I began to write in my earlier blog, “The Killdeer Saga,” about the “triumphs, trials, and tribulations” of a Money Point, Chesapeake, VA Killdeer family. I followed the family and took copious photos of the family from early March, when their nesting season usually begins around here, until the end of May. For Killdeer, the beginning of the nesting season is straightforward and involves a few simple steps: pair formation, a scrape in the dirt, a “cloacal kiss,” and laying fertilized eggs. Of course, these are basically the same steps that other birds take.
Bird Photo Tips
While shooting this family, I learned many things, but I learned something important about picture-taking. I learned to refrain from using burst mode or continuous mode so much and to use single shot mode more often. Single shot mode works well—and saves you a lot of time later on—if you can anticipate behavior. Of course, you can only anticipate behavior if you’re familiar with your subject. And you can only acquire this familiarity if you spend time in the field.
Let me share with you one more bird photo tip, if I may. And this is something that I’ve learned over time. If you’re shooting and you can’t for some reason get all of the bird in the frame, take the picture so that a viewer can at least imagine that all of the bird is there. Here’s an example of what I mean. This is a photo of one of the adult Killdeer about to perform a distraction display. I couldn’t get its feet and part of its underside in the frame. But I took the photo so that a viewer could imagine that those “missing parts” were there. And I included some extra breathing room, to boot.
This photo of a Green Heron chick might be an even better example of what I’m trying to say. I wanted to capture the bird, but most of its toes were hidden. Sure, I could have stood up, but I hate that perspective and always try to capture wildlife as close to eye level as possible. So I composed the photo in such a way that a viewer could imagine that the bird’s toes were there.
I mentioned in the last blog that Killdeer chicks are precocial, unlike the helpless, naked, and blind altricial offspring of songbirds, let’s say. It’s interesting to note that newborn Green Heron chicks fall somewhere in the middle. Their eyes are open, they’re covered with down, and they can move around a bit, like precocial chicks. But like altricial chicks, they remain in the nest for over two weeks and are dependent on their parents for food.
Here’s another photo of one of the Money Point four-chick Killdeer brood at one week of age. It and its siblings were running around from the get-go in that damp area near their nest. Once again, we can see the chick’s profile, its down covering, its single chest band, and its funny-looking tail. We can also see that it lacks the adult’s orange-red orbital ring.
For comparison, here is another photo of one of the adults.
Unlike altricial and semi-altricial chicks, these Killdeer chicks didn’t have to rely on their parents for food. They may have been briefly schooled on where to go to look for food, but after that, they had no trouble procuring food on their own.
As I watched this family, I was taken with the degree of care that the parents provided. Both parents had shared incubation duties. And after the chicks were born, they shared guard duty, as well. Sometimes both parents guarded the chicks together. The female parent also brooded the chicks. She brooded them regularly well into their second week of life. Now, the chicks may not have needed any help finding and capturing food, but they did need their parent’s help when it came to regulating their body temperatures.
As I watched this brooding behavior, I was amazed that all four chicks could fit underneath their mother at one time! Here she is with three chicks beneath her already and with a fourth one about to join them. If you look carefully at her midsection, you can see a few little flesh-colored toes sticking out.
And here they all are just a few moments later. Brooding can be a clumsy process at times.
And finally, here’s how this whole brooding chain of events began. This is my favorite shot of the three. Incidentally, I was using burst mode when I took it. So, yes, burst mode does have its place in the photographer’s arsenal. Had I not used that mode here, I might not have captured this special moment.
More Hatchling Observations
Here are a few more observations I made over time. As the chicks went about their feeding routine, they always stayed around the tall, grassy perimeter of the open area that they were in. They seemed to instinctively know that they were safer there. And as they scurried about, they used their tiny, growing wings for balance, and later on, for help moving forward. Interestingly, as they fed they never seemed to notice me or see me as a threat. Their parents, of course, always kept an eye on me. (I was kneeling behind a pile of concrete blocks known as oyster castles when I took this shot. I love the effect, and I love to experiment when I shoot.)
The chicks also began to vocalize not too long after they hatched but in a very limited way. And they responded without fail to their parents’ vocalizations and movements, which they would often use both to corral and to lead their offspring. It was amazing to witness what I’d have to call a very sophisticated communication system. I recently read a fascinating article in Cosmos Magazine about scientists who studied African Penguin vocalizations. After a while, these scientists learned to speak “advanced penguin.” Well, as I observed this Killdeer family, I felt as if I were learning to speak “advanced Killdeer.”
A Mysterious Occurrence
All of the above photos were taken on April 19. The chicks had hatched about a week earlier. I decided to visit the family again on April 20. I would visit, as I often did, in the morning.
I arrived on the morning of the 20th confidently. I had been around the family for some time and almost felt as if I had been adopted. I always kept at what I thought was a respectful distance from them, I thought I understood the species well, and I thought I knew the warning signs or the signs that indicated that they were viewing me as a threat. Furthermore, I’d been well-schooled in how to observe wildlife without disturbing it, and I’d even done some writing, including a recent blog post, “Be Still and Know,” about the importance of being a non-threatening part of an animal’s environment. So, I was unprepared, to say the least, for what happened next. And I was at a loss to explain it both to myself and to others.
And This Just In
I hadn’t planned things this way, but I’m not going to be able to complete the Killdeer story now. There’s just isn’t enough time, and Lord knows there isn’t enough space. As it turns out, this family’s story was a little longer and had a few more twists and turns than I’d expected—that, and I may have devoted a little too much time here to dispensing photo advice. But if you’ll stay with me, I promise to complete the story and to publish “part 3” soon. So, kindly stay tuned. And thanks, as always, for reading.
Quip, Question, Quote
“I have long been immersed in the natural world, but becoming a birder in my adult years has only intensified my love and appreciation for the complex ecological web among all living species. In my imperfect ways, I try to be a good steward of the land and a friend to our earth and its inhabitants.” I love that line: “In my imperfect ways….” Wonderful words of legally blind writer Martha Steele, who writes for Bird Observer, an acclaimed bimonthly journal about birding.