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Great joys come in small packages, unexpected places
Backyard bird photography reveals the comings and goings of feathered neighbors
The little thing was there a good four or five minutes before I realized what was going on. It was just one of those little joys that come with backyard wildlife photography.
But my focus was on the task at hand. My right eye was plastered to the back of my camera, my left hand atop the 300mm/f 2.8 lens wrapped with one of my old camouflage fleece neck gaiters, my right hand on the shutter and auto-focus button, right forearm working the tripod arm.
Seated atop a Yeti cooler with a dense-foam gardening kneepad insulating my backside, wrapped in my usual layers of polypro and fleece, I was relatively comfortable given it was 8 degrees with a 15-below wind chill. Only my fingertips really suffered when Old Man Winter’s 20 mph gusts lingered like long, annoying sub-zero sighs.
Seated in the open, exposed to a north wind with hands elevated to grasp 5 pounds of glass and steel, well, the blood flow naturally lacks and the fingers will hurt aplenty before they go numb.
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Most of my portable blind materials are devoted to deer stands, so I chose to wear my leafy camouflage coat and pants and just sit still on a firm seat. Most birds grow tolerant of a photographer’s presence near backyard feeders. Sit there relatively motionless and they will filter in. You’ll not be a bother—if you’re mostly still and move that camera slowly.
Occasionally birds seem to spook in a wave-like departure. Everybody just ups and leaves all at once. Wooof! I’ve always chalked it up to birds just being rightfully nervous about their place in the food chain.
If you’re a backyard photographer new to the game, don’t let these departures be a worry. Even when no one is there the birds burst into the air occasionally. The crowd ebbs and flows. Give ‘em 10 or 15 minutes and they’ll all be right back where they were minutes earlier.
It was after one of those bursts that my fun little interlude took place.
In general, the routine at our feeding station begins with the goldfinches and sparrows, especially the dark-eyed juncos.
The juncos, and other sparrows, slip in on the low side. The flits of gray and flashes of white seem to appear out of nowhere. They offer light little staccato “chip” calls, but they are so soft the wind swallowed them up Thursday.
Goldfinches, I counted 26 Thursday, drop in from the top. They usually stage high in the pecan trees behind our yard and filter in a few at a time to slowly build and build. Their light, airy “tsee-tsi-tsi” calls fill the air as they first light on the tips of the eastern redbud limbs above our birdfeeder station.
They watch and look and consider, then drop to the inside branches, and eventually hop down to the feeders. Goldfinch flocks contain complainers. Even when feeding locations are plentiful, someone has to get territorial.
Just one blue jay uses our station, so far, this season. Thursday it announced its presence with a harsh “jeer!” from a distance. Seconds later it would swoop in for a quick look from the redbud, drop to the top of the privacy fence, jump to the tray feeder, and make a quick retreat to what I assumed was a nearby sheltered location.
I listened for the call, focused on the top of the fence, and waited for that stinker to drop in front of my lens. The jay left no time for hunt-and-focus Thursday.
Only the Carolina chickadees routinely outperform the jay on the hit-and-flit approach to feeding. Learn their routes to and from the feeders, position yourself for the intercept, focus on chickadees, and ignore everyone else.
The only other distinct and locatable audible cue came with the whistling wings of the mourning doves. They dropped in quickly and quietly enough on that whipping wind, but when they put on the brakes to land against that gale, I heard it every time. Slowly, I’d start working my lens toward the ground.
Rusty blackbirds were the shy ones Thursday. They aren’t regulars at the buffet. I believe they prefer naturally seedy places down by the river or slough. The half-dozen who arrived on the north wind found a quiet corner outside the main crowd—and just out of clear sight from my lens.
Occasionally I spotted a yellow eye in the redbud or off at the edges of the noisy crowd. Love those yellow eyes.
They slipped in under the cover of the 50-plus red-winged blackbirds, which arrived like dozens of brownish-black Plinko chips dropping in through the pegs of the redbud tree.
But the clatter and chaos of blackbirds are deceiving. Focus on one individual blackbird and it really doesn’t hop around all that much—not like the chickadees, wrens, or sparrows. But as a collective, they bring a feel like a seething mass.
The blackbirds governed the come-and-go cycle. All activity peaked when the hoard dropped onto the tray feeder to seed sunflower seeds flying in all directions and dropping to the ground to pick away at their spoils.
It was at one of those points, with the wind absolutely howling, juncos and other sparrows hopping around at my feet, a mourning dove so close it filled my viewfinder, and blackbirds creating an uproar that I felt something fall out of the little Shumard oak over my head, brush against my cheek and come to rest on my chest.
I thought it was a small stick or a leaf attached to a stem that fell with a wind gust. I could feel a stiffened spot inside my leafy camo as I slowly turned my lens from the birds on the ground, to the redbud, back to the feeders, and again to the ground.
I should have realized the odds were slim for something to just fall in there, given the tight gap between my leafy hooded head and arms.
On a quick glance down a very distinctive little frowning face between the “leaves” of my jacket met my gaze.
“Ha! I might have known it would be you,” I said to the Carolina wren tucked into my chest. It just backed itself in a little tighter and continued watching me.
I went back to my lens focusing and tilting and shutter clicking. The wind kicked up and made the fingers on my shutter hand feel like they were on fire. The wren hopped a couple of times toward the lee side of my chest.
“Yeah, that wind is pretty rough ain’t it? You hang out as long as you want. Just remember to smile later though, OK?”