Just passing through

While sitting on the deck for the first time this year, I noticed a couple of birds in the hornbeam saplings that line the edge of the lawn. At first I thought it was a couple of butter-butts (Yellow-rumped warblers) which are pretty common around here, but no. Turns out to be a couple of fly-in visitors – Blackpoll warblers! My first time seeing and photographing this species.

The Mrs.
The Mr.

Check out those similar poses! They were near each other, but never got on the same branch or close enough to photograph them in the same frame. I love how both shots show off the striking yellow primary feathers. While both were pretty acrobatic, the female was on a branch with bugs on the underside and she tipped upside down in order to get at them, resulting in this funny shot –

Although considered common, this species is in steep decline – mostly due to human activity and its thought that they have lost 88% of their population in the last 40 years. Does you proud doesn’t it? Sorry, I don’t mean to be so negative, but damn, humans make me crazy. Anyway…I guess that means these shots are more precious because of that. Check out the little lady’s one white tail feather. Funny.

I got lucky with many things for this little birding session, one of which was the fact that the leaves were still relatively small and left a lot of clear areas for the birds to get into. I was fortunate they tolerated me being so close; most of these shots are hardly cropped. Since they looked at me directly many times, I have no doubt they knew I was there. Plus I was using the mechanical shutter which makes a bit of noise. Being mirrorless though, I didn’t have that thing flapping away, too. The male was foraging in some denser branches and it was a bit trickier to get shots of him there, although I did get this one of him marching up a branch in search of more tasty morsels.

Then the male flew to another sapling (even closer!) and started working his way down the trunk from the perching shot at the start of the post. I had a heck of a time finding him and getting the focus right, but because I’d made some changes to my focus set up for wildlife, I got him quicker than I might have otherwise. Just in time, too!

They were both energetically feeding on whatever those bugs are that are coating the little trunk up there. I have no idea, but they clearly loved the bonanza and they needed it. Their wintering territories are in the northern countries of South America and they fly clear up to northern Canada to breed. That’s a long way for a tiny bird the size of a chickadee. Some 1800 miles of it can be over the Atlantic Ocean and they do that bit in one go – sometimes taking 3 days to do it. They have to double their body mass in order to make the journey. No doubt feasting like this happens on every stop. I love this next shot because it shows the very leading edge of that wing. Lotta miles on that!

Another thing I got lucky with was the light. It was later in the afternoon and the sun was filtered through the emerging leafy canopy at a really pleasing angle. The result was soft light, but with enough directionality to bring up some texture in the plumage. This meant I could shoot at 1/1600 of a second without having the ISO kick up too much (these range from ISO 800 to 2000). Overexposing by 1/3 of a stop also helped keep noise to a minimum. What there was of it I could reduce in Lightroom using some masking to apply it heavier to the background than the bird. Same with sharpening, I used a mask to isolate it and texture/clarity and a bit of exposure to just the birds. Then with this little bit applied to the RAW image, I used Topaz Sharpen to enhance the detail and further kick down the noise. After a lot of experimentation, I find this technique works best and I haven’t been using Denoise much at all even when the female was in full shade.

I’m not an experienced bird photographer, but I have to admit that I did pretty well here all things considered. I’ve been learning from much more accomplished photographers and trying to apply their best advice. The most important is light which I certainly got here, but another is to shoot like a photographer, not like a birder. That means not to just grab any image because the bird is there, but to create a pleasing photo. Oh sure I have some bird butts and backs in this session, but they got deleted early and I stopped shooting as soon as the birds weren’t in prime position. That means no overlapping branches either in front or behind and no bad head positions. An open beak or a little action is worth waiting for. So when the female came out onto this branch with that amazing background I knew I’d have some winners. Oh and because I was on the same level as the birds, too. That’s super important to feel engaged with the bird in the picture. Shots from way down below aren’t even close to as exciting as direct eye-contact.

If I could get her in focus that is. So now on to a change I’ve made to my Wildlife Custom Mode setting. In the past I’d had it on AFS/AFF (auto-focus single/flexible) with Animal/Eye detection selected. When a critter was detected the camera indicates the subject with a yellow or green box depending on the focus that is achieved. But, it also switches out of AFS to AFF which is basically AFC (auto-focus continuous). All well and good, but I found it produced some inconsistent results due to the constant hunting and switching. One frame would be crisp and the next soft. Probably a normal result of the minute focus changes from shot to shot, but still irritating.

So I decided to try leaving it in AFS because in that mode I can use Focus Peaking to indicate what exact parts of the photo are in perfect focus. AFC doesn’t allow this and by virtue of AFF basically switching to AFC when motion is detected, leaving it in AFS/AFF I couldn’t use it. Another thing I turned on in the menu is AF+MF which allows me to adjust the focus using the focus ring when I’ve got the focus locked using either a 1/2 press on the shutter or the rear AF Lock button (back button focus).

When you turn the focus ring you get an enlarged view of the focus area chosen and with the highlighted focus peaking can precisely adjust on the fly. It works a treat, even with these flitty little birds. It takes just a second to engage by moving the focus ring and I used it a few times. I think I’ve gotten more keepers from this session than any other bird session I’ve had. If I ever need AFC I can just flick the switch and get it.

Anyway…I hope you got as many smiles as I did from these stripy beauties. Makes me love my 15-foot high deck even more. These two were just about that many feet away from me, maybe a little more sometimes, but from the ground I’d never have been able to get these since neither bird went lower. Luckily they didn’t go higher either!

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