Photographing warblers at fallout sites versus on breeding territory
As the new year begins, those of us who love warblers begin dreaming about their spring arrival. Here in Georgia we get our first arrivals the last 10 days of March. It is a trickle at first, and then the floodgates open around the end of the first week of April. Those early days are great for working with those early species, allowing more time to focus on compositions with those species. It is great to hear the first song of each species each spring, signaling their arrival to stake out a territory and breed. Spring migration is much more rapid than in fall, due to the hormonally charged urge to rapidly establish the best territory, and thus quickly attract a suitable mate.
Those species that cross the Gulf of Mexico to journey to their breeding grounds may start that crossing under favorable weather conditions and encounter an unexpected change in weather during their crossing. Strong southbound weather systems not only lead to many perishing at sea, but also result in many arriving to the southern coast of the U.S. fatigued. This creates a fall-out, which can be spectacular for the birder/photographer, given the right conditions of weather and where we are on the overall timeclock of migration. I have been fortunate to experience two April fallouts on the Florida panhandle at St. George Island. Hungry, thirsty, and fatigued warblers and other migrants were everywhere. I have been to Dauphin Island in Alabama once on a trip that was pre-planned, and it was very slow migrant wise. That is the thing about coastal fallout sites, whether in Florida, Alabama, or Texas. You will get some birds, but the numbers are very dependent on the weather which is fine if one can make a last-minute trip or lives in that immediate area. By contrast, if you pre-plan a trip you may travel to such a location and end up with very poor productivity.
As species migrate farther inland there will be later spring opportunities (such as in May) at sites that concentrate migrants. Perhaps most famous is Magee Marsh along the southern shores of Lake Erie in northern Ohio. The migrants travel north over much farmland and encounter a nice area of trees along the large lake. They stop to feed so they can continue their journey either around or over the lake. It has been said that perhaps more photographs of warblers have been taken at Magee Marsh than perhaps anywhere else on the planet. I was at Magee once, and it was amazing for diversity and numbers, but I’ve had friends that have visited and found it very slow, despite picking a time that historically looked to be good. So if you go to Magee, plan on being there at least several days to increase your odds of good migrant numbers. A downside to Magee is trying to use a tripod on the boardwalk, which is more difficult the better the migrant situation is, due to all the people milling about. You are better off using your tripod on the lawn near the parking lot or to go later in the day, when most of the crowd has thinned out. I prefer Tawas Point State Park in Michigan to Magee for photography, as it is more open, allowing the easier use of a tripod, and, in my opinion, it has much better perch selection for photography. I’ve been there once as well and had an amazing day, with more than 20 warbler species. However, numbers of migrants there can vary depending on migration conditions.
For the photographer, the additional challenge, no matter which type of the above sites you visit, is getting a pleasing composition. The advantages include POSSIBLE great diversity and numbers, and comparative ease in finding birds to photograph without having to know how to find them on breeding territory. If you know what you are doing or work with someone who does, there is no question in my mind that you can get superior images on breeding territory. You are in much better control of composition and have greater assurance of photographing your target species. If you want to work with someone who can help you get superior warbler images on breeding territory, I would suggest you also consider Brian Zwiebel or Matthew Studebaker. I have long admired the work of each of them. I have personally met Brian and have been out shooting with him on two occasions, both here in Georgia many years ago and up in Magee near his home a few springs back. I have never met Matthew, but feedback from friends who have met him has been good. Studying the warbler work of each of them has shown me what is possible composition wise and has made me a better photographer.
As a related side note, I have been asked why I choose not to hide all my EXIF data on FLICKR. I’ve been counseled that I am giving away too much information. My answer is I’ve learned much from not only studying the warbler images of others, but also from the EXIF data. My personal view is sharing EXIF data is a way to give back to the community of bird photographers.