A Few Thoughts on Birds and Bird Photography

I paid an early morning visit a few days ago to Lakeside Park in Chesapeake, VA—the park with the litter, the noise, the Canada Goose droppings, the algal bloom, and on and on, yet also the park that was recently host to a thriving community of nesting birds, including many Green Herons. I’m reminded of “Ellen from Massachusetts” and a comment she made after reading my earlier blog, “An Ode to the Green Heron“: “Incredible photos! Text was great also and all in a small town park (emphasis mine)! Real dedication here. Happy birding.” And I’m reminded of my response: “Ellen, thanks, and thanks for your kind words. One of the many, many things I’ve learned: Birds aren’t nearly as ‘fussy about place’ as we are. They’d just as soon settle in a city park as settle in a National Park.”

I’m reminded of another conversation. A different reader sent me this after she’d learned that I’d seen Green Herons at Lakeside Park: “I live across the street from that park and all I’ve ever seen are ducks and Canadian Geese.” (Of course, Canada Geese are really only “Canadian Geese” if and when they visit Canada!)

Canada Goose landing
Landing gear ready!

And here was my response: “You’d be amazed at all the bird life there. Yes, there are Canada Geese, but there are at least 10 Green Heron nests there and 1 Yellow-crowned Night Heron nest, and there are countless other nests there, too.” I went on: “Those birds [the Green Herons] are small and dark and easy to miss. They also spend a lot of time rooted to one spot as they look for prey, so they don’t draw a lot of attention.”

A Photography Aside

Now, to give you an idea just how easy it is to miss these birds, here are 2 shots I took during my recent visit. I’d been tipped off by a fellow birder that a juvenile Green Heron lingered (the others had moved on), so I visited with my camera, in hopes of getting at least one last end-of-season shot. I scoured the park for several minutes, but no luck. Then, as I was leaving, I spotted the bird. Here are 2 mid-sequence photos. The little bird is well-camouflaged.

Camouflaged Green Heron

Camouflaged Green Heron

To me, the first shot is a little more interesting as it captures both gesture and movement. But I see something else as I look at these photos. The background—a rusted chain-link fence draped in unsightly dried algae—leaves a lot to be desired. Always check the background before you release the shutter. And aim for an uncluttered one that highlights your subject.

Tricolored Heron
Tricolored Heron (and periwinkles)

Of course, that’s not always possible…note the Canada Goose shot above. But if you have a good, strong subject that is “powerful enough to carry the composition,” go ahead and shoot anyway, regardless of the background.

Don Mammoser, professional nature photographer, understands the above. He wrote a wonderful article in the June 2019 issue of Outdoor Photographer entitled, “In the Neighborhood.” It’s an easy and instructive read and a must-read for aspiring shooters.

He opens by encouraging readers to practice their wildlife photography skills in their neighborhood parks—parks like Lakeside. Then straight away he tells them to pay attention to light, what some have called “photography’s most important commodity.” But then he mentions the importance of composition and background, writing that the background is “of utmost importance to the success of most wildlife images.” I couldn’t have said it better.

The Rest of the Story (and a Few More Words About Photography!)

Back to my visit. As it turns out, after I spotted the lone Green Heron and took a few photos, I lingered at the park. I just couldn’t resist the urge to shoot a few more frames. And the early morning “golden hour” light was as it always is: magical. Best time of the day to shoot, IMHO, though early evening can be great, too. I also knew that the youngster would be gone soon and that this might be my last opportunity. Just imagine it flying solo to coastal Venezuela.

At first the bird was distant, and I’d be a little “focal length limited.” But then, considering and using the Green Heron’s stalking motion as an example, I was able to inch my way forward so the bird would appear bigger in those frames. Also, the more pixels on a subject, the greater the detail/the better the image quality. Not only can birds be models of patience, they can also be models of how to approach wildlife. Here’s one of my first close-ups.

Juvenile Green Heron standing

And here’s one that followed. The bird had obviously settled in and looked relaxed—and even thoughtful.

Green Heron resting

What happened next was totally unexpected. I’m going to borrow a few words from “Heron & Hawk’s Most Hair Raising Adventure” to describe it, since my experience was identical to that of the author’s:

I didn’t see the incoming bird at all – my eye was glued to the camera’s viewfinder – and the first sign that something was about to happen was the heron’s cap feathers erecting suddenly. His neck feathers erected simultaneously, making his neck grow to three times its usual size. One second he looked normal and literally the next, he had fluffed up the way an alarmed cat’s tail expands to five times normal size. Only after noticing his shock of feathers did I see the blurry form cross in front of [me], swooping a couple feet above the surface.

The story above involved a Great Blue Heron and an unnamed hawk that had buzzed or grazed it. My story involved our Green Heron and a visiting adult Cooper’s Hawk. I, too, was using my camera to capture the bird and didn’t see the Cooper’s swoop in and buzz it. But in a split second, the heron seemingly doubled in size and let out an ear-splitting  screech like the one I mentioned in “The Green Heron: Final Thoughts.” I then looked up, looked at the bird, and then watched as the Cooper’s flew over my head and on its way. Was the hawk just “buzz flying,” or was it trying to take out the heron? Cooper’s Hawks have been known to take out and consume larger birds. Here’s how the bird looked after that encounter. It appears to be following the flight path of the quickly departing Coops.

Alarmed Green Heron
High alert

Talk about hair-raising! (And I can imagine some choice words.)

But just like the Great Blue in the story above, this bird soon carried on as if nothing had happened. To borrow a few more words: “After the blurry raptor whizzed past [me], the yearling returned to his fishing and I to the camera,” and “he didn’t show any other outward signs of fear, and made no attempt to flee when the hawk buzzed by him.” Here it is a minute or two later, appearing just as it had before, but now looking off in a new direction.

Green Heron
Resuming the routine

And here it is again, nervously laughing the whole thing off.

"Laughing" Green Heron
“Laughing” Green Heron

Note the lovely background (yet the interesting subject).

All kidding aside, these stories remind me of the dangers birds face. We humans take our safety for granted, especially if we’re fortunate to live in the U.S. But birds, no matter where they live, live in daily and nightly peril.

And This Just In

The waters off the Money Point peninsula on the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River in Chesapeake, VA used to be “one of the most contaminated stretches of river anywhere in the U.S.” Tim Fearington, who once worked at the now-defunct Republic Creosoting Co. there, told me recently that that part of the river was a “biological desert.” Here are his words:

Once upon a time about 51 years ago I took a summer job at Republic Creosoting Co. down at Money Pt. That part of the river was a biological desert and was for many years afterward. As an enviromental specialist with VDH Division of Shellfish Sanitation, I remember a biological survey of the river in the early 80’s where no living organisms were found in the benthos there at Money Pt. Lots of clean up has occurred since then. Hopefully, things have dramatically improved.

Well, things have dramatically improved. Those waters and some of the adjacent land have been restored and revitalized thanks in large part to the efforts of the the Elizabeth River Project, recent winner of  a prestigious national award. Another award winner, to our north, was the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary.

To give you a glimpse of just how healthy this area is now, here’s a recent photo. I took it while standing on the edge of the restored wetlands, after just having discovered a Saltmarsh Sparrow there. A much healthier Elizabeth River, sometimes now host to Common Loons, can be seen in the background. Also, a much healthier Elizabeth River can be “kinda seen” in the Tricolored Heron photo above. The heron was standing and preening on the rock sill, the sill that was installed to prevent wetland erosion.

Money Point
Money Point

Now, for you wildlife photographers…I mentioned the importance of light both above and in my previous blog. If you’re interesting in exploring that further, Michael Freeman has written an excellent book about the topic: Capturing Light: The Heart of Photography. I agree with the statement in the book summary and the author’s thesis that “it’s the quality of light that makes or breaks the shot.” It is said that photographers are “chasers of light.”

Quip, Question, Quote

These are the opening lines of Sandy Denny’s haunting late 60’s song, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?”

Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving
But how can they know it’s time for them to go?
Before the winter fire, I will still be dreaming
I have no thought of time

For who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

Listen to Judy Collins’ cover.

Osprey in flight
Departing Osprey

 

 

10 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts on Birds and Bird Photography

      1. Of course I would love artistic photos, but more often documentary ID photos. I carry equipment, telescope, so would prefer compact camera, lens.

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      2. Linda, I’ve dug up a couple of articles that you might find helpful. The first is here: https://bryanpfeiffer.com/photography/photography-resources/point-and-shoot-cameras-for-wildlife/. His ‘Dirty Little Digital Secret No. 2’ is important. I’ve always told folks to get compact cameras with sensors larger than the usual compact sensor size: 1/2.3 inch if they can afford it. If they can’t, I tell them to buy a better quality 1/2.3 inch sensor compact. He mentions some better quality ones here. BTW, some of these you can purchase used at B&H: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/. That’s where I purchase most of my gear. Here’s another article that might be helpful: https://www.techradar.com/news/best-bridge-camera. I hope all this helps!

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  1. Hi Dave,
    Thanks for the mention of my Outdoor Photographer article. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog. Maybe we’ll meet up someday out there in the field chasing birds or other wildlife.
    Don Mammoser

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    1. Don, Thanks so much, and good to hear from you. You covered a lot of ground in that OP article, and I wanted to share it. BTW, I’ll be mentioning it again in my next post, which I’ll probably publish tomorrow. Keep up the good work! Dave

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