Working for Warblers
April 13, 2018 ~ All birders and bird photographers look forward to Spring Migration when flocks of tired and hungry warblers land on our coasts. Many leave the Yucatan at dusk and fly the 600 miles straight across the Gulf of Mexico to arrive 11-14 hours later. If they have a good southerly wind, they let it carry them on inland. But, if they meet a strong northerly wind they fall exhausted from the sky (fallout) at the first green place they can find. This year we had several days of cold north wind combined with drizzle so birding (for us) has been fantastic. It has been pretty hard on the little guys, though.
We went to Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary on Saturday, April 7 but the big fallout was on Sunday. On Monday we went back and then checked out Dos Vacas Muertas and wound up the day at Lafitte's Cove.
I was tired, y'all.
That Saturday at Quintana was cold, wet and windy. While not a warbler, this Great Crested Flycatcher teased us by landing in the open, but on swaying cedar branches. They breed in this area but inhabit the high treetops, which is why I think this is my first one to photograph. We saw glimpses of American Redstarts, some Hooded Warblers and flashes of a few others but nothing worth posting. Even after hard work on the little birds, there was not much to show for it. We had more luck at the Quintana boat ramp with a Snowy and Greater Yellowlegs and then found a Long Billed Curlew at Surfside.
But we were determined to do the little bitty flitty bird thing, so back out early on Monday.
First stop was Quintana after reports it had a stellar day on Sunday. You will see a lot of closely cropped photos of the little migrating birds, but you should know that most of the ones you actually see are far away like this male Summer Tanager or buried in the leaves and brush.
All the migrant traps have water drips and some years that is the place to be. This year has had plenty of rain so water is not the big draw. The cold, wet weather has made insects hard to find but the seed and fruit eaters were doing well. They were almost all in the bushes or sometimes on the ground.
The oranges at Quintana were popular with the Baltimore Orioles, Summer Tanagers and ... Grackles. Is there anything a grackle won't eat? Monday was overcast and it gets pretty dark under those trees. But, photographing such a high-contrast bird as the Baltimore Oriole is easier in the soft light. It is harder to get such feather detail when the light is harsh. Go ahead, click to embiggen.
You can see I was shooting a slow shutter speed, nearly wide open and high ISO. And this was in a relatively open area beside a trail.
Not all of the Spring warblers are bright and showy. I just love the Red-eyed Vireo's subtle coloring.
Note: I am no expert on these little warbler guys as most of them are just passing through. I research and if you think I have misidentified a bird, please let me know in the comments! And thanks to Mike Argo who helped me out on the Red-eyed Vireo above (Not a Tennessee Warbler after all!) You should check out his Flickr stream; not only does he know his birds, he is an excellent landscape photographer.
I found a place along the path and set up my tripod and just waited. This little Northern Parula was traveling in the brush across from me and I got 13 shots obstructed and this one that is partially in the clear. They are so tiny and this one may be an immature male as it lacks the chestnut mark on its chest. Or maybe a female? The insect eaters were really working hard, rapidly flitting through the foliage. I saw a Black-and-White Warbler circling the limbs of the hardwood I was standing under. He was about three feet away and oblivious of anything except finding food.
Around one o'clock we left Quintana as it was getting more and more crowded with binocular birders. It is a very small place and you just end up being in someone's way.
On the backside of Surfside along the Intracoastal Canal is a small patch of scrubby brush. We once saw a Kingfisher there, so it is known to us as Kingfisher Corner. Sometimes there are fishermen there but today we could see movement and flashes of color in the brush. The Baltimore Orioles and Indigo Buntings left, but some of the small yellow guys stayed. This one was feasting on the seeds of this weed and might be a Pine Warbler. At least he was a bit bigger than the Hoodies and other warblers. We set up our tripods and were happy to have a bit more light and room.
And then the Coast Guard boat pulled up and wanted to know first if we worked for Dow Chemical, then since we didn't why were we aiming those giant telephotos at the refinery?
Birds, just birds we hollered. BIRDS! Evidently we passed the Terrorist Test and they left.
Those tiny seeds were so attractive a Tennessee Warbler took over when the Maybe-a-Pine-Warbler left. We got a lot more tiny yellow birds, probably more Hoodies and perhaps a Prothonotary. It is like a danged treasure hunt to find one, then follow it and try to click a shot as they come out in the open. Look what AllaboutBirds.com says about this one:
The Tennessee Warbler breeds no closer to the state of Tennessee than northern Michigan, more than 600 miles away, and it winters some 1,400 miles away in southern Mexico and southward. It was given its name in 1811 by Alexander Wilson who first encountered the bird in Tennessee during its migration.
I am totally impressed.
By then we decided this would be a warbler only day since they will move on soon. We headed up the coast to Dos Vacas Muertas where we found some exhausted male Summer Tanagers on the ground. I hated to bother them, they were moving so slow and maybe just arrived from the Gulf. We did find this Least Flycatcher by the gravel entrance road. He was preening and didn't seem to mind us a bit. Now, this guy might be an Acadian Flycatcher as they look very similar. Or just alike. Or it could be an Eastern Wood-PeeWee but I don't think so as he looks so round.
Lafitte's was also crowded along the pathways with everyone including the birds ignoring the drip. Out in the open areas we found a pair of Indigo Buntings in some tall grass. The female is often overlooked, but she is just as attractive with a hint of blue on her wings and back.
The pair was quite far and as we chatted with other photographers we tried to collectively thought-control them into moving closer to a particular clump of grass that would have been a prize winner for sure. Still, the 500mm f/4 plus 1.4x teleconverter gave me 700mm and this is not too bad of a crop. You always want more reach with the tiny flitty birds. Bill Maroldo was using a 1.7x teleconverter on his 600mm f/4 and I am sure thinking about adding that to my equipment.
And more light. This White-eyed Vireo just barely peeked out of the foliage and I doubt I would have been able to identify him except for that white iris. Note how big his pupil is! At this point I had upped the ISOs considerably.
And looking at the results, I should have raised it earlier when under the trees. The Nikon D810 handles the higher ISOs beautifully. I did apply some noise reduction in ACR while processing but not much. I would encourage you to try ISOs out of your comfort range if you are a Nikon shooter. You Canon folks, well.. your mileage may vary.
In fact, one of the last shots of the day was this Hooded Warbler at the back entrance to Lafitte's at the cul-de-sac using ISO 5000. The Hoodies were at every place we went on Monday and I read they were in yards all over Galveston.
This may be it for us and the bitty birds this year, unless we get another cloudy day. They are fun and challenging, but it is hard work carrying the camera gear and tripod while chasing these little birds. And I really want that long focal length when I do find one.
But... I haven't even seen a Painted Bunting this year! And the Redstarts are so pretty. And the Chestnut-sided Warblers haven't shown up yet! And OMG, Blackburnian Warblers!
Have you been out looking for the little guys yet? Do you have them in your YARD? Isn't this just the best time to be a bird photographer? And do you think that was a Pine Warbler or something else? Let me know in the comments below.