Category Archives: Warblers

Photographing Yellow Rumped Warblers – Experimenting with Light

A Bird Action Fantasy

During one of my early morning walk/stair climbing regimens, I saw and heard a little bird I could not ID. I hurried home to pack up the camera rig and transport it down the dune stairs. It took only a minute to set it up on one of the lower decks near the water.

This was an impromptu effort where stealth was sacrificed for speed. It was probably too much to hope that when I returned with my gear, the mystery bird would still be there. Down there on the dune, I was alone. Not even the common birds made an appearance, . So as not to completely waste the time, I played with the camera’s light meter settings, focusing on dead sumac leaves and experimenting with the graduated neutral density filter to counter the overflow of harsh background light coming off the sky and Lake Michigan.

Still no birds. I imagined what I would do if a bird suddenly appeared and I had to capture well balanced images at midday with the lens facing the water. A dry practice run, if you will… setting up possible failure scenarios and intentionally mitigating the impact of harsh mid day light and fast moving birds. In my mind, I created a high tech, interactive bird action fantasy that ended with a detailed mental image of a highly desirable photo shoot outcome. A valuable work out…..the time just flew by.

Yellow Rumped Warbler
Yellow Rumped Warbler
ISO800; f/8; 1/250 Second

After a couple hours, I dragged all my gear back up the steps and set up at home in the library. Two little Yellow Rumped Warblers were bouncing about, unafraid and not so far from the camera. I decided continue my experiments with light in a much different setting.  I took off the flash extender on my  Canon 600 EX-RT flash.

Photo of Yellow Rumped Warbler
Yellow Rumped Warbler
ISO400; f/8; 1/250 Second

Canon 600 EX RT Flash without Extender

Flash Extenders are intended to redirect the trajectory of the light output (more narrow and consequently brighter) to better match the angle of view of long lenses. In many cases, it provides the light to expose detail to shadow areas and catchlights to dark eyes. If I get it right, the color quality is enhanced, especially in a natural forest environment so common to a lot of birds in my area.

The Canon 600 EX RT flash has better than average light focusing capability and does a fine job calculating lens-to-subject distance. When the flash senses a long lens on the camera, it focuses its beam of light so a higher percentage of that light covers the len’s angle of view–up to 200mm. (NOTE: Without a flash extender, the 200mm flash beam can not match the reach and angle of view of the 500mm with 1.4 extender (700mm lens equivalency)).

If the subject is close, the flash output with extender attached can look like a spotlight with a circle of darkness at the perimeters. Take the fresnel lens off  (MagMod or Better Beamer Flash Modifier System) and the flash will no longer direct the blast in a lighthouse beam sort of way.

Know How to Use Light In Bird Photography

These small warblers were in close proximity-(within 13′-15′) to the camera. I did not need the tight, concentrated beam that a fresnel extender would provide. Proximity of flash to subject matters. So does giving some thought to ISO levels,  E-TTL II evaluative metering and flash compensation (FEC). Luckily, the two warblers stuck around and let me experiment.

Photographing a Black and White Warbler- A Tight Frame

Photographing a Black and White Warbler

It’s always an exciting challenge to follow a fast moving target with the lens. Like most warblers, this little guy was busily on the move. Even though the Gimbal head performed flawlessly, I had trouble tracking him.

In the image below, the warbler was quickly making his way out of the frame. He was heading up… in the direction of his gaze..and moving so fast toward his probable exit point that I could not keep up with the lens. As I pressed the shutter, I knew the image would be tightly cropped and consequently create a sense that there was no place for the bird to go. No clipped body parts, thankfully, but still inadequate space for the top of the frame, and no room to creatively crop.

Black and White Warbler
Black and White Warbler
Too close to the top edge of the frame.
ISO1000; f/8; 1/250 Second

Compositional Challenges

My camera is often set at one shot auto focus simply because little birds far away tend to conceal themselves behind brush and in hidey holes. If I need to tunnel into these places with the lens, having a single autofocus point with which to direct the lens and lock focus is helpful. Plus, the flash is more likely to be able to keep up in single shot mode.

Focusing challenges change dramatically If the bird is out in the open. For this shoot, it was more advantageous to track the warbler with a small cluster of autofocus points in Al Servo mode.

NOTE: There’s a lot more on your focusing plate than just keeping up with a tiny, fast, zigzagging bird…ie focus limiter, back button focusing, image stabilizer, bursting speed, continual refocusing and shooting, enough megapixels for zooming.

Artful Compositions

Most birds are all curves. Lots of curves can make for an elegant and artful composition. They add energy, movement, and balance to the photo. If you crop too abruptly close to the edge of a frame, you can mess up the composition.

Black and White Warbler
Black and White Warbler
Ample Room to Frame.
ISO800; f/8; 1/250 Second

When the frame of an image is inadequate, photographers often try to creatively zoom and cut. A “cut off” is a deliberate attempt in post processing to include only a portion of the shot to create a compelling image. You zoom in and fill the frame artistically (or as tight as you like) and leave the rest to the viewer’s imagination.

I’ve tried this technique, and have to admit that the results do not appeal to me in my line of bird photography. Overall, I like the visual flow of a complete image that includes the context… and consistently try to “back off” a bit more in my zooming. Unfortunately, giving the image plenty of room in the frame is often not an option.

Photographing Black Throated Blue Warblers – Long Lens or Digiscope?

Photographing Black Throated Blue Warblers

A pair of Black Throated Blue Warblers arrived together at the fountain this Fall just before we shut it down for the winter. The male hopped around on the stones near the base of the streaming water, making for a colorful image. The female alighted on the nearby perches near the fountain. I was at the right place at the right time with the right equipment. Minutes later, this pair disappeared.

Photo of Black Throated Blue Warbler
Black Throated Blue Warbler, male
ISO800; f/8; 1/250 Second

Sexual Dimorphism

The male and female Black Throated Blue Warblers have very different coloration- so much so that they do not appear to be the same species. The male sports lustrous blue plumage atop his head and on his back and tail feathers. A black face mask extends down his throat to meet a bright white underbelly. He keeps this striking plumage year round. The female has none of the prominent black or blue colors of her mate. Her plumage is a soft olive brown contrasting with wisps of yellow on the breast. If you look closely at the contour of the pale stripes above the female’s eyes, you can see an outline of the male’s facial pattern. Both the male and female have small white spots on the edge of their folded wings.

NOTE: Any time you see blue feathers on a bird, it’s a trick of light. If you are interested in reading more about blue colors in nature, I recommend this article: Why Most Animals are Not True Blue by conservation biologist, Steven D. Faccio. It can be found at this LINK.

Female Black Throated Blue Warbler
Black Throated Blue Warbler, female
ISO800; f/8; 1/250 Second

Lenses v Digiscopes

The birding list-serve that I subscribe to recently reported a Barrow’s Golden Eye Duck associating with the more frequently seen Common Goldeneye flocks out on Lake Michigan. This news brought out a half dozen birders –all peering through their long spotting scopes, eagerly searching for this unusual bird.

Most of the birders I saw had digiscopes…a manually focused digital spotting scope paired with a dSLR camera and secured on the scope by a mounting bracket near the scope’s eye piece. (Some high quality digiscope-cameras have auto exposure and autofocus capabilities.) Along with their scopes, these birders packed sturdy tripods and tripod heads for optimal image steadiness and smooth maneuverability. They also had high powered long range binoculars hanging at the ready around their necks. I could see no one in this party using a dSLR camera and long lens.

(NOTE: Some of these scopes reach the equivalent of a 1250-4000mm lens…a size that’s only a dream in the world of weighty, magnification challenged, and very expensive dSLR telephoto lenses.)

Different Priorities

Even though birders and bird photographers both tend to love birds, be abundantly patient and haul around similar equipment, they have different priorities when out in the field.  Birders with digiscopes are more interested in using their scopes to record distant images of birds and to use that image to document a sighting. Like bird photographers, they devote time, serious study and money to their endeavors in an effort to capture high quality images or videos of distant birds.

In terms of image quality, a good lens will outshine a digiscope any day- the closer the proximity, the better.  In terms of capturing birds at a distance, especially a distance not possible with a camera lens, a digiscope is the tool of choice.

Photographing a Tennessee Warbler- The Power of Framing

Photographing a Tennessee Warbler

I still can not ID a Tennessee Warbler quickly. A dark line through the eyes accented with long white eyebrows are most often used as the determining factors. My bird books refer to this species as “dull”, most likely because nothing really stands out color or pattern wise on the plumage – especially compared to other warblers.

I don’t think so.

These warblers are so individually distinct! Different gradations of yellow, gray, black and olive green are entwined throughout the plumage. The first image shows an individual with delicately understated colors…olive gray feathers on the head streaming down into the plumage on his back. The second image captures a very different pose and package, with a burst of daffodil yellow on the breast. No doubt the flash made those flaxen colors pop. Different birds, both captured in the Autumn of 2017.

Photo of Tennessee Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Expansive View of his Background.
ISO400; f/8; 1/250 Second

Creative Anticipation

So…. what to take in when photographing birds? Do I want a tack sharp close-up where the image is so crisp that I can almost touch the playful plumage patterns and textures and count the feathers? Or should I expand the boundaries and create a sense of space, take in more of the mood of the landscape, the intensity and hue of colors, and the expressive lines and curves?

Photographers can create meaning and tell a story through their work. However, in bird photography, it is not often possible to follow through on pre-visualization routines… to capture the image exactly as you imagine it.

Pre-Visualize or Crop

No doubt some artsy photographers might think that the only way to do photography right is to start with compositional building blocks, to thoughtfully pre visualize and then frame in-camera. Zooming and cropping afterwards, (or any post production process for that matter) would be “cheating”.

I tend to operate in the reverse. Given the realities of the fast and frantic world of bird photography, I’d say that I end up cropping at least 90% of my images… and possibly more.

Tennessee Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Close up view.
ISO400; f/8; 1/250 Second

The Power of Framing

The more I look at a digital image of a bird, the more I know what to do. The power of framing through post processing helps me be less sloppy, snip away at the discordant parts, break away from standard aspect ratios. I push and pull the Lightroom crop tool every which way… trying to determine what looks best and to get rid of distractions. Post production is just another set of tools I use to create the look I want.

Bottom Line:  The photographer should decide what looks best, whether it be fanciful or faithful to the scene and subject, and not let other elevated egos decide for her.

NOTE: Pre-visualizing is a more time consuming endeavor when photographing with a long lens. Most often, my binocular vision is not engaged while peering through my 500mm monster lens.  I try to avoid the disorientation that comes with overlapping fields of view that consist of one eye seeing a magnified limited field of vision and the other eye looking without magnification at a much wider field of view.

Photographing Nashville Warblers and Thoughts About HDR Images

Photographing Nashville Warblers

Nashville Warblers have been our most common visitor during this Fall’s migration. Individuals don’t stay long and they are as skittish and unpredictable as most other warblers. I’m always very pleased when I get at least one good, unobstructed shot.

If a warbler pauses for a few seconds and I do get more than one shot, (assuming the flash keeps up with the shutter action) there is always bird movement within the sequence. Warblers don’t sit still, calmly, quietly, motionless. And that makes HDR bird photography impractical.

Nashville Warbler
Nashville Warbler
With Colorful Fall Plumage
Tonal Richness Sparse on the
Right Side of the Histogram.
ISO800; f/8; 1/250 Second

What HDR Does

Whenever I come across well done, realistic HDR photography on the web, it is most often a promotion for high-end housing or other real estate on the market. A High Dynamic Range (HDR) photo is the compilation of multiple exposures into one and works well with static subjects like fancy interior housing layouts.

The purpose of HDR photography is to capture a careful blend (usually AEB bracketed) of identical images, and then digitally combine them to create a single photo that has a wide dynamic range ..much wider than the camera’s sensor can capture with only one photo.

Photo of Nashville Warbler
Nashville Warbler
ISO400; f/7.1; 1/250 second
Could not create a Decent HDR image
with the Dozens of Shots I Took of
This Nashville Warbler.

Why Use HDR?

Photographers practice HDR to enhance tonal richness (expand the dynamic range) of the image. The HDR algorithm incorporated in the camera (or post processing software) pulls multiple images together into one and thus captures more detail on both ends of the 0-256 tonal range spectrum.

Each image file is set up with slightly different exposure settings allowing the camera to create a different dynamic range for each. Most often, the photographer will set up the sequence of shots to use the same ISO, the same aperture, but different shutter speeds. They take the time to measure the shutter speed required for the darkest and the brightest parts of the scene and then add additional shutter stops at the high end and low end. Finally, they blend only those images that expand the tonal range spectrum, i.e. overall dynamic range.

Tone Mapping

At its best, the HDR process exposes different portions of the final image by different amounts. Called tone mapping, the software allows you to lighten shadows and darken highlights in specific regions. Some photographic artists prefer to use tone mapping to make the blended image look surreal and/or unnatural.

How to Know When to Use HDR

There is no point in considering HDR if the dynamic range of the scene does not exceed the sensor’s light intensity range. It’s easy to check.

Every dSLR camera maps the light intensity range of its sensor on its histogram, so a photographer can instantly determine the dynamic range. If the histogram is ‘clipped‘ at either edge of the scale, picture detail will be lost – either in the shadows (if it’s clipped on the left) or in the highlights (if it’s clipped on the right). If the histogram shows large peaks overflowing at both ends and a low dip in the center, the camera’s sensor can not handle the dynamic range of the subject.

HDR with Bird Photography

Certainly a living, breathing, highly active bird in his natural environment looks much better when the light is outstanding–   – when the direction, intensity, and overall quality brings out distinct contrast and eye popping detail.

With HDR, there must be no movement (no discernible heartbeat, no wind, no camera shake) within the sequence of fast continuous shots. In bird photography, there is almost always some evidence of movement between the shots, creating ghosting and alignment issues and making a successful image meld impossible.

Perhaps I should practice on a statue of a bird.

Photographing a Female Hooded Warbler – Image Editing Limitations

Photographing a Female Hooded Warbler

This female Hooded Warbler alighted on a branch near the camera for less than a minute. Right before dusk, she perched 3 or 4 feet above eye level on a Sassafras tree very near the camera. Instead of staying put, she took off like a shot…a yellow blur flying directly at the camera and then swooping up 10 feet or so to avoid crashing into the window. She must have decided that with me there, it was too risky to attempt a drink at the fountain.

There is very little to recommend this image file. The detail is good and the blurred background is OK. However, harsh shadows (created by the flash blast) outline the underside of the warbler’s profile and make the overall image look very unattractive. I was able to minimally correct the darkness of the shadowy outline with Lightroom’s Shadow slider. If only there had been some distance between the tree trunk and the branch on which she perched, the dark shadow outlining the bottom of the bird’s profile would not have been so noticeable.

Hooded Warbler, female
Hooded Warbler, female.
Taken Right before Dusk.
Harsh Shadows in the Background
from Flash blast. Corrected Minimally With Shadow slider.
ISO 800, f/9; 1/250

(NOTE: The shadow so prevalent on this image is not the kind of shadow that would be highlighted in the camera’s clipping indicators. It is just a background shadow created by the flash and made a little less black by pushing Lightroom’s shadow slider all the way to the right.)

Photo Editing

I do not own Photoshop, but maybe I should. The thought makes me weary because I think of post processing as a hateful but necessary chore. Time consuming as Lightroom is, I can not master image editing by using it. I can only minimally fix issues with the shadow slider and adjustment brushes and make minor adjustments with cropping, exposure, contrast, clarity, and sharpening.

Photoshop (and the hundreds of fancy plug-ins designed to enhance this software) would  have helped improve this image. First and foremost, it would give me the tools to separate the subject (Bird Layer) from its tree (Background Layer) and then replace the background completely. There’s also image magic to be had with the Masking, Brushing, Adjusting, Cloning, Layering, Blending, Liquifying, and Transforming tools.

Keep it Simple; Keep it Real

Bottom line: Learning Photoshop is not something I want to do to. When I first go through a day’s shoot, I’m looking for promise and potential – something pleasing that will draw the eye. If I don’t see this, the image is just not worth the time and effort it takes to fix.

Photographing a Black Throated Green Warbler High in the Tree

Traveling Along, Virtually

So far, warblers have been relatively scarce this Fall. While I wait, I wonder if the devastating hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Mexico and the Caribbean temporarily put the birds’ migratory schedules into a holding pattern.

Bird photographers marvel at the distances and travails involved in the seasonal movement phenomena that is bird migration, yet critical knowledge gaps remain in the how, why, when and where of this spectacle. I hope that one day I might spot and photograph a tiny, durable, battery powered transmitter attached to one of these champions of endurance…. a geolocating device intended to track an entire migration route. These trackers will plot the movements, behaviors and timelines of thousands of bird species on world wide maps. They will allow us to travel along with the birds, virtually.

Photographing a Black Throated Green Warbler

A colorful transient appeared in short order. This little Black Throated Green Warbler perched high in a Sassafras tree that was less than 10 feet away from the tripod and camera. The soft brown bokeh comes from another thicker, taller tree directly behind where the bird sits. Tilting the lens upward with the Gimbal tripod head, I estimate that the distance between the 500mm lens and the warbler was approximately 24-25 feet.

NOTE: Gimbal Tripod heads are smooth and steady swing mounts designed to fit atop tripods and maneuver long lenses easily and quickly. A Gimbal head will support heavy equipment and enable the photographer to easily move it around horizontally and vertically. This includes the weight of not only the camera and long lens, but also the lens hood, the flash and its fresnel extender, battery pack, flash bracket, telephoto extender and various straps.

Black throated Green Warbler
Black Throated Green Warbler
ISO640; f/8; 1/250 Second.
Shot with telephoto lens pointing upward
Distance between lens and bird
approximately 24-25 feet

Shooting with the Lens Tilted Upward

The plane of the camera’s sensor was not parallel to the subject when I took the shots above…in fact it was substantially below it. So why do these images look like the bird was situated at or slightly above eye level with the camera?  When looking up through a long lens, parts of the subject will be at varying distances from the camera’s sensor. Shouldn’t this cause the camera to record a distortion? This bird is so tiny, so possibly its whole body was recorded at the same magnification because there was very little distance between the bird’s head and feet.  (Of course, the aperture setting … depth of field … has an impact on the sharpness of the entire image, especially when the camera is not parallel to its subject.)

This doesn’t explain why the bird looks like it’s perched almost parallel to the camera. 

Black Throated Green Warbler
Black Throated Green Warbler
The Background is a Nearby Tree Trunk.
ISO640; f/8; 1/250 Second
Lens Pointing Up 24-25 feet

At Camera Level

The Black Throated Green Warbler eventually flew down to the fountain area and I was able to get a few shots of him. Comparing the images where camera’s sensor was not parallel to the subject (see above) to an image that was taken when the bird was situated about the same distance away but at camera level (see below) is one sure way to determine if there is distortion. It is definitely easier to see that the lens was angled dramatically in those first shots. The camera level shot is a much more pleasing perspective.

Black Throated Green Warbler
Black Throated Green Warbler
Warbler at Eye Level with Camera
in This Shot.
ISO800; f/8; 1/250 Second

Photographing A Golden Winged Warbler in Very Different Light

Photographing a Golden Winged Warbler

The Golden Winged Warbler (female or young male) is a new bird for me. She appeared near the fountain suddenly and stayed only a few minutes. Too nervous to jump into the water with the other birds, she flew back and forth perching on different branches situated close to each other, but in very different light.

Golden Winged Warbler
Golden Winged Warbler.
Enlarge to see strong image
detail in the white areas.
On a Branch Situated in evenly
filtered light- with Flash.
ISO640; f/8; 1/250 Second

Transitioning With the Light

The darkish branch upon which the bird perches in the above shot was situated in evenly lit shade. A relatively dark scene, the flash provided a good amount of fill light and captured details on the dark and light parts of the bird. The wooded background (already 2 stops or more darker than the perching area), came through as black. The histogram shows many more dark areas than light… not an ideal bell curve, but no blinkies.

If she had only stayed there! Dashing quickly and erratically, she flew over to a light toned, more reflective branch located only a few feet away. This branch (see photo below) was saturated in overhead direct sunlight and so was the bird when she alighted there. The highlight alerts I saw through the viewfinder confirmed that the harsh light would overexpose the images, rendering certain white areas on the warbler with little or no detail.

Golden Winged Warbler
Golden Winged Warbler in Harsh Light.
Shot in Raw.
No details Could be Restored
in Post Processing – See close-up below.
ISO640; f/8; 1/250 Second
Golden Winged Warbler
Close up of Golden Winged Warbler.
Feather Details on Face, Neck and
Breast were lost and are Irretrievable in Post Processing

Time to Address Highlight Alerts

A Highlight Alert is basically a quick check of overly bright areas (overexposure) on the image. If you have turned this DSLR camera option on, you will see blinking alerts on your LCD review screen after you’ve taken the photo. If the alert is not in an obvious or important portion of the image, the patch of overexposure does not matter. Ignore the blink and stick with the initial exposure readings. If the blinkies are flashing on critical areas of the subject, it’s probably best to quickly adjust your exposure settings. (NOTE: With bird photography, there is rarely time move to a different location and reshoot.)

During this shoot, all it took was for the bird to relocate a few feet away to a nearby branch and the bulk of my images were ruined. As I think back, there might have been time and opportunity to: a) Check the highlight alerts (to see if they were blinking in critical areas of the image); b) Turn off the flash; c) Alter exposure settings to correct the overexposed portions of the image; and d) Reshoot.

Given adequate time, this is how I should have proceeded:

  • If the graph of the histogram is just touching the right edge, the exposure should be fine.
  • If the data is not quite to the right edge of the histogram, just add exposure – either manually or by moving the AEC dial a little to the right.  (on the “+” side)
  • If the data is crawling way over the right edge of the histogram (clipping) that means that there’s WAY TOO MUCH LIGHT. This is very bad. Lost details means lost forever. No post processing software can bring back those over exposed details. Simple solution: Manually adjust exposure or move the AEC dial one or more stops to the left (subtract exposure – on the “-” side).
  • Take another test photograph and recheck your histogram. Keep making adjustments until the RIGHTMOST data is just touching the right edge of the histogram.

It’s not hard to screw up exposure settings when a fabulous bird appears unexpectedly in front of the camera.  Despite all my time in the field, excitement can still cause me to neglect to change some setting on the camera. In this instance, even with the camera set to RAW, mistakes like that almost always matter.

Subspecies or Hybrid

This individual photographed above has the markings of a classic Golden Winged Warbler. Golden Winged Warblers occasionally hybridize with the Blue Winged Warblers and produce two separate hybrid types: a) the Brewster: yellow head and throat, white belly and white wing bars; and b) the Lawrence version: yellow crown and belly, black throat and eye patch and white wing bars.

In my many bird photography adventures, I have photographed several subspecies, but I have never seen or photographed a bird that would be considered a hybrid. A subspecies is a variety of the same species….a population (usually geographically isolated) that has a slightly different appearance than others of its own species. A hybrid is born when two different and closely related species successfully breed.

An excellent article about hybridized warblers “Why Hybridize?” by Dr. Rachel Vallender, can be found at this link.



Photographing a Female American Redstart Warbler and Birding Festivals

The Joy of Bathing

Birds bathe to maintain optimal feather health, but they also appear to savor their time in the water -and seem reinvigorated afterwards.

This little female American Redstart Warbler clearly relishes her evening baths in our little oasis off the deck. She first checks her surroundings then takes a quick drink. She then wades into the water wholeheartedly, immerses her head and saturates her little body, then jiggles and shivers to release the heavy droplets. Up she rises to the branch above the fountain to continue shaking out excess water on her feathers and to preen. Once is often not enough….she goes back and does it all again. All part of her nightly spa ritual before heading off to roost for the night.

Definitely fun to watch and photograph.

Photo of Female American Redstart Warbler at Fountain
Female American Redstart Warbler.
Lightly Touching Down
at the Fountain for her
Evening Bath
ISO1250; f/8; 1/250 Second

Thoughts About Birding Hotspots

I’ve been a bird photographer long enough to know the rush and the rewards of good bird photo opportunity.

The best Spring and Fall Migration birding hotspots are widely publicized and photographers flock to secure the prime locations at the best times. No doubt fabulous photographs are to be had by those who put in the time and effort to pack up their gear and travel to these places.

This Spring, I had planned to travel to Magee Marsh on the southern shore of Lake Erie (3+ hours away) to watch and photograph the Warbler migration. Unexpected and sad circumstances intervened. I am not unhappy about missing the event, even though I no doubt missed photographing some new colorful warblers who would never venture into my part of the woods.

Photo of Female American Redstart warbler.
Female American Redstart Warbler.
Enjoying her Bath.
ISO1250; f/8; 1/250 Second

A Paparazzi After Birds

This year, I was just not ready to squeeze in onto some bridge or public path early in the morning with dozens of other nature photographers positioning their camera gear, lawn chairs, bug spray and coolers. At times, bird festivals become nothing short of a high energy spectacle. A gaggle of photographers clusters onto one spot in an effort to capture the best birds in the best light. It is impossible to practice stealth in these settings.

Generally, these birding festivals/events bring out the worst in me. Impatience, envy, and frustration…all in the name of getting a lucky shot of a new and/or uncommon bird. I’ll admit that most participants do their best not to get in the way of other photographers, but sometimes limited space just does not allow for comfortable distances. This provokes bad behavior in the form of rude glaring, annoying comparisons about equipment, and unsubstantiated judgments about skills and abilities. (NOTE: Some of these people have never had an unexpressed thought.)

Impact on Birds

Birds may appear acclimated to human behavior, but that does not mean that they are unaffected by it. The competition in the air gets in the way of concern or respect for birds. It also stresses wildlife and complicates bird routines. At times behaviors are so intrusive that they breach ethical practices.

Should I Stay Or Should I Go

So ultimately, each Spring, I’ve got to decide…. should I stay or should I go. No doubt lots of good shots to be had, but I’m spoiled here in my private bird space even though I saw very few migrators this Spring.

Bottom line: As a bird photographer, I’m not going to be continually challenged and rewarded with anticipatory delight unless I get myself out there. So I will go.


Bird Migration- August Field Notes

They Come, They Go

August 10

The House Wrens that were so prevalent in our yard during the spring and summer are suddenly no where to be found. I miss their bright beautiful songs and their industrious display and hunting behaviors.  I’ll keep watching, but I’m pretty sure they are laying low, going through their molts, taking advantage of the ground level hunting opportunities and resting up for migration.

Rose Breasted Grosbeaks and Baltimore Orioles who were so busily tending to their fledglings only a week ago are no longer showing themselves. I can see an abandoned Oriole nest from my window, hanging by only a few threads, in disarray and looking quite uninhabitable. One good wind will bring it down.

The Hummers never disappoint…. always flitting in and out, displaying, chasing, divebombing… ever watchful. They will continue their activities through September undeterred, no matter how close the camera and flash intrude into their escapades. Why these diminutive birds don’t feel the biological urge to rest before their long migratory journey ahead I’ll never know.

Ruby Throated Hummer
Hummers Let the Camera Get Close.
Female Ruby Throated Hummingbird.
ISO400; f/7.1; 1/250 Second.

August 15

I no longer hear the the cacophony of bird song that use to fill the air in early morning, even though migrators like Robins, Red Winged Blackbirds, Gold Finches, Song Sparrows, House Finches, Towhees, and Wood Thrushes are still around. No journey ahead for Titmice, Chickadees, Cardinals, most woodpeckers and doves. Is it more of a relief to stay through the MI winter or face the perils of migration?

I look around and note that the Gray Catbirds, Cowbirds, Phoebes, and Chipping Sparrows are not showing themselves in our yard anymore.

August 20

Glimpses of yellow flash around the fountain. Too quick to get an ID shot. We have a nesting pair of American Redstart Warblers so what I see may be the female. Both cameras are set up in different locations in the house. Soon I’ll have those windows open most of the day…..mosquitoes permitting.

August 25

Leaves are still green and heavy on the trees, making bird ID and tracking birds with a long lens very difficult. Cicadas are droning -alternately loud then fading. It’s hot and muggy here in SW MI. The windows are open to facilitate a clear shot and that makes for a damp and sticky house. I have the fans going to help keep out the mosquitos.

Sunny with a strong east wind today. I saw a Tennessee Warbler, a Red Eyed Vireo and one Merlin Falcon on Lakeshore Drive. Got in a couple shots to confirm ID but the resulting images were awful.

August 26

Spent most of the day watching, but only saw a Least Flycatcher peeking around in his hiding place in the Serviceberry tree. A few gold leaves have a tentative hold to their branches.

Least Flycatcher
Least Flycatcher, trying to Hide
Deep within the Serviceberry Tree.
ISO1000; f/9; 1/250 Second

August 27

A rain storm –might it bring some traveling warblers down to the understory trees?  Two cameras on swivel tripod heads facing different directions in the library. I keep checking other possible warbler landing spots–like near the dining room, in back near the fountain or off the front porch. Thinking about relocating one of the cameras… but doesn’t make sense to keep moving the equipment unless I see more activity in that location. I can stretch myself only so far. Uneven cloud cover blankets the yard with intermittent light, mostly sparse. Each camera has a flash and telephoto extender attached. (I fiddled with the wires on my old Canon 580 flash with old Better Beamer flash extender. So far, it’s been working, although I don’t know how accurate the Flash enhanced exposure readings will be.) The rain tickles the leaves. So much movement to track even before I point the lens.

Last year on this date, two warblers were feasting on the bugs on the Serviceberry trees (A Black Throated Green Warbler male and a female Magnolia Warbler). This year I saw and managed a shot of a perky little Chestnut Sided Warbler. (See below. Female or first year male…so different looking than the mature males.)  The flash intensity was reduced to -2/3. (Surprisingly the flash blast doesn’t seem to worry the birds.)

Female Chestnut Sided Warbler
Chestnut Sided Warbler
An Early Arrival
ISO1000; f/9; 1/250 Second

The usual birds are out and about….. Titmice, Blue Jays, Gold Finches, Downy Woodpeckers.  That’s good.  It seems that birds find comfort and safety in crowds…. much more likely to have a warbler sighting when there’s lots of other activity. I take a few shots of the oft photographed faithfuls/dependables to review the exposure settings and flash intensity. Keeps me going.

August 31

Keep hoping for a migrating newcomer, but no luck. I was happy to get ID shots of a Wilson’s Warbler and female Magnolia Warbler. I look forward to September… migration has only just begun.