Category Archives: Buntings

Photographing an Indigo Bunting Framed in Red Bud Flowers

Photographing an Indigo Bunting

It was a dreary day when I took these photos, and that matters when photographing birds with blue plumage. On a sunny day, you can easily see blue, purple, and aqua hues glimmering on the feathers of male Indigo Buntings. The more light, the more intense the colors appear to be. But it’s really just an illusion. There are no blue pigments in the feathers of Indigo Buntings, or any of the blues we see in nature.

Photo of Indigo Bunting
Indigo Bunting,
Lots of Brown with the Blue due to Low Light.
ISO1000; f/6.3; 1/400 Second.

It’s All About Light

Indigo Buntings (and all other birds of blue) are unable to manufacture blue pigments. Pigment is what gives us true color. We see blue only because of the reflective structure of the Indigo Bunting’s feathers. When light waves fall on his feathers, the feather structure breaks the different colors of the light apart. Only blue tones are reflected back out. (The other colors of visible light are absorbed by the feathers.)

You can see in these photos patches of black and brown colors because when there’s little or no light, the feathers of Indigo Buntings are actually all brown and black. I was a little disappointed that the feathers of this male were not more colorful for the camera, but he was sitting amongst glowing Red Bud flowers, and that helped.

Encircling Floral Frames

I love showy flowering Red Bud Trees. The long graceful twigs are wide spread, slim and tender, with heart shaped leaves leaving plenty of room for the camera lens to intrude. Its fruit consist of purplish black pods in which are nested tiny, bird attracting black seeds. These understory beauties are one of the earliest to flower in our shaded yard and consequently attract a lot of migrating avian pollinators. Tiny rosy purple flowers even grow on the Redbud’s bifurcated trunk.

Photo of Indigo Bunting
Indigo Bunting .
Blue Plumage Lackluster due to Low Light.
ISO1250; f/6.3; 1/400 Second

Framing Strategies

Some considerations when framing birds within branches and flowers are:

  • The frame is essentially a wrap around intended to spotlight an eye catching subject and the beauty of its natural surroundings. It should accentuate and complement the subject.
  • You can frame with flowers, shadows, dark patches- any defined area that can serve as an enclosing border. The fewer the distractions, the better.
  • Since you control what your viewer sees,  judicious cropping in post processing is an important part of framing.
  • In addition to accenting and complementing the subject, the frame should give the photo context (in this case Spring).
  • Texture, color and detail add emotion, thus engaging the viewer.
  • Depth of field add to the sense that there’s a frame. Tight depth of field accentuates the front and back. Blurred background and foreground make the frame less noticeable.
  • You can prune and rearrange flowers and foliage to create the perfect perch. If you do not, you will likely have to maneuver the lens to focus tightly within lots of branches.

Attempting to frame a bird in a picture perfect natural setting takes timing and perservance, and no small amount of luck. It’s worth the effort, even on those days when the bird’s plumage colors are muted.

Surprised by a Snow Bunting on the Beach

Looking for Late Avian Migrators

It’s deer hunting season, so I’m searching for alternative birding locations where I won’t hear (and worry about) the cracking sound of rifles firing in the morning. There are plenty of county parks to explore– some wild and unruly, some with groomed hiking trails, clean bright bathrooms and wi-fi enabled resting areas. And then there’s the Lake MI shoreline. Birds can be found in abundance in all of these places.

Most of migrators have either passed through SW Michigan or have just started to arrive here for their winter stay. The list serves I subscribe to boast of sightings of unusual birds forced to seek shelter on the beaches during the recent 50 mph winds.

Photo of Snow Bunting
Snow Bunting.
ISO1600; f/8; 1/800 Second

A Walk on the Beach Without My Camera

My husband and I decided to check out the beach after the recent wind storms. This was one of those few times where I talked myself out of bringing my camera, due to the brisk winds and blowing sands. (Upon reflection, it was an ill-considered decision, given all the reports about blown-in migrating birds.) About 15 minutes into our walk, we spotted a lone mystery bird, whose shape and flight behavior did not match the shorebirds we usually see on the beach. We followed it to where it settled on the rocks. Could it be a Bunting? Immediately knew I needed to go get my camera.

My husband stayed to keep an eye on the bird’s location while I hastily plodded through the sand to the dune stairs – ran up 78 steps – jogged to the house – picked up the 300 mm 2.8 L II lens attached to my 7D Mark II DSLR camera already packed in a light case – ran around looking for my car keys – drove back to the dune stairs – dashed back down the stairs with the camera case on my back, and trudged back through the sand to where my husband and, thankfully, the Snow Bunting were waiting 20 minutes later.

Photo of Snow Bunting
Snow Bunting,
sitting on the rocks
ISO1250; f/7.1; 1/640 Second

Stray Light Hitting the Sensor

This Snow Bunting sheltered himself from the blowing sand by perching on top of limestone rocks put in place to protect the dunes from erosion. He was decked out in his non breeding plumage and looked weary- but wary enough keep me at what he considered to be a secure distance.

Snow Buntings are arctic birds who make their nests in the cracks and crevices of the rocky tundra. According to web resources, it is not uncommon for these birds to winter in Michigan along the lakeshore, as well as in grassy fields.

The Snow Bunting let me photograph him for 10 minutes. The sun was high in the southeastern sky, and I was facing east toward the dunes. I could see that stray light was hitting the sensor and causing unwanted streaks of lens flare on my images. I draped a microfiber dust cloth over the camera’s eyepiece and continued shooting.

I took small steps and eventually got on my knees in an attempt to change the angle of the lens and trajectory of the light on the images.  He was watchful and very patient, but eventually, I must have taken one step too close because he ducked inside the rock crevices and stayed there.

Take the Camera!

This adventure is another reminder that I need to take my camera along whenever I go for a beach walk, or any walk, especially when the light is favorable and conditions are optimal for spotting and photographing new birds. While it may be inconvenient and uncomfortable to lug that equipment whenever I go exploring, that’s what it takes to expand my portfolio and grow as a photographer.

See this post to read about lens flare.

See this post to read more about Snow Buntings.

Photo of Male Indigo Bunting

Photographing Indigo Buntings and Pre-Visualizing Images

Pre-Visualizing the Perfect Photo

Often when I’m out in the field with my camera, I see the perfect shot…..a scene with shimmering light, balanced and beautiful. The only thing missing is the bird.

My imagination starts rolling over a wide variety of picture perfect scenarios, I swap out different ideas. Creativity is sparked. Time flies. Visions are embossed in the back of my mind, and I move on, always hoping, always measuring those visions against the images I actually shoot.

Am I day dreaming, or is this a mental exercise heavily mixed with hope and inspiration?  (No doubt some of these visions are just improbable scenarios.)

And Then It Happens

I pass by a graceful field of flowers, a golden sunrise low in the sky, mist droplets shimmering on the leaves. A male Indigo Bunting in glorious plumage swoops in, perches low within the flowers, but still in full view. I fire off a burst, and then he’s gone.

One of those shots was perfectly lovely. For once I had an image that matched my vision.

Photo of Indigo Bunting
A Peaceful Setting for this Singing
Indigo Bunting.
ISO800; f/8; 1/1000 Second

Acting Out Your Dream

Start pre-visualizing your ideal photo. (NOTE: This is not the same as arriving on site with an open mind.)  When your dream bird suddenly arrives in the perfect place at the perfect time to act out your vision, be ready with all your best equipment and a steady hand.

You will know when you’ve got it. Doesn’t matter if anyone else likes it or even knows. In the meantime, stay open to all the dreamy possibilities your mind may have to offer.

To read more about Indigo Buntings, visit this post.

Photo of Male Indigo Bunting

Photographing Indigo Buntings and The Illusion of Seeing Blue

Photographing the Blues of the Male Indigo Bunting

I came across this male indigo bunting early in the morning when I pulled my car into a parking lot at the Allegan State Game Area. The camera was already propped atop the bin I keep in the passenger seat. I immediately shut down the car, opened the passenger door window, positioned myself and the lens toward the bunting, and started shooting. It turned out to be an excellent photo shoot with a very cooperative bird.

It lasted maybe 2 minutes. During this short time, the blue, purple, and aqua hues of his feathers glimmered in the sun. Every time this male bunting flew to a different perch and gave me a different angle of his little body to photograph, his colors seemed to change hues.

Photo of Male Indigo Bunting
Different Shades of Blue, Purple and Aqua on this Male Indigo Bunting.
ISO 400; f/9.0; 1/1000 Second

Structural Color is Different From Pigmented Color

It started me thinking about something my Catholic school teacher told me a long time ago. Blue pigment is very rare in the animal world. You may think you are seeing true blue in a bird, but it’s probably an illusion.

Of course she was right. Indigo buntings are actually brown and black. They are not “true blue” because there are no blue pigments in the feathers of indigo buntings, or any other birds who appear to be blue. The different shades of blue that we see in these photos are a trick of light.

Photo of Male Indigo Bunting
Male Indigo Bunting Singing. Unfortunately, I Did Not See the Female Indigo Bunting.
Females Are Mostly Brown Colored with Just a Touch of Blue.
ISO 640; f/9.0; 1/1000 Second

Why We See and Photograph Indigo Bunting Blues

Indigo buntings (and all other birds of blue) are unable to manufacture blue pigments. Pigment is what gives us true color. We see blue only because of the reflective structure of the indigo bunting’s feathers. When light waves fall on his feathers, the feather structure breaks the different colors of the light apart. Only blue is reflected back out. (The other colors of visible light are absorbed by the feathers.)

The various shades of blue on the male indigo bunting appear with light, (the more light, the more intense the blues) and disappear at night, when there’s no light reflecting off the bird and back to the viewer’s eyes.

Telling the difference between pigmented color and structural color is not difficult. If the feather color seems even and doesn’t change as you look at it from different angles, it’s probably pigmented. If the feathers seem to dazzle and change hues when you view them from different angles, it’s most likely “structural color” -a consequence of the way the feathers are bouncing and reflecting light.

Photo of Male Indigo Bunting
Male Indigo Bunting, Singing His Heart Out In the Bright Sunlight.
ISO 1000; f/9.0; 1/1000 Second
Photo of Female Indigo Bunting
Female Indigo Bunting- Looking Rather Ragged. Just A Touch of Blue.
ISO 3200; f/8; 1/1000 Second
Photo of Juvenile Indigo Bunting
Juvenile Indigo Bunting
ISO 500; f/8.0; 1/800 Second

For More Information About Structural Colors

If you are interested in reading more about structural colors, I recommend this article: Why Most Animals are Not True Blue by Steven D. Faccio, a conservation biologist at this LINK.

Photo of Snow Bunting

Photographing Snow Buntings and Why Bird Photography is so COOL

Migratory Madness

It’s still fairly early in Spring, and we are seeing lots of bird species that have either not yet left their wintering grounds in Michigan or are just passing through to their ultimate nesting ground destination.  It seems that each bird has its own migratory story and it’s fun to discover from whence they came and where they are going.

Photograph of Snow Bunting
Snow Bunting Deciding to Linger, despite the photographer at his back.
I thought for sure he would take off, so I set a very fast shutter speed.
ISO 800; f/8.0; 1/3200 Second

Lingering Snow Bunting

Driving slowly down a country road, we came upon a lone male snow bunting, eating seeds on the ground. As birds go, he did not appear too nervous, though he kept a watchful eye on the car. I had never seen this bird before and could not ID him. I felt the anxiety rise inside me as I quickly and quietly set the camera on the car’s window ledge and pointed the lens toward him. Turns out that he didn’t mind posing. I got off 50 shots before he went on his way.

After consulting our resource books and the experts at WhatBird, we learned that this bird is an arctic snow bunting, wintering in Michigan and no doubt stocking up on his food reservoir before he takes off for northern Canada. According to my resources, this little guy should have left Michigan in March (females follows 2-3 weeks later) so we were lucky to see him still lingering in early April. Arctic snow buntings must have antifreeze in their blood. They are known to survive -55 degree temperatures.

Photograph of Male Snow Bunting
Male Snow Bunting, Stretching His Feathers, Looking Rather Relaxed, despite the Car and the Camera
ISO 250; f/9.0; 1/2000 Second

Why Bird Photograph is so COOL

This snow bunting encounter reminds me why the art of bird photography is so very satisfying. You never know what will transpire. Many factors impact your experience…light, luck, skill, equipment, weather, instinct, food, migration…. the list goes on and on. You learn about humility, patience, and perseverance. You struggle with uncertainty and complexity.  And somehow, it all comes together and you have a lovely and unexpected encounter. It is nothing short of exhilarating. And even after a very good day, somehow you know that the best is yet to come.

I hope you all enjoy your birding experiences this Spring. There’s lots out there to enjoy.