scott bean photography

Setting up a small reflecting pool for backyard bird photography

Male Northern Cardinal at a reflecting pool.

A few years ago, I set up a small, portable reflecting pool in my backyard for bird photography. I had seen some photos of birds reflected in water and thought they were really beautiful. I can’t remember the photographer that first inspired me to look into this idea more, but their photos were outstanding. I was curious how people were getting photos of birds and their reflections, and I wondered if I could do this. A quick internet search provided me with a lot of information on setting up backyard reflecting pools for bird photography.

A large permanent reflecting pool like this one would be great, but that wouldn’t work for my yard. Since I would need something smaller, I decided to try creating a small portable one described in this blog and like what is shown at the end of this blog post. I liked the idea of being able to move the reflecting pool around the yard and the small size gave me more flexibility in where I could place it.

I found a black plastic seed tray that I initially set up on two sawhorses in my backyard. I put two large tree branches along the sides and placed a smaller branch and some rocks at the end for the birds to perch on when coming to the pool.

My next step was to find a place where I could set up the reflecting pool and be able to photograph it easily. I decided on setting it up so I could shoot out an open bedroom window. This isn’t perfect as I’m shooting down on the birds at more of angle than I would like, but it works.

Photo of a small reflecting pool in a yard.
Cell phone snap of the reflecting pool from the room I photograph from.

After I got the reflecting pool set up, it took a day or so for birds to get used to it, but after that there were steady visitors. With the pool set up for me to photograph out the window of my house, sometimes the light is not ideal, but you take what you are given. When I’m watching the reflecting pool in the evening, I’m looking into the sun. Mornings can be good when there is more side/front light coming in, but that can also cause bright highlights on everything behind the reflecting pool. Cloudy days generally have worked best for me since I don’t have to worry about the direction the light is coming from.

I did notice that in some photos, you could see the bottom of the plastic seed tray, I think because I’m shooting down on the reflecting pool. To help solve this problem and enhance the reflections further, I got a black piece of plexiglass and placed it on the bottom of the plastic seed tray. This solved the problem of seeing the seed tray and also enhanced the reflections of the birds.

House finch on a reflecting pool.
You can see the bottom of the black plastic seed tray on the left side of this photo.

The sawhorses worked well for me to hold the reflecting pool, but keeping the larger branches along the sides was challenging and I wanted something a bit sturdier. After looking around at options, I eventually decided to try placing the reflecting pool on a saw table. This worked better and gave me support along the side to hold the larger branches there. This version of the reflecting pool is what’s shown above.

One issue I ran into with the black seed tray is that it warped a bit which made it difficult to keep level. I replaced the seed tray with a wooden tray made with plywood and 1×3” boards (thanks to my wife and father-in-law for spending some of their time together to assemble this!). I covered the wooden tray with some extra rubber pond liner that I had around. This has worked great and has been more stable than the plastic seed tray.

It has been fun setting up different materials in the reflecting pool for the birds to land on when drinking. I’ve used some branches and different combinations of rocks from around the yard.

Red-breasted nuthatch at a reflecting pool.
A red-breasted nuthatch visiting the reflecting pool on a branch I had placed at the back of the reflecting pool. This was a lifer bird for me.



White-throated sparrow and Junco
A White-throated sparrow and Junco visiting the reflecting pool. I used rocks at the back of the reflecting pool here rather than a branch.

I like that the reflecting pool is small enough that I can move it around to take advantage of different light and also reflections. There is a tree in the yard behind mine that usually turns a brilliant gold in the Fall. I was able to move the reflecting pool so that the color from that tree was reflected in the water. This resulted in some great photo ops with the pool filled with great Fall color.

Fall colors reflecting in a backyard reflecting pool.
I was able to move the reflecting pool around in the yard to pick up the reflection of the tree in the background.


Black-capped chickadee at the reflecting pool.
This black-capped chickadee was nice enough to visit the reflecting pool on a still Autumn evening when I had great reflections from the background tree showing up in the water.

I have found that I need to watch for the background behind the reflecting pool. Under certain lighting conditions, bright highlights can form on plants and trees directly behind the pool which are distracting. I’ve also got a fence directly behind the pool which can create some reflections I don’t always like in the photos. There are quince bushes growing in front of the fence that will eventually be big enough to solve that problem though (and hopefully provide some beautiful spring color as a backdrop and reflections when they bloom).

Eventually I’d like to get a slightly bigger wooden tray made, maybe 3’ x 5’. This would still be small enough to move around but provide a bit more space for the birds and provide a bigger area for reflections. When larger birds like cardinals, blue jays, and northern flickers come to the pool, their reflections just barely fit.

A northern flicker at a reflecting pool.
The reflecting pool is almost too short when larger birds like this Northern Flicker visit.

I’ve really enjoyed being able to sit and watch the birds at the reflecting pool. It has been a good lesson in patience (which I dearly need) and being mindful and just being in the moment. Although I do have to admit that I can get impatient with the birds when they won’t go where I want them to at the end of the reflecting pool (more work for me to do on being patient and accepting what is!).

I’ve also spent more time just watching the yard, which has allowed me to see things I would have otherwise missed, like hummingbirds making very short visits to flowers in the spring that I would have missed, rabbits, and voles and other visitors to the yard.

Hummingbird feeding from a colubmine.
Sitting and watching the reflecting pool has given me the opportunity to watch other birds around the yard too.


And of course, the squirrels in the yard. The squirrels occasionally visit the reflecting pool and would often knock parts off when I just was using the black seed tray and sawhorses.

Fox squirrel drinking from a reflecting pool.
The squirrels are fun to watch too, but can be destructive when they visit!

I’m really glad I ended up getting a small reflecting pool set up that I can put out and enjoy. I’m looking forward to continuing to watch it and seeing what new birds come to visit. I’ve also been thinking of other ideas for places to set it up around the yard to change the light and backgrounds behind.

Female Northern Cardinal at a reflecting pool.
A female Northern Cardinal at the reflecting pool.

Thanks for stopping by the blog and if you would like to see more of my photographs, please visit my photo galleries.


Scott (249)

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