Bird Photography Workshop on composition

The Black-shouldered Kite

Looking at composition in bird photography

The second Bird Photography Workshop was held at the Barwon Heads Community Arts Garden on 23rd October 2016. It dealt with two essential areas of bird photography.

The main topic was composition and in particular the unique challenges of composition for bird photography. It was intended to be an introduction to the key concepts of composition rather than a set of ‘tips’.

The second topic was ‘using panning to photograph birds in flight.


Composition includes all the things the photographer does to construct the image.

  • Composition in bird photography is made more complex by the unpredictability of birds
  • Composition can of course occur before, during or after the shot and often at all three


The contribution you make to composition before you start photographing involves the decisions you make as you see your subject for the first time. The bird may be a long way off or just a short distance away. As you approach the subject and eventually pick a spot to photograph from you will probably be:

  • Anticipating what will happen and waiting
  • Looking at the background and deciding whether to move slightly to frame the subject better, especially with regard to potential distractions in the background
  • Choosing whether to use your camera to take a vertical or a horizontal shot


The contribution you make to composition during the process of taking photographs involves

  • Selecting the point(s) your auto-focus should prioritise. This usually involves trying to make sure the eyes of the bird are in focus
  • How tightly you frame the shot
  • Considering the way the light is illuminating the bird
  • Applying some of the ‘conventions’ of photography (more of this later)
  • Paying attention to way the image looks relative to the background

After (Post Production)

Birds can often be quite unpredictable.As a result quite a lot of your composition may have to happen after the image has been recorded. This frequently involves:

  • Cropping the image
  • Correcting the framing
  • Adding or removing space
  • Changing visual elements or using software like Photoshop to apply a variety of filters or adjustments to reorganise the way the image appears.

To explore composition fully, we need to talk about:

  • the conventions, (1)
  • the aesthetics (2, 3 & 4)
  • the philosophy behind it all (5)
  • and how to bring it all together to improve (6)

In other words: what generally works, how should it look and what are we aiming to achieve anyway?

Exploring levels of complexity *

There are a number of levels of complexity in composition. There are disturbingly few books which discuss photographic composition. Michael Freeman’s Book: The Photographer’s Eye [ilex Press 2007 ISBN-10:0-240-80934-3] is a notable exception. It deals with:

  1. Conventions and the image frame
  2. The design of the shot
  3. The graphic elements within the shot
  4. The colour relationships
  5. The artistic intent of the image
  6. The process

* While I recommend you look at the book, it is much longer than we have space for here. I is also a book about photography generally, not bird photography. The following are some observations in which I explore how the concepts raised in the book relate to bird photography.

  1. Conventions

Conventions aren’t rules but it is not unusual to hear people talking about them as if they were. Conventions are the way things are often done because they nearly always work pretty well.

You may have heard of ‘the rule of thirds’ or ‘the golden section’ they are useful guides to the first level of producing a pleasing composition.

The rule of thirds 

The idea here is that images seem to work better if your subject is placed on one of the key intersections of an imaginary grid dividing up the frame. If the image is in the centre it can look static and lifeless. On the other hand placing it slightly to one side and part way up the frame can create a different dynamic which draws the eye into the subject and creates a subtle connection between the subject and the context that seems to work well.

When cropping an image in programs like Photoshop,  the ‘rule of thirds’ grid is automatically shown and can be used to help determine how to place the subject in the frame.

Wikipedia explains the “rule of thirds” as the proposition that “an image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections”

The Golden Ratio

The golden ratio may at first seem very similar to the ‘rule of thirds’. It is in many ways a much more powerful guide to the way composition can be used to map a pathway for the eye to follow as it explores the image.

Just 2 days after our workshop was held the web-site “Bokeh- Digital Rev” published and interesting article entitled: Why The Golden Ratio Is Better Than The Rule Of Thirds


The article compares the two approaches. It is an interesting article. John Sparkman’s article is not about bird photography but it provides some important clues to great composition.

One of the limitations of the rule of thirds is that it does not provide much help with establishing the importance of rest of the image.

Applying the Golden Spiral to one of my images of the White-faced Heron

Other ‘conventions’

Of course there are other photographic tips and conventions. It is worthwhile searching the internet for these. A brief search is likely to produce several you may not have heard of like:

  • ‘the rule of odds’,
  • ‘fill the frame’
  • ‘provide breathing space’
  • ‘when the light is bright, go tight’
  • ‘to show speed – slow it down’

Here are some links:



2. The design of the image

This refers to how you alter things like perspective, patterns and texture to construct a particular aesthetic.

Perspective, is a powerful example of the use of design principles. Changing the height you are at can produce more effective images.

terns-3138Example 1: Photos taken at the same height as the bird can take the viewer into the world of bird (lie down on the sand for a shorebird shot, for birds in flight, can you find a way to get up to their level?)





Example 2: Photos taken of a flock of birds will emphasise patterns and textures as design elements.

3. The graphic elements within the shot

A key part of deciding what makes a successful composition is the graphic elements within the shot.

  • What shapes, lines, curves or visual elements does the image contain?
  • What lines or forms does it show.
  • How do these shapes draw the eye into the composition?
  • How do they help construct the way the image works?

white-faced-heron-in-flight_aExample 1: When selecting images of a bird in flight, which wing position is most interesting? (Wings up, mid way, down?) Lets assume you have several images of the same bird in flight, as I did with the White-faced heron above. In this case I like the image with the wings at the mid point because of the shape it makes.

Example 2: If the bird is on a branch, is the pose of the bird OK? Sometimes other visual elements can complement the subject or it can be too distracting, despite the pose being good. When composing an image you need to consider:

  • How disruptive is the background?
  • Does it add to or detract from the composition?

This may mean that you adjust your angle of view to change the image slightly.

An example of recomposing to avoid a slightly distracting branch in the background in the image on the left. In the image on the right the branch is less of a distraction.

4. Colour

Birds can be extremely colourful. How their colours interact with the background is an essential part of composition. Showing the colour and the spectacle of different birds is one of the joys of great bird photography.


Colour plays a key role in the both the biology, and the identification of birds. It is also a key part of the mating displays of birds. The opportunity to capture the range of colours and the diversity of birds is one of the key attractions of bird photography.

One of the key components of a successful composition of a bird photograph is therefore how well it coveys the colours of the bird.

The double eyed fig parrot is a very small colourful Australian bird. The aim of the composition (left) is simply to show that.

  • A bird flying across a clear blue sky can have an entirely different visual impact than a bird flying across a cloudy sky.
  • The way light strikes the bird is an important compositional element. You can adjust this by:
    • Adjusting where you stand relative to the light
    • Moving so that key colours of the bird are shown

5. The artistic impact of the photograph

We all admire photographs which have a strong artistic impact. In bird photography, photos that have an artistic impact are those which do one or more of the following:

  • capture a decisive moment,
  • show something revealing about the subject,
  • tell a story,
  • or have a strong sense of place.
Capturing a decisive moment takes practice and luck.

If your photograph successfully communicates  any one of these, then:

  • all the other considerations are either accounted for
  • or they are irrelevant for that photo

It is well worth considering what this means from a photographic point of view.

Camera shutters normally open for fractions of second but each photograph reflects all the experience as well as the history and the intent of the photographer

6. How does it all work together?

Not surprisingly, these components we have looked at so far, must all work together. The final phase is understanding photography as a process and its ability to change things.

This may seem like a bit of a side track but it is an important one because we take photography for granted but we shouldn’t. It has had a profound impact on us all.

In his book “Photography Changes Everything” Marvin Heiferman explores the impact of photography as a medium. In summary he explores the way it has changed:

  • What we want
  • What we see
  • Who we are
  • What we do
  • Where we go
  • What we remember

jungleIt is worth considering how bird photography can and does play a significant role in any or all of the above. The answer may be different for each of us but asking the question is certainly worthwhile because it will help to establish why we do what we do.

Composition and creativity

Composition requires creativity and imagination.

  • Sometimes the photographer consciously hunts for an exact set of circumstances or watches them unfolding and knows exactly what to do.
  • Sometimes they create the image from related parts (Like focus stacking)
  • Much more often however, the bird photographer reacts to things that there has been almost no time to anticipate or plan for.
  • Photography can offer feedback about composition, but it is too easy to overlook the messages.

Composition and Feedback

Photography can offer feedback about composition, but it is too easy to overlook the messages. Analysing the feedback is the key to producing better results next time. There are several ways to get useful feedback. Personally I find printing is a surprisingly effective way of sifting through and deciding which images I really like. I mount my images on large pin-boards on my home as well as making frames for some. I also make calendars each year.  Here are some tips on how to get feedback:

  • have a close look at and compare your images during the process of moving them on to your computer
  • organise and rate your images (and review them as you do)
  • seek a critical audience
  • make a study of what you are looking for [Web searches] 
  • select images to print or to post on an organised web-site


  • Cameras and lenses are just the tools of trade
  • Good composition always reflects the artistic understanding of the photographer
  • Gaining a good grounding in the key concepts of artistic terminology and concepts should be part of your endeavour
  • Research and study will also pay dividends
  • While there are no ‘rules’, and conventions may be asking to be broken, doing so is never worthwhile until you fully understand them and know how doing so will help you achieve your goals
  • There is enormous scope to be creative in the way you communicate with photography



Notes from the first bird photography workshop


The following notes are the ones I handed out at the first bird photography workshop. I have kept to using dot points or short sentences. More detail was provided at the workshop. These notes should be seen as a summary, not a complete guide.

Designing the content for a bird photography workshop where people have vastly different levels of expertise is not an easy task. Where do you start? If you explain everything, there is a good chance it would be overwhelming for those not familiar with bird photography.

I chose to start with explaining the settings most commonly used by people when they first start off learning to photograph birds. I chose to talk about using aperture priority settings, because it is more likely to be successful and it is still my favourite shooting mode, because it works most of the time. Other settings, like manual setting of both shutter speed and aperture, may be more useful sometimes, but they require quite a lot more expertise, which is probably why it is popular with full-time professional photographers with years of experience.

If you missed the first workshop, but will be attending the second one on October 23rd you may find the notes useful as a rough guide to the topics we covered.

Martin Griffith

Birding Photography Workshop 1 notes

In this workshop, we look at the concepts every bird photographer should know. (See disclaimer)##

There are three key areas of equal importance: Settings, Sighting, and Shooting.


Before you even begin looking it is advisable to set up your camera to suit the task. There is almost never time to do so after you sight the birds. Here are the basic settings you should apply:

  • Use a camera with a viewfinder and a telephoto lens attached. A telephoto lens is one that reaches at least 200 to 300mm to get you close to the birds without intruding too far into the ‘zone’ that will cause them to fly away.
  1. Set your camera to Aperture Mode
  • Aperture priority mode sets the amount of light that the lens will pass to the sensor (or film).
  1. Set your Aperture to two stops below the maximum speed of the lens
  • Lenses are generally sharper at two stops down. Very few lenses are as sharp at their widest aperture as they are at two or three stops down.
  1. Set your ISO sensitivity to a level which will allow your camera to trigger the shutter at a speed which is at least as high as the length of the lens you are using
  • Setting the ISO sensitivity is how you control the sensitivity of the sensor to light. In bright conditions a low ISO is preferable to avoid overexposure. (eg. ISO 100). In darker conditions you boost your ISO setting to higher levels (ISO 1250 to 8000). Lower ISO settings produce less noise in the image and more resolution#
  1. If your camera does not let you do this choose: Sports mode.
  • Holding a long lens steady is tricky. If the shutter speed is too low, the image will be blurred. The general rule is if it is a 300mm lens you are much more likely to get a sharp image at more than 1/300th of a second, even with vibration reduction on. With a good camera, you should be able to use ISO up to 1600 with few noise issues and loss of resolution.
  1. Set your camera to take a continuous burst of several shots (Continuous auto focus mode & continuous high shutter setting)
  • In fully automatic mode, the camera takes too long to focus and adjust. Taking a continuous burst will provide more choices later.
  1. Use RAW rather than JPEG. Raw is a digital negative and all the data. JPEG is a lossy compression format useful for the Internet. RAW is the equivalent of having an undeveloped negative that is not harmed by light.


Once you arrive where you expect to find birds remember to be very quiet, to look around carefully and change the way you move. Slow movements are advisable.

For clothing: avoid colours, wearing muted colours or camouflage gear can help.

Be alert and look for:

  • Movements in trees, and be patient
  • You should also stop and listen for sounds, they are important clues
  • Look for sources of food (road kill, plants, water)
  • Remember the ethical issues – avoiding disturbances and damage

Once you sight or hear a bird

  • How far away is it? Do you need to get closer?
  • What is it doing? Why?
  • Raise your camera gently to your eye – take one image

Moving closer:

  • Move just a few slow steps, pause, wait, take a few more steps (all slowly)
  • Use any natural cover you can (but do not ‘suddenly’ appear from behind full cover)
  • Watch for feedback
    • Does the bird seem nervous (is it bobbing its head, shuffling or lifting its wings?)
    • Is the bird distracted? (Is it feeding or concentrating on something else?) If so move (but do it slowly) pause for a few seconds, then move again. With practice you will learn to get a little closer to your subject.

Consider the light.

  • If the light is from behind the bird, consider circling around so you have better light. If you can move to a spot where the light is behind you.
  • Can you do a walk past, ignoring the bird?
  • The best time of day is the hour after sunrise and the last hour before sunset.

If the bird moves

  • Do not be discouraged, there is a good chance it will not move far or it may return.


  • Visit places like sanctuaries and Zoos for close up shots and practice (e.g. Serendip Sanctuary– near Lara; Healesville Sanctuary; Melbourne Zoo Great Flight Aviary)
A Grebe with a fish on the Barwon River (July) 400mm F8 1/2500sec ISO 2000


Becoming proficient with the camera and lens combination requires practice, especially if the lens is long. Here are some useful tips:

  • Sight along the barrel like a gun sight
  • Practise by taking bursts of shots and review them afterwards –
  • Give your autofocus a chance to get on track (expect the first shot to be out of focus)
  • Delete all but the best few
A White-faced Heron on the Barwon Estuary in flight. 22nd June2016, hand held Nikon D500 280mm F5.6 1/8000 sec


Hand-holding the camera and lens

  • One hand on the camera (the right hand)
  • One hand under the lens towards the front
  • Elbows tucked into ribs to improve support
  • Turn on image stabilization or vibration reduction (if your lens or camera has it)
  • Stance: put one foot forward, toes towards subject, the other foot side on. Weight on back leg, with leg slightly bent and ready to pivot

Using Tripod or Monopod

  • A tripod adds stability and is useful when birds don’t move a lot.
  • Mount the lens on the tripod or monopod, not the camera if the lens is long
  • Adjust height, tighten tripod head gently
  • Consider adding a device to allow you to pivot the lens (A ball head or even a gimbal)


  • Learn about the autofocus options of your camera
  • Different cameras and lenses use different focus systems
  • Autofocus speed is vital for bird photography, choosing the right one depends on the subject.

Focus on what?

  • For birds, getting the eye in focus in a key objective.

Anticipation and follow-through

  • Start shooting before things happen
  • Keep shooting after the action for a few frames
  • If a bird is flying towards you, raise your camera to your eye and hold it there well before the bird gets close. *
Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo (female) Broome 2014 Nikon 400mm F11 1/2000sec

Types of shots

There are several types of shots

  • For identification later and practice
  • Birds on a branch
  • Birds in water
  • Birds on a post
  • Birds in flight – is the most challenging type of shot
  • Panning can be used for birds in flight (This is planned for Workshop 2 on October 23rd)
  • Watch and follow looking through the lens before starting to shoot


Pelicans (Broome) Nikon 400mm F8 1/8000sec

Other considerations

Some other things to consider are:

  • Slowing your shutter speed to show action, blurring wings tips as opposed to freezing the action.
  • Showing the beauty of the bird in close up or bird behavior in context (a wider shot to show more – eg. feeding).
  • Is the photo of single bird or a group? If it is of a group, use a narrower aperture (F8 or F11) to maximize your depth of the area in focus (called ‘depth of field’)
  • Using long lenses to blur the background

## Disclaimers

  • This is an introductory workshop. I estimate that there are around 75 topics, if we were to try to cover everything. The best way to build a better understanding of bird photography is to do so over a series of workshops. I encourage you to sign up for the spring and summer workshops.
  • There are exceptions to every rule. These tips are worth knowing as a starting point.
  • There are numerous types of camera systems on the market. Different systems solve problems in different ways. It is not about what is ‘the best” system or camera. It is about finding the best option for you.
  • Learning about photography is a process, not a science. It is advisable to start with the equipment that matches your level of interest and your budget.

Auto Focus Notes:

  • One of the main reasons bird photographers buy more expensive camera bodies – is to gain better autofocus (more points, faster points, better tracking, and the ability to work well in lower light, a range of autofocus settings) 
  • For birds, I usually use continuous focus, 9 point, which means: the camera uses the centre point as a priority but uses data from the nine points surrounding it. Continuous (servo) means it will keep adjusting the focus and anticipate focus based on momentum.
  • I sometimes use “Group auto-focus” which combines several points

Aperture Priority setting dials

Different camera brands use different names for Aperture Priority setting. Look for the one which applies to your camera brand.

Canon & Pentax = Av Nikon & Olympus = A
 dial  dial2

Some Terminology

Aperture Aperture – is an adjustable opening in the lens that controls how much light passes through it. Aperture controls two things:

1.     How much of the image, from foreground to background, appears sharp.

2.     It is also part of the exposure process.

Aperture is measured in a unit called f-stops, in which smaller numbers actually represent larger openings A small aperture (F11or F16) keeps the amount of light going through the lens small It will also mean more of the image appears sharp. This is good if that is what you want for the shot but not at all good if you want your subject to stand out against a nicely defocused background. To achieve this effect, use an aperture like F1.8 or F2.8. Both wide openings. The result will be that only the parts of image that you deliberately focus on will be in sharp.

APSC A type of DSLR that uses a reduced size sensor to reduce costs, size and weight.
DSLR A DSLR is a digital camera combining the optics and the mechanisms of a single-lens reflex camera with a digital imaging sensor, as opposed to photographic film. The camera is designed to use a prism to let the photographer to see through the lens prior to pressing the shutter This feature uses a mirror which swings up and out of the way of the sensor fractions of a second before the shutter opens. It allows precise control of focus composition and the actual appearance of the image. The use of the prism design feature is the primary difference between a DSLR and other digital cameras.
Full frame (FX) A type of DSLR that uses a full size sensor to provide maximum resolution in the 35 mm format.
ISO The sensitivity of the image capture sensor to light. There is a set range for each camera. E.G. 100 – 64000. As sensor technologies and processing chips become more sophisticated, the ISO range expands. More recent cameras may have very high figures without noise problems.
LCD A Liquid Crystal Display on the back of the camera that allows the photographer to see what has been recorded. It can be used to display other data and assist with setting control by displaying menu options.
Shutter speed How quickly the shutter opens and closes again. A fast shutter speed would be 1/8000th of a second. A fast shutter speed will freeze the action. A slow shutter sped would be 1/30th of a second it will allow some of the action to be blurred.

Topics for session 2 on October 23rd

AT this stage the plans for October 23rd are:

  • Spring is a good time by the river
  • A quick summary of the first workshop
  • A show and tell session of two photographs taken between the two sessions (At least one from the estuary)
    • Homework
    • One shot of a bird at the estuary on a perch/branch
    • One shot of a moving or flying bird
    • The back story – where was it? What is it? Why do you like the bird or the shot?
    • What worked?
    • What did you learn from it? What plans do you have?
    • Would you like to print it?
  • Panning techniques – burst mode
  • Autofocus options
  • Composition options (pre, during and after)
  • Lighting (Things to avoid, planning the lighting direction where possible, exposure adjustment, metering, flash secrets)


What further suggestions does the group have?

  • Do you want some Photoshop tips? (There is one technique most photographers use all the time. It is simple quick and easy.)
  • Is there interest in printing or photo editing?




Children of Ghosts (the Barwon Estuary in the 1890s)

Dorothy Johnston, local resident and acclaimed author, has posted this extract from her unpublished historical novel, Children of Ghosts, set in the 1890s. The narrator is fourteen-year-old Rebecca, who loses her beloved teacher, Mr Rowntree, when he moves from Kensington, (now Leopold), to take up a position at Barwon Heads. Mr Rowntree writes to Rebecca, describing the coffee palace where he stayed immediately following his move.


‘The coffee palace rose like a mirage from that space between river and sea the English language was pleased to call a mouth.

Rebecca rejoiced that she could picture it. Mr Rowntree’s description was precise. She loved the word mirage, instantly and completely, and the place it made for itself in the teacher’s new home. He wrote of the ferry that carried visitors from Barwon Heads to Ocean Grove, and the coaches that arrived from Geelong twice a day in the summer, and once a day all the year round. He wrote as though all Rebecca had to do was step aboard a coach and she would be transported to another world – which was no more, she believed, than the simple truth. Yet the teacher did not invite her to visit him at Barwon Heads.

He described the churches and the lending library. His school was set well back from the shore. She imagined it protected, warmer and less windy than the one at Kensington. She pictured the sons and daughters of selectors. There would be labourers on the larger farms. She smelt the warm bread he would provide at dinner-time, and saw him walking along the estuary at dusk. The tide drew back, leaving only the faintest of translucent washes on the sand.

The coffee palace fascinated Rebecca, who never tired of imagining the tennis courts and recreation rooms; the bathing boxes, where ladies changed before they bathed; the fishing boats and fishermen landing their catches on the jetty.

Mr Rowntree described the dining room, the crayfish that ladies and gentlemen ordered for their tea. Rebecca drew in a sharp breath at the cost, and stared until her eyes crossed at a Cobb&Co coach pulled up at the side entrance, at a girl’s foot in a shining boot about to alight.

A small, sharp triangle of river-sea, river where it met the sea, was visible from a corner of the dining room. Rebecca held her breath, taking in the diamond glitter. It was as though all the light of the world was held and transmitted through this one small, perfect prism.’

As part of the Barwon Estuary Project, Dorothy is running free creative writing classes for project participants in November and December 2016 and February 2017. See the Activities page on this site for further details.


The Dynamic Barwon Estuary

Jon Duthie, August 2016

The Barwon Estuary is often described as “dynamic”. Mind, alpine regions are also pretty “dynamic” as too are rainforests, deserts and off-shore islands. So the Barwon Estuary is better described as a complex wetland ecosystem allowing us to ignore the complexity of alpine, desert and rainforest ecosystems and concentrate on the wealth of habitat types that stretch from Lake Connewarre to the sea- shallow lagoons, salt marsh, tussocky grassland, gahnia thickets, tidal creeks, moonah woodland, mangroves, spongy distichlis swales, mudflats-sometimes exposed, sometimes not but always damp, sea grass beds, sandy bottoms, rocky substrate,and that bit near the mouth that a churning incoming tide turns into some kind of psycho laudromat speed queen. These habitats are subjected to huge variations of tide,salt, wind, sand, mud, silt, heat and cold that requires the plethora of plants, birds, animals, fish and marine things to take on adaptations that allow them to not only survive an ever changing environment but to survive each other in an eat or be eaten world. (It is amazing how many estuarine animals pre-digest their food!)

Generally, carnivores tend to seek out and consume species that are smaller and more vulnerable than themselves hence the term predator. While larger predators like white-faced heron or great egret are content to stalk through the shallows spearing crabs temporarily distracted by detritus, it takes the keen eye, strong neck and demented beak action of a red capped plover to hoover up the countless tiny innocuous invertebrates and amphipods required to make up a decent feed. And what does the very smallest estuarine macro-invertebrate predator eat? Presumably, some unsuspecting macro-herbivore that was simply going about its business of sucking micro-algae off a grain of sand. There are hundreds of micro plants and animals, bacteria and viruses that live on individual sand grains or inhabit the minute spaces between grains. Just another habitat in the “dynamic ” Barwon Estuary.


The Spoonbills of Lake Conneware

The arrival of the Yellow-billed Spoonbill in and around the Barwon Estuary is always a good sign 

Photography and text by Martin Griffith

Lake Conneware doesn’t fill up very often, but this year it’s again looking promising. The last time it reached what I would call a comfortable level  for Spoonbills and Swans was in 2011/12.

Lake Conneware in late 2011 from the Barwon Heads Road

The Yellow-billed Spoonbill

The arrival of the Yellow-billed Spoonbill (Platalea flavipes) indicates that it’s a good year for the health of the lake and the estuary. Recently I’ve noticed them in and around local dams and waterways between Geelong and Barwon Heads. I’ve been photographing them off and on for a few years now.

Bird photography appeals to me because it provides an avenue for closer observation. I like the fact that when I photograph birds I can review the images later in more detail. Doing this allows me to confirm what I have seen and the opportunity to discover new things.

Spoonbill yellow dam
The Yellow-billed Spoonbill in a small dam near the Barwon Heads Road

On the Yellow-billed Spoonbill, I especially like the fine black feathers on the back towards the tail and the gem-like clarity of the eyes when the sun strikes them from directly in front. Both features are impressive, especially when the light catches the bird from just the right angle.

Powerful binoculars or a good close up photo of the Spoonbill help the observer to make out the patterns and colours of its bill. It’s yellow with some pink markings for most of its length, but has a white section and a black line around the border of the face. The bill has a series of grooves along its length.

yellow bill Spoonbill_Crop from_5215
The Yellow-billed Spoonbill’s distinctive face and bill

I like to stop by the side of the road when I see Yellow-billed Spoonbills. Often they are close to traffic like this one but completely unfazed by the rush of cars. When photographing them I approach carefully and try to avoid disturbing them. Sometimes I can get quite close without upsetting them at all.

Yellow with Royal 2011
Yellow-billed and Royal Spoonbill when the lake was last at the ideal Spoonbill level

I haven’t seen the Yellow-billed Spoonbills on the riverbank yet, this year, but I am hoping that they will eventually arrive. In late 2011 I saw one happily searching for food close to the Barwon Heads Road, accompanied by a Royal Spoonbill. Both varieties of Spoonbill love to feed in water that is around 20cm to 50cm deep. The edges of Lake Conneware provide an ideal feeding ground for them once it reaches that sort of level. With the rain this year, the lake is reaching the point where I fully expect to see both the Yellow-billed and the Royal Spoonbills (Platalea Regia) feeding happily.

Spoonbills are seldom seen feeding in large numbers. I have seen them in groups of two or three but never in large groups. It may be because of the way they feed. They seem to prefer to feed alone with only one or two others close by. Even when you see them with a group of Ibis, the Spoonbill will usually be on its own a short distance from the group.

The Royal Spoonbill

The Royal Spoonbill is more common along the river in Barwon Heads, but it is much less common in small farm dams. I often see the Royal Spoonbills in pairs along the river. They like the mangrove areas. You can  see them along the river at the end of Sheepwash Road, at low tide.

regal Spoonbill743
Patrolling the Barwon River for crustaceans

RegalBill closeup from 5193The Royal Spoonbill has some quite distinctive features. The bill is black and more heavily grooved than the Yellow-billed Spoonbill’s. The eyes are ruby red with a distinctive yellow mark or eyebrow and there is a small red patch at the top of its forehead.







During breeding times they have a crest of long flowing white head plumes.

Platalea regia at lake Coonewarre Victoria  (1)


As part of the Barwon Estuary Project, Martin Griffith conducts free Bird Photography workshops, focussing on the birds of the Estuary. For further information, or to register for the next workshop on Sunday 23 October 2-5 pm, email your contact details (name, address, mobile phone number) to barwonestuary@gmail.com


Black Swans

Somehow, winter brings out the best in the Barwon Estuary. Local Facebook is awash with glorious landscapes of the estuary in a thousand shades of spirit lifting grey- soft sunsets pixelating off a rippling surface, quivering reflections of jetty pylons or a lone black swan silhouetted against the cold grey calm of day.

History has it that the black swan skins Joseph Banks presented in England in the late 18th century were thought to be fakes, a practical joke. The sensation caused by Bank’s ‘discovery’ of a black swan (yes all the other swans in the world are white) probably just underlined a rising stellar career. And why not? Swans are a seriously sexy bird.


Swans 625They are large, jet black and with a bill of red so radiant that if it were a lipstick colour it would fall somewhere between “no daughter of mine is going out wearing that” and the Scarlett they named the woman after. On the water, swans segue between the aloof elegance of a European royal and the waif-like vacuity of a lingerie model and while take offs and landings may have all the drama of a drunk figure skater, only a throaty carnal honking can detract from the grace and majesty of swans in flight. And no-one is immune from going ooooh! at the sight of cygnets trailing in their mothers wake. Of course, Lake Connewarre is named for the bird.

Today black swan is one of our most conspicuous birds but in the middle of last century the birds numbered in their thousands and were considered a pest to agriculture in the region. According to a Geelong Advertiser article from 1961 an open season on swan accounted for up to ten thousand birds in the Geelong region but reported that thousands still remained. While their numbers may not be that high today it doesn’t stop the fact that swan poo remains interesting. The birds feed on sea grass grinding and masticating the tough aquatic rhizomes until excreting large pellets of pure-digested cellulose goodness for a host of tiny creatures to feast upon thus beginning a new branch of the food web. Black swan, sexy and useful.Swans 626

The Barwon Estuary Project aims to increase our community’s knowledge and appreciation of the diversity and fragility of this environmental treasure. A year long program of workshops, guided walks, lectures, forums and citizen science is being organised. A guided walk on the history, flora and water of the estuary is planned for Sunday 14th August 2-4pm. For all bookings and enquiries contact us at: barwonestuary@gmail.com

Jon Duthie


Estuary Observations

Community Posts

Please contribute your Estuary observations (photos, writing, artwork) by emailing them to barwonestuary@gmail.com

They will be uploaded to this page and you may be approached for permission to use your work in an upcoming  Journal of the Barwon Estuary.

Please include your name, email address, phone number and the subject, location and date of the work.

Marine animals

Soldier crabs scaled.jpg

Soldier crabs in Barwon Estuary

Photographer: Ros Gibson