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Where The Birds Are

Good subjects are closer than you think.

June 2,2017 Birds

My photographic wish list is long. Probably as long as yours.

No matter where and how often you travel, your wish list of scenes and subjects likely grows longer everyday. Just like mine. That's the way is should be. With a whole world to choose from, how could we not want to explore and photograph more of it? If money was no object and we had no commitments to family, job or community, we'd live a whirlwind life of seeking all the fantastic images that swim in our heads as they hit the pillow each night. That enviable life is for a fortunate few who've worked hard for it.

But you shouldn't let the dreams of seeing it all blind you to the wonders within your easier reach. Something on your wish list is closer than you think. Maybe in parks and nature preserves near by. Or maybe in a botanic garden. Or in a water-runoff retention pond. Wait, a what?

I'll squash the illusion right now. Some birds on my wish list reside close by in unromantic places and that's fine with me. Like red-winged blackbirds in retention ponds.

I'd gladly don my chest waders and slog into a wild, remote cattail marsh for an opportunity with redwings. I've done it before for frogs and insects. But if I can find photogenic birds in a good situation that doesn't require a mucky trek, I'll take them.

A female Red-winged blackbird on a cattail.

The Red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) is a said to be one of the most abundant native birds in North America. A common resident of cattail marshes, the glossy-black male sports scarlet-and-yellow shoulder patches called epaulettes which it proudly flashes when it sings its courtship and territorial songs. The female's plumage is streaked with brown, tan and rust. And both of them are adaptable to city and suburban settings where even the smallest patches of wetlands remain.

So it shouldn't surprise me to see a dozen of the songbirds bouncing around the cattails growing in a retention pond next to a shopping center. After picking up things from the big-box building supply store for my next old-house project, I return with my cameras, my two longest lenses, a sturdy tripod and binoculars.

This will be nothing like a wilderness experience. I'm walking on blacktop behind a strip mall. It's level, smooth and dry. And it's about six feet higher than the water level in the pond. I can move around easily and get an eye-level view of the redwings as they squabble over invisible territorial boundaries and keep an eye on their love interests.

All the red-winged blackbirds here are undisturbed by my presence and uninhibited in their natural activities. They are wild birds, but they're habituated enough to humans that they don't see me as a threat. I'm just part of the landscape.

For the next few hours, I watch and photograph some of my favorite birds. Their calls signal the return of spring in April. Their claims to territory are a fascinating dance in May. And they are one of the first birds I could identify by song when I was a kid.

By the time the sun drops behind the shopping center's rooftop, I've finally made worthwhile photographs of one of the first birds on my wish list. I'm not sure why it's taken so long to do this. Maybe because I felt I must only photograph them in wild places. Or maybe because redwings are around so often and I could photograph them any time.

Now I want to find more nearby subjects on my wish list. I will, if I open my eyes and go looking for them. Because good things are closer than you think. So what are you waiting for?


MAKING THE PHOTOGRAPH (Techniques for Photographing Birds)

SUBJECT: Female Red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) on cattail

CONDITIONS: Clear, calm, sunny; 75 degrees F

EQUIPMENT and SETTINGS: Nikon D4S, Nikon AF 500mm f/4, Nikon 1.4x AF teleconverter; tripod, ball head; Aperture Priority exposure mode, Matrix metering, Single-Point Auto Focus using the AF back button, Continuous High shutter mode

EXPOSURE: 1/1600 sec @ f/8, ISO 1250

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