A Decisive Moment in a Bluebird Minute

The decisive moment when the female bluebird approaches the nest while the male bluebird stands guard.
The decisive moment when the female approaches the nest while the male stands guard.

Story & photos by Bob Feldman

This is the story of a single minute in the lives of a pair of nesting eastern bluebirds. Encompassed within that one minute was a decisive moment when a hoped-for image was captured: an action photo of a female bluebird flying high and carrying nesting material close-approaching her nest box from the left while her male mate looked on from the upper right part of the box’s roof. This hope was not unreasonable; it was based on repetitive observation of more or less routine bird behavior. However, even observation could not take place until the right physical environment for bluebirds had first been established.

Our (my wife also photographs) planning and the implementing steps for bluebird photography started with putting up a nest box, sometimes referred to as a bluebird box. In a broader sense, planning commenced some time prior to that when we, as owners of a new house, had a backyard consisting entirely of mud. We landscaped this bare earth with ground cover and flowers and lots of shrubs and trees. We wanted to create a wildlife-friendly habitat: our backyard is a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat. At the same time, our planting design and implementation had nature photography in mind.

While we were initially fortunate in attracting a good variety of “backyard birds,” we were missing bluebirds. Turns out that appropriate food and good habitat are not enough in our neck of the woods (and in many other venues as well). Suitable housing for cavity nesting birds is scarce due to habitat changes and destruction. To attract bluebirds, it is more important to offer housing than food. So we put up a bluebird box and have been graced with bluebirds every spring.

Male bluebird has been peeking inside the nest box, blocking the female's approach.  She lands on the roof instead.
Male bluebird has been peeking inside the nest box, blocking the female’s approach. She lands on the roof instead.

The box is in the middle of our back lawn. Bluebirds like to nest in open expanses of low grass. It makes it easier for them to hunt for insects and other food sources down on the ground. And they can see any sneaky cats or other predators before they get too close.

Not coincidentally at all, the location is photographer pleasing too: It is far enough from the shrubbery and trees behind it to allow for the creation of desirable soft-focus backgrounds. At the same time, the box is close enough to our house to be within full-frame reach of a camera equipped with a 600mm lens and a 2X teleconverter placed on our westward facing rear deck.

The orientation of the bluebird box is least as important as distance. The entry to the nesting box faces east, a logical choice given the orientation of our deck. And the bluebirds are quite happy with that choice too.

The male bluebird flies up to his guard station.
The male bluebird flies up to his guard station. [Note: a small amount of wingtip was composited in from another image.]

We maintain a couple of mealworm feeders within a bluebird-convenient distance, but far enough away from the box itself so as to not disturb any box inhabitants when other local wildlife shows up for a snack or a meal.

Beyond physical planning and execution, and every bit as important in upping the odds of getting great photos, was the study of bluebird behavior. By that I mean observing the actual behavior of “our bluebirds” as they operated and interacted around the bluebird box and in the rest of the backyard. It turns out that that our bluebirds, not surprisingly, routinely followed a pattern enough times to make taking advantage of that pattern worthwhile. (Note that there was no wind and no more than a slight breeze during the times this pattern was observed and utilized for photography.)

The female bluebird turns around as the male takes up his post.
The female bluebird turns around as the male takes up his post.

Here is our bluebirds’ routine:

  1. The male flies to the box’s rooftop and takes up guard duty at the upper right corner of the roof – the guard station.
  2. The male gets bored and comes to the front of the roof and tries to peek inside from there.
  3. The male flies around to the front of the box and looks in directly. (Sometimes he goes inside.)
  4. The female approaches from the left with a mouthful of nesting material. She lands on the roof and turns around, movingto get into a position to fly off to the left. After briefly resting, she then flies off to the left and descends, executing a roughly C-shaped arc in order to enter the box. (Sometimes she flies directly into the nest box without going to the roof first.)
The female moves forward, prior to take off.
The female moves forward, prior to take off.

The accompanying photos, which run in order of capture (except for the title photo), illustrate this pattern with a bonus: The male was peeking inside the box while perched on the front, blocking the flight approach of the incoming female who, this time, seemed to be in line for a straight on entry into the box. Whoops! The startled male takes off and flies to the right and on up, landing at his guard station. The female lands on the roof. She turns around, comes forward, and then takes off to the left. A decisive moment is created in the course of executing the C-arc maneuver. She finishes up by flying the rest of the way into the nest box.

The female takes off to the left and will shortly execute the C-arc turn back towards the nest entrance.
The female takes off to the left and will shortly execute the C-arc turn back towards the nest entrance.

When setting up for the photographs, the camera and lens were mounted on a tripod and positioned so that a blurred background spot consisting of a clump of long dead oak leaves caught in the background shrubbery appeared near the upper left-hand corner of the nest box. I hoped the incoming female would fly near to or in front of this sweet spot, as the oak leaves were close to the color of an eastern bluebird’s breast.

The decisive moment when the female bluebird approaches the nest while the male bluebird stands guard.
The decisive moment when the female approaches the nest while the male stands guard.

I don’t expect to get the same shot again, even by using the same planning, techniques and settings. And that’s a very good thing. A contrary result would take all the interest and all of the excitement out of backyard photography. All is quiet now. The female bluebird appears to be on eggs. The male brings her food all day long. We are all waiting for the next adventure.

Bob Feldman has a passion for creating beautiful images reflective of the natural world. His images have been published by National Wildlife Federation, Audubon, and Nature Photographer magazine. For many years, Bob with his wife, Jorja, have written and photographed for the “Outside” department in the Ann Arbor Observer. Contact info: bobfeldman1@mac.com

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