As we try to attract more birds during fall and post-fall, it’s a good time to consider what more we can do to attract a greater variety of birds, including birds that we don’t normally see. Many of the birds filtering into our neighborhoods and yards are looking for specific foraging areas that provide a combination of cover and “messy” areas where they can search for food. It may be as simple as leaving an area where you don’t rake or pick up the leaves so native sparrows, juncos, doves, thrashers, thrushes, and other birds have a place to turn over leaves to find insects and seeds.
It’s the biggest fall birding event in the world – the October Big Day – that provides every birder the opportunity to participate in a citizen-science event that only asks you to identify, count, and report all the birds you observe. When you add your Saturday birding data to eBird, you join the community of birders from around the world with a common goal – to learn where thousands of species of birds are located during mid-October. Join the fun, enjoy the birds you see, and report your birding results!
This weekend Zeiss Sports Optics is supporting two premier birding events – the October Big Day and the Global Birding Weekend! Birders from around the world will be participating in these exciting birding events. Together with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a long-standing partner, Zeiss offers birders participating in the October Big Day who submit five eligible checklists on eBird this Saturday the chance to win one of two Victory SF 32 Binoculars, the high-performance binoculars designed especially for birders.
Most birders are familiar with the long-running radio show & podcast “Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds” and look forward to live broadcasts each Sunday. In addition, the full library of podcasts is available so you can listen to past interview that interest you. The next featured guest on the show is Virginia Rose, founder of the Birdability accessible birding initiative, who will be interviewed by Ray this Sunday, October 18th. Also, tune into upcoming interviews with such exciting guests as Dr. Christian Rutz, and Terry Townsend, a Beijing-based birding expert.
Midway through National Wildlife Refuge Week, which continues through Saturday October 17, we want to remind you to think about what important public lands each of the 568 refuges are as they provide vital habitat for hundreds of native bird species and a wealth of other wildlife while providing excellent birding opportunities for all of us. If you haven’t already stopped in to your favorite refuge this week, plan a visit soon; and consider sending the refuge staff a note of appreciation for all the important work they do.
Notable last week were the variety of native sparrows filtering through the area, including a first of fall Harris’s Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow, and Lincoln’s Sparrow – the latter two are rare in this area. Feeder visitors included at least two Red-breasted Nuthatches, a female Purple Finch, and a foursome of Blue Jays. It’s also interesting to note that while Thursday morning only the two nuthatch species were present at my feeding station, that afternoon there was another influx of Pine Siskins with four and more at a time, along with a male Hairy Woodpecker.
On sale now, whether you are looking for new birding binoculars, or even a backup second pair, the excellent ED lenses used in Celestron Nature DX 8x42 ED Binoculars feature Extra-low Dispersion glass to reduce chromatic aberration. Other Celestron Nature Binocular features include fully multi-coated lenses, phase-corrected BaK-4 prisms, a waterproof and nitrogen-purged polycarbonate body with rubber armor outer protection. The close focus distance is 6½ feet and the field of view is 393 feet at 1000 yards.
You can combine two feeding station elements with a new Duncraft Seed & Suet Combo Hopper Feeder that holds up to 3 pounds of seeds and 2 suet cakes. Fill the compact seed hopper with black oil sunflower seeds, shelled peanuts, or whole sunflower seed hearts. The easy to fill hopper features ¼-inch stainless steel mesh and a 9½-inch long vinyl-coated feeder hanger. Made from different shades of brown recycled plastic, the Duncraft Seed & Suet Combo Hopper Feeder measures 5 x 7 x 8½ inches, and is exclusively available at Duncraft.
You can benefit wintering such interesting birds as Eastern Screech Owls, Northern Saw-whet Owls, and Western Screech Owls that otherwise must compete with other birds for limited natural cavities by providing this hand-made cedar roosting box. This sturdy product is perfect as a fall and winter roosting box for small owls; but when spring rolls around, it’s also an excellent Nest Box for the screech owls, Wood Ducks, American Kestrels, Hooded Mergansers, and other medium-sized cavity nesting birds.
What an exciting find! Not only did birders find the First State Record European Golden Plover at Maxwell National Wildlife Refuge in northeast New Mexico, it was the first record in North America west of Delaware! But New Mexico birders weren’t done, having documented a Second State Record Nelson’s Sparrow near Santa Rosa and a Fifth State Record Common Redpoll at a feeder in Albuquerque – what luck. Beyond New Mexico, there were four more First State Record sightings, including a Common Ringed Plover, Painted Redstart, Brewer’s Sparrow, and Bell’s Vireo.

Day by day, photo opportunities had been few and far between – literally; I was covering a lot of landscape, looking for any large or small birds along the way without much luck photographically. That was also the case Friday evening as the sun was setting. I was about 8 miles south of my office and about to take a U-turn for home when I noticed a white flash among a large flock of Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles that flushed just above a roadside cattail marsh.

The tiny white flash of a unique partial albino grackle in the midst of a flock of hundreds of black birds initially caught Paul’s attention.

I pulled over and re-sighted the white bird in the midst of the flock of black birds flying just above the cattails. I quickly looked with binoculars to make out what looked like a mostly white partial albino grackle! I’ve had the luck of finding a few partial albino birds over the years: a Canada Goose, a couple Ring-necked Pheasants, an American Robin, a couple Blacksmith Plovers (in Africa), a Red-tailed Hawk, a Red-shouldered Hawk, and the first partial albino I found – a Red-winged Blackbird. Now I had a remote chance of documenting a mostly white Common Grackle.

The blackbirds were coming to their night roost, and literally dived into the cattails, only to flush upward and fly low en mass time and time again, repositioning in the cattails with characteristically erratic behavior. The sun was very low and the light was fading, but maybe I could get a documentary photo before the sun slipped behind the hill to the west – it was worth a try.

Low Light Adjustments – To improve my chances of getting any kind of photo in the low light, I increased the ISO setting from 400 to 800. Then dialed the aperture to f5, which would give me the fastest corresponding shutter speed. I also needed to get positioned between the fading sun and the bird, or should I say hundreds and hundreds of blackbirds. As I quickly hustled across the uneven ground along the edge of the cattails, I caught sight of “whitey” a couple times at a distance as birds flushed low in flocks and slipped back into the cattail cover. Once when the blackbirds took flight they repositioned closer to me, in a location where if they flushed again I might have a chance of taking some long-distance photos of the whitish grackle.

Sure enough, in low light with a dark background, a group of blackbirds flushed northward, allowing me to find and try to focus on the partial albino among the throng of black grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds. This time they flew a little higher, breaking the horizon and entering the much brighter sky that I imagined should provide a better chance to get some documentary photos. Thereafter, what seemed like a half-a-thousand blackbirds flushed as if in alarm and flew to some yellow-leaved trees on edge a nearby lake, then began returning to the little cattail stand in flocks of 50 to 100 at a time.

A closer inspection of the documentary digital photos on a full-sized computer screen revealed the details of the mostly white grackle. Note how cropping extraneous outer portions of the photo enlarged the remaining parts of the image. The resulting enlargement created a grainy effect on the photo taken at low light and enlarged much more than you should for other photos.

I searched for “whitey” in each flock, but I didn’t relocate it among the now The Birds-like flights undulating around me with a resounding mix of blackbird and grackle calls that approached a low roar above the cattails as I walked back to my vehicle. Seated inside, I took a quick look at the photos I took on the LCD monitor on back of my camera, enlarging the images that might document the unique bird, but they didn’t show much promise. Even so, I knew I could review the digital photos on the larger screen of my office computer to get a better idea of how “whitey’s” plumage looked.

Computer Review – Indeed, when I viewed the photos on my laptop screen – much larger and more detailed than on the camera monitor – I found there were a couple photos that showed pretty good documentation of the unique-looking Common Grackle. Collectively, the photos showed the head, neck, and nape feathers are totally white; its beak is yellow rather than black, and its eyes looked surprisingly pink or pinkish, which is a sign of true albinism. But the grackle retained black feathers here and there; its wings are mostly white with 4 black primary feathers on the left wing and 5 black primaries on the right.

There are a few black feathers on the upper wings, a few more on its back, its belly have some gray feathers, and the tail feathers are mostly black with a couple white feathers mixed in; and its legs and feet are pink. Overall, in the near-dark, from a distance, it looks like a white bird – especially among the other black Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds.

Darkroom Improvements – To show you the best possible documentation photos of this unique bird, taken under very adverse light conditions, and quite a distance away, I transferred a couple of the digital images into my photo editing software in my laptop computer – my modern-day darkroom. First I enlarged one of the two photos I wanted to share with you. Essentially, you enlarge a bird in one photo by cropping the outer extraneous portions of the original image. Next, I brightened the pretty dark cropped photo to try to give the bird and its plumage the most accurate color – as if you took it in good or fairly good lighting.

In retrospect, I think I managed to get as good a set of documentary photos as I could under the poor photo conditions I was dealt. One thing I might have tried would be to up the ISO to 1600, which would have provided a faster shutter speed. However, I was afraid the resulting photos would be too grainy, so I used my experienced judgement, and it worked as well as possible.

A look at the underside of the unique grackle provides a telltale view of more of its plumage. Between the two enlarged documentary photos, it’s clear that your photo equipment can be used to document rare or unusual birds you encounter.

Actually, the next evening – Saturday – I returned to the cattail roost to see if the unique grackle would return. As the light was waning, I did use a 1600 ISO setting; and after watching way too many flocks of black birds fly to the cattail roost, the whitish grackle did return, which was exciting in itself. But the one chance I had of taking long-range photos of “whitey” after sunset didn’t make the grade – they were very very poor quality documentary photos – but I enjoyed re-finding the bird nonetheless.

So what makes a photo “documentary”? Obviously, it’s a photo that documents a rare bird find, or it records a bird you have trouble identifying in the field. Often a bird observed under adverse conditions or long distances can be better studied in a still photo, in the manner that I studied the plumage of the partial albino grackle. I would add another aspect to the definition of a documentary photo: It’s a poor quality photo that you take to document your sighting. But if you took the same photo that is sharp with good lighting and bright colors of a bird in a pleasing position and setting, well then it’s a keeper, a fine photo indeed.

I would still like to get more than documentary photos of the unique partial albino grackle; that was my hope Saturday, and I will try again. That’s the kind of interest and drive that keeps us returning to the field, keeps us alert as we are birding in the field, and with an eye on our feeding station and landscaping at home. It’s always a worthy endeavor to take documentary photos of birds, so use your experience and judgment and get that proof positive image that proves you saw what you say you saw – ha-ha. Enjoy all the birds of October!

Article and photographs by Paul Konrad

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