Throughout May and the first week of June, during the on-going migration of songbirds, water is the critical element for many birds that are making momentary or extended stops in our yards or the surrounding area. Your landscaping will provide a place to rest and forage for caterpillars and bugs. Likewise your feeding station with water can be essential for migrating songbirds, so be sure to make your water features and feeders a focal point: Be sure they are filled with fresh water and nutrients throughout the day, every day.
Are you up for identifying birds any time between midnight and midnight Saturday May 14th? Then the World Series of Birding is for you – start a team or support a team as birders raise conservation dollars while trying to see and hear as many different species of birds in the state of New Jersey, with event festivities centered in historic Cape May, one of the premier birding locations along the Atlantic Coast. Organized by New Jersey Audubon, the World Series of Birding has been one of the great birding events in North America for 39 years.
This year’s theme for World Migratory Bird Day is to reduce the impacts of lights on migrating birds: “Dim the Lights for Birds at Night.” Light pollution attracts and disorients birds that migrate at night (most birds), making them more vulnerable to collisions with buildings and windows. Each year at least 100 million birds die from such collisions in the United States alone. Everyone can help by simply dimming lights with shades or blinds during overnight hours, and by turning out unnecessary lights indoors and outside; at home and at work.
As a sponsor of The Biggest Week in American Birding (BWAB), Leica will be hosting 2 guests during the classic event: Noah Strycker, long time Leica ambassador and author of several books including Birding Without Borders, which chronicles his worldwide big year of birding. You can meet Noah at the BWAB event’s Leica Booth and on birding tours May 5th through 9th. David Lindo, the “urban birder” and longtime Leica ambassador will be promoting his new book, The Extraordinary World of Birds, and signing books at the Leica booth May 10th and 11th.
If you’re headed for The Biggest Week in American Birding, or if you are interested in songbird photography, there’s a great new book about one of the premier spring birding locations. The Birds of Magee Marsh is an exciting new publication that describes spring birding opportunities at this warbler hotspot, and you can add this new publication to your library simply by downloading a Free PDF copy. Featuring 70 remarkable color photos of warblers and other songbirds in its 106 pages, this book was written and lavishly illustrated by W.H. Majoros.
More first spring sightings included Wilson’s Phalaropes, an Upland Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipe, Lesser Yellowlegs, Long-billed Dowitchers, an Eastern Phoebe, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and Song Sparrows in the field; plus new to my yard were a Harris’s Sparrow, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and a Chimney Swift overhead. While birding Thursday afternoon, it was pretty obvious there was a migration influx overnight with photo highlights provided by Wilson’s Snipe, Bonaparte’s Gulls, Wilson’s Phalaropes, and Belted Kingfishers.
Birders will find the sporty Celestron Regal ED 8x42 Binoculars have a wealth of features, including fully multi-coated lenses and ED (Extra-low Dispersion) objective lenses to provide a view with increased resolution and contrast, plus greatly reduced chromatic aberration (color fringing). The BaK-4 roof prisms are both phase-coated and dielectric-coated for increased light transmission and contrast, and vivid true to life colors. The Regal ED Flat Field Binoculars are designed with the most selective of all binocular users in mind: Birders.
A perennial favorite among birders, Perky-Pet’s attractive Red Antique Bottle Hummingbird Feeder has an embossed hummingbird on the sides of the red antique-style bottle, which is accented by the brushed pewter base that helps to make this a stunning backyard accent piece that you are sure to appreciate for years to come. With 4 flower-shaped feeding ports and a 16 ounce capacity, this feeder provides plenty of sugar-water nectar for all the hummingbirds in your yard, and the metal and glass construction ensures long-lasting durability.
To get the most out of spring warbler migration, and now the Bird Academy, part of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is offering their signature Warbler Identification course on sale through May 17. This far-reaching online course will help you practice identifying all 51 warblers that migrate to and nest in the United States and Canada. Learn more about warblers using short training videos, prepare for field conditions with hours of photo ID practice, and study warbler movements and songs using video portraits of each species.
The most famous eagle continues to set new rare bird records from New England through eastern Canada, and after flying farther north along the coast it was sighted and photographed last week on the Avalon Peninsula north of St. Johns where it established a First Provincial Record for a Steller’s Sea Eagle in Newfoundland and Labrador. Where to next? Two First State Records were also established last week by birders who confirmed a Lewis’s Woodpecker in Arkansas and a Great-tailed Grackle in Florida; and there’s much more.

A classic portrait of a fishing Belted Kingfisher was provided by a trusting kingfisher ambassador.

Kingfishers are usually very wary and difficult to approach – until you find an ambassador. That’s when everything changes as a bird photographer, when that special bird is not affected by your approach or your presence. After decades of seeing female Belted Kingfishers from afar, and photographing them from too far away, I remained patient. Certainly there were other birds to observe and photograph at closer quarters. Eventually the slightly smaller, slightly less colorful male kingfishers provided some close photo opportunities. But since I returned to rural Dakota from urban California, I have rarely seen a female Belted Kingfisher, much less have I had one close enough to photograph – until last week.

Ten days ago I had a couple opportunities to photograph the first Belted Kingfisher of spring in this area, a rare female, close to my office. I was delighted and shared one of the resulting photos in my Editor Afield article in last week’s issue. But realistically, the photos I took a week ago Monday were merely documentary because they were not as sharp as I would have expected. Even so, that was a breakthrough; I had some tight photos of a female Belted Kingfisher. I hoped she would persist in the area, but I didn’t see her again after Monday.

After catching a sizeable fish, swallowing it, bathing, and preening, it was time to rest – in full afternoon sunlight – and the trusting female shared her relaxed movements.
A broad beak stretch provided a different portrait treatment that required concentration and anticipation to document this fleeting moment.

With sunshine from horizon to horizon last Thursday, I hoped for some new photo ops, and had a few when I passed an apparent pair of Belted Kingfishers, a male and female, perched 10 yards apart at the edge of a marsh. I thought I would check on a nest site a mile farther, then return; but that didn’t happen. Just before I turned around a mile farther south, 11 miles south of home, I noticed another female kingfisher perched on the edge of a marsh near the road. As always, I approached slowly with the sun at my back, and stopped in a good position while the kingfisher perched on top of the broken snag of a tree trunk.

I took a couple quick photos, just in case the kingfisher might fly, but it appeared to be unconcerned with my position, and I continued to photograph and wait for the impressive female to show a little action. I switched my aperture from my usual f8 to f6 to try to blur the water in the background into a more uniform blue hue. A moment after that the bird went into fishing mode, dropping almost straight down, head first, and emerging from the water with a sizeable fish in its bill. Unfortunately, the perch where it landed was surrounded by a lot of background elements – a few tree branches and many cattails – making that setting less than attractive, photographically speaking.

I watched and waited as the female whacked the fish into submission and swallowed it. Without hesitation she dived into the water as if to bathe, then returned to the same perch to preen. While I waiting for the kingfisher to reposition to a perch with a better background, I checked the photos I had already taken to make sure the lighting, focus, and background were good. Eventually, the kingfisher flew to a low perch that appeared to be somewhat concealed behind thin tree branches. I repositioned as carefully as possible, and found there was an opening where I could get clear images of the kingfisher, which seemed to have gone into something of a restful mode after its big meal. In fact, that’s when the female went into cute mode, minimizing its size and taking advantage of the warm sun to dry its plumage.

Still emersed in the rest period, the kingfisher reversed its position for a few moments, providing another portrait opportunity using an f8 aperture and 1/800 shutter speed.

This was the best photo setting, with perfect lighting at 4:30pm, although the kingfisher didn’t provide much action beyond the great portrait opportunities. Yet I was happy when it simply reversed its position on its perch to show its back for a couple photos as it looked to the side. The kingfisher was relaxed, and so was I, and I absorbed the nature surrounding me, the spring air, marsh bird calls, and the sight of a Great Egret, Lesser Scaup, Northern Shovelers, Blue-winged Teal, Mallards, a pair of Giant Canada Geese, Pied-billed Grebes, American Coots, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and Double-crested Cormorants – a classic marsh environ in this area.

As it rested and digested, I eventually opted to break away from my kingfisher ambassador with the hope of finding other avian ambassadors during this prime light period – and I did. At one location I found my first Lesser Yellowlegs of the season, an American Avocet, and a couple flocks of Wilson’s Phalaropes that I keyed in on photographically for a while with fine successes and lots of fun action. Down the road piece, I witnessed something I’ve never seen before; a pair of Wilson’s Snipe displaying, each using its flared and elevated tail. As they walked in front of one another, they twisted their tail so it pointed at the other bird, best showing the rufous-orange color of the dorsal side of the tail. It was quick exciting to witness and a bit trying to photograph because the snipe made their way through grass and in and out of good light for a couple minutes before moving to the next display site.

As Paul watched for the kingfisher’s next move through his camera lens, the ambassador showed it was alerted by holding its plumage close to its body to make it look smaller, an action that might have been a response to the sight of a potential predator.

By then, feeling like I already had an abundance of photo ops, I couldn’t resist checking back on the female kingfisher. Sure enough, she was still in the same area, perched on the snag of a big upright branch on a flooded tree. I slipped into position with a little lower angle of sunlight and took a couple initial photos. Then, as I watched for the next move through my camera lens, the kingfisher showed it was alerted by holding its plumage close to its body to make it look smaller, an action that might have been a response to the sight of a potential predator. I took a quick photo to document the change of posture, then took one more as the kingfisher took flight, at the apex of its first forward wing flap – a photo that made me exclaim out loud when I viewed the photo among the others I took last Thursday. Obviously, it was extremely exciting to see the image, taken at 1/2000 of a second.

Species ambassadors are all around us, although among less common species they can be quite rare. I waited several decades for this female Belted Kingfisher to become my representative ambassador. When we find a bird that is especially trusting and permits us to spend time within its immediate realm to photograph it acting naturally, treat it with respect and enjoy the opportunity. But our behavior can affect any given bird’s behavior, and we don’t necessarily need an ambassador to get good photo ops. Often if we move slowly, indirectly, keeping a low profile when possible, whether on foot or in a vehicle, we can periodically get within telephoto lens range of birds we are interested in photographing.

Take Off! With the kingfisher in an alert position, Paul was ready for the next move, which was to take flight. The shutter speed was 1/2000, which provided a sharp image as the kingfisher took its initial wingbeat. What a wonderful reward to see how this photograph turned out.

Of course, there are many birds that take flight before we can even make an approach, but that’s what birds do, and that’s part of what makes photographing birds so challenging, and so rewarding when we are able to take some nice photos. And along the way, we occasionally find an ambassador among species we’ve hoped to photograph and tried to photograph for years, even decades. Believe me, you will never forget species ambassadors you find and photograph – they are exceptional birds that provide photos that you can share, and even use to teach about birds, birding, photography, and natural adventures. They can even illustrate your bird photo tales you write and share with friends and family via email, text, snail mail, meta, etcetera. Be aware this spring, as a species ambassador may be just around the corner, and it may even be a female Belted Kingfisher. Good Luck!

Article and photographs by Paul Konrad

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