This Morning was the “Tomorrow”

by Kevin Shank | Feb 1, 2023 | 0 comments

MacGillivray's Warbler on wire fence
MacGillivray’s Warbler. Photo © Kevin Shank.

You may remember “The Photo Focus” in January ended with the sentence, “Plus, there is tomorrow.” Well, that was today. When I wrote that, I just thought it was the thing to say. However, when I looked out this morning, there were breaks in the clouds, and it just looked like a good day to try again. Adrian had not captured any photos yet of the MacGillivray’s Warbler. It is so very rare for our state. Why not try one more time?

“Do we have all three cameras packed? Are the batteries hot? Do all the cameras have cards? Do you have your binoculars?” These were the phrases today, and they got repeated several times. We were off.

“With this fog, we are not getting here too late,” I commented as we turned onto the last road. But by the time we turned in at the lake, the fog had thinned again.

No birders were out with binoculars or cameras, so finding our target bird might be tough. Another photographer, Ricky, had arrived just prior to us. This was his first trip. After some introductions, he started down a path by the lake. I chose to start where Cheryl had success the previous trip—right across the road from the parking lot. The bird had been in the brushy fencerow then. Maybe it would be again today.

“Did anyone post where they last saw it yesterday?” I asked Cheryl.

“Yes. It was last seen on the right side of the road.”

That was great. It confirmed to me that trying where Cheryl had success was a logical place to start.

Within minutes, the bird began to chip like a cardinal. Birders have observed that he often does that just prior to popping out somewhere. Cheryl raised her binoculars and began studying the fencerow. Suddenly the bird was in her view, just that quick.

Three cameras eased into position—three photographers hoping for that “perfect” shot…and soon.

I glanced back. Ricky was coming too. He saw we were getting in position for the bird, and he soon joined us.

Cameras hummed as the cheery yellow buster hopped here and there among the vines. Ten shots… twenty shots…fifty shots…a hundred—they kept stacking up. For four minutes he flitted in and out of the limelight, and then it was over. He flew into the weeds behind us and disappeared. I thought maybe I saw him fly out of the weeds to a still more distant location, but I wasn’t sure.

MacGillivray's Warbler on brush
MacGillivray’s Warbler. Photo © Adrian Shank.

He didn’t reappear. Birders gathered all around, but nothing. It was plain to see he had vanished. But patience has value in these things, and so we waited. Birders chatted with one another.

As for me, I decided to turn back to the fencerow across the road. Here the brush is thin enough that when a bird is in it, the chances are good that sooner or later it will present for photos. As for the thicket the warbler had flown into, while it was full of little birds, they were really hard to photograph. After all, I reasoned, couldn’t he return as fast as he left?

Any bird was a target for me—a Song Sparrow, a bluebird, a cardinal—it didn’t matter. When a goldfinch flew from his perch, I was delighted to see I had caught him in flight, along with a few water droplets trailing behind.

American Goldfinch flying
American Goldfinch. Photo © Kevin Shank.

Cheryl and Adrian were likewise grabbing shots of any bird that popped into their view.

Suddenly someone called from across the parking lot, “The bird is down this trail…” Maybe I really had seen him fly farther away a while back….

The crowd of birders walked the several hundred yards to yet another brushy patch. Would we see him again? He certainly wasn’t cooperating very well any more.

We later learned some did get a brief look after we left, but clearly the photographer’s dream opportunities faded after those first four minutes. And those first four minutes with the bird occurred within minutes of our getting into position. Hmmm. What if we had left the house just five minutes later? What if the fog hadn’t cleared out, or we had chosen the wrong weed patch to watch?

But things DID come together for us, and this time the preparations paid off. Being familiar with the bird’s call, his behavior when he chipped, and having binoculars all played a role. Adrian got his photos—some of the best any of us captured. At the same time, Cheryl and I also got to add photos to our little collections—always hoping that the next one would surpass whatever we had taken previously.

Some of our considerations included what ISO would allow us to shoot fast enough to stop movement, yet low enough that the digital noise could be manageable.

The cameras we are using now can be set for back focus, meaning that instead of focusing when the shutter is halfway depressed, focusing occurs when either one of two buttons is depressed with the thumb. This is how we have chosen to set up our cameras. One button uses pin-point focus. The other button tries to lock onto an animal’s eye and follow it during movements. As we photographed the birds, we continually made choices concerning which focus was the “right” one for the moment.

A bird’s eye is small. Unless it is in the open and clearly visible to the camera, that focus mode would not lock onto the subject well. But if the bird was on top of the branch and about to fly, why not try it? Maybe it would result in a fun flight shot in reasonably sharp focus.

There is no substitute for being prepared—not only having the stuff you need, but also knowing how to use the stuff you have. Being familiar with the various camera controls so they can be utilized as “second nature” in the midst of the action is highly valuable.

I still do not know many of the capabilities of the cameras we use. It would be good to study the manual again. But with that said, we still have learned a lot of things that are valuable to know in a hurry. So this is your free tip—study your camera’s manual, and know what the controls do.

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