which has berries in December, and ivy which grows on the elder tree and provides berries in late January. Other possibilities include cotoneaster, hawthorn, rowan and berberis.
Provide seed-bearing plants for finches. Generally, I would suggest that native species are best. Red campion and knapweed produce a lot of seed in a flower bed, whilst also attracting insects.
On the lawn, allow dandelions, yellow rattle, and self-heal to grow. Teasels are wonderful for attracting goldfinches, and so are thistles if you think you can cope with them (you can get ornamental varieties).
As for non-native plants, try sunflowers and maybe rosa rugosa which produces wonderful hips loved by greenfinches.
Setting up stages
To be honest, it is unlikely that you would be able to grow each of these trees, shrubs and plants outside your house window where you can easily photograph birds. So, you need a photographic strategy.
You either need to move yourself or them, and often it is better (and sometimes easier) to move them. By moving the subject to you, it means you can control the angle of light and the quality of the background.
For example, I often cut teasels and clamp them in position outside my house or shed window. Then, I sprinkle them with niger seed to get the goldfinches to feed there regularly.
Read more: How to Photograph Wildlife in Your Backyard
If I get thrushes feeding in the pyracantha or holly, then I will cut boughs of berries and position them in good photographic locations and get the birds to come to me. It might seem surprising, but birds are not perturbed to find a bough of pyracantha or holly berries growing from a piece of timber outside my window so long as there are other berries nearby.
Through the autumn and winter I put apples on my lawn. Blackbirds and blackcaps are seen regularly, but during cold snaps I also get fieldfares and redwings occasionally.
I have even been known to dig up a dandelion seed head and ‘plant’ it in a position where I can photograph it, so long as I already have goldfinches feeding there regularly!
Birds need to feel safe in your garden. When threatened, they need somewhere to hide and generally they head for dense cover. For this purpose, it is useful to have some evergreen shrubs. Again, ivy is a good one for this; the holly is very popular in our garden as is the pyracantha hedge, though any dense hedge will suffice.
Placement is important. For example, house sparrows like to have cover within easy reach of the house – literally no more than a few yards away, the lazy blighters!
Climbers are useful. You can transform a bare fence, or the wall of your house, into a rich habitat by growing honeysuckle, ivy, or an insect-attracting clematis.
The quick fix for nesting is so obvious I barely need to say it, but I will: nest boxes. Blue and great tits can easily be attracted to most gardens with hole-fronted nest boxes (25 and 28mm respectively). Nuthatches and house sparrows also like nest boxes with holes of about 32mm in diameter. Robins will use open-fronted nest boxes, if you are lucky.
Other species which are often attracted to nest boxes in gardens include great spotted woodpecker, tree sparrow, redstart, pied flycatcher, spotted flycatcher, house martin, swift, pied wagtail, and tawny owl – but only if you live in an appropriate place. Guidance on size and placement of nest boxes can be found on the RSPB website.
Again, there is a longer-term strategy which we should all try to employ if we have space and that is to provide natural places for nesting. For finches, coal tits, and goldcrests we should aim to provide a range of dense (possibly evergreen) shrubs and trees. House sparrows like to gain access through our fascias and soffits – but don’t worry, it’s not as painful as it sounds. If you have a small gap under the corner of your roof and it isn’t doing any harm, just leave it for sparrows to get in. Or, make a small gap in a shed or garage window.
Nooks and crannies are the key to success. Wrens might nest in the gap between a tree and a twisted trunk of ivy. Robins and blackbirds like to nest where a climbing plant bends and twists against a wall or fence. A dense climbing rose over an arch will provide opportunities for blackbirds and thrushes. You never know your luck, you might even get a long-tailed tit family moving in.
Providing nesting material
In spring, birds need to collect materials to make their nests. It is also possible to grow plants which provide natural nesting materials. For example, I have had success with pampas grass for house sparrows. Also, mosses on the lawn work for a variety of birds, and finches seem to love the coconut-mat-like covering on the trunk of our palm.
But, generally, I think it is better to think about providing nesting material specifically for birds when appropriate and this strategy is definitely better for photographic purposes.
In spring, I put out a range of useful natural nesting products such as dog hair, my own hair, sheep fleece (my wife spins and knits, so no shortage of that), and moss. I put some of it in old bird feeders, some on the ground, and some attached to photogenic props such as old bits of barbed wire.
The most common visitors are those that nest in boxes nearby (that’s house sparrows, blue tits, and great tits), but I also get blackbirds and goldfinches as well as a few other species.
Whatever our end-game, it has to be a positive thing to encourage birds into our gardens. It means we can stay local, rather than travelling the world trying to grab shots of “other people’s wildlife”. Maybe it is better that we concentrate on what we have closer to home.
Personally, I look upon it as my challenge to show the beauty and interest that is all around us, and I like to think that by doing this we have a better chance of encouraging the general public to understand and protect their own environment.