Whether you are new to birding or an experienced birder you will inevitably want to start capturing the images of birds, behaviors and locations that your travels take you to. As birders we often times get to see and experience some of the rarest terrain, habitats, behaviors, and species known to man. Capture that and sharing with your friends and family is an inevitable part of birding. Likewise doing so is great PR and helps explain to others why you bird so much.
As a general rule of thumb to capture birds you are going to need a good size lens. While this is not the case for some birds ie: Wood Storks, Vultures, or even some large Shorebirds, it is so for the majority of birds which tend to range between 3-6 inches. The most common lens by far is a 100-400mm lens. This allows for a great range of possibilities of encounters. You can snap the Verdin from across the trail, or even the Great Egret foraging feet in front of you. I personally use a 150-500mm lens.
Note: Also take into consideration your camera's crop factor. Unless your camera is a "full-frame" camera, meaning it shoots directly onto 35mm, you will need to take into consideration a crop factor. Most makes and models are between 1.7 and 1.5. So for instance. I shoot with a 150-500mm lens on a 1.6 crop factor camera, meaning the objective length of my lens is 240mm-800mm (150-500 * 1.6).
Often times photographers want to get a super close high quality shot and while I understand the desire for that, in most cases it is completely unnecessary. When your camera shoots under the "Fine" setting often times the images are between 3000 and 5000 px wide. That's huge! Those would make some great large prints, but what do you really do with your photographs? Billboard? Facebook? Blog? maybe a couple 5x7's? In most cases the photographs are for personal use. Posting them on the internet being the most common of all. If you think about high quality in internet terms you often hear 1080p. 1080 refers to pixels. Cropping your images from 4000 all the way down to 1080 is a huge crop, yet the quality for internet use remains top notch. Never be afraid of standing a little further away and cropping later.
Note: be cautious when approaching wildlife, not just for your sake, but there's as well. Owl's don't like a bright flash going off in their eyes from 5 feet away...don't do that.
Wait what? didn't you just say stay away and crop later? That's true, but getting up close and personal while it might be harder to do does have many non photography related benefits. When you get up close and personal with a bird, or you wait out in a blind for a couple hours you start to notice the finer details of a birds behavior. These behaviors and ticks can become some of the best photographs you've ever taken.
The background behind the bird, although often times blurred out will be a critical factor in overall appearance of your final image. Avoid backgrounds with a lot of details, colors and contrast such as a row of houses, or cars. Similar colored backgrounds help a lot. Trees, grass or a blue sky are the best backgrounds to create a nice soft contrast with the bird. If you're looking through the viewfinder and notice a background of homes...move your position to get a better angle.
Note: this is not a law. Photography is about telling a story, so if you are trying to related the recent influx in Burrowing Owls in an Urban environment then by all means there should be home in the background.
A good rule of thumb is to have the sun at your back or side when taking photos. Doing so allow's the species to be well lit and the colors really pop. Never a truer statement could be made about Hummingbirds, or iridescent feathers as they require sunlight to reflect their color. Notice the male hummingbird in full sun?
Note: This is not a law. I have a whole series of photographs dedicated to silhouettes. Never be afraid to shoot. You never know what you'll get.
Many of you have undoubtedly hear of "golden hour". Golden hour often refers to the first hour after sunrise and hour before sunset. These times tend to provide the warmest light to highlight the beautiful colors and plumage of birds. Get out early you won't regret it. Cloudy days often provide nice soft light as well. As the sun hits the clouds it breaks it up and casts a soft glow. (This is why studio photographers use a "softbox") Shooting during the day on cloudy days allows you to avoid the dark shadows and contrast of direct sunlight.
Always be on the lookout for bird behaviors. Capturing a behavior on film brings life and a story to you photographs. More importantly is doing pre-shoot research. Take the time to learn about birds and their behaviors, when they do it, where they do it. Then set aside time during the shoot to dedicate to capturing the behavior.
Among other things the ISO can be a large determining factor in overall photo quality. The lower the ISO the better. 100 is the most commonly used and is perfect for golden hour or during sunny days. However from time to time you will need to adjust the ISO to move the shutter quicker (leaving the aperture as low as possible to create the stark contrast with the background) Work your way slowly up from 100. Once you hit 800 you are going to run into some more serious problems and may need to think about adding a flash.