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Refuge Tree

Our evergreen sanctuary.

January 1, 2023 :: New Year's Day :: Birds / Pleasant Surprises

A male Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) found shelter in our American holly tree (Ilex opaca) during the Christmas blizzard.

A male Northern cardinal rests in a holly tree during a blizzard.
A male Northern cardinal rests in a holly tree.

Every day, the holly tree in our yard is important to the native birds that visit our bird feeders. At about 50 feet tall, it's a landmark the birds can see above the rooftops of the other historic homes in our neighborhood. It's a lookout tower where they can see who else is at the feeders and birdbath. Its thick foliage gives them cover from the Cooper's hawk (Accipiter cooperii) that patrols its territory. And the holly is a sanctuary from the weather in every season.

In springtime, the holly tree is a safe place for birds to build a nest and fledge their young. In the heat of summer, the tree provides cool shade. In autumn, it offers an abundance of ripe red berries. And in winter, the holly's evergreen boughs create a retreat from cold rain and blowing snow.

It was that kind of shelter for some of our favorite birds during the recent blizzard. Icy winds, blowing snow and sub-zero temperatures threatened the lives of all creatures. But just outside our window, robins and cardinals peaceably huddled in the holly.

May we all find a comforting refuge from the storms in our lives.

Happy New Year.


SUBJECT: A male Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) in an American holly (Ilex opaca)

LOCATION: Our yard in northern Indiana

CONDITIONS: A blizzard. Strong winds 25 to 35 mph, gusting to 55 mph; blowing snow; sub-zero temps to -12 degrees F, wind chills to -35 degrees.

EQUIPMENT and SETTINGS: Nikon D850, Nikon 500mm PF, Aperture Priority, Matrix metering, spot autofocus, auto focus back button, Continuous High shutter release, Vibration Reduction set to SPORT, handheld, natural light; post-processing with Topaz Denoise and Sharpen AI.

EXPOSURE: 1/80 sec @ f/10, ISO 3200 and be patient for this dear bird to open its eye.

Baby, it's cold outside! The storm was officially designated a blizzard before it reached us. It lived up to the title. All across the upper Midwest, fierce winds ripped at trees and piled snow into six-foot drifts. Power outages, highway closures and emergency driving bans piled up, too.

Outside our living room windows, we watched robins and cardinals hunker down among the the holly tree's snow-covered branches. One male cardinal perched in a spot that was open enough to allow this intimate view at just the right height for an eye-level perspective of it.

I maneuvered slowly, so I wouldn't disturb the bird. I managed to find a position where I was almost parallel to its body. That would make it easier to get sharpness where I wanted it. But it also meant that portions of the snow-covered tree trunk and a nearby branch framed the bird on the right-hand side and below it.

At a middle aperture of f/10, the snowy parts of the tree became soft and out of focus. I'm usually not comfortable with something blurry between my subject and me. But any change in my position would startle the bird or hide it behind other branches. So I made this composition as a compromise making sure the cardinal's head was in the clear.

Now I waited for the dozing cardinal to open its eye. When it did, I focused on the eye, held down the auto focus back button and the shutter button while I clicked five or six frames. A burst of frames is often more successful than a single frame when I'm hand holding the camera with a long lens. Chances are one or two may be sharp enough to make me happy.

And so I was. The compromise of a soft white, gently blurred border began to grow on me. It reflected the feel of a blizzarding day. Even though it was dangerously cold outside, this wild moment gave me a warm feeling inside.

Nature :: Wildlife :: Gardens

© Cliff Zenor : All images and text copyright by Cliff Zenor 2010-2024.

Contents cannot be copied or used in any form without the written permission of

Cliff Zenor Photography. All rights reserved.


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