Bathing beauties

Flying nonstop for almost a day across the salt water of the Gulf of Mexico makes migratory birds thirsty and ready for a cleansing bath before preparing for the next leg of their journey.  The fresh water drip and bathing pool setup at our Alan Murphy photography workshop on Galveston Island was the perfect lure for some of the beauties that stopped by.

Bird bath set up for photography by Alan Murphy.  Orioles waiting to bathe on the branch above the bird bath.

Photogenic perches  are suspended from tripods next to the bird bath, and a wooden replica of a summer tanager, which can be animated to swish water, entices would-be bathers from the lower right corner of the pool.

For example, this is the kind of shot you might get focusing on a bird that landed on the branch that leads down to the upper left corner of the bath.

Using 600 mm of telephoto at this relatively close distance allows this handsome male Orchard Oriole to fill most of the frame, and the trees and grass in the background to be mostly blurred.

Sitting is a camouflaged blind about 25 feet away, all the photographers (like me in the far corner) have to do is sit and wait for the birds to stop by.

some of the action we saw…

Painted Bunting waiting a turn in the pool.

Painted Bunting bathing vigorously, getting all the dirt of migration out of its feathers.

Orchard Orioles seem to like bathing together, for safety in numbers, I guess.

Male Indigo Buntings who will be so fiercely aggressive to one another once they land on their breeding territories, nevertheless band together to forage and bathe at this stopover on their migration route.

Mockingbird getting really wet…

The first step in getting feathers dried off and in shape for flying is a really good shake. Note all the flying dander coming off this bird.

You would think that if feathers can get this wet and disarranged by bathing, birds would be vulnerable to rain storms, and flight would be compromised.  But this doesn’t usually happen, because when birds preen their feathers to reshape them after they bathe, they apply a waxy coating obtained from the preen gland at the base of their tail.  So when a resident Great-tailed Grackle gets in the bird bath, water beads off the surface of its feathers.

This grackle was much too big to fit in the frame at 600 mm!

The great migration

After an intensive week of up-close and personal photography of spring bird migrants on their way north (while attending Alan Murphy’s bird photography workshop in Galveston Island, Texas), I have new-found admiration for their journey, as well as thousands of photos to scan, edit, and do something with.

Yellow Warbler male, weighing about 10 grams, less than a packet of ketchup.

Some readers may think “the great migration” refers to the mammal migration through the Serengeti, which is indeed impressive. But equally astounding is the 600 mile (1000 kilometer) leap of faith that small birds, some weighing less than a half teaspoon of sugar, make by flying directly across the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatan peninsula to the gulf shores of the southern U.S. (Texas to Florida).

Gray Catbird

In fact, the choice is made for them to fly directly across the Gulf, because to go around the Gulf by land is three times the distance (about 1800 miles), with no guarantee of food to replenish fuel stores, more predators to avoid, and a much longer transit time (days instead of hours) before they reach the U.S.

Route of trans-Gulf bird spring migrants

Route of trans-Gulf bird spring migrants

More than 1/2 Billion birds fly over the Gulf during spring migration, including the Warblers, Tanagers, Orioles, Buntings, Grosbeaks, Cuckoos, and Flycatchers we eventually see during summer breeding season in the northern and eastern U.S. and Canada.

Baltimore Oriole male

Eastern Wood-Pewee

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

How do they manage this feat? That will be the subject of the next post — please visit the blog again tomorrow.

the woodpecker and the blackbird

I’m still working through the thousands of images from the 3-day bird photography workshop I attended in Alamo, Texas a couple of weeks ago, and found this series of interactions between a Golden-fronted Woodpecker and a Red-winged Blackbird.  No one can say those blackbirds aren’t feisty, pesky, and challenging.

Red-winged Blackbird vs Golden-fronted Woodpecker

the initial face-off — innocent bystander in the background looks on

Red-winged Blackbird vs Golden-fronted Woodpecker

the initial attack, blackbird pecks at woodpecker

Red-winged Blackbird vs Golden-fronted Woodpecker

woodpecker retaliates, but the blackbird won’t back down

Red-winged Blackbird vs Golden-fronted Woodpecker

trying the overhead threat approach

Red-winged Blackbird vs Golden-fronted Woodpecker

okay, maybe it works better from this angle instead

Red-winged Blackbird vs Golden-fronted Woodpecker

Success! Annoy the woodpecker enough and it finally leaves

Setting up the pose

If there is one thing I’ve learned from the Alan Murphy workshop in Alamo, Texas, it’s to make sure you have the right set up before you bring birds in to photograph.  Providing the right food is just the final step.

Altamira Oriole

An Altamira Oriole landed exactly where it was supposed to, on a bare portion of the mesquite, next to the grape.

First, find suitable staging perches from which the bird will fly a short distance to the food.  That ensures that you will get some good flight shots out and/or back.

Golden-fronted Woodpecker

A Golden-fronted Woodpecker popped his head up on the side of the stump feeder which had been decorated with flowers and greenery.

Second, decorate the source of the food so it doesn’t look like a feeder.  Alan gets quite creative with his decorations so that the colors blend well with both the background and add some splashes of color to the photo.

Great Kiskadee

A Great Kiskadee landed exactly where we had pre-focused, on the brightly colored berries that contrast nicely with the green leaves of the citrus orchard behind it.

Make sure the feeder set up has a nice backdrop 30-50 feet away, so that you will get a smooth background with a telephoto shot.  Then, of course, you have to have a place to sit with your camera on a tripod that is at the same level as the feeder and the staging perch, so you are not shooting down on the birds.  Blinds are ideal, although a little chilly for us to sit in during the winter in Minnesota.  Raising the feeder perch and staging perch to window height works too.

And voila, wonderful photos that hardly need editing!  In fact, the only editing I did on these photos was some very minor cropping.

Birds in flight

I’m currently in Alamo, Texas attending a bird photography workshop run by Alan Murphy, and learning how to set up for taking photos of small birds in flight. Today’s challenge — learn how to pre-focus the camera in the place you expect the birds to be. Sometimes it worked, but most of the time, I captured an empty perch.

Great Kiskadee vs Red-winged Blackbird

Great Kiskadee vs Red-winged Blackbird

Green Jays

Green Jays

Golden-fronted Woodpecker vs Cardinal

Golden-fronted Woodpecker vs Cardinal

Golden-fronted Woodpecker

Golden-fronted Woodpecker vs Blackbird