Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Advanced Layering Techniques – Bring Back The Sky

If you shoot birds in flight, you’ve probably been frustrated by trying to get the exposure right. Either the bird is blown out, or, more often, the background sky looks perfect, but the bird is just a dark silhouette. Been there, done that, hit the “delete” button.  If you expose the bird perfectly (yay!) the sky is probably too light (boo!).

There are a number of ways to fix such shots. Making major adjustments usually cause some problems. Noise and artifacts appear whenever you lighten a photo, so starting with a photo where the sky looks good, but the bird is too dark probably won’t win you any awards. Let’s work on how to fix the best of the miserable shots you ended up with – the ones where the bird is exposed the way you want it but the sky is too light. Since the bird is the main subject, that’s the part of the picture that you will want to look best anyway.

The simple way to fix you photo is to make a separate layer, adjust the sky, then mask the bird. That’s fine if you aren’t going to print the shot or try to sell it, but it is VERY difficult and time-consuming to get the mask just right. There are places that you just can’t get right (teeny-tiny feather edges) and such. If you use the “Select” tool, there are often parts of the birds that aren’t selected properly, and if you zoom way in, there will be little jagged edges along the lines where one set of pixels were selected while others weren’t. Nothing is more disappointing that working forever on a single photo and, when you are done, it looks so bad that you just delete it.

While nothing beats getting the perfect shot in the first place, there is a way to fix these kinds of shots fairly quickly without showing a lot of boo-boos if you zoom way in or print the photo at a larger size. Yes, you can take a lot of time to go around and clean these things up, but it is time-consuming, and doesn’t always leave a great end product.

This technique will leave you with nicer edges

Let me also take a second to mention that I have to downsize these shots a lot to use on my blog page – there is WAY more detail in the full-sized shots. I’m also making the assumption here that you have a basic understanding of how to use layers and masks. If you DON’T know how to use these, LEARN!!!!! It will improve your processing a million percent and cut the time it takes by about the same amount. Photoshop and Corel Paint Shop Pro pretty much work the same way in the steps I’m going to explain.

Let’s look at a fairly quick and easy way to fix the shot below that is lacking sky detail:

First step, run a noise-reduction step – we’re going to darken the photo and that always adds a little noise. Second, remove the bird (WHAT???) using a large clone tool and save the file using a different name.

Next, make a duplicate layer and set the layer type to “Multiply.” Duplicate the multiplied layer a couple of times until you like the way the sky looks. In this case, I used three layers. Merge all the layers down. Now the sky looks better, but it seems to be missing a bird.

Next, go back to your ORIGINAL photo, copy the entire thing and post as a new layer. If you want to reposition the bird, you can select an area around the bird (instead of copying the entire photo) making sure to get a little of the background all around it and place it where you want. Make a duplicate copy of the layer you just copied in and click the “Visibility” button to make the top layer invisible. You now have 3 layers. The bottom layer is the adjusted sky without the bird, the second (middle) layer is the original photo, and the top layer is the original photo, but not visible. At this point, your photo will appear to look just like the original photo since it is on top of the adjusted sky photo. Now, set the middle layer type to “Darken.” This will put back most of your bird as shown below:

The problem is that the white/light areas of the bird will appear blue as they are not darker than the background. The nice thing is that the computer did all the hard work of putting in all the really fine details on the darker edges of the bird without leaving any harsh transitions.

Next, make the top layer visible again and select a mask that masks the entire photo. Using a white brush, carefully unmask the white/light areas of the bird. You may want to brush across the entire body of the bird to bring up white/light areas there as well. The only place you really have to be a little careful is where the white on the bird reaches the very edge of the body. Still, it is not very difficult to get nice results without much effort – now you only have to work on a few areas with the mask because the computer did the rest.

Before and after:

To see more detail, you can view a large version of the above photo at:

Here’s the finished product:

Is it cheating? I'll let you make your own decision. Either way, this is the way it looked through my viewfinder when I took the photo and now I have a nice photo. Essentially, this isn't much different than just selecting the sky only and darkening it. The real difference is that this method only impacts the sky behind the bird and leaves the bird exactly as it was - which is the whole point of what you otherwise would have been trying to achieve by just selecting and working on the sky. The difference is that this method doesn't leave a bunch of lines or require a ton of work to make it look good.

I will admit that using photoshop too much can be thought of as turning a photo into art. The same can be said about using polarizers and colored filters - techniques used by photographers for decades. The same can be said about techniques old-timers used in the darkroom such as dodging and burning to give mist around moving water or even (gasp) trying to save a photo like the one I started with.

In this case, I didn't add or delete a single element of the photo. I was simply VERY selective about which components I darkened (which is what a "Multiply" layer does). I didn't even change the contrast, color or saturation. If someone said that they simply darkened a photo, most people would just shrug their shoulders and say, "So what?"

Decide for yourself what you want to do. There may be a gray line (or even a black line) between what you consider art and photography, but you can always fix that with Photoshop ;-)

Steve Byland is a wildlife photographer living in suburban New Jersey. His photos can be seen at www.stevebyland.com . You can email him at sbbyland@aol.com

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Create Your Own Bird Sanctuary

If you love birds, you’ve probably visited a nature sanctuary near your home and marveled at the wildlife. The feeders at the visitor center are teeming with birds of all kinds. It may be only a 15 minute drive, but it might as well be an entire world away.

Apple trees are the perfect cover for birds year round. They have insects in spring and summer, apples through the fall, and thick masses of branches in the winter

So, what is the difference between YOUR back yard and THIS place? You have a feeder or two and get your share of Cardinals and Chickadees, especially in the winter. Still, your yard pales in comparison to the local nature center. They always seem to have something special.

Don’t you wish that your backyard was more like the nature center? It could be. You may not have 100 acres, a pond, open fields and wooded acres like they do, but there are things that you can learn from them to attract more birds into your own yard. I live less than 30 miles from New York City and sometimes feel like I’m directly in the flight path to the Newark Airport, but my yard is swarming with birds. While writing this article, I took a break to take care of the birds in my yard. It’s going to be over 100 degrees today, and they appreciate a little extra attention. I put out some dried meal worms for the Bluebirds and their newly fledged young. The Hummingbird feeders needed to be cleaned and refilled. The Catbirds and Woodpeckers have emptied the suet feeder again. I wiped the birdbaths clean and filled them with cool water. Some seed in the platform feeder, another handful sprinkled on the ground, a few peanuts for the Squirrels, and I was back inside in less than 10 minutes.  During that time, I encountered about 50 birds and close to 20 species. If I had stayed out an hour, I would have probably had closer to 35 species.

Even if birds that don’t come to your feeders may use butterfly bushes like this Common Yellowthroat. Hummingbirds and butterflies will visit in the summer for nectar and insects

Was my yard always like this? Certainly not. It took years to entice Bluebirds to nest here, but they are now fixtures in my neighborhood. The same is true for Hummingbirds. They can be difficult to attract to nest in my part of the country, but I have them visiting my feeders all summer long like clockwork – about every 10 minutes. How did I do it? More important, how can YOU do it too?

Think of creating a backyard bird sanctuary the same way you would think about planting a beautiful garden. Most new homeowners have had the experience of moving into a house, admiring the neighbor’s beautiful garden, then rushing to the garden center for a few flats of flowers. Once in the ground, most of the flowers died within a few weeks and we moaned “I just don’t have a green thumb.” It’s the same thing with birds. We bought a feeder and bag of seed at the hardware store and set it up. It either attracted nothing and the seed spoiled, or we got only Starlings and House Sparrows. “There just aren’t any good birds in my neighborhood,” we said. Why did the flowers die? Why no flock of pretty songbirds? The answer is pretty much the same. They didn’t get what they needed. Flowers need the right soil, the correct amount of light and the proper amount of water. Needs differ for each type of flower. Birds are no different.

Some feeders are designed to prevent “undesirable” birds such as Starlings like this suet feeder that can only be accessed from below 

Each species of bird has very specific needs. If you give them what they want, they will probably come to your yard. Okay, what do they need? 
  • Safety from predators
  • Food
  • Water
  • A place to nest and raise their young (assuming that they breed in your area)
ALL of these are important. Let’s look at each of them.

Safety From Predators – A bird’s eye view of the world is one filled with danger. Hawks above, cats and other predators below. The best shelters come from trees, bushes, brush piles and tall grass. Of course, predators use the same things for cover, so keep a little open space between sheltered areas so that the birds can use their keen eyesight to keep watch. Plan and manage the habitat – that’s what they do at the nature center.

 Hummingbird feeders need not be fancy. Red feeders with yellow flowers are recognized by most hummingbirds as a good source of food. This feeder is about the size of a roll of quarters and cost less than $5.00

Food – This is something that might take a little research. For optimum success, you need to know what birds are in your area at each time of year, what their favorite foods are, their preferred type of feeder, etc. You need to match the type of feeder and food to the species you want to attract. Cardinals, for instance, prefer platform feeders with black oil sunflower seeds. Hummingbirds want sugar water feeders. Woodpeckers, Catbirds and Titmice love suet. A visit to the local nature center can put you on the right track here. Don’t go crazy at first. Just get a few feeders with the appropriate food at first and work your way up slowly. Remember to place the feeders close to the safe places mentioned above. Make sure they are where you can see them as well so that you enjoy your new friends and remember to feed them. Keep the feeders clean, but you don’t need to fill them to the top until the birds are eating more. Having fresh food is important. Since the species of birds in your area changes with the seasons, so will the types of food you should offer.

 This birdbath is heated for year-round use and can accommodate the whole family

Water – Birds need water year-round. Birdbaths range from expensive heated affairs with cascading waterfalls to something homemade. Try turning over a large flower pot, placing the base on top and filling the base with water. The important thing is that the water be clean and available at all times. Not all birds come to feeders, but almost all come to water.

  Here is part of the same family bathing in a bath made from a large, broken flower pot and its base

Nesting – Some songbird species will nest in birdhouses and some will not. Bluebirds, Swallows, Chickadees and Wrens are among some of the more popular songbirds that use nest boxes. Each prefers a slightly different kind of box that will meet their needs while discouraging other species. You might want to buy birdhouses that target the species you want from a manufacturer such as Duncraft (www.duncraft.com) that has different birdhouses for different species. Other birds will probably nest in the sheltered areas listed earlier.

Birdhouses can be made from plans easily found on the internet and can be customized for different species. This box has a wide hole to let more than one baby Tree Swallow look out at a time.

If you are a photographer, like I am, think about lighting while you make your plans. I have a spot in my yard that gets fantastic light in the afternoon. Guess where I put the Bluebird house. Most of my feeders and birdhouses can be rotated to follow the sun provide different backgrounds. I do most of my photography from a blind that keeps me out of the sun and minimizes disturbance to the birds.

Smaller bird houses are perfect for smaller birds such as Wrens, Chickadees and Titmice

Like a beautiful garden, a backyard bird sanctuary grows and matures over time. Every year, you can make it a little better, a little safer and a little more attractive to you and the birds that will come to call your yard home.

Steve Byland is a wildlife photographer living in suburban New Jersey. His photos can be seen at www.stevebyland.com – many of which were taken in his own backyard. You can email him at sbbyland@aol.com

Friday, July 20, 2012

Ten Tips For Taking Bird Pictures Like A Pro In Your Own Backyard

Planning your photos in advance increases you odds of getting great photos. This male Bluebird often hovered over his mate during the mating season

I’ve been a professional wildlife photographer for years and travel all across the country to take pictures. It’s a great job, but somebody’s got to do it. I’ve crisscrossed the United States from north to south and east to west. Winter, spring, summer or fall, I’ve been there. Still, my favorite place to take photographs is my own backyard. I know it like the back of my hand. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of birds visit my bird feeders every year. I’ve spent so much time out there that I recognize a good number of them individually. Most of my best-selling shots are of birds that I’ve known for years.
Very few of my shots are random. When I walk out the back door, I usually have a plan for what I want to shoot that day. Certainly birds and animals are somewhat unpredictable, so I don’t know exactly what I’m going to get, but whatever is presented to me, I’m usually ready for it. Let me share with you the ten steps I use to get the shots I want.

Tip 1: Pick your subject

I select the camera/lens combination based on the species, or at least size of bird I want to photograph that day. I don’t use the same set-up for tiny Hummingbirds that I use for larger birds such as Blue Jays. I find that NOT concentrating on something specific leads to missed shots. The best way to get the once-in-a-lifetime photo is to be ready for it when the opportunity presents itself. 

Male Pine Warblers often visit my suet feeders in late March

Tip 2: Learn Behavior

If you know a bird’s behavior, you increase your chances of getting great shots. You don’t have to do a lot of studying – just observe the birds in your yard. How often do they come to the feeder? How long do they stay? What do they eat? How do they interact with other birds? I often find that individual Hummingbirds will come to a feeder on a set schedule that varies by less than a minute during the day. They often feed exactly the same each time they visit. Knowing this is all the advantage I need.

Tip 3: Anticipate Behavior

My reflexes are slow compared to those of birds. By the time I see the scene I want and communicate to my finger to press the shutter button, it’s usually too late. Often, though, there is something that will signal you that good things are about to happen. Baby Tree Swallows looking out of a birdhouse start squawking a few seconds before the parents show up with a meal which allows me to start shooting before they get to the nest.

The baby Tree Swallow would announce the anticipated arrival of the parent with food

Tip 4: Plan For Good Light

Study the light in your yard. Light is best in early morning and late afternoon, but often shadows from trees block the light. Look for places in your yard where the light is still present at these times. Pictures taken at high noon on sunny days will be harsh. If you can only shoot at mid-day because of trees, choose days that are overcast, but bright.  

Birds often get into habits like this Bluebird that likes to bathe in the afternoon

Tip 5: Watch Your Background

There’s an old saying that if something doesn’t add to the picture then it takes away from it. You don’t want the subject of you picture to get lost in the clutter. It should be prominent enough to make a statement.

Tip 6: Control Depth Of Field

Using a wide aperture gives a shallow depth of field (DOF) and allows for faster shutter speed. A shallow DOF blurs the background and allows you subject to stand out. Most lenses are sharpest about one stop smaller than the widest aperture.

Out of focus flowers and a shallow depth of field make this Hummingbird stand out against the background

Tip 7: Compose Your Shot

Before you start shooting, consider what you want the shot to look like. Do you want a tight head shot, or a wide shot of birds playing in a birdbath? Knowing this will help you decide where to set up and what length lens to use.

Tip 8: Focus on the Head

Another old saying is that nobody gives a rat’s ass about the ass. You can cut off any part of the body in a shot except the head. Focus on the head (especially the eyes). Try to get the bird looking at you or almost perpendicular to you with the beak ever so slightly towards you. You don’t want to get the shot from behind or with the bird looking away.

The use of a blind can allow you get close – especially if you let the bird come to you

Tip 9: Use a Tripod

Nobody really LIKES to use a tripod. They are heavy and limit your ability to move. They offer tremendous advantages, however. First, shots taken from a tripod will be significantly sharper. Also, if your camera is on a tripod, it will be ready to shoot and there will be less movement from getting the camera in position. The less you move the camera, the more likely the bird will remain where you want it.

Tip 10: Use a Blind

A blind doesn’t have to be fancy. There are commercial pop-up blinds available for less than $50, but even a simple sheet draped over a ladder or a fence will do the trick. You will get your best shots when the bird comes to you rather than the other way around. They will be far more comfortable if they feel in control. Also, some sort of covering will help keep you out of the sun. I have a large home-made blind on wheels that I keep out in my yard. The birds are so used to it that they often perch on it while I’m in it. I even have birds land on the lens of my camera and peek in at me.

This shot combines everything. This male Cardinal has a favorite perch near a sunflower seed feeder. I used the blue sky as a background. He came close because I was in a blind. His head is at the right angle. I focused on the eye. I caught a shot showing some behavior.

A Final Word

The most important thing that I have found about wildlife photography is to enjoy the time that I spend doing it. Learn to appreciate the wonderful things you see whether you get photos or not. If you follow my advice, by design there will be certain shots that you will miss because you just aren’t set up for them (too much or not enough lens, for instance). Think of those instances not as missed opportunities, but as scouting missions for the next photo session. Perhaps you will come to find that the family of Bluebirds comes to the birdbath every afternoon to cool off or there is a Grosbeak you didn’t know lived in your neighborhood that likes the safflower seeds in the feeder.

You may never know exactly what you are going to get, but with a little planning and observation, you might just get that once-in-a-lifetime shot in your own backyard. I get them all the time.

Steve Byland is a wildlife photographer living in suburban New Jersey. His photos can be seen at www.stevebyland.com – many of which were taken in his own backyard.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

How to Photograph Birds Crossing the Moon

Snow Geese crossing the moon in late afternoon - notice that the moon isn't quite full

Using the moon as a background in a photo can make for a really fantastic shot. A shot of a bull Elk bugling with the moon so large that it fills half the scene or a flock of geese passing in front of a full moon can be pretty dramatic. Unfortunately, the better the shot, the more likely that people will assume that it has been photoshopped – actually, not too bad an assumption.

If you think about it, such shots can be incredibly tough to get. The moon is only full (or nearly full) a few days each month. The sky has to be clear, and the subject needs to be positioned properly. Photos with the moon rising are particularly difficult. The window for getting such a shot is incredibly short. The moon is only positioned properly on the horizon for a minute or so. It’s no wonder that people assume that such photos are more the result of time spent at the keyboard rather than behind a lens.
I’m not saying that there is necessarily anything wrong with digital manipulation (unless you try to pass it off as the real deal). The problem comes when the artist puts together two objects together that aren’t possible to capture in the same frame. An extreme example would be a setting sun next to a full moon – two objects that are never next to each other in the sky. Most people would catch that right away, but there are other, more subtle things to look for that may make you suspect shenanigans.

More Snow Geese

The best way to tell the difference between a (potentially) manipulated shot and the general article is often a matter of perfection as well as imperfection. A photoshopped photo will generally contain both elements. Consider the position of the full moon relative to the sun. A few days before the moon is full, it rises before sunset. The full moon rises as the sun sets. You won’t have a completely full moon out during daylight hours. A completely full moon against a bright blue sky with a Bald Eagle crossing it just can’t happen, however, an ALMOST full-moon against a beautiful blue sky IS possible one or two days each month. Another problem comes from depth of field. Having the moon with other subject all in relatively good focus is no easy task, especially if the second subject is moving. Getting the moon to fill the frame requires a long lens. Getting all of the elements in focus requires great depth of field, which comes at the price of high ISO (introducing noise) and/or slow shutter speed because of a small aperture. In other words, don’t expect to get a crisp shot of a Peregrine Falcon crossing the moon.

Digitally manipulated shot - the focus on all subjects (especially the moon) is too sharp. This was made from the next two photos - California Condors, BTW

Now that I’ve established how difficult it is to come by great shots of the moon with wildlife, let’s look at how you can get such a shot in the real world, without the help of a software program. If you know what situations ARE possible, you can put yourself in a position to get some pretty dramatic photos. As I mentioned before, a few days before the moon is completely full, it rises before sunset. That isn’t perfect, but it can be close enough. Another thing that works to you benefit in these conditions is that the sun will be at your back, which IS perfect for many shots. You might be lucky enough to just find yourself in the right place at the right time, but you can dramatically increase your chances with a little planning. Find a table that tells you when the sun and moon rise and set and circle those days when the moon rises an hour or two before the sun sets to capture a nearly full moon against a blue sky. Alternatively, if you want silhouettes against a full moon, you’ll want to be in position while the moon is still low in the sky. The best time of year is often winter when the air is cold and haze is at a minimum.
       I didn't follow my own advice - I focused on the moon. The Condor was too close and ended up out of focus.
I’ve had the most success with the nearly full moon against a blue sky which occurs just before sunset. The reason for this is that it is still light enough to see the birds coming, which allows enough time to react and shoot. Also, monsters come out after dark, especially when the moon is full. Everybody knows that. Another advantage of shooting in the late afternoon is that many birds are flying at this time of day in order to get to where they plan to spend the night. I have had the best luck with ducks and geese as there tend to be lots of them, improving the chance of success. That pretty much covers “what” “where” and “when,” leaving us with “how?”
Condors in better focus - no moon

If you’ve ever taken a photo of the moon, you know how small it will appear in the picture. To make the moon appear large, you need to use a long lens. I recommend 400mm at a minimum, but preferably longer – as long as you’ve got. You’ll also want to use a tripod and a remote shutter release. The idea is to mount the camera on a tripod and watch for birds that might cross the moon. When they approach, you hit the shutter release, but first things first. As mentioned earlier, you want plenty of depth of field to have the moon and the birds in fairly good focus. Ideally, shoot in manual mode.  Try to get and exposure that provides an aperture of about f/9 or better and a shutter speed of 1/500th or faster. You’ll need to adjust the ISO to get the overall exposure right. Take some test shots and check the histogram. Where to focus is a challenge. If you focus directly on the moon, the birds will be soft and vice versa. Focus manually (you don’t want the camera hunting when it counts), take some test shots and adjust as necessary. Error towards having the moon in focus if the birds are silhouettes and focus more on the birds if it is light enough to see detail on them.

Sort of a bonus shot - Snow Geese Flying in front of setting sun
Once you have everything set up, stand back with the camera pointed where you want it and watch for birds approaching the moon. With the camera set to take continuous shots, start shooting before the birds get to the moon and continue shooting until they are past. You might have to adjust a bit if you have a low burst rate. Keep checking your histogram. It is very easy to mess up the exposure as the moon rises and the sun starts to set. This isn’t going to be easy, but it will be fun and when you do finally manage to nail a couple of shots, it will be worth the effort that went into it.

You can see thousands of my photos at http://www.stevebyland.com/ They are all available for sale as prints or license. I can be reached by email at sbbyland@aol.com

Monday, July 9, 2012

Attract More Vultures To Your Yard

Say What????

Pair of Black Vultures
Okay, so Vultures aren’t up there with Cardinals and Goldfinches when it comes to what most people think of as “desirable” yard birds, but I still like them. Besides, I’d rather have Vultures than Starlings. Vultures never moved into a Bluebird nest and they haven’t taken up residence in my garage (thank goodness). In fact, aside from their peculiar habit of eating the windshield wipers on tourists’ cars in the Everglades, I’ve never heard of Vultures doing anything bad. Besides, the windshield wiper thing is pretty funny to watch, as long as it’s not your car they’re eating.

Turkey Vulture
Vultures are nature’s garbage collectors (or, maybe they prefer “sanitation engineers”). Since the towns in my area stopped picking up roadkilled animals due to cutbacks, the Vultures have stepped up to the plate (so to speak) and have taken on the task of keeping our cities clean. On top of that, they don’t demand pensions and never take a day off. In my part of the country, we have two species of Vultures – Turkey and Black. They aren’t that closely related, but they look fairly similar.

Turkey Vultures have silver and black under wings and a longer tail

While Turkey Vultures fly effortlessly, often going for hours without beating their wings, the heavier Black Vultures have trouble getting off the ground and seem to beat their wings franticly to get airborne. Turkey Vultures are one of the few birds with a well-developed sense of smell and are frequently first on the scene. Black Vultures are the more aggressive of the two, flying high in hopes of spotting Turkey Vultures feeding and then moving in and pushing them aside, but enough of the ornithology lesson.

Black Vultures have white patches at the wingtips and a shorter tail

I began feeding Vultures about ten years ago when I came across a dead deer in my backyard. I thought about dragging the thing into the woods, but then decided to move it into the yard a bit. I put it behind a tree so that it couldn’t be seen from the kitchen window. At least I have SOME common sense. My wife soon noticed about a dozen large black birds in the trees with more circling overhead and asked me what was going on. I confessed to dragging the carcass under the tree out of sight. She was upset and demanded that I move the body into the middle of the yard where she could watch the activity. I KNEW there was a reason I married her. In just a few days, the huge mess was reduced to a small pile of fur and bones that easily fit into a trash bag.
I have lots of gruesome shots, but there is a chance that you might be eating

A couple of months later, I drove past another carcass on the side of the road near my house. I looped a short rope around a leg, tied it off to the bumper of my truck and dragged it home. As I bounced off the street and onto my lawn, I saw my neighbor standing by his mailbox with a look on his face that could best be described as “horrified.” Oops – Busted! He followed me into the backyard to find out what on earth I was doing. I fessed up to my social faux pas. The next day, he came over to see the activity around my new “feeder” and told me to call him if another such feeder became available so that he could have one too. Now, THAT’S a good neighbor.
The heads of ADULT Turkey Vultures turn red

Over the years, I have put out a variety of things for the Vultures to eat. They aren’t very picky. In fact, the worse the offering is, the better they seem to like it. They make very short work of such things as the remains of the Thanksgiving Turkey or a package of roast beef that went bad in the back of the refrigerator. I presented my boldest offering two years ago when I pulled a frozen turkey out of the freezer that had been there for three years. There was no way that I was going to eat it. It was the middle of winter and the snow was deep so I took plastic wrap off the bird and carried it out into the yard. I worried that a coyote or fox might drag the still-frozen thing away, so I drove a long piece of rebar through it to hold it down. Did I mention that the location I choose was right outside my bathroom window and visible from the street? I wanted to get pictures and didn’t feel like standing outside in the cold. It would be much more comfortable, I figured, to set up a tripod in my bathroom and shoot through the open window.

The heads of Black Vultures are always dark

The next day, there were Vultures flying low over the yard and perched on the roof of every house in the neighborhood. More were on my roof, of course, than anywhere else. This time, my neighbor called me to ask what was going on (too cold out to stand by the mailbox). I confessed to what I had done and, again, I could hear the jealousy in his voice. Actually, he was dead silent, but I knew that he was green with envy. As it turns out, a rock-hard turkey that has been frozen solid for years takes the better part of a week to finish off. It makes me wonder why they aren’t sold in the upscale bird feed stores that are down on the highway.

This is as bad as I’m going to show – raw turkey at its finest

If you decide to follow my example, make sure your keep your expectations realistic at first. It may take a couple of weeks for the Vultures to get interested in your offerings. You can put something out at any time of year, but the summer heat seems to help the process along. Keep in mind that Vultures are wary, so it’s probably best not to put a carcass too near the house (like on the patio or next to the pool), until they get comfortable with your yard. Also, offer a variety of food – nobody likes to eat the same thing every day. Above all, take the time to smell the roses, so to speak. Enjoy your new bird friends and send me a photo of your successes.

Steve Byland is a wildlife photographer living in suburban New Jersey. His photos can be seen at www.stevebyland.com – many of which were taken in his own backyard. He can be reached by email at sbbyland@aol.com.