Category Archives: Phoebes

Photographing Black Phoebes Close to Sunset

Photographing Black Phoebes

Most mornings, I’m up early enough to greet the dawn. It’s not always sunny, but I still get excited thinking about photographic prospects that may come with the glorious morning light.

One recent morning in sunny San Diego, I woke to a cloudy gray morning with no promise of favorable light for bird photography. I decided to scout around for possible locations that might offer the likelihood of engaging sun-set lit images.

Photo of Black Phoebe
Sunset Lit Black Phoebe
Plumage is More Brown than Black.
ISO1600; f/8; 1/1250 Second

Dawn v Dusk

At dawn, soft luminosity rapidly intensifies into a day long burst. The light seems cleaner, clearer with warm colors embellished by the mist in the air. Moving from darkness into light, my eyes do not struggle to adapt. But sunset feels entirely different. Vision rapidly declines as light fades quickly to murky gray. My impaired vision struggles to discern birdish contours in the diminishing light. Once the sun dips below the horizon, there is only enough light for silhouettes.

Sunset Lit Black Phoebes

Bird photography is always a waiting game, but it has been my experience that birds are more actively foraging during the early morning hours. On this particular evening, a few aerobatic Black Phoebes swooped up, down and around, catching flying insects while airborne. They momentarily rested on lower tree limbs, quickly pounced on unsuspecting ground quarry, then reclaimed their perches to swallow and prepare for the next strike.

I stood with my tripod fairly close to the activity, approximately 8 feet away. (Minimum focusing distance for the Canon 300mm f/2.8L II IS Lens = 78.7″) Long shadows extended in front of the camera…. so much so that I had to move the equipment further back so my shadow did not obstruct light on the subject in front of me.

Wildlife Activity Down

When I searched out possible sunset shooting locations that morning, I saw a lot of potential in way of light and bird activity. I did not however, factor in the influence people have on the behavior of wildlife. Ordinarily, very few people are around to disturb the early morning calmness. Thirty minutes before sunset when I set up my camera and tripod, people were everywhere.

I should have known. Birds were scarce because people generated road and foot traffic was up. Most of the human transients ignored me and continued with their activities and conversations, but some stopped to stare, walked over to investigate the area where the camera was pointing, or just walked by in front of the camera.

Photo of Black Phoebe
Black Phoebe
ISO1250; f/8; 1/1250 Second

Sunset Success

It didn’t take long before the sun’s angle was low enough to flood the Black Phoebe straight on with soft and flattering light (except for a few branch shadows on the tail feathers). The creamy brown bokeh is the result of light intermingling with densely packed wooded tree trunks. Thankfully, there was a good 12 feet between my subject and his background. This distance helped achieve a seamless blur despite using a fairly tight aperture – f/8 – on my Canon 300mm 2.8 L IS lens with 1.4 telephoto attached.  I think this rich background contrasts nicely with the subject and helps bring out the detail in the bird’s plumage.

NOTE: “BOKEH = noun, a Japanese term for the subjective aesthetic quality of out-of-focus areas of a photographic image.” No matter how visually appealing, Bokeh is wasted on an image that doesn’t have an interesting subject and composition.


Photo of Eastern Phoebe

Photographing Eastern Phoebes

Photographing Eastern Phoebes at the Local Park

Eastern Phoebes are flycatchers found most often in semi-woody areas. They build cup shaped muddy, grassy nests in protected areas (like my porch). Despite the mess they make, I think they are beautiful song birds and love having them around.

Phoebes do not visit the feeder, but are still rather easy to photograph because they often return to the same perch after diving down to the ground for insects. The subtle brown, gray, yellow and white coloring of their plumage is lovely.

One interesting note: The eastern phoebe is one of the many bird species often successfully parasitized by brown-headed cow birds. Cowbirds, known as brood parasites, do not raise their own young. Instead of chick rearing, they use their time to continually produce eggs, which they then lay in other birds’ nests.  For more information about how this survival strategy works for the brown headed cowbirds, and the toll it takes on the survival of eastern phoebes and other species, see this link.

Photo of Eastern Phoebe
Eastern Phoebe in a lovely pose.
ISO 640; f/8.0; 1/2000 Second

Tripod Support

I let my tripod do the heavy lifting when I photographed these eastern phoebes. The Manfrotto tripod I use is sturdy and provides steady support for my camera and long lenses. It’s collapsable, with three one-step fasteners on each leg for fast assembly and teardown. The center post (upon which the tripod head rests) also moves up and down, giving extra height when needed. With my gimble tripod head attached, maneuvering the camera and lens is a breeze. For more information about using the gimble head, see this post.

My only complaint about my tripod is its inability to get my camera situated close to the ground. The leg segments are a bit too long and do not spread out enough to lie flat. The center post can be removed, but the tripod still does not get down close enough to the ground. If I need to photograph from a low viewpoint, I find something, like my beanbag or other support on which to rest the camera.

Children Learning About Birds

I noticed a group of school children at the small park where I was photographing the eastern phoebes. They were exploring the pond, chasing the geese on the edge of the water, and following their teacher’s instructions to look to the sky, find a bird, and track its movements. The kids were doing their best to photograph the birds they saw, sharing 3 or 4 point and shoot digital cameras. The teacher had a tablet and was helping the children ID the birds they saw. Looked like great fun. Eventually, the students noticed my camera, tripod and me (in that order) and were delighted to learn that I was also watching and photographing unfamiliar birds.

Photo of Eastern Phoebe
Feathers Puffed Up to Keep Warm, the Eastern Phoebe returns to Michigan in March to Breed.
ISO 1000; f/8.0; 1/2000 Second

Birding Web Resources for Children

There was definitely less bird activity at the park after the kids showed up, but I still had a productive day and I enjoyed watching the kids explore. I had a chance to talk with the teacher about what she was trying to accomplish on this outing. She referred me to several web resources that help children to learn about birds. Of course, there’s nothing better than getting the kids out to observe first hand and think about the wonders around them.

Two birding web resources for children that that I think are worthwhile are:

#1) Citizen Science

#2) BioKids