Category Archives: Thrushes

Photographing Swainson Thrushes – Finding Complementary Light

Photographing Swainson Thrushes

It was a productive Fall season for Swainson Thrushes this year. Usually we see only two or three stop by on their migrating journey, but this year we counted half-dozen or so bold and boisterous individuals competing for room at the fountain. They mostly came in the evening.

photo of Swainson Thrushes
Two Swainson Thrushes
One Not Willing to Share.
ISO1000; f/9; 1/200 Second

The camera rig straddled the door jam…with one of the tripod legs stretching out to rest on the outdoor deck. The other two tripod legs were positioned inside the house.  The early morning golden hour had long past. The fountain was still draped in shade- the garage blocking its light. As the sun rose over the roof, a bright patch blanketed the camera rig, making the my new oversized Hoodman camera eye cup ever so useful. Trees were still heavy with green leaves. At this mid-morning hour, the background was a good 2 stops darker than the fountain area.

I wondered what impact the stream of sunlight shining directly on the camera would have on my camera’s light meter. The camera’s LCD viewing monitor was compromised by reflection and glare, but I didn’t think light was sneaking in through the viewfinder. The ambient light near the fountain was not evenly spread…only a patch here and there shown through in the foreground and background.  I took a couple test shots and noticed blinkies…a consequence of  reflective and harsh surfaces throughout the frame. The light was transitioning fast.

Exposure Adjustments

I could turn the flash off and get by with sporadic light and most likely a high ISO….as high as 3000+ ISO.  I decided that with uneven light prevailing, it was best to add a little flash fill. I turned the FEC to -2/3  (NOTE: Flash Exposure Compensation won’t work in complete manual mode, so I turned on Auto ISO. Alternately, I could choose to use one of the semi-automatic setting like TV or AV or perhaps even Program Mode.).

The Thrushes were moving so fast that by the time I adjusted exposure for a particular perch, that bird was long gone. Thrushes are ground feeding birds, and they commonly go where they can stay hidden amongst the low lying Hosta or within patches of late season Hellebore, Sedum, Rhododendron, Wood Poppies and bright Coleus. I pointed the lens downward near the wood chips.

Photo of Swainson Thrush
Swanson Thrush
On the Ground, Wings up.
ISO800; f/7.1; 1/250 Second

Pointing the Lens Downward

I don’t often publish photos of birds foraging on the ground…. mainly because I prefer eye level shots and am too hesitant to get down at their level into a bestrewed tangle of debris. The lens had a difficult time trying to lock focus in this jumble. I could have taken the time to lower the camera….the tripod legs are easily adjusted, but any distraction would have sent the birds flying.

Thankfully, there was much less reflecting glare on the ground at that late hour. The wood chips upon which the thrushes landed offered a subtly colorful and complementary palate. All I had to do was wait and hope that a thrush would wander out from under the foliage.  And this one did.

Photographing Wood Thrushes in Near Darkness

Photographing Wood Thrushes

Over the years, I’ve photographed the migrating  Veery Thrush and Swainson’s Thrush as they were passing through our yard, but never a resident Wood Thrush. Wood Thrushes tend to be very camera shy. I was familiar with their captivating flute like spring songs (filled with low mellow notes and high pitched trills) long before I connected the voice with the vocalist. It wasn’t until we installed a fountain near our deck that I realized that these handsome birds must spend the summer nesting and foraging in our back woods.

Photo of Wood Thrush
Wood Thrush
ISO400; f/8; 1/250 Second

Photographing in Evening’s Twilight

Around evening’s twilight, four or five Wood Thrushes quietly congregated at the fountain after all the other bird species had left. At first, only one or two bold and curious birds came. I could see a few more of their wary companions hiding in the dimness beyond the fountain. Light was quickly declining.

Metering and Managing the Light

They came in the near darkness, so that’s how I had to manage exposure. I switched the camera’s light meter mode from “Evaluative” to “Partial”.  Metering modes tell the camera system WHERE in the scene to meter the reflected light. If you change the metering mode from “evaluative” (total scene) to “partial” (approx 6-10% of the area) or “spot” (approx 2.5% or less of the area), the light meter will narrow the area it takes into account when metering and possibly use different algorithms to read the reflected light. (NOTE: The histogram is a reliable way to see how the light meter is balancing the light coming into the lens.)

It’s always a challenge to control the light intensity of the flash and properly expose the subject (and not the background) especially when there’s so little ambient light to help out. The background area was so dark as to be indiscernible. The camera was set to Manual Mode and the flash (with fresnel flash extender) to E-TTL II so that the camera would automatically calculate the burst needed based on the exposure settings I chose. I toned down this burst by setting the flash exposure compensation (FEC) to -2/3. It turned out to be a good place to start. (NOTE: Often the sudden flash blast will disturb wary birds, but the thrushes did not scatter or even flinch when the flash went off.)

Wood Thrush
Wood Thrush
A Twilight Dip
In the Fountain.
ISO1000; f/8; 1/250 Second

A Lens Can Not Focus in Darkness

As it got darker, my eyes and the lens struggled to find edges and contrast on which to focus. (NOTE: A lens can not focus in darkness. If it’s too dark, it won’t even go thru the motion to hunt back and forth. There is nothing upon which its technical eye can fix – no contrast, no color, no edges, nothing.)

The moonlight and starlight that night offered some help. In addition, the fresnel attached flash emitted a light beam (auto focus assist beam) so the lens could do its calculations for autofocus to work. NOTE: That assist beam only travels so far, and no doubt not as far as the fountain…a good 20 feet.

As you can see in the photos above, the lens did have sufficient light to lock focus.

Thrush ID

In January, 2017, I published a post on what I thought was a Wood Thrush, but when I looked back at those photos and compared them to the boldly colored Wood Thrushes included in this post, it was clear that I made an ID error and instead posted photos of a Hermit Thrush.

A rather obvious mistake, considering how distinctive looking Wood Thrushes are. I’m getting better at bird ID as time goes by, but I still have trouble telling the difference between thrush species. Wood Thrushes are one of the easiest thrushes to identify with their rich cinnamon feathers and bold brown densely spotted white breast. Like Robins, they spends most of their time hopping around on the ground flipping leaves and pouncing on whatever little creature surfaces. Most of the time, if I am at all unsure, I don’t publish without having the experts at What verify a species ID. Clearly I skipped that step when I posted in January.  Corrections have been made.

Photographing a Gray Cheeked Thrush and Bokeh Blur Quality

Photographing a Gray Cheeked Thrush

The Gray Cheeked Thrush is a long distance migrant who travels back and forth between its remote breeding areas in Northern Canada/Alaska and South America. It is known to be shy and unobtrusive, spending a lot of time hidden in the brushy undergrowth. It’s a new bird for me. In this shot the thrush turns his head to give us a full view of its cheeky namesake.

Migrating Thrushes at the Fountain

The migrating thrushes have been dominating the fountain area lately. Swainson and Wood Thrushes arrive a little before dusk and gather in the gushing water or on the ground near to where the water dribbles down. The thrush numbers are highly variable day to day…depending on the migrating stream. For the most part, they have the fountain to themselves during the evening hours.

photo of Gray Cheeked Thrush
Gray Cheeked Thrush
Acting Very Suspicious of His Surroundings.
ISO800; f/8; 1/250 Second

Noticing That A Bird is Slightly Different

With a half dozen or more birds flocking the fountain area, it often takes a while to notice if one of the thrushes is a different species. It may have similar size, shape, beak, or plumage colors, certainly enough to blend in with the other thrushes at dusk. Something usually sets the newcomer apart, like her overall comfort level, behavior, or perhaps an understated but distinguishing feature.

Some of the time, I don’t notice if a bird is different than the other birds until after it’s long gone…when I’m processing the photos the next day. Unfortunately, if I don’t notice, I’m less likely to train the lens onto that particular bird and take lots of photos. In this instance, I took one shot because I liked a radiant glow in the background…and not because I spotted a new species perched in front of that warm light.

The Quality of Image Bokeh

Our human eyes combined with a big brain see things very differently than a camera lens. Photographers don’t really see bokeh– good or bad – until they look through a camera lens and examine the out-of-focus areas of an image.

Unlike the human eye, the camera’s lens can blur the image in front of and behind its points of focus. The area of focus and the areas of blur depend on the aperture setting and the type of lens. In general, the more you open up your aperture, the thinner your area of focus and the more blur the lens delivers.

Bokeh is defined as the quality of the out-of-focus blur areas within your image. This blur  – how much it enhances or diminishes the subject – has everything to do with aesthetics and feelings…quality and character. Essentially, rating the quality of bokeh is a judgement call.

Regarding Bokeh, Ask Yourself…..

  1. Does it have an abstract character or any attributes that enhance the subject?
  2. Does it give the image a more 3D quality by adding depth and dimension?
  3. Do the out of focus blurs meld together in a pleasing, creamy sort of way, or do background details individually appear and stand out, showing off their hard edges?
  4. Does the background blur accomplish what you want for your bird images, perhaps achieving what looks to be smooth isolation from the subject or telling details of a natural habitat?

What Defines Bokeh:

  • Lens design…. the more precisely the aperture blades within the lens form a circle, the more likely they will intersect smoothly and minimize defined edges within the blur. (Quality, high-end professional lenses generally have 9 or more rounded blades.)
  • Fast lenses…. the wider your maximum opening is,  the more you can blur.
  • Quality of light….harsh, overhead or insufficient lighting will cancel out a good lens any day.
  • Background detail… is it mellow or crazy?  What blur will it create? Can you get out there and clear unattractive background debris before the shot or possibly reposition the camera?  (NOTE: It’s very difficult to reposition the bird.)
  • Background color… the background evenly lit and full of complementary colors?
  • Distance between the lens and the subject… It’s best to get as close as possible to your subject to optimize blurriness in the background.
  • Distance between the subject and its background. It’s best to have the background well outside of the focus area… so individual details are not in focus and not close enough to be distinguishable.
  • Long lenses (300mm+) have shallow DOF– so much so that when they are wide open, much of your intended subject may not be in focus. (See depth of field calculator for your lens.)

Talent and Luck

When an uncommon bird presents himself, there’s rarely time to consider how the blurred background will impact the overall ascetics of the image.  Some bird photographers strive to capture the perfect bokeh by setting up the scene during optimal light and targeting the lens onto an ideal perch pre-positioned in what amounts to a sumptuous background. Luck has a lot to do with success in these situations.  I haven’t had much luck with setups, mainly because it has been my experience that birds descend and settle whimsically, mostly alighting in all the wrong places.


Photographing Hermit Thrushes – Correcting Mistakes in White Balance

Photographing Hermit Thrushes

Around evening’s twilight, four or five Hermit Thrushes would quietly congregate at the fountain after all the other bird species had left. At first, just a bold and curious few came. They did not scatter or even flinch when the flash went off. I could see a few more of their wary companions hiding in the dimness beyond the fountain.

Out of all the thrushes, Hermit Thrushes are short term migrators….the only thrushes to winter in the United States. They migrate through early in the Spring and depart late in the fall.

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush
ISO 800; f/8; 1/250 Second

Combining Ambient Light with Flash

When I took these photos, the camera’s ISO registered at ISO 12000, so I used the telephoto flash. It was simply too late in the day to rely only on the diminishing ambient light.

Combining ambient light and telephoto flash can cause color temperature imbalances and throw off white balance. It’s an easy enough fix if you shoot in RAW and train yourself to be attentive to it in post processing.

Realistic Color Rendition

Once in a while, I go through my images in Lightroom to review, organize, delete and otherwise cleanup my stash of digital photos. One of the most common post processing mistakes I find are those related to white balance. Time after time, I unconsciously skip over or ignore an unnatural color portrayal in my images, even if it is clearly not a realistic rendition of the color at the scene. I think this is not an uncommon oversight for photographers, despite how fast and easy it is to test for and fix white balance problems in camera and in post processing.


  • Programmed “presets” (auto, incandescent, fluorescent, flash, cloudy, open shade, sunny) are white balance correction processes that are built into the camera and do a precise job of rectifying white balance for most lighting situations.
  • White balance fixing algorithms built into post processing software are, for the most part, amazingly accurate. If tonality of an image seems “off”, correction is wide open in post because all color data has been retained (assuming you shoot in RAW).
  • Information about balancing light is probably one of the most published photographic fixes on the web.
  • The Live View function on your DSLR camera can give you a real time comparison of the impact that white balance will have on your images. With the camera set to Live View, you can flip through the various light balance settings (auto, incandescent, fluorescent, flash, cloudy, open shade, sunny) and observe in real time how the different color casts will look before you take the shot.

Quick Tutorial in Correcting White Balance

To achieve proper white balance is to remove unrealistic color. Your goal is to “fix” the color temperature of the light source and thereby correct warming and cooling color tones that don’t belong.

Most post processing programs have a white balance correction tool. Lightroom provides an icon that looks likes an tiny eye-dropper.

  1. Make sure the white balance is set to AS SHOT– so all previous attempts to correct WB are erased.
  2. Find a neutral color that you know to be true… a light gray or white component in your photo. This is your sample of realistic color upon which all color correction will be based.
  3. Activate the eye dropper (white balance selector tool) by clicking it on. Use this tool to hover over that neutral gray/white space in your photo, and watch the live preview of the white balance adjustments in the Navigator Panel. Once you touch down the eye dropper onto the image, temperature and tint functions automatically adjust the rest of the color in the photo.

A Problem of Perception

Color Realism should be the “first things first” job in post. It’s essentially a problem of perception – one that (at times) needs more than the naked eye to see.

Photographing a Veery Thrush – Understanding Burst Modes

Photographing A Veery Thrush

I was very pleased to spot this Veery Thrush in our yard, if only momentarily, because this species is a rather infrequent visitor here. They forage like Robins, on the ground flipping over leaf debris to uncover insects and worms underneath. According to E-bird, Veery Thrushes spend their winters only in Central and Southern Brazil and nest throughout Michigan, in the Northern US, and Southern Canada. This was my first photographic encounter, and it was made to order.

This handsome, cinnamon brown thrush first appeared on a branch near our dining room window. I hurried to the library door, then abruptly changed my pace and posture so that I was tiptoeing slowly and ducking down so as not to startle him as I made my way to the camera. (NOTE: I did this despite every instinct inside urging me to hurry before he flew off.) Once I reached the camera, all I had to do is point, lock focus and burst away.

Photo of Veery Thrush
Veery Thrush
ISO1600; f/7.1; 1/640 Second

What is Bursting?

The FPS (Frames per Second) is the speed at which the camera shutter mechanism can take uninterrupted shots. The Burst Rate specifies how many uninterrupted shots the shutter mechanism can discharge without slowing down.

FPS and Bursting are all about how fast and how many- and that means that DSLR cameras must have fast processing power and design logistics calculated to eliminate bottlenecks.

Advantages of Bursting

  • Bursting can be useful and fun..and for the most part, it’s FREE.
  • In bird photography, you just don’t know how long your subject will stay put.  Bursting allows you to capture many images in seconds.
  • Bursting is essential to record a sequence and tell a story – during a period that is most likely to be a brief and rare opportunity.
Veery Thrush
Veery Thrush
ISO800; f/7.1; 1/500 Second

Some Things to Consider when Bursting

  • Inherent mechanical limitation of camera’s shutter device. (NOTE: My cameras’  shutters are rated at 150,000 actuations.)
  • Data processing speed of camera’s processor.
  • Within one burst, no adjustments can be made to aperture and shutter settings.  (As you can see in the notes below the photos, the shutter speeds are different for the photos….. which means that these photos were taken in separate bursting sessions.)
  • Continuous bursts will capture a lot of identical photos- unless the action is really fast.
  • Max burst and FPS touted by camera manufacturer will slow if your shutter is set to a slower speed.
  • If you’ve got 2 memory cards installed and/or are writing to 2 memory cards, processing will slow down.
  • If your camera is set to RAW; processing will take longer to move through the much larger files.
  • If the camera stops, it has most likely reached a bottleneck due to an overload of files, or does not have enough battery power to proceed.
  • Slower memory cards with limited read/write speeds will create bottlenecks.
  • A half charged battery will slow down processing…. and the battery will drain quickly if bursting continues.
  • Whenever a camera has to re-meter and/or re-focus, bursting slows down. (In Canon cameras, AlServo auto focus will slow down fps- especially if it must keep trying to lock focus.)
  • The hidden cost with bursting: The photographer must devote lots of time in post processing to review all those images.
  • Bursting often places the photographer in “auto mode”, where the discipline to capture outstanding bird images may be put on hold.
  • Ultimately the burst will stop… no matter the sophistication of the camera.

Choices – How Fast?  How Quiet?

Assuming a bird photographer has a DSLR camera designed to burst and then move data through fast, there are also choices about what burst mode is best for bird photography. You can choose between High Speed Continuous and Low Speed Continuous burst mode…. or really slow down and choose Silent High Speed Continuous or Silent Low Speed Continuous burst mode.

I use to think that the louder shutter slapping sound would scare away birds, so I always set the camera to Silent Continuous burst mode. I don’t do that anymore because the silent modes are not noiseless. When set to Silent HS continuous or Silent LS continuous, the striking sound is a muffled slap..definitely more diminished, but you and the birds will most certainly hear it.

When to Use Bursting

When I first spot a bird, I always assume that the encounter will be fleeting.  My camera is usually set to Low Speed Continuous Burst Mode, just in case I need it. Once I lock focus on a bird, I press and hold the shutter down and hear that machine-gun staccato burst from my shutter mechanism. If the bird does not fly away, I am more judicious as to how much I use bursting.

Depending on the scenario, the bird photographer must decide. Will I end up with more usable bird images with or without the camera set to burst mode?

Photo of Oven Bird Warbler

Photographing an Oven Bird Warbler in the Brambly Wood

Photographing an Oven Bird

Deep within the dense brambly Allegan forest, I found an enclave of warbler species that could scarcely be seen dodging in and out of the foliage. In this rich space, I saw flashes of blue winged warblers, yellow rumped warblers, yellow warblers and chestnut-sided warblers identifiable (just barely) through my dark, noisy and blurry photos.

Photo of Oven Bird Warbler
Oven Bird Warbler, Finally Showing Himself (mostly).
ISO1600; f/8; 1/1250 Second

ID Photos

As it is with most of my surprise bird encounters, my 500 mm lens with 1.4 extender was resting on the car door. The tall grasses in front of the dense brush were a hindrance to locking down focus. I took as many shots as the lens would allow, mainly trying to get a closer, identifiable look at what was hiding in there.

Thankfully, one brave warbler was curious enough to come out into the open long enough for me to get off a burst. The Oven Bird Warbler.

A Ground Foraging Warbler

A stocky warbler with dark streaking spots on its breast, the Oven Bird looks and acts more like the larger Swainson’s Thrush. Its wing and back feathers are a dull brown-olive color. A reddish brown crown bordered by two stripes sits on his head.

This warbler gets its name from the domed shaped (oven-like) nest it builds amongst the decaying leaves, moss, and grasses near roots and fallen trees. Like all warblers, (and some bird photographers) the Oven Bird abandons Michigan for warmer winter climates.

Achieving Focus Lock

A major challenge on this shoot was locking down focus. I had the focus limiter switch on my Canon 500mm 4.0L II IS USM telephoto lens set for the longest available focusing distance. Consequently, the lens took way too much time hunting back and forth from “4.5 m to infinity”.  I quickly changed the switch on the lens barrel to the “10m to infinity” setting. The hunt time was reduced substantially because the lens no longer tried to focus on the tall grasses closest to the camera.

Photo of Oven Bird Warbler
Oven Bird Warbler
Looking Vulnerable and New; Perhaps a Juvenile.
ISO2000; f/8; 1/1250 Second

Revisit this Enclave with Video

As much as I love photographing warblers, it’s hard to get photos with beautiful creamy backgrounds because of all that brambly wilderness in the spaces they call home. Since the warblers are mostly uncooperative about posing on perches in prime locations, I’ve considered mixing things up next time by turning on the little used video component on my fancy cameras.

Turning on the video component on both of my cameras (Canon 5D MarkIII and Canon 7D Mark II) is easily done with a flip of the switch. But sadly, a camera resting on the window of the car door is not a steady enough mount to engage video. Shaky videos just make me nauseous.  To do it right means waiting for a windless day and setting up the camera and lens on my most sturdy tripod.  Shutting off the audio component is a must because 1) the little mic on the camera is substandard, making audio an irritating distraction and 2) the bird will likely not vocalize much this time of year.

So, my mission in the next few weeks is to research how best to video birds and then make a good video of the the migrating warblers who stop to rest and replenish in our yard.

I’ve got a lot of research to do.

Read this post to learn more about locking down focus.

Read this post about photographing the Swainson’s Thrush.


Photo of Swainson's Thrush

Photographing a Migrating Swainson’s Thrush

Photographing the Swainson’s Thrush on His Spring Migration

photo of Swainson's Thrush
Swainson’s Thrush
ISO1600; f/4.5; 1/400 Second

Migration Photography

So many birds on their way to someplace else. Last Fall, I saw and photographed 28+ avian migrators as they stopped to rest and replenish (and pose for the camera) in our yard. My library windows have been open for a few weeks now, with 2 cameras at the ready, but visitor activity is minimal. It’s already the 4th week in May, late in the migration season, and I’m wondering if I should abandon my library viewing area and head out to the Allegan State Game Area in search of nesting activity. Fellow birders report seeing a variety of rarities, like the Yellow Headed Blackbird, the White Eyed Vireo, the Short Billed Dowitcher, Mississippi Kite, and the Yellow Breasted Chat, all dressed in their Spring splendor. No such luck for me.

Best not to get spoiled when pursuing the art of bird photography. After all, the trees have not been barren of transients. So far, I have been able to see and photograph (all or parts of) 17 familiar migrators passing through. Most of these actively hid from the camera and peeked at me (or my bird blind) warily.

Close Camera Encounter with a Swainson’s Thrush

One exception was this little Swainson’s Thrush, who posed in full view and close to my 500mm lens. Swainson’s Thrushes often pass through our lakeshore migratory route on their way to nest in the UP, Canada, Alaska, Northwest United States and the upper New England states. Not a new bird for me, but he was very welcome nonetheless.

Like most birds, this migrator often hides in the shadows. I heard his captivating flutelike song before he graced me by flying in right in front of the camera. He stayed only a few minutes, long enough for 25+ shots, and then he was gone.

Photo of Swainson's Thrush
Swainson’s Thrush
ISO1250; f/4.5; 1/400 Second

Capturing the Moment

During this time of year, it’s hard to overestimate the part dumb luck plays when encountering and photographing transient birds. This is true even though there are literally billions of birds migrating through. Of course, regardless of luck, a photographer still has to be ready if she hopes to beautifully capture the moment. Being ready takes hard work, persistence, experience, quiet anticipation, good equipment, patience and most especially, quality of light.

Migration – A Wondrous Phenomenon

There is surely no bird photography experience more thrilling than nailing it…having the camera set up and pointed in the right place at the right time to capture and preserve the memory of a migrating bird before they are gone into the vastness. Migration surely is a wondrous phenomenon.

To see photos of the migrating birds that I was able to photograph in our yard this Spring and last Fall, please visit this Flickr link.

Photo of Eastern Bluebird

Photographing Eastern Bluebirds Attending to Their Young

Photographing Hard Working Bluebird Parents

Raising 2-3 clutches of baby bluebirds each summer is no job for slackers. First, there’s the 12-18 days devoted to incubation…. a quiet time. Once the eggs hatch, both of the devoted parents spend all of their waking hours warding off predators and competitors, gathering insects and fruit to feed the hatchlings and hauling out waste (fecal sacs) from the nest. Each clutch of babies makes its demands for 16 -21 days. After that, they are mature enough to leap and soar, never to return to the nest- tho the parents still bring food to them in the trees.

Photo of Female Blue Bird
Female Bluebird with Food for Young. She did Perch on the Raspberry
Brambles Before Bringing Her Catch to her Fledglings.
ISO 1600; f/9.0; 1/1600 Second
Photo of Female Bluebird Feeding Young
Female Bluebird Feeding her Insistent Young.
ISO 1600; f/8.0; 1/800 Second

Equipment Setup

I set up my tripod early one morning near the bird houses after navigating a formidable field of raspberry brambles gone wild. The backdrop was beautiful, full of lilac bushes and pine trees. To capture that background, the bluebirds would have to perch (fairly close) on one of the tall raspberry stalks before taking the food to the fledglings. This happened only once.

It was a rather low light day which made for nice balanced morning light and no harsh shadows. Sadly, there was not quite enough light to get the depth of field I needed and still keep the ISO below 1000. The bluebirds were cautiously watchful – but persistent in their duties, so I was able to get quite a few photos of feeding activity.

NOTE: This field of brambles was also the territory of a curious field sparrow who was much bolder and willing to pose for this photographer. Field sparrows are not cavity nesters and did not bother the bluebird parents. He just sang his heart out while they worked.

Photo of Female Bluebirds Feeding Young
Female Bluebird Coming in With Food Supplies.
ISO 1250; f/9.0; 1/2000 second
Photo of Male and Female Bluebirds
Both Male and Female Bluebirds Arriving at the Nest at the Same Time with Insects for Their Young
ISO 1600; f/9.0; 1/2500 Second
Closeup of Male Bluebird Bringing Insects to Young
Close up of Male Bluebird Collecting Insects For His Young.
Notice the Tick Attached Right Below the Neck.
ISO 1250; f/8.0; 1/1250 Second
Photo of Baby Bluebird
Baby Bluebird Getting Up the Courage to Leap and Soar From the Nest.
ISO 2000; f/9.0; 1/2000 Second

Photographing Cavity Nesters

Eastern bluebirds are cavity nesters, which means they build their nests in a chamber or cavity. The Michigan DNR pairs 2 blue bird houses per location in the prairie areas of the Allegan State Game Area. Blue birds are highly territorial. If a second male bluebird is foolish enough to try to establish a nest in the same location, the male of the first house will aggressively chase the second male away. Other cavity nesting species like house wrens or swallows will fight bluebirds over a single nesting box. This strategy will often bring two different cavity nesting species together, minimizing competition and avoiding a possible war over housing.  See this link for another post and more photos of Eastern Bluebirds

Attracting Eastern Bluebirds

Over the last few decades, nesting habitat for cavity nesters has been depleted. To support the local population, the DNR sets up and maintains nest boxes in the Allegan SGA. To attract bluebirds, placement of the bluebird houses must be in a habitat and location that is suitable. Predatory controls, proper ventilation and drainage holes must be built into the design. Like most nest boxes, bluebird houses must be regularly monitored and have accessible doorways for opening and cleaning. Information on selecting the right nest box can be found at this link.


Photo of Scrub Jay in Flight

Motion Blur in Wild Bird Photography

Capturing Action with Fast Shutter Speeds

I generally crank the shutter speed way up when photographing birds in flight, just to freeze action all the way to the wingtips. My thinking is that time is short, and I won’t have another chance with this bird scene to get it right. I probably over-compensate with shutter speeds that are too fast because I’ve been burned so many times with blurred shots.

Motion Blur is Not A Weakness

But motion blur is not a weakness in wild bird photography. On the technical end, gauging what you want in focus and what you want blurred takes keen observation, lots of practice, and being more purposeful. If you can stop overcompensating with the fast shutter speeds, you will have more creative flexibility with aperture and ISO settings, and probably better bird photographs.

If you agree that ascetically, motion blur does add drama to a wild bird photo, that blurred wings make the shot feel more true to life, dynamic, and exciting, then it is a skill worth practicing.

Capturing Movement: Large Birds v Small Birds

I found that a shutter speed in the range of 1/2000 second – 1/3000 second is a good starting point to capture motion blur in the wings of small birds while at the same time keeping other body parts, especially the eyes and head, tack sharp. This shutter range is just a starting point, a guideline. Wingtip blur is a relative and creative term, subject to artistic judgment. The shutter speed you set will impact what is blurred, how much it is blurred, and the effect that blur has on the photo.

Larger birds tend to fly more slowly and flap their wings less. You can count the ups and downs of a heron’s wings in flight – 3 or 4 per second-at most. Plus, large birds use their expansive wings to glide more, thereby reducing the wing movement. The photographer doesn’t necessarily need a fast shutter speed to get the shot, just excellent panning skills to track the large birds as they fly by.

Consequently, larger birds in flight can be photographed at much slower shutter speeds, as low as 1/800 second or 1/1000 second, depending on the motion on which they are captured. Conversely, you visually can’t count the number of times a smaller bird flaps its wings…..way too fast and too numerous to count and capture with a slower shutter speed. Plus, little birds unpredictably flit and flutter every which way. Slow shutter speeds in the 1/800 second – 1/1000 second range are out of the question in most instances for photographing small, flying birds.

Three Different Degrees of Motion Blur

Below are photos of 3 small birds in flight (scrub jay, eastern bluebird, savannah sparrow) showing sharp facial features and blurred wingtips. The blurring is least noticeable in the wings of the gliding scrub jay and most pronounced in the wings of the erratically flying savannah sparrow.

Of course, other camera settings besides shutter speed can impact blur, most especially your aperture setting, focal length of the lens, and distance the photographer is to her subject.  To read more about these settings, see the post at this link.

Photo of Scrub Jay in Flight
A Scrub Jay with a Mouth Full of Corn – Slight Motion Blur on the Wings -Otherwise Sharp Focus.
ISO 200; f/4.5; 1/2500 second


Photograph of Eastern Blue Bird in Flight
Eastern Blue Bird in Flight, Slowing Down Upon Reaching his Nest.
Substantial Blur on the Wings, Despite the Fast Shutter Speed.
ISO 300; f/2.8; 1/3200 Second


Photo of Savannah Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow in Flight- Wings Heavily Blurred. There are a lot of visual problems with this photo, unsightly shadows, clipped highlights, background distractions. The heavily blurred wings are one of the few things I like about this photo.
ISO 500; f/7.1; 1/2000 Second


Pre-visualizing Before You Take The Photograph

Making judgments about how you want the photo to look before you take the shot is a skill worth developing. It means that you are pre visualizing….thinking, experimenting, calculating, and predicting how that photo will turn out. It takes you into the realm of new possibilities, and better bird photography.


Photo of Eastern Bluebird

Photographing Eastern Bluebirds in Winter

DSLR Camera Basics in the Winter

Most cameras operate perfectly fine in frigid conditions, even the dangerously cold polar vortex conditions that Michigan and the midwest have been suffering through this winter. I think the hardest part is not worrying about the electronics of the the camera (although I like to think that is what’s keeping me inside on some days), but motivating the bird photographer to get out there and photograph birds.

Birds are Highly Adapted to Surviving in the Cold

Once I am all bundled up and have taken the usual winter-guard precautions to take my equipment outside, I’m usually glad I ventured out. I stop thinking about me and focus on watching and photographing small birds in winter survival mode. Despite their small size and lack of fur, wild birds in Michigan are highly adapted (physically and behaviorally) to surviving and thriving in severely cold weather. Melissa Mayntz does an excellent job outlining these adaptations at this link.

An Unexpected Photographable Moment

Through my viewfinder, I panned the arctic tundra-like scene that is currently the Lake Michigan shoreline. It looked like a habitat suited to polar bears, so I was very surprised to find eastern bluebirds, fluffing their feathers and shivering to insulate themselves against the buffeting and brutally cold winds. No insects or fresh fruit to be had in the winter, so these bluebirds were picking the seeds and berries from the bright sumac bushes that grow on the dune.

Photo of Eastern Bluebird in Winter
Eastern BlueBird Subsisting on Sumac Seeds During a Cold, Brutal Winter.
ISO 1000; f/7.1; 1/1250 Second

Winter Photography in Michigan

There are a few advantages that winter can bring to the art of photography, if you can convince yourself to bundle up and get out in the cold. Here are my most motivating reasons:

  • Winter brings crisp, clear air. There’s very little pollen or other plant debris floating in the air in the winter – leading to outstanding image clarity.
  • Reflective snow adds a soft light – even on the dreariest days.
  • The sun is much lower on the horizon in the winter, helping to avoid the worst of the overhead harsh shadows so common in the summer season.
  • I can get up late in the morning and still have time to get outside and take advantage of complementary light.  😎
Photo of Eastern Bluebird on Sumac
Eastern Bluebird Atop A Sumac Flower – Emergency Sustenance During A Cold Winter
ISO 1250; f/7.1; 1/1600 Second

Photographing Migratory Birds That Do NOT Fly South

I wonder why I’ve never noticed eastern blue birds in the winter here in Michigan. Apparently, my assumption that these lovely, insect eating birds all migrated south in November and returned in the Spring trumped my observations skills, until now. Clearly there have always been a few fearless, non-migrating stragglers who linger, foraging fruit, nuts, berries and seeds. Makes me hopeful for more surprises. I just might be lucky enough to find other wild migratory birds this winter that did not fly south.