Choosing the 'right' bird to work with and to photograph
For the purposes of this discussion I am referring to Eastern Warblers. That is my niche where I have the most experience. I am also referring to warblers on breeding grounds, either where they will themselves breed, or where others of their species will breed. Over the last ten years this ‘choosing the right bird’ has been refined and no doubt will continue to be refined as my experience continues to grow with warblers.
First I think it is good to start with some of my “do nots.” By logic when I refer to “choosing the right bird” I am inferring one could also choose the “wrong” bird. When shooting warblers on breeding grounds one of MY rules is to choose a location whenever possible where the species is numerous. This will not only lessen the birding or photography pressure on the target species, but will also allow one to sift through various birds of the same species to choose a more ideal candidate for photography. In the spring I know what species I am expecting in any given habitat, and I very particularily choose locations, when I am targeting a certain species.
Here in Georgia I know where I can find Cerulean Warblers, but since this species is so uncommon in Georgia I do not endeavor to photograph this species here. Instead I go to Tennessee which isn’t that much further away and I can have a large population there. I know where there is a reliable population of Georgia Canada warblers, but this location is well known by the Georgia birding community, so that population gets a lot of birding pressure. For that reason, a few years back I made a decision to not work with Canada warblers at that Georgia location. However I still may visit that location for Black-throated Blue warblers, which are much more numerous. Instead I can go less than an hour further away to another nearby state where there is very high population of Canada Warblers, which experience much less birding/photographer pressure. I can find abundant Black-throated Blue warblers there as well.
There are some Golden-winged Warbler populations in the Southern Appalachians, but these populations are under a lot of pressure, not only due to the species being pushed north by the range-expanding Blue-winged Warblers, but also by birders, photographers, and researchers. In fact there are Golden-winged populations in this area where it is challenging to find a bird that is not banded. I have learned that studied populations also behave differently than more “naive” populations. Those “naive” populations, particularily Golden-winged Warblers, are much easier to work with. Having worked with so many warbler species, and individuals in those species, has given me a much better feel of better and worse birds to work with. A “naive” population combined with a skillset of knowing how to keep an individual curious and confident, rather than riled up and angry, not only is better for the bird but is much better for the photographer as well. It is really hard to get a great composition, and great singing shots unless one has a curious and confident subject. You can waste a lot of valuable time working with the “wrong” bird or by your technique which turns the “right” bird into a “wrong” one. Often I can tell within a minute or two how difficult a subject is going to be to work with. How, and IF I work with any given subject, depends in part on how it responds within the first minute, and often sooner than that. I also have learned to take it slow when working with a particular bird on territory, using calls sparingly, and observing for far greater periods of time. How, and IF I use calls at all, varies not only on the bird, but also on the location, and the time of year. I have found that on average each species behaves rather uniquely when using calls, even when keeping all of the above in mind. How I use calls in the fall is another discussion, and the strategy and technique is very different than in the spring.
When I am in habitat I have choosen for a particular species I find my potential photography subjects by ear. That is I find them by being familar with and identifying their song. Many warblers have higher pitched songs and there are many photographers, and even older birders that can not hear these species even where they are abundant. My good friend David Cree is an example here. When I hear one, I am listening to the pattern of singing, and taking note of the proximity to my location. If this looks promising, I then consider the lighting and the composition opportunities. I have passed on many a warbler due to unfavorable lighting or composition opportunities. After all if I am working a habitat where that species is numerous, why not search for a better opportunity? Again this is better for the birds and better for the photographer. Finally, there IS a time to stop working with an individual bird, and to move on. This is a judgment call, which I have been refining over time, and if you shoot with me, you will see this in action, and we will have to move on, whether you are ready to or not.
How do I locate a population I would like to work with? I have never used a guide for any of my on-territory warbler work, whether looking for Connecticut warblers, in Manitoba, Canada, or looking for Golden-cheeked warblers in Texas. Having familiarity with habitat is essential. You can go to a location that you may have found through using a tool such as Ebird, but if you don’t know the correct habitat you are going to waste a lot of time looking for your species. As an example if you know exactly what Jack Pine habitat is preferred by the Kirtland’s warbler than you can drive with the windows up in those extensive Jack Pine forests until you reach the prime habitat. Then you roll your windows down and start listening. This species is limited in it’s range and numbers only by suitable habitat. In suitable habitat it is generally easy to find large numbers of this species, even singing perched up and close to the road. If you don’t know what you are doing you can waste hours in Jack Pine habitat, and maybe hear them, but never even get great looks at a single bird. When I use Ebird, especially when targeting warbler species outside of my home state of Georgia, I try to avoid locations with multiple birder visits in keeping with the information discussed above. I instead look for promising underbirded locations. I then learn what I can about those locations online prior to choosing which location(s) to target. If I can locate a population in such a location and if I am visiting it at the right time of the season (that’s another blog post!), it can make for marvelous photographic opportunities.
Gene Koziara Kennesaw, Georgia