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Bulletins and Notes Archive

Listing of Archived Bulletins



  • "So You Wanna Be a Warbler Photographer..."                
  • A note from NANPA's Jerry Bowman

{When you are trying to photograph migrant warblers, you'd best keep your eyes open for backup subjects...  Mourning Dove feeding young.  Magee Marsh.  Canon EF 500mm f/4.0 L IS lens, EOS 1v body, 550 EX Speedlight, Better Beamer flash extender.  Provia F 100 pushed two stops.  Flash as fill at -2/3 (automatic flash reduction canceled).  Program mode: 1/250 at f/5.0. }
So You Wanna be a Warbler Photographer...
The male Bay-breasted Warbler sat totally still for more than a minute, an eternity for a warbler.  He would have filled three-quarters of the frame, had a wall of leaves not blocked him.  Finally he began feeding, gleaning insects from the leaves and branches.  I pre-focused on the branch that he was working and followed along attempting to keep his roughly focused image in the viewfinder.  He paused on a clean perch so I placed the central AF sensor on his face and depressed the shutter button to achieve sharp focus. Ah, the perfect image!  But alas, though he sat still for several seconds, he never turned his head towards me, gazing instead at a tiny bug on the next branch.  A flit of his tiny wings and he was gone, and so was my perfect image. 
Carry your tripod-mounted 500 or 600mm lens around for 8 or more hours until you can barely lift it, repeat the story above (with variations) a dozen or more times, and you have a typical day of warbler photography--actually, a good day.  On a bad day, you may not see a single warbler anywhere, even 80 feet up in their typical treetop habitat.  Simply put, photographing migrant warblers and other small songbirds is a great challenge.  It is physically demanding and frustrating. 
Since Elaine’s death in 1994, I have visited at least one spring migrant hotspot each year and have amassed a fine collection of photographs of northbound migrant passerines.  I am especially proud of these images because unlike many similar warbler images that you see in magazines, my images depict free and wild birds.  Though I rarely would do so, I have no problems with those who photograph warblers at the nest (several species nest on or near the ground), but many prominent nature photographers work with captive, restrained songbirds, often birds that have been illegally mist-netted and photographed in enclosures. 
I am often asked, “How do you get all those great warbler images?”  The answer?  I try to put myself in the right place at the right time and then I work very, very hard.  As the folks on my recent IPTs learned, getting a sharply focused warbler anywhere in the frame with any background at all is a major accomplishment. Over the years, I have come to realize that if you are routinely able to produce technically perfect images on a consistent basis, it takes 7-10 days afield on average to produce one truly superb image of a small migrant songbird… 
In May of 2001, I spent 16 days in Ohio and Michigan from the 11th to the 27th.   I spent roughly 8 or more hours in the field each day, rain or shine.  I carried (only) the 500 mm IS lens (and was glad that I did).  I taught for 9 straight days at Crane Creek/Magee Marsh.  The first IPT group had a very few decent chances with birds down low, most notably a few of the aforementioned Bay-breasted Warblers.  On the final afternoon, a Yellow-throated Vireo sat for us for six full minutes on a vine about four feet above eye level.  Most of us exposed two or more rolls of this amazingly cooperative little bird. 

{Yellow-throated Vireo.  Magee Marsh.  Canon EF 500mm f/4.0 L IS lens, EF TC 2XII, EOS 1v body, 550 EX Speedlight, Better Beamer flash extender.  Provia F 100 pushed two stops.  Flash as main light (automatic fill flash reduction canceled).  Manual Mode: 1/60 sec. at f/8 = 1 1/3 stops under on the ambient exposure.}

On Wednesday afternoon, my second IPT group had many good opportunities with warblers feeding at eye level and close range, but because of the advanced state of the greenery, flash as main light was the rule; we were basically working in the dark.  The third group saw virtually no photographable migrant warblers, though some participants did manage a few nice frames of Yellow Warbler (which breeds locally).  Local weather conditions, with easterly winds predominating simply were not conducive to producing a bottleneck of migrants on the south shoe of Lake Erie.  (It was disconcerting to hear that on Thursday, when we saw no birds at all, there was a huge fallout Point Pelee with hundreds of birds littering the beaches and bushes at the tip…)
In addition to weather that was no good for migration, all of my groups got to experience some simply lousy weather that included heavy rain.  But all three groups did have many excellent chances with backup subjects at Crane Creek/Magee Marsh.  These included: spectacular Baltimore Orioles which we attracted with halved oranges; an American Woodcock incubating chicks; a singing House Wren at his nest hole; many Canada Geese with goslings (photographed from our vehicles in the rain); a Whippoorwill sleeping on a log; and a Killdeer brooding chicks (also from the car). Photographically speaking, Tree Swallows often saved the day.  We had a lovely natural cavity nest along the boardwalk. We got to photograph both the male and the female entering and editing the nest hole, and many participants got to make images of them copulating.  Along the edge of the marsh, several males that were courting a single female perched repeatedly on a variety of natural perches at point blank range.  
After I bid farewell to my last group, I flew back to Flint, Michigan and was picked up by David Vore, a client-friend who had invited me to photograph spring migration at Tawas Point State Park along the west shore of Lake Huron (while using his summer “cottage” as a base.  The cottage was actually a large, beautiful vacation house.)  On our first visit to Tawas Point, we saw lots of birds, especially Bobolinks, Orchard Orioles, Scarlet Tanagers, and Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks.  And, there were lots of Warbling Vireos.  It was, however, so windy that photography was just about impossible. 
On our second day it was not quite as windy, but there were fewer birds.  We did have some excellent chances with Cedar Waxwings feeding at close range in a variety of trees.  And then, it started to rain.  And it got cold.  And the wind blew, hard from the east--for days.  During the last four days, photography was just about impossible.  Tawas does seem to offer great potential for bird photography, as it is more open then either Pelee or Magee Marsh.  And there are very few people.  Next year I will be leading a single ITP at Magee Marsh and another at Pelee before heading up to Taos for a week.  Details will follow. 
In spite of my really bad luck in 2001, I doubt that I will ever stop pursuing those tiny bits of fluff and color that are so difficult to photograph.  Oh, I almost forgot, when we met David’s friend Gary, a local birder, his first words to us were, “You shoulda been here on Friday!” So you wanna be a warbler photographer?  Here’s a clue:  it isn't easy!


Note from NANPA's Executive Director Jerry Bowman
Jerry  e-mailed:
I thought you might like to be aware of the fact that Ellen Ruldolph's e mail to me and others about the "NANPA Regional meeting" in France did occur but was not officially approved by NANPA..   In the words of one of the attendees her e mail was in fun and in jest I just didn't want your readers or NANPA members in general have expectations based on her report.
I replied:
Yes, I realized that the meeting Ellen wrote about was not officially sanctioned by NANPA (and I assumed that most folks would understand that her "report" was at least partly in jest.  I will let my Bulletin subscribers know that the meeting was not officially sanctioned by NANPA to make absolutely sure that there were no misunderstanding.
On the other hand, I feel that many of the suggestions for improving NANPA had great merit and ought to be seriously considered...
Best as always, and respectfully,
Arthur Morris



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