Wednesday 27 February 2008

How to avoid being arrested for Bad Bird Photography - part 2 of the occasional bird photography series

I tried to be funny, I honestly did.
And it sure isn't my fault that the characters behind 10,000 birds landed three hard funny punches right in the faces of competing blogs (here, here and especially here, in reversed chronological order), rendering any further attempt at being funny on a bird blog pointless (although this is must have caused some sweat-soaked handkerchiefs over at 10,000 birds for sure).
But now that the damage is done, you just gotta roll with the punches and make the most of the worst, which in this case is to re-organize. If funny doesn't make sense anymore, maybe - just maybe - I should give "useful" yet another fruitful and optimistic try and just ignore your snickering. Such are the times now: desperate!

So here goes, the not funny but honest attempt at writing something useful, part 2 of the occasional series on how to avoid having your camera trashed by fellow birders:

Sticks And Stones May Break My Bones But Also Ruin My Picture

We sure all like birds and any picture of a bird is a good one - BUT.

We sure all like birds and any DECENT picture of a bird is a tad better than just any picture of a bird, although any picture of a bird is a good one.

Thus, any birder with a camera will want to take a decent picture of a bird, one that doesn't only show the bird in its pristine beauty as such but also in a setting that suits its beauty.

And here, problems start to arise.

I have addressed the eye-issue before (here, or just scroll down two posts), and today's post also has a lot to do with the temptation of focusing on a bird's eye, but I'll have to get to that a bit later.

The problem I am addressing now - at least it is a problem for me - is that wild birds are often found in equally wild places and are especially fond of vegetative structures. These however tend to hinder any attempt at getting unobscured and clear views as well as pictures of desired birds. In short: those darn sticks in front of birds often mess up the picture.

Out in the field, this is not so much of an issue: simply pay attention to the twigs before the bird and get them out of the way by slightly changing your position relative to the bird, like bending your knees a bit or stretching your neck. But frequently, the theoretical awareness I have towards this issue doesn't prevent me from taking pictures like the following ones.

You may be right in thinking this is a perfect picture of an as yet undescribed species of Umbrellabird, but it may also just be a lousy picture of an Oriole behind a dead leaf. Take your pick.

A Black-throated Blue Warbler using some foliage to mimic a moose - unsuccessfully, but nice try nevertheless.

This - in theory - is a not completely useless photo of a Blackbird (the Eurasian species of thrush, not an American Icterid). But it would have been not quite so far from being neat had I only noticed the tiny twig that's causing a slight pale blur right across its eye and gotten the bird's head a bit off the big twig right behind/above it.

This - again in theory - is a pretty darn good pic of an Eastern Wood-Pewee, except that I completely messed the photo opportunity up by not noticing the massive log across the bird's tail tip. The tiny twig on the Blackbird might be explained away or even excused, but a fiddling huge branch covering up a quarter of the picture? Groan!!

So, where the heck was my problem with these pics?
Why wasn't I paying attention?

The problem is actually very simple and I have sort of hinted towards it already: I am not a bird photographer, I am a birder with a camera!
And as such, I sometimes tend to approach the view-finder of my camera in very much the same way I approach my binoculars or scope.

That's the problem: looking through, not at!

Cleared that up?


Thought so.

Okay, I'll explain.

Think of us humans walking around and looking at the world. We clearly don't have a field of view that's 360° in all directions, instead we are limited to around 180°. However, the surroundings outside of our field of view don't appear as a black area, meaning we're not seeing a black frame around our world. Our visual perception simply stops, from full colour to nothingness, just like that.
Now, if we look at a bird through binoculars, the optical approach is very much the same:
of course the binoculars don't offer a 180° field of view and we can see a black frame around our field of view if we want to, but as soon as we concentrate and look at the bird, that frame disappears and we feel we're looking at the bird with bare eyes, only now it is much closer to us. And then the whole psychological thing about selective human visual perception kicks in. We can't help but focus our attention on the bird's face/eyes and completely blank out features of the view that are unimportant to us.
Like massive fricking sticks covering up the tail tip of a Pewee.

Now, looking through binoculars, this trick psychology is playing on us isn't a cause for serious concern. However, the same effect ruins your shot when you are looking through a camera at the bird.


Problem recognized is problem solved, as we say in German:

The solution is to not look through the view-finder at a bird but to look at the picture you see in the view-finder, including its frame. It is very much like looking at a framed picture in a gallery. Surely, there are a lot of nice things to capture our attention in Botticelli's Venus, but we'd still notice the trees in the background, the horizon, and how it all comes together to form a perfect picture. Because we'd be looking at the whole picture - well, most of us would, I guess.
To avoid that "sticky" problem, it is therefore essential to look at the picture framed by the view-finder as a whole: check the frame and how it corresponds to the position of the bird. Straighten the horizon according to the uppermost side of the view-finder frame. Check each and every corner of the picture for sticks, foliage etc., and when you have thus composed your image setting, switch from looking at to looking through (at the bird), wait for the bird's eye to sparkle or some interesting pose and - take your pic!

VoilĂ .

Well, this may be a strange post for some and it is a difficult thing to convey, but realizing the difference between approaching a camera and a telescope was a huge leap forward for my bird photography.

Here are a few more stick-related and commented pictures for your valued entertainment.

This is a happy Crane Creek Woodcock, the living landmine of the forest, and a tough bird to photograph amongst all the fallen twigs and leaves on the ground. Apart from the fact that any picture of a Woodcock is a good picture, there was not much one was able to do, especially with it moving around constantly.

... Until it finally stopped its feeding action to give its beak a rest. But - nasty, nasty - we can clearly see another factor messing around with our attempt at the perfect picture: light and shadow. A bird in the shade is pretty bad, a bird in the shade with sticks in front of it is even worse, but a bird in the shade with sticks in the sun in front of it is downright diabolic!

It was a tough choice during a mayhem migration day at Crane Creek: stick around the woodcock and wait for the sun to move or just leave without a good pic and go for the warblers. Darn, sometimes I am a bit more on the photography side of things and less on the birding side, although it takes a very special bird to pull me over. Like, sigh, a woodcock, as can be seen. If I remember right, I did miss out on a Prothonotary that day, but I won't blame the timberdoodle.

This stick was unavoidable without moving quite a bit and thus risking to flush the bird, but at least I positioned it in a way that would cause the least distraction: in the shadow part of the breast away from head and legs. Even though the stick is still a major bugger, the picture looks okay.

In terms of stickology, I am almost proud of this shot of a Common Grackle gathering wood to burn me at the stake if I don't move away from its breeding site.
Come on, give me some credit, this was a hard shot to get!

This image is meant to show that sticks - or in this case leaves - can sometimes even be incorporated as a nice frame to highlight the bird. Unless of course the bird decides to remain in the shade while the leaves won't.

But sometimes, you just gotta let the bird go...


Friday 22 February 2008


This is not a post about mixed bird flocks. This is a post about the natural supplement to the Rorschach inkblot test, the birds around us and the psychological associations they evoke. This is how it works:

Below are a few bird pictures.

Look at them.

Note the object they remind you of.

Then check if your association matches the standard one provided as a link in the caption below each image.

If it does, you get 1 point.

If it doesn't, you get 0 points.

Cormorant (Baltic Coast, September) Standard Association

Green Heron (Michigan - August) Standard Association

Kentucky Warbler (St. Louis, July - THANKS Charlie for the brightness) Standard Association

Yellowhammer (Germany, August) Standard Association

Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Michigan, August) Standard Association

Black-And-White Warbler (Ohio, May) Standard Association

Northern Parula (Ohio, May) Standard Association

Little Blue Heron (St. Louis, July) Standard Association

Great Blue Heron (Michigan, July) Standard Association

Ovenbird (Ohio, May) Standard Association

Your Results

8 to 10 points
Good news: you may go on birding the way you currently do. No negative psychological impact detectable, you're still a perfectly normal member of society.

5 to 7 points
Well, you're still doing okay under standard conditions but you may want to monitor your surrounding's reactions towards you more closely. If your presence is being met with an increasing amount of raised eyebrows, you might want to consider cutting back on your birding somewhat. Ever tried embroidery?

0 to 4 points
You're a hopeless case of birding overdose and have isolated yourself from the world around you. Sorry, there's nothing anyone can do about that, so you might as well ... well ... go birding then!

Wednesday 20 February 2008

How To Be A Quite Good Bird Photographer: Part 1

One of the side effects of participating in the Nature Blog Network is that one is tempted to get more competitive about blogging.
My blog's current ranking is a low down 71 but if we only look at the blogs that matter - those about birds - I'm on 30th place with 26.6 average readers.
Just for the record: I don't think my readers are average, but if Nature Blog Network tells me so, there's not much I can do.
The leading bird blog is 10,000 birds (no surprise there, really) with 881.2 readers.

All I need to do to take the lead therefore is recruit 855 more readers a day and tell those 0.6 readers to either grow up or at least take a few buddies along.

That doesn't sound impossible at all - I thought - if only I had a small idea that was so great and unique or even - gasp - useful that it would draw said extra readers to my blog.
And then it occured to me:

I am going to do an occasional series on bird photography!

I think this is a great idea and I am so incredibly surprised that I am apparently the first one ever to come up with such a concept, seriously!
Well, some may say they've seen this before somewhere in the bloggosphere and that they know a certain someone who's done part 1 and 2 of a similarly named series, but I tell you this is nothing more than pure coincidence and who'd you rather believe: a loving father or someone who occasionally even associates with people who are unkind to kittens?

Anyhow, here is my little post on bird photography:

Capturing The Black Birds' Black Eye

One of the most important features that may turn a booming bird pic into a big bust is the bird's eye. It is actually so central to the picture's quality that it should be the prime target area for your auto focus, but even if the eye is crisp and sharp, it may still ruin your shot!


Why? Very simple: most bird's eyes are either black or appear black at a distance. Some birders might surely be fond of Venice's Carnival and take an eye that's a lifeless black hole as art, but most will surely want the birds on their pictures to burst with life, and this is mostly achieved by a simple yet vital effect of sunlight being reflected off the bird's eye!
The importance of this tiny effect is best shown by the following series of pictures. The series further shows that it is this particular effect that makes the photography of black birds such a challenge as a missing sparkle will not only make the eye seem lifeless, it will make the eye (seemingly) disappear altogether!

This is how we like to see our little darling Red-winged
"the voice"
Blackbird on a photo: jet-black plumage, red
wing coverts all fluffed
up and a sparkling eye reflecting
the sun.

Just a little twist of the head however would turn this into
a nasty
twist of fate if it were our only picture of the bird:
all it takes is a little shadow on the eye
and a featureless
black form is all that remains of the bird. A big nothing,
no picture but just a mass of I's and O's to give our delete
button something to do.

But this post would still be pointless if all I wrote about was a bit of light on the eyeball of a bird. Nope, that's not all, there's something else:

The bird's nictitating membrane.
Even if wikipedia might tell you otherwise, the nictitating membrane is a special device birds use exclusively to make life hard on us photographing birders by turning their lovely vivid eyes not only seemingly dead as the missing light reflection does.

The nic'mem's pale veiling effect is that of the living dead!

The maliciously sneaky part of this device is its speedy application: we don't notice the nic'mem's closing during our photographing the bird and it is only back at home that we find all our presumed excellent pictures worthless. Had we only noticed out in the field, we could have taken a few extra pictures to overcome the bird's wits, but the bird eye's speed was beyond us and yet again, we lose.

This problem used to be frustrating during the times of analog photography when each picture meant money, but with the onset of the digital age, there's a simple way to avoid it:

Wait for the eye to sparkle and then fire away merrily!

Problem solved.

So unless you want to supply evidence of the continued survival of Terror Birds to Cryptomundo, a few extra shots and a double-check on your pic that the bird's nic'mem' is drawn back might be of help. The next picture shows the very same blackbird, with a deathly beamless zombie's eye courtesy of its nic'mem':

Darkness falls across the land
The midnight hour is close at hand
Blackbirds soar in search of blood
To terrorize your neighbourhood

And whosoever shall be found
Without the soul for getting down
Must stand and face the birds of hell
And rot inside a corpse's shell


Monday 18 February 2008

State of the Blog

With the frequency of new posts having dropped to roughly one each month, I have now realized it was time for a few reflections regarding the State of the Blog.

So, here goes,

Ladies and Gentlemen,
the State of the Blog, as for now, is difficult to assess. Until September 2007, it was easily defined as "Michigan", but with the general management shifting its headquarters over the Atlantic, it has gotten impossible as Germany does not have "states" in a stricter sense but calls its smaller geographical entities "Bundesländer". Therefore, it is with great pleasure that I announce that the Bundesland of the Blog is Mecklenburg- Western Pomerania.

Oh, groan and moan, that was shallow.

Yes, I know...

But then again, witty blogging has always been scarce here and in between diaper duty, helping with houshold things and trying to keep my back clear of my bosses' whip, humour is difficult to muster, time for birding / bird-blogging even more so.

However, a very good friend of mine once said that if I was to go down eventually, it shall be with a bang, not a whimper, and the same philosophy applies to my blogging.
That's good news as I don't like loud noise [Iron Maiden is not even remotely connected to noise, just to make that point very clear], so the blog's bound to be continued, and I have a few blog posts in the back of my mind that I plan to finish in the next few days.

Getting back to those reflections I mentioned in my introduction, the question arises if this really is good news, though...

Heck, this is still a bird blog, and even if I didn't manage a decent bird post this time, uploading a bird image is the Least I can do...