Act Like a Cow – Approaching Birds in the Field by Matthew Studebaker
Have you ever seen birds in a field next to grazing cattle or deer? Birds trust these large animals mostly because these animals mind their own business. When I was just starting to learn bird photography I spent over an hour trying to approach a Blue-winged Teal feeding in a canal next to a jogging path. Every time I would get close to photo range it would retreat. Then along came several women doing their daily exercises and the duck allowed them to jog right by it without even looking at them. I soon realized that I was acting like a predator by constantly staring at the duck and moving directly towards it. The walkers, however, never even noticed the duck and consequently the duck never perceived them as a threat. Now when approaching a flighty subject, I bring to mind the behavior of cattle grazing next to flocks of birds. I try not to make unnecessary eye contact. I move randomly and slowing rather than in a direct line, building the bird’s trust, letting them get used to my presence. I stay as low to the ground as possible, and make no sudden movements. In this manner, the birds begin to trust me. After I have gained their trust, I am much more free to move about and reposition myself.
While leading one of my first shorebird photography workshops, I demonstrated this technique of acting like a large grazing mammal much to everyone’s amazement. We had over 8 species of shorebirds feeding in a small mudflat including Red Knots, Stilt Sandpipers, and a Short-billed Dowitcher. At first, the birds would raise their heads and sound an alarm call with our slightest movement. But after acting like large herbivores in about 30 minutes the birds were totally used to our presence. Least Sandpipers were walking around us in circles; Red Knots were feeding inside our minimum focusing distance, etc. After we had gained their trust we could even carry on normal conversations and get up slowly to get new batteries or cards from our vehicles as so forth. Now I demonstrate this technique on workshops whenever the opportunity arises.