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Thirty Minutes for the Birds

I live in one of the most beautiful spots in the country. My home in northwestern New Jersey is on rolling forested hillsides with the Blue Ridge section of New Jersey's Appalachian Mountains rising up behind. The ridge is actually the first escarpment of Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains. Although urbanization is happening all too fast in the surrounding areas, it is still basically a rural area and much of it will stay that way because of the thousands of acres of woodland owned by the Boy Scouts, YMCAs and various universities for their camps. Most of the mountain itself is part of the Worthington, Stokes and High Point state parks and the Delaware Gap National Recreation Area.

My fourteen acres is a bird sanctuary. The entire property is enclosed by an eight foot high chain link fence topped with three strands of barbed wire to keep my research deer herd from wandering off. To enhance the area for birds, I have planted tartarian honeysuckle bushes which produce bushels of berries for the birds each summer when they are busy feeding their young. I have a dozen birdhouses for the smaller birds and a dozen wood duck boxes around my pond for the woodies, five were used this year. I have allowed bushy areas to grow up and created brush piles to give the birds immediate hiding places into which they can escape from danger.

I have often heard and read about the opinions and arguments, to which I pay absolutely no attention, on the pros and cons of feeding the birds. I feed the birds, and have all of my life, and I feed them all year long. As I write this, I have two large shelf feeders on which I place the small seed mixes that contain some sunflower seeds. The birds don't get many of those sunflower seeds as they are quickly eaten by the numerous squirrels that come running every time they hear me open the lids on the metal containers, where the feed is stored.

I have a large squirrel-proof feeder, which I keep filled with black oil sunflower seeds. It really is squirrel proof and I can always tell when there is a new squirrel in the area as it will repeatedly attempt to get the seeds out -- and invariably fails. The resident squirrels have all failed so often and no longer even attempt to get to the seeds. The elfin flying squirrels feed at that feeder each night, and I welcome their presence.

There is also a suet feeder and, in the summertime, we have four hummingbird feeders out. The air traffic around them is so heavy we almost need a control tower as the air reverberates with the whirr of wings.

None of my feed ever gets moldy as the feeders are on a raised porch and everything is kept dry. Beneath the porch railing and on every corner of my house I planted trees and shrubs. No bird has to go over five feet to reach the safety of shelter, while feeding at my feeders.

I feed the birds because I get great pleasure in watching them and I feed all summer because I enjoy watching the parents bring in their young to be fed after they have fledged. By feeding all year long, I am not concerned that "my" birds will leave here and go to other feeders. Year round feeding assures me all of the birds that their territoriality will allow.

However, the feeding areas cannot be claimed by any particular birds, though some of them definitely try. In the wintertime I have at least fifteen different species coming to my feeder and before a storm comes in, I often have as many as 150 birds at a time. The best I have ever done was to have sixteen male cardinals in view at one time.

In addition to the pleasure that I get, the birds also broaden my knowledge as a naturalist and are an unending source of opportunities for me as a wildlife photographer.

Actually, that is what this column is about. One afternoon this summer, about 4:00 p. m., my wife Uschi and I were enjoying a few restful moments on our patio, sipping iced tea and nibbling on a snack. Suddenly one of the five green frogs that are living in our little pond started to call. I have filmed the frogs many times, but I have never gotten video and audio of them calling. In less time than it takes to talk about it I had the camera set up, but the frog refused to cooperate; I got nothing.

Female rose-breasted grosbeak

While waiting for the frog, we were admiring the beauty of the three male and two female rose-breasted grosbeaks that were coming in to the feeder. The hummers were zipping in and out, the cardinals flashed in, in a constant parade and we even had an indigo bunting and a male red-bellied woodpecker. House Finches, English Sparrows, Tufted Titmice, Red-winged Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds and Chipping Sparrows were also adding to the din.

Over the years I have photographed all of these species and I know full well that I will continue to photograph them over the coming years. The light was just perfect, the weather optimal and the subjects were at hand. What photographer could pass up the chance to do an even better job?

I set my camera up on the porch at sixteen feet from the feeder. Naturally some of the birds were a little closer while a number of them were a little further when I photographed them, but I mention the distance at which the birds accepted me because some of them had fed here all of their lives and knew they were safe. When you can achieve that kind of rapport with any kind of wildlife, the success of your photography will depend only upon your skill with your camera. And you, too, can achieve that kind of rapport if you provide the birds with security and an unending source of food.

I fully realize that not all of you have fourteen acres that you can turn into a sanctuary. But I want you to realize that, unless you live in an apartment house, you can do most of the things that I have just described, even if you have only a standard lot in the middle of a suburb. After all, birders have found over two hundred species of birds in Central Park in the heart of New York City.

Although most bird photography has to be done from a blind, and I use a number of them all the time, I didn't use one that day. I just parked my camera on my deck and stood absolutely still. Standing absolutely still is quite an achievement in its own right; few people can actually do it. Oh, there are lots of people who think they are holding absolutely still, but to wildlife it looks like they have been fathered by a whirling dervish. The only time I moved was to focus slightly, which required the slightest rolling of the focusing ring with my left hand. I do all of my camera functions manually. And when I moved my camera as my subjects changed, I moved it EVER SO SLLLOWWWLY. 

I shot over a period of just about thirty minutes that day, and was rewarded with some great images. I've enclosed a few, so you can judge for yourself.

Photographic Opportunity
Wood Ducks 

Thirty years ago I had a 3/4 acre pond constructed on my property so I could photograph waterfowl and other species in my own backyard.

My refuge here in Northwestern New Jersey is strictly for photography and I put out tons of feed each year, and although the ducks and geese may be hunted elsewhere, they find a safe haven and plenty of food here at all times. 

I have built permanent blinds and use our Rue Ultimate photo blinds. I have also put up, and maintain, a dozen wood duck nest boxes. From March till October I average about 3 dozen wood ducks on my pond at one time, although I have had as many as 76.

I usually average a couple dozen mallard ducks year round, but often have as many as 100, as well as a few black ducks. A pair of resident Canada geese raises a brood of goslings here each year and at other times of the year I often have a dozen or more geese coming in to feed.

Deer, herons, gray squirrels and song birds visit the pond while turtles live in it and crawl out on the logs.

My refuge will be open on a very limited basis, for personally conducted "pay per shoot" photography. The wood ducks should be back by mid-March and I recommend that photography be done in March, April and May, while the females are laying eggs in the boxes and the males are in close attendance, sitting in the trees and on the logs, etc.

For information, price and to schedule an appointment please contact our office at 908-362-6616 and ask for Leonard Lee Rue III or visit our Web site at


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