Spring Migration: A Richness of Diversity

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe

Story and photography by Bob & Jorja Feldman

Starting in early spring and sometimes even before—snow is often still on the ground here in Ann Arbor, Michigan—something quite extraordinary happens. Migration. Species that we haven’t seen for a long time and sometimes species that we have never seen at all magically show up in the woods and waters around us, offering new photographic opportunities.

We do not live in a bird-rich venue such as south Texas or Florida, nor do we have the luxury of photographing a migration up-close from a blind. Our pursuit requires substantial time, energy, devotion and a lot of scrambling around carrying heavy equipment—typically a lens in the 500mm to 800mm range along with a camera body, an extender or teleconverter, a tripod and a gimbal head.

If we go to a favorite spot early in the morning and nothing is there, we may return in the evening. Even if the sun is in the wrong place for our purposes, we go just to see if there are birds. And we will certainly return the next day, checking out known and new locations, much as a hummingbird works its way from one neighborhood feeder to the next.

Hooded merganser

Hooded merganser

The first arrivals on the local river can be the most exciting for us. While some of the birds are truly summer residents, most of those we are after during a migratory wave stay briefly and then they are gone. Some days there are dozens. Many days there are less than a dozen. Other days there are none at all within shooting range. Maybe tomorrow there will be birds. Maybe an hour earlier at this spot would be better. Maybe if we come back in the late afternoon they will have moved into range, and we can still find a sun angle that works.

The first migratory wave that we photograph consists mostly of diving ducks. In terms of species, the major participants often include common goldeneye ducks, ring-necked ducks, buffleheads, common loons and all three species of mergansers (hooded, common and red-breasted). Our favorites have included the wild-looking horned grebe and hooded mergansers—especially the males whose braggadocio, often exhibited while swimming among much bigger ducks, exceeds their size.

Pine warbler

Pine warbler

In order to photograph the second wave of warblers and their friends, we have gone to neighboring Ohio, where we have utilized the services of tour guide Mathew Studebaker. It is not that warblers are not present closer to home, it is just that we have yet to find a satisfactory photographic venue for them. Our Ohio trip was rich with pine warblers, worm-eating warblers, American redstarts, common yellowthroats, northern parulas, scarlet tanagers and white-eyed vireos.

Rose-breasted grosbeak

Rose-breasted grosbeak

The last wave—more or less coincident in time with the second wave—consists of a few special perching birds that come into our backyard. Here, we have hosted indigo buntings, Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks. These are welcomed additions to our normal run of common backyard birds.

We were delighted last year when two pairs of grosbeaks stayed on and raised families in the woods behind our backyard. The adults, both male and female, came regularly to our feeders.

If we characterized what we have photographed locally of migrating birds it would be a great richness of diversity. Our experiences suggest that if you want to go beyond an armchair adventure, but not too far beyond, take a look at what may be passing through your neighborhood in spring.


Bob & Jorja Feldman are photographers with a passion for creating beautiful images reflective of the natural world. They are frequent contributors of articles and images to Nature Photography Magazine. Their images have also been published by National Wildlife and Audubon. They are photographers for the Ann Arbor Observer and author its Outside Department. Contact info: bobfeldman1@mac.com. The images that accompany this article are a sampling of the results of photographing migratory birds in local geographies.