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Birds of All Weather

Some songbirds willingly stay all winter. They encourage us to embrace it with hope and cheer.

January 1, 2018 Birds

My favorite birds of a feather flock together here through our cold, snowy winters. No matter how many frigid blasts Canada's Alberta Clippers deliver to the Midwest, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, woodpeckers, bluejays and cardinals aren't fazed by them. They fluff up, hunker down and weather whatever winter has up its icy sleeve.

Male Northern Cardinal perched on branch

A male Northern cardinal rests in a thicket on a cold winter's day.

Like those birds, I've never found winter here too cold, too snowy or too long either. Just too gray after a while. Winter life under the Lake Michigan "permacloud" is redeemed by the cheerful songs of chickadees and titmice or the flashing colors of bluejays and cardinals. I'm thankful every time they brighten a dull day.

If one cardinal can change my day, what would you say about two dozen red birds gathered in a small backyard? At dusk and dawn, they come in to refuel themselves with sunflower seeds before and after their long winter's nap. When the count nears 20, I lose track.

The Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) may be the most popular native songbird east of the Rockies. Seven states have chosen it as their state bird. It's likely one of the first birds we could identify when we were children. And its "cheer, cheer, cheer" call brings us exactly that in any season.

Male cardinals fearlessly defend their territories during the mating season. Females will chase off other females, too. But when winter comes, cardinals gather in peaceable flocks in thickets where they rest or in trees and shrubs where they find wild fruits and seeds.

Cardinals are birds of all weather. These year-round residents persevere through spring rains, summer heat, autumn storms and winter blizzards without any of it driving them to kinder climes. If you need encouragement for taking on rough times, a cardinal can be your spirit guide.

The beginning of a new year ignites resolutions for change and invites hope for better things ahead. If we let the words of Emily Dickenson stir us, we'll be on the way to our fondest new-year wishes.

"Hope" is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul -

And sings the tune without the words -

And never stops - at all.

As we enter the new year, may we learn from the cardinals and gather in peace, with the hope that we can weather the future, perched in our souls.

MAKING THE PHOTOGRAPH (Techniques for Photographing Birds)

SUBJECT: Male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

LOCATION: Indiana Dunes State Park, Indiana

CONDITIONS: Cloudy, calm, 20 degrees F

EQUIPMENT AND SETTINGS: Nikon D810, Nikkor 500mm with 1.4X tele-converter (700mm equivalent), tripod, ball head; Aperture Priority exposure mode, Matrix metering, Continuous High shutter mode, Single-Point Auto Focus, Auto-Focus back button

EXPOSURE: 1/320 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 800

Does the portrait of a songbird have to fill the frame? Or can a composition of a bird in its environment be the best photo? One image shows the details of the subject and may reveal a hint of its personality. The other gives context to the subject in its habitat. So which one is the better photograph?

If both compositions are done well, why wouldn't we want to make both of them? Each image tells its own story about the bird. Together, the two photographs make the story stronger. That's the way I felt about northern cardinal photographs on this winter morning. So I set out to spend the day with cardinals and other resident songbirds.

Though my favorite winter birds come to the bird feeders and heated bird bath in our backyard, I've never been fond of the backgrounds or camera angles there. It's a postage-stamp yard, so the backgrounds include bits of houses, garages, fences and the like. I can control those elements only when I choose to aim above them. Then I have to contend with strong, low-angled winter backlight, since the best perspectives are facing south.

Instead of staying with my birds in the hand, I went looking for those in the bush. A state park along the Lake Michigan shore features a nature center with bird feeders set up for viewing. The variety of feeders and water sources attract birds all day long. From inside the center, visitors watch through tinted glass as the birds dart in for seeds, suet, peanuts and water. I chose to perch on a raised sidewalk behind the building where I was eye-level with the feeders.

The considerations for making pleasing photographs from here were perspective, patience and comfort. I was dressed in layers for the weather, so comfort was covered. A thermos of coffee was an essential "layer," too.

The perspective was good since I was near the eye level of the birds. I could isolate them against pleasant natural backgrounds of branches and brush instead of the ground or sky. A long telephoto lens accommodated tight views that reduced distractions around and behind the birds.

I didn't consider hiding from them. They're too alert and familiar with their surroundings to be fooled by camouflage clothing here. And there was no place for a blind, even if I wanted to set up one. I chose a calm, quiet presence instead and it served me well.

I set up the tripod, locked the long lens to the ball head, adjusted the tripod legs to a comfortable viewing height and made some quick compositions. Once I had an idea about how large the birds looked in different places around the feeding station, I clicked a frame and checked the histogram for the exposure.

Clouds had crept in from over the lake, so hard shadows and harsh contrasts were gone. But so was the quantity of light that assured fast shutter speeds to freeze motion. I chose a wide-open aperture of f/5.6, dialed in an ISO 800 (one stop faster than I usually use with this camera body) and clicked another frame. The fastest shutter speed I could manage was 1/500 sec. It would be tricky to freeze the motion of moving birds now. I had to focus on birds at rest, if I wanted sharp images. So that's what I did.

Patience was the most useful virtue now. I watched how the birds came and went from the feeders and heated bird baths. There was a rhythm to their dance as they took turns lighting on perches for a few moments before they whisked off with a seed to a quiet branch nearby.

I composed and focused on a spot a male cardinal chose for a preferred perch. When it returned, I refocused with the Auto-Focus back button and clicked away. It turned its head left and right as it watched other birds. When it held a pose, I clicked the shutter several times.

For the cardinal in the photograph above, I liked the wider view with the tangled branches as the background. The muted gray and brown tones looked like winter. The contrast with the bird's cheerful red made my point about how just one cardinal brightens a day.

I stayed and photographed birds until the light dimmed too much for pleasing photographs. I'll go back again in different light and in other seasons to this new spot for birds in the hand. The lessons I learned today about the light, the backgrounds and bird behaviors around the feeders will help me make good photographs here and in similar situations elsewhere. Because there are always new places to explore for birds in the hand and in the bush.

P.S. You can see a few more birds in the bush in the Recent Work gallery.

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