Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Bird Photography

8 Tips for Photographing the Spring Bird Migration

Spring migration is one of the most exciting times of the year for bird photographers.  With hundreds of bird species migrating from the south to the north, you never know what you’re going to see and photograph.

After many years of photographing the Spring Bird Migration, I’ve assembled some tips to help get some keepers during this fun time of the year for bird photography.

Spring Bird Migration Photography Tips

Get out Frequently

The peak bird migration is only several weeks long so it pays to maximize your time out in the field, even if you can only get out for an hour.  Birds migrate through the area every night and different species migrate at different times.

Bird Cast
Bird Cast

BirdCast is a useful website to determine how many migrants flew into your area overnight and can be helpful in deciding the best days to go out to photograph the birds.  BirdCast uses radar to determine how many birds are in flight over night in your area.  It can also tell you how far the migration has progressed compared to historical averages, and it also displays the migration timing for different species.

For the blog readers outside of the United States, BirdCast is currently only available in the continental United States. 

Stay Local

There are well known locations for photographing birds during the migration.  They do have a good variety of birds, but there are also thousands of birders and bird photographers there during the migration. 

Magee Marsh in Ohio is a well known birding location for the spring migration.  They sponsor the Biggest Week in American Birding during the peak of the migration.  Over 100,000 birders and bird photographers attend the event. 

I prefer to photograph the spring migration from my local parks.  Due to the close distance to the parks, I can get out more frequently during the migration.  Also, after several visits to these local parks, you will begin to identify the best locations to find and photograph the birds, and you will better understand the morning and evening light and how to position yourself for the best shots.

eBird
eBird

I use eBird to monitor the bird sightings in my local parks.  eBird lists bird sightings for locations around the world.  You can also find the hot spots for the different regions, the top eBirders, and the birds identified on recent visits.

I also follow the birding Facebook groups for my county, state, and other areas that I like to visit.  Postings will normally give the date and location where the photograph was taken.

Use Your Ears

You may not be able to identify all of the bird species in the migration, but listening can help you identify the presence and location of the bird.  Over time, you will begin to recognize the different bird species and be able to differentiate the local birds from the migrants.  I find my ears to be just important or even more important than my eyes in identifying and locating birds.

Male Eastern Towhee - ISO 1250
Male Eastern Towhee

Move Slowly

This is good advice for photographing birds and wildlife in general.  Move slowly – sudden movements can frighten the birds.  Also keep your arms close to your body and not swinging out from your side when you lift your lens.

Be Patient

Often these migrants will be busy feeding after a long night of travel.  If you stand still and be patient, they may move toward your or into an opening for you to get a clear shot.

Use a Fast Frame Rate with Continuous Autofocus

Warblers and other small migrants can be really quick, hopping and flying from branch to branch.  A fast frame rate can be key to catching a clean image with a good pose. 

Continuous Autofocus helps to get more in focus shots of these fast moving little birds.  Some mirrorless cameras have really fast shooting modes that don’t focus between frames. 

My OM System (Olympus) OM-1 has a Sequential SH1 mode that can shoot up to 120 fps but only focuses before the first frame.  I opt to use the slower Sequential SH2 mode (50 fps) or Silent Sequential Mode (20 fps) that focus between frames.

Chipping Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow

Watch your Bird Feeder

Migrant birds will also stop at your bird feeder to fuel up after their journey.  I’ve had Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, Baltimore Orioles, Chipping Sparrows and more visit my feeder.  I make it a habit to take my camera and long lens out while I’m grilling on the patio.  You never know who is going to drop by.

Merlin Bird Photo ID
Merlin Bird Photo ID

Merlin Can Help Identify Birds

The Merlin Bird ID App can help you identify the different migrant birds. The Merlin App is created by The Cornell Lab – the same people who run eBird. Merlin is available for both iOS and Android.

Merlin has a Bird Identification Wizard, Sound ID (listens to the birds around you and identifies the bird), and Bird Photo ID. The easiest was to use eBird is Photo ID. Simply choose a photo from your library, zoom to fill the bird in the bird in the box, indicate when and where the photo was taken. Merlin will attempt to identify the bird. Merlin has identified the majority of bird photographs that I’ve tried.

Written by Martin Belan

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2 Comments

    • Martin Belan

      Hi Alisa,

      I agree. The spring migration is on of my favorite times to photograph. I’m heading out this morning. Thanks for leaving the feedback!

      Martin

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