How To:
Photograph Birds in the Desert

Tara Lemezis   Website

ONDA is collecting submissions for our 2022 Wild Desert Calendar through June 12, 2021. Leading up to this deadline, we’ll share tips from a few of the photographers who have generously shared their work for this publication. 

Author: Tara Lemezis  |  Published Date: May 3, 2021  |  Category: How-To   

The variety of bird species in the desert is truly unparalleled and, depending on the time of year, you can witness courtship displays, foraging and hunting, nesting, baby birds, and your ears will be filled with the sounds of birdsong. Late spring is always an ideal time to explore. However, I’ve recently discovered the high desert in July, when burrowing owls are aplenty, common nighthawks loaf on fence posts until just after golden hour before performing their nightly dinnertime aerial displays, wildflowers are showy, and the way the lingering summer light fires up the entire landscape makes for colorful and remarkable images. 

Here are my three key bird photography tips:


Oregon’s first desert wilderness

Oregon’s first desert wilderness

Steens Mountain: Oregon’s first desert wilderness

On October 30, 2000, Congress passed the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act, finishing the work that had taken ONDA and the other members of the Steens-Alvord Coalition decades  

Steens Mountain is a land of startling contrasts: dramatic u-shaped

Read More


Jane Heisler, Sage Sustainers Member

Jane Heisler, Sage Sustainers Member

I love to travel and I love the desert! Supporting ONDA monthly allows me to hit the road without forgetting Oregon’s high desert—even when I’m not there.


What defines Oregon’s high desert?

What defines Oregon’s high desert?

Bounded by the Cascade Mountains to the west and the Blue Mountains to the north, Oregon’s high desert covers approximately 24,000 square miles. Annual rainfall in the high desert varies from 5 to 14 inches. The average elevation is 4,000 feet; at 9,733 feet, the summit of Steens Mountain is the highest point in Oregon’s high desert. The terrain of the high desert was mostly formed by a series of lava flows that occurred between 30 and 10 million years ago.

Sources: The Oregon Encyclopedia; Wikipedia  

Cooper's hawk

Common nighthawk

Burrowing owl

Tara Lemezis   Website

  1. Get to know your subject and plan your scene.

    What do they eat? Where do they hangout? Do they prefer open habitat, rimrock, wetlands, juniper and sage, or tall, sleepy oak? Are they more active at dawn or dusk, what perches do they sing from and when? When you understand behavior, you’re more likely to capture something unique. Taking the time to connect and respect wildlife often rewards you with a glimpse into their lives and they stick around long enough for you to make a pretty photograph.

  2. Observe, be patient, and give wildlife space.

    Be a silent observer and remember that you are a guest in this space. When you’re quiet and unobtrusive, birds are generally curious enough to get a bit closer to you as they carry on about their business. Be patient and wait for the moment they move into great light or onto a natural perch. And always remember your ethics by giving wildlife space, especially during breeding and nesting season.

  3. Composition and lighting is everything.

    Include the landscape in your photos and stray from the “bird in a box” look. Plants, rocks, and the big sky make your image more interesting. And this is a photography 101 tip, but good lighting evokes mood. The high desert has many moods all day long; shoot in all of them, with a special focus on sunset in summer.


About the Author

Tara Lemezis (she/her) is a wildlife photographer based in Portland. She’s been photographing birds (and mammals, wildflowers and amphibians and reptiles, and kicking up dust in Oregon’s high desert since 2013. She’s drawn to this ecoregion for many reasons: the geologic wonder that is Steens Mountain, the seemingly endless sagebrush steppe, the Alvord Desert playa, stargazing into the darkest night skies you’ve ever seen, solitude, and the swaths of protected and public land along the Pacific Flyway, where over 320 bird species spend some part of their life cycle.

See Tara's Instagram