As spring approaches, birders are looking beyond their winter feeding stations and preparing their yards for the coming waves of spring migration, and the nesting season. With recent research pointing out dramatic reductions in many species’ populations during recent decades, scientists have identified habitat loss as the biggest reason for the declines. That means every little bit of backyard habitat can be essential in helping to increase four essential elements for birds – food, water, cover, and a place to nest.
Two impressive young birders have been selected as the American Birding Association’s 2020 ABA Young Birders of the Year: Gracie McMahon from Rockford, Illinois has been named the Young Birder of the Year in the 10 to 13 age category; and the 14 to 18 age category winner is Adrianna Nelson from Bristol, Tennessee. Their efforts stood out among a distinguished group of young birders who participated in this event in both age categories, and we salute their dedicated efforts to excel and improve in varied categories of competition.
Now you can enter the National Wildlife Federation Photo Contest – through March 29th – so select your very best bird photos and give this prestigious photo contest a try. Unique among the photo contests announced for 2020, in addition to entering bird photos you can submit photos of a variety of animals, so enjoy that option too. In fact, there is a category for Landscapes & Plants, and another for People in Nature; plus a category for photos taken with a cellphone or tablet.
The Indiana Dunes Birding Festival, hosted by Indiana Audubon, is the recipient of a 2020 Mindful Birding Award for its efforts to promote bird conservation and ethical birding guidelines through their annual event that showcases the abundance and variety of migratory birds in the Indiana Dunes region bordering Lake Michigan. The festival was also recognized for its commitment to ethical birding behavior by adopting and adhering to a code of birding ethics marked by clarity, specifics, and restraint. This year’s festival will be held from May 14 to 17.
Wow, spring broke decisively Saturday! Starting with a surprise flock of seven Giant Canada Geese a half-mile away from home as I began an afternoon drive to Bismarck. Before I fully digested that sighting, two miles to the west I was excited to see a big flock of Snow Geese flying south against the light wind. I stopped to listen to the goose music and take a couple photos as they flew overhead – Yahoo! Then I realized there were three pairs of Giant Canadas acting territorially on the thawing edge of a frozen marsh – what a difference a sunny day with a light south wind makes!
The Vortex Razor HD 8x42 Binoculars are made with premium HD lens elements, featuring Vortex’s XRPlus fully multi-coated lenses and dielectric prism coatings for maximum brightness and image sharpness that provides exceptional optical performance. The 8x42 Razors provide a 388 foot field of view at 1000 yards and can close-focus down to 6 feet. Vortex Razor 8x42 Binoculars feature a magnesium chassis for additional durability, weigh just 24 ounces, and they are completely waterproof and internally fogproof.
Songbird Essentials offers a large selection of Purple Martin Apartment Houses, gourds, and accessories for anyone to get started as a martin landlord – or to update, improve, or enlarge your existing martin housing setup. Start by checking out the Songbird Essentials Lonestar Purple Martin Goliad 12 Room House with Starling Resistant Crescent-shaped Doors. If you want to add to your existing martin housing, try the Starter Gourd Pole Expansion Kit or the Songbird Essentials’ Lonestar Purple Martin Add-A-Rack along with gourds, poles, winches, predator guards, and replacement parts for Lonestar martin houses.
With new birds appearing at your feeding station as spring progresses, coax them into closer view with a this large window feeder – the Duncraft Clearly Classic Window Hopper Feeder. Attract a variety of birds, including chickadees, finches, nuthatches, and woodpeckers, where you can watch them from your favorite recliner at home or from your office window. Woodpeckers will feel comfortable perching on the grooved slots, designed especially for them on the front panel, and eating their fill of seeds and nuts.
Choose from a beautiful collection of eight Birds of Paradise Art Cards, including such diverse species as the Greater Bird of Paradise, Victoria Riflebird, and King Bird of Paradise painted in action as they display in all their glory. Printed on 130 pound card stock, these exceptionally artful prints double as postcards, but they are more fitting for framing than for sending. Other birds of paradise art cards include such other-worldly species as a Superb Bird of Paradise, Western Parotia, and King of Saxony Bird of Paradise – imagine a collage of your choice of favorite images from this collection.
An exciting find for Vermont birders was the First State Record Crested Caracara! Eastern Canada yielded a threesome of rare birds, including a Varied Thrush in Nova Scotia, a Carolina Wren on Prince Edward Island, and a Black Vulture in Quebec. Far south, a Bananaquit sighted on St. George Island proved to be the first record for the species in the panhandle region of northern Florida. Farther west in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, an off-course MacGillivray’s Warbler provided fine photos and exciting memories, and in Sherman, Illinois a Lazuli Bunting was photographed at a lucky birder’s feeding station.

One of the best photos of a Swallow-tailed Kite banking shows little shadow on the underside.

As March progresses I always recall the thrills of photographing a spring migration of Swallow-tailed Kites when these elegant birds of prey sliced the sky like angels on the wing, maneuvering their forked tail in the breeze to rudder their buoyant flights. The kites’ movements appeared so effortless and graceful that they captured my attention as soon as I watched the first one in flight. Although Swallow-tailed Kites were scattered across Florida at the time, I found the best location to photograph Swallow-tails was deep in the Everglades.

I spent three nights camped on the southern tip of Florida, on the coast just beyond the south end of the access road that winds through Everglades National Park. During daylight hours I photographed a variety of wildlife while concentrating on the kites that were always in fluid motion (I never saw a Swallow-tail land during my entire trip).

Try & Try Again

Although I thought I took a wide variety and ample quantity of kite photos during my Everglades meanderings, when I reviewed my images in Tampa the day after leaving the ‘Glades, I realized I didn’t get “the classic Swallow-tailed Kite images” I was hoping for. All of my kite photos that showed the underside of the birds were creased by shadows, or the entire underside was shadowed, resulting in a gray underside instead of the true white coloration.

From the dorsal side, the overhead sun provided almost uniform lighting of this gliding kite.

I became increasingly uncomfortable with the kite photo results, and I realized I needed to reset my plans after checking and re-checking the weather. With only one day of sun in the forecast for the week – tomorrow – I reversed course and returned to the depths of the Everglades – in spite of the mosquitos, biting flies, and no-see-ums that had already inflicted an itchy toll on me.

This photo shows the kite in a beautiful flight position, but the shadows compromise the quality of the image to discerning eyes. This was the best image from the first photo trip to the Everglades, prompting a return.

The next morning I photographed kites and other wildlife that I encountered in earnest in the Florida sunshine with the promise of rain clouds pending for that evening. About 11am, it became apparent that I was witnessing what turned into a marvelous spring flight of kites migrating inland from the Gulf, and for the next 100 minutes I observed and photographed more than 100 Swallow-tailed Kites as they followed meandering waterways line with trees.

The action was often fast-paced with kites flying by in small loose groups, and at one point 15 kites were within view. After more than an hour of avian action, I actually began to feel a bit exhausted by the excitement as I continued to focus on and follow the swift raptors through my camera lens as they seemed to revel in their undulating, circling, diving flights. What fun I had among the kites of the Everglades! And upon review of the resulting photos, my return to the kite hotspot yielded a number of classic images of kites slicing the sky.

Shadow Fights & Kite Flights

During kite photography sessions, fighting the unpredictable shadows that showed on the kites as they dipped this way and that on pulsing breezes was difficult. In fact, it was pretty impossible during my initial Everglades photo session. Luckily, I was able to make the return trip to work on beating the shadowy problems that plagued me. After reviewing my initial photos on the big screen, I assessed the situation, learned a bit from the review and photo editing process, and hoped I could improve my photos during my return to the southern tip of the Florida mainland.

Usually, just by limiting my photo time to periods when the light is best helps to eliminate problem shadows. By late March that means photographing during mornings and late afternoons. But when your time is limited, and the birds prove to be most active during mid-day, you must try to make the most of every minute in the field – especially if you only have fleeting opportunities to interact with the kites.

In the field it’s tough to judge how shadows will affect your photos. First, the birds are moving quickly and unpredictably. Second, we humans see shadows differently than they show up on digital photos. That is, shadows register quite a bit darker on a digital photo than they are perceived by our eyes and brain. If we see what seems like an inconsequential shadow, the shadow will be darker with greater contrast in the resulting photo image. Understanding that fact is very helpful across the bird photography spectrum.

So what’s the fix? Try very hard to avoid shadows, even as you photograph – just by being aware of shadows, and reacting during the quick action while photographing. If you do see shadows, or the effect of indirect light, wait for the bird to flare to one side or the other to get uniform sunlight to illuminate the bird without shadowing. And always be aware of the bird’s position with respect to the position of the sun and the direction of the sunlight. As I always say, be sure your shadow points toward your subject for the best results (keep your back to the sun when photographing birds).

Perhaps the light-hearted action of a barrel-rolling kite over-plays the persistent shadowing of the bird.

With a Little Luck

Take lots of photos – that’s part of the fun – and it helps to insure you will get the ultimate images you hope for. Use your continuous shooting mode setting, so you can take a rapid-fire series of photos too. This ploy can be good practice if nothing else, but it tends to help you get a selection of photos to choose from. Often we tend to press the shutter a fraction of a second after the action we wish to record, so try to anticipate a bird’s next move. In the end, while I photographed 100 kites in 100 minutes, I took more than 800 images – that’s some serious action photography. Ultimately, if you have the chance, take as many photos as you can. That way, even the “worst” photographer should get a few lucky shots! (ha-ha)

I really enjoyed that particular trip to Florida, but was surprised at how some of my favorite photo locations were poor choices at that time. For instance, Sanibel Island was a bust for any kind of photography, and that point emphasized the fact that the environs and birds on hand change with the seasons, with water levels, and other variables year to year – even day to day sometimes. However, the Everglades was the spot, and with ample water, it provided a few surprises along with many photo opportunities.

Swallow-tailed Kites are great fun to watch as they use their elegant tails as rudders to ply the sky, and having the opportunity to photograph these graceful birds is an absolute joy.

Everglades Surprises: A big Croc walked out of the swamp into a grassy opening that provided some exciting images head-on looking into its open mouth, and from the side showing its entire body. A similarly rather scary photo option was with a Water Moccasin, and while American Alligators were in almost every body of water, the rest of the exciting wildlife I encountered were birds – Wonderful Birds: White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbills, Wood Storks, Tri-colored Herons, Little Blue Herons, Anhingas, White-crowned Pigeons, a Pileated Woodpecker, a Red-shouldered Hawk, Black Vultures, Barred Owls, Fish Crows, and more.

The day after the kite migration, the rain began pouring as I was making my way north along the Atlantic Coast from Loxahatchee to Merritt Island. That’s when I got “The Call” to please return to Southern California to resume work east of Los Angeles, so I kept driving north to Jacksonville, turned onto Interstate 10 and drove west for too many days with short photo stops along coastal Texas and the Tucson area of Arizona. Nothing like travelin’ cross-country! But the moral of the story is to be aware of how shadows affect your photos, become more aware of shadows while you photograph, and keep your own shadow pointing toward your subjects. Good Luck!

Article and photos by Paul Konrad

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Event Calendar

MARCH 11-15
North American Bluebird Society Meeting

Kearney, Nebraska

Birding America Conference

Chicago, Illinois

MARCH 20-21
Audubon’s Nebraska Crane Festival

Kearney, Nebraska

MARCH 20-22
Wings Over Water Northwest Birding Festival

Blaine, Washington

Othello Sandhill Crane Festival

Othello, Washington

MARCH 21-22
Waterfowl Weekend

Brighton, Ontario

MARCH 27-29
Matagorda Bay BirdFest

Palacios, Texas

MARCH 28-29
Attwater’s Prairie Chicken Festival

Eagle Lake, Texas

Mackinaw Raptor Fest

Mackinaw City, Michigan

Great Louisiana BirdFest

Mandeville, Louisiana

APRIL 15-21
Godwit Days Spring Migration Bird Festival

Arcada, California

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