Bird photography is no snap

Professional studies habits and waits patiently to capture extraordinary scenes

photo The grace of a snowy egret is captured through the lens of photographer Mike Thirkell.

If birds are poetry in motion, photographer Mike Thirkell is a haiku artist.

This surf-photographer-turned-birdwatcher is gifted at capturing the grace, beauty and poetry of birds in action.

Like haiku, Thirkell’s bird photography is a different way of seeing the world. He captures an extraordinary wildlife moment that spurs you to pause and take notice of what is routinely overlooked. Many of his images can’t be viewed without a gasp of astonishment.

The Massachusetts native moved here after deciding “I can’t take one more winter in Boston.” He now calls Santee home.

Thirkell began taking pictures of wild birds while he was waiting between wave sets at local surfing beaches.

“In between waves, I started shooting birds and found I was really challenged by flight shots,” he said.

He soon discovered he was captivated by the style, motion and energy of birds in flight and he became an avid bird photographer. Living near Santee Lakes gives him easy access to a habitat that attracts a wide variety of birds, including migratory waterfowl, native water birds, raptors, woodpeckers, owls, insect eaters and seed eaters. One of his other favorite local bird-watching locations is Lindo Lake in Lakeside. This small lake seems to attract an unusual number species and allows photographers a chance to get closer because of its compact size and good cover in many places.

“Every time I go out to shoot, I am amazed at all the different unique characteristics, behavioral patterns, colors and insane difficulty in getting a shot of something that moves fast and gives you zero cooperation,” he said.

To get the most dramatic bird image, he has had to study the habits and behavior of wild birds so he knows when and where he might get the best shots. He has learned that the best times to both watch and photograph birds are early mornings and late afternoons. Morning is the best choice because feeding birds are most active then. Those times also present challenges of exposure, background and sharpness for the bird photographer.

“Sharpness is one of my biggest challenges, and when you are shooting in low light in the early morning or late afternoon, that can really be a problem,” Thirkell said.

He shoots with a Nikon digital camera, and his favorite lens is a 120-to-400 mm zoom.

Unlike many bird watchers who are simply content with getting an image of a bird on a branch, Thirkell is only satisfied when he gets something special.

“Patience is the key, and I have often stood under a tree for an hour or more to get the one shot of a bird taking off or landing,” he said.

In addition to birds, he uses the same skills to capture images of other kinds of wildlife. At Lindo Lake, he recently spent several hours each day for four days until he was able to catch a few images of a weasel as it popped its head out of its burrow.

To view more of Thirkell’s images, visit



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