Category Archives: Kinglets

Photographing a Rush of Kinglets- Photographic Muscle Memory

Photographing A Big Kinglet Party

It was late in the migrating season when a dozen or so Kinglets descended near the fountain in our back yard. These tiny birds streak past and leave only a blur in my mind. Thankfully, my trusty camera can stop the action.

Ruby Crowned Kinglet
Ruby Crowned Kinglet
ISO800; f/8; 1/250 Second

Kinglet Visual ID

It’s relatively easy to distinguish between the two kinglet species.

  • Most noticeable is the dashing splash of color on the foreheads of spring males…bright red for the Ruby Crown Kinglets and yellowish gold for the Gold Crown Kinglets.
  • The Gold Crown males and females have bolder facial markings while the Ruby Crowns have more of a plain face.
  • The eyes of Ruby Crowns are accented with white oval, incomplete eye-rings, widest and most prominent on the sides.
  • Rubys are larger and more olive green – where Gold Crowns are more gray.

(NOTE: Over time, my visual ID abilities have improved, but not my audio detective skills. I must rely on my eyes and camera lens.)

Gold Crowned Kinglet
Gold Crowned Kinglet
ISO400; f/8; 1/250 Second

Photographic Muscle Memory

My daily bird photography goals and setup procedures with the cameras are very often at odds with the ever changing light and the birds at hand. Consequently, I try to be nimble, adaptable, and confident in the moment. The time to dwell on opportunities lost and “I should have done that” reviews is after the shoot.

Lately I have noticed that my camera skills are becoming second nature. Abundant practice over the years (not to mention understanding the techno part and being prepared) have honed my photographic muscle memory to be disciplined, quick and agile. I spend a lot less time fumbling and bumbling with my equipment. My body and mind warm up nicely to photographing birds, and I experience less anxiety, even in the most pressurized and fleeting moments. (NOTE: When photographing people, I become more jerky, less adept. You would think these skills would be transferrable, but apparently not.)

We Get Better…or Worse

Practice makes perfect! Of course bad habits and behaviors can become part of muscle memory as easily as the productive ones. I do have bad habits that need correcting…..

  • Bursting Away…making much more work for myself in post instead of shooting strategically. (Usually a consequence of being inattentive or excited.)
  • Becoming so captivated by a bird that I forget to look for distractions that might wreak havoc on an image.
  • Missing critical shots because I lifted my head and moved my eye away from the camera’s eye cup instead of making the necessary exposure adjustments on the fly.  (NOTE: It is not uncommon for me to spend many frustrating moments trying to re-find a fast moving warbler that I saw with two eyes, but lost once I peered through the lens. I must direct the lens and quickly re-locate that spot while looking through the much narrower field of view of the lens, all in a highly charged instant. If the warbler is bouncing in and out of the viewfinder, and then gets lost in densely packed undergrowth, there is no choice but to lift my head again until I catch sight of it and am able to redirect the lens.)

So many more bird photography skills for me to learn.

Ruby Crowned Kinglet
Female Ruby Crowned Kinglet,
ISO400; f/8; 1/250 Second

Photographing the Gold Crowned Kinglet- A Late Fall Migrator

Attracting Fall Avian Migrators

It’s getting cold out there. We’ve unplugged and removed the pump from the fountain, put away the outdoor ornaments and patio furniture, and even gone so far as to pest proof some of the creature hidey-holes in the garage and on the deck.

Most of the migrators have passed through, although I’m still expecting a few. Purple Finches, Pine Siskins, and the Yellow Bellied Sap Suckers have not made an appearance yet. (Or, perhaps they’ve flown past our area without so much as a backward glance.) As always, I secretly hope to see a species or two that I’ve never seen… the Redpoll Finch perhaps, or a Northern Goshawk coming to SW MI to settle in for the winter. Until then, I won’t be lonely. There are plenty of winter hardy year-round residents to keep me company.

Photographing The Gold Crowned Kinglet
Gold Crowned Kinglet
ISO1000; f/8; 1/250 Second

Photography Routines are Changing With the Light

My bird photography routines are changing with the season… much less light. No need to rush in the morning because sunrise is later but I find myself hurrying in the afternoon before the light slips away.

Most of the migrating birds we have seen this late in the season seem to find comfort where other birds are foraging. If I see a lot of our resident chickadees, nuthatches and titmice in the trees near the feeders, I look harder to find one or two stray warblers, kinglets or vireos rapidly weaving through the branches and picking off tiny insects and spiders.

Photographing the Gold Crowned Kinglet

This Gold Crowned Kinglet is one such late visitor — quick, fluttery and constantly on the move. Kinglets rarely sit still long enough (even when eating insects) to give the lens time to lock focus. I got lucky with this one. Chittering away, he pivoted back and forth in full view of the camera, looking like he just could not decide where to go. I set the ISO to 1000 to calm the flash blast and let the ambient light dominate with just a little well rounded fill flash. (NOTE: The light meter registered ambient light alone at ISO 12,000.)

This diminutive bird is winter hardy despite its size (avg length: 3.1 to 4.3 in-avg weight: 0.21 oz). The e-Bird maps indicate that kinglets (not that much bigger than a hummingbird – avg length: 2.8 to 3.5; avg weight 0.12 oz)  winter in lower Michigan, usually within the protective surroundings of dense conifers. We have never seen them in the winter.

Photo of Gold Crowned Kinglet
Gold Crowned Kinglet
I like the Exiting Pose, Despite the
absence of a catchlight in his eye.
ISO1000; f/8; 1/250 Second

Maintaining a Bird Friendly Yard

Our back yard is mostly quiet and secure except for the occasional avian predator striking fear in the hearts of birds and small mammals. Ample cover (continuous spaces of native plants, colorful nectar filled flowers, ferns, wildly overgrown thickets, various brush piles) all free of chemical pesticides thrive in our yard. Squirrel, raccoon and deer proof feeders are kept clean, full and safe from land bound predators.

A key attractor this Fall was the availability of a clean, multi-level running water source for drinking, preening, and washing. A wide variety of birds converged there and within view of my camera, even in the rain. NOTE: Lots of birds (Thrushes, Towhees, Juncos, Sparrows, etc) prefer to stay low when they come in for a drink, so our multilevel water feature includes stones at the base.

We try to provide a buffet of healthy food for the birds, but the most restorative and economical bird food sources are found in nature, even in Michigan’s persistently cold weather. Native trees and plants provide nutritional seeds, nuts, sap, nectar, berries and insects, even grit. Birds live in and around grasses, vegetation, fungi, mosses, lichens, rotting leaves and decaying wood so they can be first to feast on mosquitoes, worms, grubs, spiders, gnats and many other varieties of arthropods within those natural spaces. They may even feast on an occasional amphibian.

One of the best things we’ve ever done was to build an inviting, eco friendly space to attract birds. It brings enjoyment on so many levels, especially when it comes to watching and photographing birds.

Photographing the Golden Crowned Kinglet and A Quick Exposure Check

An Uncommon Visitor…the Golden Crowned Kinglet

This is the first identifiable image of a Golden Crowned Kinglet that I have ever photographed. Vary rarely, I see this tiny songbird with a flashy yellow/gold patch on his crown, flitting in and out of the camera’s view, but never long enough to actually get a recognizable shot. Golden Crowned Kinglets behave like Ruby Crowned Kinglets – quick, fluttery and constantly on the move. They rarely sit still long enough (even when eating insects) to give the lens time to lock focus. I felt very lucky to get such a close-up shot.

Photo of Gold Crowned Kinglet
An Uncommon Visitor
The Gold Crowned Kinglet
ISO1000; f/5; 1/400 Second

The Potency of Light

After many years of photographing birds, I know quite a lot about the different lighting scenarios in my yard…. how the intensity and color of light transforms with the seasons and the time of day.  I also know how quickly the potency of light can change during a photo shoot and ruin exposure.

A Quick Exposure Check – the Meter Bar

Modern DSLR cameras are equipped with sophisticated multi-point TTL (through the lens) light meters designed to collect and measure the light coming through the lens. One way photographers can quickly check the exposure reading is by glancing at the meter bar (a bar with regular intervals marked) in the viewfinder. If the needle indicator is in or near the 0 position, at the midpoint of display, then the correct exposure is set. If the needle is leaning to the right, the image will likely be overexposed. If it’s leaning to the left, it will be underexposed. (NOTE: On most DSLR cameras, the meter bar can be set to appear in the viewfinder on a horizontal or vertical display.)

This meter bar is designed to be informational only. It will not change the exposure parameters set in Manual mode by the photographer.

Metering Mode Impacts Meter Bar

Exposure readings that you see on the meter bar in your viewfinder are based on the metering mode you set. The metering mode tells the camera how to read the light. Canon cameras have 4 metering modes: Evaluative, Partial, Center Weighted Average, and Spot Metering.  See this post for more information on metering modes.

A Through-the-Brain Light Meter

A few professional photographers who I follow claim that they use their own eyes as sensors to read the light. They do not rely on battery powered meters which may trick them into faulty exposures during their shoots. They prefer to rely on their imagination and years of serious study and experience to evaluate the intensity and color qualities of light and then set exposure accordingly.  Pretty cool.

Photographing the Ruby Crowned Kinglet – Up Close

More Light- Fewer Leaves

The sun filtering through the trees was bright… no doubt because the canopy of deciduous  trees above my house is full of holes left from fallen leaves. The migrating birds can not hide as well on the branches closest to my house, but a few tired and hungry ones still come to rest and replenish.

Photo of Ruby Crowned Kinglet
Ruby Crowned Kinglet
ISO1250; f/5.6; 1/500 Second

The Photographer as Wallflower

On windy days, it’s interesting to watch and wait for migrating birds to descend (seemingly out of nowhere) upon the trees nearest to my library windows. Whenever a cluster of clamorous titmice or chickadees come together to hop about on the Serviceberry or Redbud, I crouch behind my camera and wait for the vagrants to join the frenzy and alight on the same tree. Most of the time one or two come to see what all the fuss is about. (Safety in numbers?) Then, quiet as a wallflower, I point my long lens at the partygoers and join in on the fun.

Up-Close Detail with Telephoto Lenses

You don’t need a dedicated macro lens to capture fine detail in your images. Telephoto lenses allow you to magnify the details while not invading the comfort zone of your bird subjects. My Canon 500mm II f/4 L lens has a remarkably close minimum focusing distance  (12.4′ or 145.7″). Combine that with the narrow field of view that comes with amplification and you’ve got superior image quality.

Too Close for AutoFocus

This Ruby Crowned Kinglet came in so close to the camera that autofocus was not quite capable of achieving focus. Assuming the kinglet would stay close, I had to make a quick choice…. either physically pick up the camera and tripod and back it up a couple inches or turn on Manual focus and hope that the minimal focusing distance would decrease just a touch and allow me to manually nail focus. The light and contrast on the scene were very good and would allow auto focus to work optimally. I went with picking up the tripod and moving back – and then letting the autofocus do its job.

Photo of Ruby Crowned Kinglet
Ruby Crowned Kinglet.
A Closeup View of His Ruby Crown.
ISO1500; f/5, 1/500 Second

Does Manual Focus Decrease Minimal Focusing Distance?

There are lots of sites on the web touting the advantages of using manual focus over auto focus. One such benefit is giving the photographer a slight close-focusing edge by reducing the len’s minimal focusing distance. Later I did a quick (and unscientific) experiment to determine if switching to manual focus would reduce the minimal focusing distance of the Canon 500 L f/4 II lens. I fixed the lens on a bird perch spot right on the edge of where I knew auto focus could not achieve focus because it was a 1/2 inch or so too close to the lens. With the lens locked in place on the tripod, I turned off autofocus and tried to manually achieve focus on that spot. No luck. Manual focus didn’t seem to give me any advantage in the shorter distance category.

Just as well. I depend on fast auto focusing technology almost every day.

To read more about fast focusing technology, press this link.

To read more about close-up photography with telephoto lenses, press this link.


Photo of Golden Crowned Kinglet

Photographing Kinglets – Through the Glass Photography

Through the Glass Window Photography

Through the glass window photography?

Not recommended…. but how else can I quickly photograph these beautiful newcomers who fly in and out of our lives so quickly?

Photo of Ruby Crowned Kinglet
Ruby Crowned Kinglet.. Not Much of a Crown This Time of Year.
ISO 1000; f/4; 1/500 Second

Late Migrators

It was late in the fall migration cycle, but I hadn’t given up hope of seeing migrating birds in our yard. My camera and tripod were at the ready near the library window. I sat nearby with a book on my lap, lifting my head every few minutes to look out the window for birds. I noticed a branch swaying, ever so slightly, back and forth.

As my lens tracked the source of the movement, I was almost sure that I was following some species of little warbler. He appeared to have the right size, shape, and fast moving foraging behavior. And there was more than one.

With my 300mm lens plus 1.4 extender, I successfully photographed  both of these warbler like birds. After uploading the photos to Lightroom, I spent a lot of time comparing them to the photos in my warbler book. No matches. I scanned both photos into the “Birdsnap” app on my phone. It returned 4 possible IDs (Wrentit, Kinglet, Vireo, and Flycatcher). NO warblers listed.

The Kinglet choice seemed to be the best match. As I always do before I publish, I uploaded my photos to for definitive IDs. The experts identified them as 2 separate kinglet species – the Ruby Crowned Kinglet and the Golden Crowned Kinglet.

Photo of Golden Crowned Kinglet
Golden Crowned Kinglet
ISO 800; f/4; 1/320 Second

Photographing Two Species of Kinglets

A Kinglet is most certainly not a warbler. Plump and drab, these two species of Kinglets are some of the smallest birds in North American. They do not nest in southwest Michigan. I was very lucky to see and photograph these birds, foraging on the same day, in the same tree in my yard.

Anything Between the Lens and the Bird

Sadly, image sharpness and contrast clarity on these photos of kinglets (and other transient birds that I’ve photographed this Fall) were compromised because I was shooting through my library window.

The closeness of tree cover and eye level view that are afforded through my library windows offer a perspective that can be found no where else in my yard. Because the feeders are tucked in amongst the trees, this space also provides a level of security for the birds while they feed. Most of the time they don’t even look my way, like I’m under a cloak of invisibility.

Attaching a Filter To An Expensive Lens

A quick check of the web confirms that there is plenty of controversy about whether or not a photographer should put a piece of glass between her lens and her subject.

It is true that the use of a high quality filter on the front element of an expensive lens may avert disaster- usually caused by rough handling and dropping. These filters can also protect the lens from dirt, dust, and smearing that comes from everyday use.

But many photographers (including me) believe that it is a waste of time and money to buy high quality glass and then compromise that sharpness by placing a protective filter in front of the lens.

Not Willing to Miss the Shot

Whether it’s a window or a filter, putting any piece of glass between my lens and the bird means a loss of image quality that is significant to me.

But there are certain birds and certain circumstances that demand that I shoot fast through the glass window or miss the shot. I accept the fact that the result will be subpar photos.

Not Yet Willing to Attach A Protective Filter

There’s no “get the shot” urgency to attaching a filter to my lenses like there is when I shoot through the library window. I suppose that one day, circumstances may arise where I would consider purchasing and using protective filters on my lenses. I’m very careful with my equipment, but accidents do happen. I’m just not there yet.

To learn more about the BirdSnap app, press this link.

To view the “through the library window” photos of 2014 migrating birds, press this link.