- Introduction

- Helen Hoffman


Birding Photography

by Senior Staff Photographer - Bill Horn

Wood Warblers: The Ultimate Challenge in Bird Photography.

Every sport or hobby has one - the ultimate challenge.  All baseball players want to win the World Series at least once during their career, and long distance runners recognize finishing a marathon as the ultimate challenge of their hobby. For most bird photographers that I know, photographing wood warblers represents the epitome of our chosen avocation.  I could not agree more. Getting these diminutive, fast moving targets to hold still long enough for images will test the mettle of the best bird photographers.  

I got hooked immediately after spending an hour attempting to photograph a Yellow Warbler several years ago in my own back yard.  He was busily eating worms on one of my willow trees and rarely presented me with a clear shot. Since then, I have chased warblers every year during both spring and fall migration. 

Most Wood Warblers belong to a group known as "neotropical migrants," meaning the birds live, breed, and nest in North America during spring and summer and migrate to and live in Mexico-Central America-South America and the CaribbeanIslandsduring the fall and winter.  Ornithologists and birders alike commonly refer to neotropical migrants as "dicky birds."
Despite the fact that many warblers are relatively common and often strikingly beautiful, many people are unaware that they exist. It is not uncommon for me to point out a stunning example such as a Prothonotary Warbler (see inset) to a workshop student only to hear the response, "I never knew we had birds around here that look like that."  I believe the main reasons for this lack of awareness are: warblers are small, usually smaller than a House Sparrow, and, unless a person looks closely it is easy to dismiss them as just a little bird. They live in most habitat types, from prairie to forest. Some of the most productive sites to photograph them in are wooded riparian areas. These border creeks, streams, and rivers and often host numerous species.  A few species such as the Golden-cheeked Warbler require a specific type of habitat. Golden-cheeked Warblers are now on the endangered species list due to competition for habitat with humans.  Many tall juniper and oak woodlands, the GC Warbler's only choice of nesting sites, have been cleared to build houses, roads, and shopping malls. Some habitat was cleared to grow crops or grass for livestock. Other habitat areas were flooded when large lakes were built. 

I spent 3 days during the spring of 1999 in the Texas Hill Country, the only remaining area where GC Warblers nest. Ornithologists estimate that fewer than 25,000 pairs remain in existence, and my goal was to capture images of the endangered birds. I did not succeed during that trip, but I went back the next year and managed to get one decent image.  On my last day there just as sunset neared, I spotted a female in a tree about 15' up.  I was using ISO 400 film, and as the light faded quickly, I moved in slowly and fired away. My best images from that series is far from perfect, but I was happy get it just the same.  One way to attract warblers, especially in the spring is to play a Screech Owl tape (Eastern or Western species depending on where in the USA you live).  Of course attracting them does not guarantee you'll get good images. The tape may agitate the birds causing them to appear only for a brief second or two and then fly off. 

My favorite time and place to photograph warblers is early spring in south Texas. After they arrive from their tropical winter homes, they are tired and hungry. Normally, they will spend several days resting and fattening up on insects before continuing their journey to northern breeding grounds. At this time, most species are exhibiting their gorgeous breeding plumage, and getting one in your viewfinder is guaranteed to make your heart flutter. 

Photographing warblers is indeed the ultimate bird photography challenge, and it is not easy. They are rarely still nor offer a clean background. They are nearly always preoccupied with consuming insects and other food but are not afraid of humans. If you approach them slowly with no jerky motions, you can often get to within minimum focus distance (MFD) of your telephoto lens and fill the frame with the subject. Your ability to track small, fast-moving birds in the viewfinder will usually determine whether you experience the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. If you enjoy photographing birds, give wood warblers a try - I think you will like it!

I'll see you in the field!

All images taken with Canon EOS IV, 600 F4 lens w/1.4X teleconverter, 550 EX flash
mounted on a Gitzo 1548 carbon fiber tripod topped with an Arca Swiss B1 ball head

About the images:

Palm Warbler (top): 1/160 @ F8 with flash

Prothonotary Warbler (middle): 1/80 @ F8 with flash

Yellow-throated Warbler ( bottom): 1/125 @ F11 with flash

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