Chasing Spring Warblers

Magnolia Warbler

Story and photos by Bill Palmer

Most of us are pretty adroit at photographing eagles, hawks, pelicans, ducks and other large birds, but what about photographing small, hyperactive, secretive birds such as warblers? Adding to the challenge, when you do get a chance to see one, it may only be visible for a few seconds and is often in dark shadows. From basic bird biology, to techniques, to equipment, here are some field-tested hints to photographing these challenging species.

Prothonatory Warbler
Prothonatory Warbler

Know Your Bird Biology

Warblers are among the most colorful and busy of all birds. There are 54 species (including some hybrids) found in North America. This article will focus on (no pun intended) the group known as wood-warblers, especially in the Eastern part of the United States. This information will also apply to other small, tough to photograph birds, such as sparrows and even feeder birds.

Study and learn when and where your birds will be. In the spring the warblers will be making their way north from their wintering grounds to their nesting areas. This is also the time that they are in their most beautiful plumage, and they will be singing. In fact, most of the time you will hear the bird first and then follow the sound until you see the bird. It will help if you can learn a few bird songs. Start with the birds that live in your yard. Listen for a song. Find the bird. Identify it. Repeat until you no longer have to see the bird to know who it is.

Every bird species has a specific niche where it will be found. If you know this niche, you will be on your way to getting great shots.  For example, the Yellow-rumped Warbler is one of the most common warblers. They are generalists; they can be found feeding at the tops of trees, on lower branches, and even on the ground.

Another common warbler is the Northern Paula, but don’t look for them near the ground. Listen and look for them, with their rising buzzy trill singing in the tree canopy.

Look for the Kentucky Warbler in rich, moist woodlands in dense undergrowth. They call often and can pop up at a moment’s notice.

Common Yellowthroats are always found near water. Grassy fields and marshes are great places to find them. Use a technique called “pishing” to get them to pop up and into view. To do this, purse your lips and make a hissing sound. Other birds will also respond to pishing, but yellowthroats are least critical of your technique.

Yellow Warbler
Yellow Warbler

When

Spring migration is considered the best time to see warblers. Migration begins along the gulf coast in late March and extends through May in the northern states. (They can also be found in the fall when they are headed back south, but their fall plumage is duller, and they can be more difficult to identify).

Where

Many of the migrating warblers fly over the Gulf of Mexico. This is a long flight. By the time the birds reach American shores, they are tired and looking for the first place they can find to land, rest, and feed. These are great places to find and photograph them. One of these “hot spots” is High Island in Texas. The Louisiana coast has cheniers (areas along the gulf coast with oaks) where migrating birds stop for their much-needed rest.

Magee Marsh in Northwest Ohio is another hot spot. The marsh is located along the southern shore of Lake Erie, just east of Toledo and west of Port Clinton. Birds gather here until wind and weather conditions are right to help them make the journey across Lake Erie. Magee Marsh has been called “The Warbler Capital of North America,” and it is said that more published photographs of warblers are taken here than anywhere else in the world. There is even a festival held here to celebrate the bird migration. Of course, there are other similar but less famous areas along the great lakes. One advantage of Magee Marsh is a boardwalk that has been constructed through the marsh that puts many birds at or near eye level.

Parks can also be good places to find warblers. City parks offer a green island in a sea of concrete. Some parks cater to birders and photographers by installing bubblers. Bubblers come in many forms but are often a large boulder with a hole drilled through it. A pump circulates water from a shallow, gravelly area surrounded by bird friendly plantings, to the top of the rock. Birds are attracted by the sound of water as it bubbles from the rock.

Join a local Audubon or other birding group and go on field trips. Trip leaders will know the best places to find birds and enjoy helping beginner birders learn to identify birds by sight and sound. You may not want to take all your photography gear with you, but you can always go back to the area. If you want to go it alone, there are guidebooks for most states that describe the best birding spots, what birds to expect there, and the best time of the year to visit.

Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler

The Technical Stuff

Camera

You will want to use a camera with fast focusing. In the Nikon universe, this would be the D500, D850, and the D5. The crop frame Canon to use is the 7D Mark II. For Canon full frame, try the 1DX Mark II, and the 5D Mark IV. For Sony, the full-frame Alpha 9 series is remarkable.

Lens

There is good news here; you can leave the fast 500mm and 600mm f 4.0 lenses home. The medium zoom lenses work well. Imagine a WWII battleship like the U.S.S. Missouri trying to use their 8” cannon to shoot down an incoming Japanese Kamikaze plane. That just would not work. Instead they used highly maneuverable and rapid firing anti-aircraft guns. You should do the same. With Nikon, try the 200-500mm zoom and, with Canon or Sony, try the 100-400mm zoom (both with and without a 1.4 X converter). The Sigma and Tamron 100-400mm zooms also work well, as do the 150-600mm zooms from Sigma and Tamron.

Flash

Judicious use of a flash is acceptable. Use through-the-lens, balanced fill, focal plane flash to help control the shadows and add a highlight to the eyes. A Better Beamer or MagBeam will concentrate the flash and add to the effective distance of your flash. I have NEVER, repeat NEVER, seen an adverse reaction to a flash used in such a manner. The American Birding Association’s Code of Ethics states, “Use artificial light sparingly for filming or photography, especially for close-ups.” Never use flash on night birds such as owls as their pupils are wide-open and you can damage the bird’s eyes. Remember, you are not taking a flash picture. You are using fill flash to fill in the shadows. [See also NANPA’s Principles of Ethical Field Practices.]

Support

Carrying a full-frame camera with a motor drive, large zoom lens, flash bracket and flash with a MagBeam is heavy. Try a double camera carrier with one attachment on the lens foot and one attachment on the camera. This spreads the load over both shoulders and offers a double level of protection for your equipment. Monopods can also be used. Do not use a ball-head on the monopod as everything will flop around. Use a tilting monopod head or try the new Wimberley Monogimbal.

American Redstart
American Redstart

Techniques

The most difficult part for most photographers is getting the bird in the viewfinder. Take a lesson from bird hunters. They focus on the bird when it flushes and then bring the gun up. They have done this so much that when they bring the gun up, they are instantly on target. You can do this too. Keep your eye on the bird, bring the camera up, and you will be on target. You need to practice this. When you are at home, focus your eyes on an object such as a doorknob, a picture, or a tree stump. As you look at the object, bring your camera up and look through the viewfinder. With practice, you will be on the bird most of the time. You can help by presetting your camera to the distance you expect a bird to appear. Practice, practice, practice.

Try using manual exposure and a fixed ISO. Set the flash on through-the-lens, balanced fill flash, focal plane. A good place to start is f 6.3, 1/1250, and ISO 800. Don’t use a slow shutter speed. You can get ghosting—a flash picture and a daylight picture on one frame.

Chestnut-sided Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler

Putting It All Together—It Is Just a Walk in The Park

It is a beautiful May morning at your local state park. You know this is a good place because your new friends from the local Audubon chapter took you on a field trip to this park last week and you have returned with all your gear ready to go.  The cool damp morning smells fresh, and the oak trees are just starting to leaf out. There is a walking/jogging trail through a variety of habitats, but not many people are on the trail this early.

Anticipation is high and you check the settings on your camera, put new batteries in your flash, and begin a slow walk on the trail. The first part of the tail passes through a stand of mature oak trees. As you ramble along, you hear a sound like a rusty gate swinging open and closed. You recognize this as the song of the Black-and-white Warbler. You move toward the sound. You know from your studies that this zebra-like warbler feeds on insects on branches and along the trunk. He sings again and you spot him. Looking at the bird you raise your camera and acquire focus. The bird hops on to a branch and you take a burst of three pictures, “pop, pop, pop”. Checking the monitor, you see a small branch across the bird. Ok, but not great. You move closer and the little guy hops on to the tree trunk, and you fire four shots. You got him.

Back on the trail you enter a group of smaller trees. You see what appears to be a large butterfly hovering among the branches. Wait! It is not a butterfly. It is the American Redstart, a black and orange warbler that is often called the butterfly warbler. You didn’t hear him call, but you know this feeding action is a dead give-away. You get the shot.

Finally, you approach a small lake with lots of grass. You hear a “Wichity, Wichity, Wichity” call. This warbler’s call is easy to identify. Again, from your studies you know that Common Yellowthroats are often found near water and low to the ground. You can hear him, but you can’t see him. You see some grass and leaves move, and you know you are close. You try a pish, and the bird hops up to see what is going on. You are ready and get some great shots.

It has been a good morning. You head home and load the photos on your computer.  You delete the obvious bad shots, but there are some with possibilities. You do some cropping and post processing. You end up with a wall hanging of each of the three warblers you photographed this morning.

Three species down and only 51 to go.

Bill Palmer is retired teacher and former Director of Communications for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. He and his wife live in rural Missouri where they both enjoy birding and photography.