For a brief period each spring, colorful songbirds gather. Some are migrating — en route northward — while others are busy staking out nesting territories. The males, of course, are singing and flashing their vibrant breeding plumages, showing off to the females and warning other males to stay away.
And it’s all happening now.
At the same time, many species of trees and shrubs are in bloom, including plum, June berry, lilac and crab apples. This provides an opportunity to visually combine showy blossoms and vivid birds, a delight for birders, and a chance for a photographer to capture, perhaps, the ultimate image.
At least in my mind.
Each spring I have such visions: An orange-and-black Baltimore oriole perched among the pink or white blossoms of a backyard crab apple tree; a male indigo bunting singing from among the white flowers of a service berry bush, chanting loudly that he can out-blue even a bluebird; a male rose-breasted grosbeak sitting contently in a crab-apple tree adorned with pink blossoms.
Capturing such images is not easy. It requires some forethought, along with a bit of luck, and plenty of patience. I prefer images taken during the first three hours after sunrise, in full sun, or slightly hazy sunshine. Other photographers may disagree. On rare occasions, under medium overcast, the light illuminates birds “just right” and their colors seem to glow. Those days are few.
By far the best chance to attain my optimal feathered visions occurs on cool, calm, sunny mornings following the passing of a cold front. When nighttime temperatures fall — usually with a north wind — come sunrise, insects are often low to the ground where the air warms first. Sometimes, if a person is lucky, he or she can witness the lower branches of trees “dripping” with birds when they gather to hunt the insects. A day, or even hours, later the birds might be gone.
Trees and shrubs don’t stay in bloom forever, and sometimes the entire blossoming event is over before I have a chance to take advantage of the combination of an influx of birds, a good weather day, and plants in full bloom.
Wind is a bird photographer’s nemesis. When stirred by spring breezes, wispy branches whip back and forth, making a sharp photo impossible. Birds are usually less active and more skittish on windy days.
I up the odds of birds landing in the flowering trees by placing bird feeders nearby. A blind is then situated to take advantage of the morning light. I leave the blind out for few days so the birds become accustomed to it.
When all the right conditions come together, from the confines of my blind, I sometimes observe a yard full of colorful birds; rose-breasted grosbeaks, orioles, house finches, goldfinches, ruby-throated hummingbirds. Cowbirds, grackles and various species of sparrows gathered, too. Less attractive, yes, but fun to watch none the less. The males of the species bellow out their courtship calls, and scold when competing males approach.
It’s amazing, even under ideal conditions, how few “perfect” photo opportunities present themselves — a tree branch sways, an errant shadow covers a portion of a bird. Oh, and just like people, birds blink at the most inopportune time.
The colorful blooms will be gone soon, and so will many of the migrating birds. Hopefully, I’ll have a few mementos stored in my mind, if not images on a hard drive.
BILL MARCHEL is a wildlife and outdoors photographer and writer whose work appears in many regional and national publications as well as the Brainerd Dispatch. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.