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Sunday, August 19, 2012

Spanish Bird of the Week #12: Grey Wagtail

By James

Robert and I had been chasing down the Bachman’s Sparrow all afternoon. Robert heard the elusive bird deep in the shrubby forests of the Carolina Sandhills, and I decided to go in after it. I got a few distant looks as the bird flitted about on downed pine trees, but my efforts had yielded me nothing but dark, blurry, grainy shots. I was about ready to admit defeat. The Red-cockaded Woodpeckers we looked for earlier were nowhere to be found, and the Bachman’s Sparrow was proving to be quite camera shy.

Despondent, I worked my way back to the sandy road, when Robert announced that the bird seemed to be moving closer. Seconds later the subtle sparrow flew in to within a matter of feet from me, though he was backlit and obscured by pine needles. I shifted over a few feet, slowly of course to make sure not to spook the small bird. All of the sudden I had an open shot, and I got what is undoubtedly one of my favorite of the 416 bird pictures I’ve taken over my birding career. The sun lit up the pine needles, framing the Bachman’s Sparrow that decided this small branch was the perfect spot to burst into song.

A shot like this needs no caption. Except for that one... damn.

After reviewing my pictures that day, and seeing that I got the shot, elation and relief washed over me. Moments like these are why I still love bird photography. It’s undoubtedly a frustrating and challenging hobby. To get a really great picture, you need so many things to go your way, and unfortunately most of these things are out of your control. First off, you need perfect weather. Some people like an overcast day for photography, but I prefer a cloudless sky. Only perfect sunlight really makes a bird’s color truly pop.

What if he had been in the shade? Simply not as good.

Secondly, you need the bird to cooperate. I have seen Blue Jays countless times, but it’s a bird that simply refuses to show itself well when my camera is involved. In addition, you need your camera to cooperate. I realize that it is probably a combination of the steadiness of my hands and the amount of dust on the lens, but I swear that sometimes my camera has good days and sometimes it has bad days.

One of these days we'll find a Blue Jay that's not a total coward...

Lastly, you, the photographer, need to be on your game. If you plan on getting a good picture of a Canada Warbler you need to be able to move and aim your camera just as quickly as those small Parulids can flit about. Some days everything comes together, and you get a picture like the one Robert and I got last summer when an Indigo Bunting sat up singing just a couple feet away from us.

Pretty much the best look I've gotten of any bird. Ever.

Unfortunately, the Grey Wagtail does not have such a glorious conclusion. A quick run through my checklist for perfect bird photography reveals the culprit. Weather? Sunny, not a cloud in the sky. Cooperative bird? Yep. As I walked down the river to my favorite birding haunt, I saw a bird wandering around next to the cement bank of the Guadalquivir River. I assumed it was a House Sparrow when I spotted it in my peripherals. However, as soon as I actually got clean look, from not more than fifteen feet off, I quickly realized the bird's true identity. 

So was it my own photography skills? The Crested Lark and Booted Eagle shot from the day seem to suggest that I had steady hands (da best!), and I had the bird well exposed and in the center of the frame. Which means the camera’s processor had ONE JOB TO DO.

And it failed miserably...

Unfortunately the camera elected to focus on the water behind the bird. Before I got a second opportunity, the wagtail flew off. Luckily, I managed to chase it down and get a somewhat decent shot, but it decided it no longer wanted to be photographed and flew off before I got to within fifty feet. I elected to delete the missed picture (simply too painful to keep) and not toss my camera deep into the Guadalquivir River (why can’t a $400 camera have 35x zoom and produce DSLR quality pics? Jeez.) Of course, if it was always that easy, it wouldn’t be any fun. C’est la bird photography.


  1. Hi James – Will you please post a link to your Blog at The Birding Community ay Our members will love it.
    It's easy just cut and paste the link and it automatically links back to your website… it’s a win win. You can also add Photos and Videos and join Birding discussions if you like.
    Email me if you need any help or would like me to do it for you.
    The Birding Community:
    James Kaufman, Editor

  2. You got that right. Bird photography is a gut wrenching experience sometimes. No one to blame but ourselves! By the way, I think your photos are fab. Hey, if it's blurry and it's lifer, so be it!