Category Archives: Catbirds

Photographing Gray Catbirds – Time, Effort, and Fuss over Flash

Photographing A Gray Catbird

Fleeting glimpses of warbler-ish activity flash before my eyes this morning. Tiny and moving fast, ducking in and out of the foliage, I strain to track them. Reliable ID requires an image, however subpar, to ponder over and compare with the photos in my bird books. I don’t get one, not even close.

No more sightings. Instead, I turn my lens to the Gray Catbirds. A National Geographic writer commented that an upper midwest nesting Catbird may have spent “the winter in the shadow of Mayan ruins in Guatemala.” That gives me pause.

Dozens of these raucously loud and expressive song birds are flitting about, filling the air with their feline-like songs. A shared community Catbird space must have been declared for the trees and bushes around our yard. Everyone is friendly and cooperating.

Photo of Gray Catbird
Gray Catbird
All Puffed Up and Singing.
ISO400; F/9; 1/250 Second

My Flash Routine

Summer is here and the dense foliage blocks much of the sun light to the understory trees below. I attach the flash with fresnel extender to the camera.  While I wait, I wonder if the light would be more natural looking if I attached the kind of camera shoe bracket that sports two or even three flash gun mounts on the top and sides of the telephoto lens.

After visualizing this setup, it seems rather too much. In order to attain enough reach, each flash unit would have to have its own better beamer type device to extend and spotlight the flash beams. The cost and effort outweigh the benefits.

My current light setup is already formidable and takes considerable time and fuss to haul around and properly set up. In sequence:

Photo of Gray Cat Bird
Gray Catbird
Perky Tail High
ISO400; F/9; 1/250 Second

Enhancing Ambient Light

Nature photographers all must make decisions about adding/manipulating ambient light with flash. I started out proselytizing about the benefits of using only natural light…but that was just because I didn’t take the time to learn the fundamentals of good flash photography.

Bird photography opportunities abound… but many of them do not come with complementary light. Instead of waiting and waiting for the perfect circumstances, open up a whole new world by attaching a flash to your camera. There is no getting around the thought, effort and time that must be put into balancing the light—achieving a light that’s natural, subtle, warm… almost like you did not use a flash. It’s worth the effort.

An excellent article: “The Catbird Has a Simple Trick to Outsmart Deadbeat Brood Parasites”, by Audubon field editor, bird expert, environmentalist, and artist Kenn Kaufman can be found at this link.


Photo of Catbird

Photographing Gray Catbirds and Playing with the Light

Photographing the Subtle Beauty of the Gray Catbird

Catbirds are unknown to most of my non-birding friends. I think these birds are often overlooked because they resemble the more common and conspicuous blackbirds. The Gray Catbirds’ beauty is quite subtle. Both male and female are overall gray, with dark eyes, and black on its cap, tail, bill, legs and feet. Rich rusty feathers peek out from under its wings and tail. Not shy, Gray Catbirds are commonly found at feeders, snacking on everything we have to offer. Once in a while, I’ll see them eat the oranges we put out for the Woodpeckers and Orioles.

Photo of Catbird
Gray Catbird
The Morning Light and the Creamy Background
Bring Out more Rusty Brown in the Wings.
ISO 1000; f/4.5; 1/800 second

Playing with Natural Light

The Catbirds in our yard are numerous and stay around all summer. I photographed these Catbirds before the heavy leaf cover from our tall trees grew to block much of the good light in our yard. I set up the tripod, camera and 500 mm lens on the porch and got a cup of coffee. No need to hide behind a blind for these curious birds. As long as I didn’t make any sudden movements, they flew in close to the house and went about their business with hardly a look in my direction.

I had the time and opportunity to just play -photographing the Catbirds at different times against diverse backgrounds. I got off the porch and experimented with the directionality of light.

Compare the shadows, textures, and the colors in the two photos (above and below) to see what a difference changing out the natural light can make.

If you want to explore how to manipulate light in your images, don’t get into the rut of going to the same place at the same time. Move the camera and tripod around. Observe and learn how your lens sees light.

Photo of Gray Catbird
Gray Catbird, Tail held High
Perching Against a Lush
Green Background in Late Afternoon..
More Gray and Less Brown on the Feathers.
ISO 2000; f/4; 1/500 Second

Listening for the Gray Catbird

For the longest time, I heard but did not see what I thought was a Brown Thrasher singing in our yard. There may have been a Brown Thrasher or two around, but the songs I heard most likely emanated from the much more numerous Gray Catbirds–another mimic thrush.

The Gray Catbird is a member of the mockingbird and thrasher family and known to imitate other birds, mammals and electronic devices. Catbirds are best known for their scolding, screeching, nasally, cat sounding song. Besides his cat calls, the Catbird repertoire includes stringing together many, many lesser known songs, some joyful, but most just odd twitters and tweets. When they are not singing or eating, they like to roll around and splash in the fountain.

The Catbird Seat

According to Wikipedia, “The catbird seat is an idiomatic phrase used to describe an enviable position, often in terms of having the upper hand or greater advantage”.  Easy to speculate as to why the catbird is associated with this folksy phrase. It’s most likely because the males stake their territorial claim by singing a wide variety of birdsong (loudly and early in the morning) from the highest and most advantageous point around.

(Please click on this link to learn more about another mimicking thrush, the Brown Thrasher)