Missing the Yellow Warbler

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Filed under Outdoor Notes

June 13, 2012

For me, the most compelling creature to attempt to photograph is a wood warbler. The Americas are blessed with these little bits of feathers. Nowhere else on the planet has them, but we do. The United States is home to at least 53 species, and more than thirty of them either breed in Pennyslvania or pass through in migration. Most are amazing little bits of colorful feathers animated by incredible energy. They can be hard to see, hard to identify, and very hard to photograph.

Yellow Warbler Setophaga petechia singing

Yellow Warbler singin' in the rain

Now to make photography more difficult, warblers are usually found way back at the back of beyond, on the other side of some mountain or swamp accessible only by foot.A couple of them, however,  do haunt the haunts of man–as long as there is a little bit of wet ground nearby. One of these is the aptly named Yellow Warbler.1

This evening, in the brief interlude between a downpour and a thunderstorm, I came across a Yellow Warbler. I squeezed off thirty-three shots–not one of which is a technically “good” photograph.

Yellow Warbler male

Yellow Warbler male--photo has been cropped significantly

As usual, I started off snapping some shots at a considerable distance. Nice shots, but even with a 400mm lens they require a terrific amount of cropping to get a useful image. The marvelous thing about the internet is that it is hard to tell these are cropped, but none of these are suitable for printing.

It is very difficult to get close to a bird. The best approach, I have found, is to approach on a starboard tack–that is, never walk directly at the bird (mammals and lizards are similar). Why starboard? Well, I’m right handed, and I find that the critters are a little less nervous when when I turn to the left–I have no idea why, perhaps it has to do with the positioning of my hands. Move slowly, and in particular, bring your camera up to your eye slowly.

It works about five percent of the time. Once you get close, there will always be a twig, or a leaf, or a flower.  Oftentimes you think you have captured a great image only to get it home, load it on the computer, and find some distracting streak slashing its obnoxious way through your otherwise-stunning shot.

Yellow Warbler male

Yellow Warbler. There's always a twig.

Yellow Warbler male

Yellow Warbler. Sometimes there's a whole darn flower.

Warblers are extremely active, so it is important to try and keep the camera on them. I know people who claim never to use autofocus–well, I wish them luck with warblers.

Yellow Warbler male

Yellow Warbler

Look at the feet.

Yellow Warbler male

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler male

Yellow Warbler--look at the feet.

If you have a copy of Audubon’s Birds of North America, take a quick look through at the feet on his perching birds. One thing the digital age has made abundantly clear was just how superior John James Audubon was as an observer. Julie Zickefoose, who is as close to Audubon as we have had in a very long time in her knowledge and understanding of her subjects (not to mention her painterly skills) observed this in one of her blogs that discussed Audubon’s Chats:2

“Audubon got a lot of flak from ornithologists of the day for his exuberant poses, which he got from the living birds, as well as from the birds he wired to his drawing board. Having lived with breeding chats around our yard for 18 years, I can attest that they do fling themselves up into the air when they start their butterfly display flight. How frustrating it must have been for Audubon to have to tone down what he knew to be right and true, in order to satisfy an audience that was both more conservative and less experienced than he.”3

Invariably, the one time you nail the focus, the bird will have turned its back to you.4

Yellow Warbler, back

Yellow Warbler.

Finally, if you are very, very lucky, the bird will pop out into the open, into the light–and you’ll get so excited that you bonk your focus by mashing the shutter release.

Yellow Warbler--out of focus

Yellow Warbler--out of focus

Ah, well, you can always get a little of that back with post-process sharpening, not all, but some.

Yellow Warbler--Yellow Warbler--sharpening applied post process.

Yellow Warbler--sharpening applied post process.

Finally, you have the bird in the open, in the light, you’ve calmed your nerves: take a deep breath and gently press that shutter button–just as the bird leaves.

Yellow Warbler head on in flight

Last shot

Don’t worry, if you have set your autofocus up to track your subject, you will pick up one or two great flight shots.

blurred bird

"What might have been."


  1. I usually like to give the “scientific” names of species, but the cognoscenti recently threw a cladistic fit and renamed everything. Yellow Warblers were Dendroica petechia , at last report they were Setophaga petechia. Don’t bother learning any of this, it is very likely to change in the near future, and there will not be a quiz. []
  2. For anybody that doesn’t know, Zickefoose just released her second illuminated book of her observations, The Bluebird Effect. It is exquisite, more a work of art than a book, and if you buy it from this link, I get a cut. Same thing goes for her first book (another gem) Letters From Eden. []
  3. Julie Zickefoose, Julie Zickefoose blog, Yellow-breasted Chats, 31 October 2010. http://juliezickefoose.blogspot.com/2010/10/yellow-breasted-chats.html [accessed 12 June 2012]. []
  4. I call these proctology shots. []
  5. “For all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: ‘What might have been!’”John Greenleaf Whittier (from the poem “Maud Muller). []

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3 Responses

  1. Why this is delightful. So my warbler photos are often out of focus because I am mashing the shutter button in excitement? Well, well. I have many stunning images of streaky wings propelling warblers to different branches, different counties, different time zones.
    Thanks for the shout out(s).
    There is always a twig. I don’t mind twigs. I think your photos are beautiful, especially the first one.


  2. Julie Brown said:

    As a bird photographer with a great fondness for warblers, I really enjoyed this essay. I totally agree with your comparison of Julie Zickefoose to Audubon.

    • I hope you bought a copy of her latest book, The Bluebird Effect. Really a tour de force. Simply beautiful. Amazon has them, or you can go to her website and order.

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