The birds continue to show up throughout the daylight hours and regularly surprise me as they dart about the yard to appear in a variety of places. All of this is noticeable from my usual short dashes in and out of the house during this time of year, or even just by watching from inside.
Sometimes, while glancing through the bedroom window, I will spy a bright red northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) huddling on the ground. More often than not, the brilliant male will have his lovely, low-key mate alongside if I look closer. It's an amazing moment that I have learned to cherish rather than attempt to capture because by the time I run outside with the camera, the moment is gone!
Out of all of my winter birds, the cardinals are the most shy and the most unlikely to repeat a performance for me. It's a treasure to behold a cardinal at close range and a challenge to get a nice photo of one. That is why I borrowed this image from a generous photographer, Ken Thomas, who shares his own nature photos on his website. As for me, I am not giving up! My cardinal image will happen sooner or later. In the meantime, I am happy just to have cardinals visit in the back yard.
Bird watching with a camera involves a plan, and that plan includes spending plenty of time outdoors in the blustery weather. So in reality, I have developed two levels of bird watching:
Casual bird watching, which is spur-of-the-moment appreciation defined by noticing birds from a window or admiring them during a quick walk outdoors.
Deliberate bird watching, which begins with baiting the birds by scattering nutritious food in photographically strategic places and then spending several hours outdoors (while wearing several layers of protective clothing) near the baited places.
Of course, I can take bird photos through my de-screened window glass, but balancing my camera and lens combo while shooting through the windowpane glass is not quite the same thing and is not nearly as adventurous.
Although there seems to be no end to the variety of birds in my yard this time of year, it improves my odds of capturing them in a digital image if I place treats for them in calculated places about the property.
Last winter, I began by throwing out some stale popped corn onto the ground just outside my window. Sure enough, little white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) showed up with lots of friends to enjoy the popcorn.
Then it snowed overnight and covered the popcorn. Wouldn't you know it? The sparrows knew where the popcorn was—under eight inches of snow! Watching them from inside the bedroom window, I had to laugh at their antics as they danced about with their little legs in brave attempts to brush the snow away.
Sometimes they would dive into the snow and emerge with the prize in their little beaks. At other times, they would fight over the morsels. At all times, and in all seasons, they are adorable. I just love the stripe that nature has painted on the crowns of their heads, and I never tire of photographing the charming little white-throated sparrows.
That adventure taught me that birds are smarter than what we think. They remember the exact spot where the food is whether it is under the snow or not.
The dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis) is a type of sparrow that appears in great numbers in my yard each winter. These little penguin-colored birds love to feed from the ground as they search for seeds and insects, although in the deep of winter, it is primarily seeds that they find. It was during last winter that I first noticed the juncos eating marigold seeds from dried marigolds left in the flower garden.
This knowledge now keeps me from throwing out my marigolds at the end of autumn. I keep the dried flowers standing intact until I can stand it no longer (like in January), and then I gather the dead plants to place in a big pile in the back of the yard where the juncos and other seed-eating birds can still forage.
The sites that offer pointers for photographing birds recommend constructing a bird blind of some sort in the back yard in order to maximize your camera angle and composition of your shot. As a relative newcomer to backyard birding, I have not taken that step as of yet. My method simply involves baiting the birds with food on the ground and then standing very still from several yards or crouching in between the cedars with my camera pointed at them.
In addition, I do not have a true birding lens that allows for extreme close-ups of birds, but that is on my Christmas list for the upcoming year. So to compensate, I try to capture a clear image and then crop a bit.
The cedars are great places from which to focus on birds because if there are no birds to be seen on the ground, they are sure to be bouncing among the branches. It is from atop the cedar trees where the northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) like to stand guard over the entire yard. Sometimes they perch mid-tree and are quite brave as I draw near with my camera to my eye. They will allow me to get close if I step very gingerly. However, a 2009 study by eight biologists demonstrated that a mockingbird has the ability to remember an individual very quickly if that person has ever threatened its nest. The mockingbird will target that person for attack. Therefore, as much as I adore my mockingbirds, this very thought tempers my boldness in approaching too closely.
I always hope that the bird will understand that I mean it no harm. Sometimes I speak softly to the birds in the hopes that they will catch my appreciation for them, all the while silently realizing that my camera lens DOES resemble a firearm and that I AM shooting. It's just a camera, little fellas, I silently whisper. That's all.
Back indoors, the fun continues as I load the day's pictures into the computer to assess my captures. As usual, there are the immediate duds: blurry shots, underexposed/overexposed shots, and uninteresting shots. These images teach me what to do better the next time. Only the best remain on the hard drive after the painful but necessary photo culling process.
Indoors is also the place where the "bird bread" accumulates in a large can on the floor next to the wastebasket. This is where the day's scraps of food go for feeding the birds. The can contains a range of morsels from vegetables to whole-grain bread crusts. Popcorn? Sometimes it ends up in the bird bread can, but I do not recommend feeding birds popcorn if it is heavily seasoned or coated with flavorings; however, plain popped popcorn is better than giving them potato chips or junk snacks.
Here are some ideas for feeding birds all sorts of other things that are made with healthy ingredients that are probably already in your pantry:
Feeding Birds by Wildbirds.com
Wild Birds: To Feed or Not to Feed by Natureskills.com
And here are some ideas for taking your winter bird photography to the next level:
Back Yard Bird Photography Set-Up Tips by Joel Eade
Turning Your Yard Into a Studio by Digitalbirdphotography.com
Finally, here is the Flickr link to the five original photos shown here so that you may see them at a larger resolution:
Here's hoping that I have inspired you to take a walk around the yard to see what birds you may discover on a wintry day. Bundle up, grab the camera, and get ready for an adventure!