Air Traffic Uncontrolled

A song is like a picture of a bird in flight; the bird was moving before the picture was taken, and no doubt continued after.

~Pete Seeger

The Evening Grosbeaks continue to delight us by devouring sunflower seeds every morning in a feeding frenzy of yellow, black and white. My high count was one day this week when I managed to see 26 of them (mostly males) flitting between the two feeders. Things can get crazy when they all show up at once and jostle for position at the hanging sunflower tray outside our window.

This hectic scene is repeated several times each morning

I have many photos of them at the feeder and sitting in nearby branches waiting their turn. But, how many images of a bird on a stick (even a beautiful bird like an Evening Grosbeak) does one really need?

Male Evening Grosbeak perched near feeder (click photos to enlarge)

After watching them one morning, I decided to try to capture them in flight as they came into the feeder or hovered near it trying to find a space. At first, I was hand holding the camera (and 300 mm telephoto) trying to anticipate their movements. That resulted in a lot of photos like the two below…

Out of focus grosbeak headed to feeder
Many images had only part of a bird

I then figured out it might be easier to pre-focus on an area and snap the shutter when I thought the bird might cross through the field of view.

Male Evening Grosbeak with landing gear down

I didn’t like having the feeder in the photo, so I pointed the camera to the right of the feeder and hoped I could catch them coming in. I soon discovered having the camera on a tripod and just watching the birds (without looking through the viewfinder) was the easiest way to get some pics. I just pressed the shutter whenever any bird was flying (of course, this also left me with a lot of blank images to delete). Below is a selection of incoming grosbeaks…

Incoming male Evening Grosbeak
Male with wings spread
Female grosbeak zooming in
Female grosbeak making a sharp turn
This is one of my favorites, the bullet bird giving me a glance as it zooms by
Male grosbeak getting ready to land
The feeder is shaded by the roof’s shadow at about 11 a.m and this image was taken in full shade, but I like the total spread of the wing

So, I now have a bunch of images of birds in flight near the feeder. What’s next? Well, if they are still here the next sunny morning we have, I want to capture the full version of the pic below. Every once in a while, the birds take their feeder squabbles to the air and really go at it with beaks and feet locking as the fly in a tangle of brilliant feathers. I’ll let you know if I am successful.

Male grosbeaks squabbling over position at the feeder (oh, for a camera pointed just a little higher)

14 thoughts on “Air Traffic Uncontrolled

  1. Thanks for sharing your process with us, Mike. So many times we see a beautiful photograph that seems so effortless and don’t realize the care and thought that get you there. And what a fitting subject!

  2. Even in my urban backyard I see many species of birds at my feeders. My favorite was seeing a red bellied woodpecker bring her young family.. And discovered they don’t get red marking on the head for several months. I watched as the grey heads turned pink to red over time. Of course I didn’t get a photo.

  3. Great in-flight photos of the Grosbeaks! They came and went here, so maybe they’ll return. Also, loved your wildlife camera pics.

    • Thanks, Kathy. There has been a flock of grosbeaks in our woods for about a month and they seem quite happy with at least three near neighbors having feeding stations, plus all the redbud and tulip poplar seeds they can eat. It will be interesting to see how long they stay.

  4. These flight images are fantastic. I don’t understand how you managed to prefocus, when you’re focusing on thin air. I always need some object like a place holder. However you did it, it’s fantastic!

    • Thanks, mary. I focused on the far edge of the hanging feeder and then shifted the camera so the feeder was just out of view. My autofocus is controlled on the back of the camera, so I just pushed the shutter whenever a bird was flying. But it produces a ton of throw-away images.

  5. I also want to thank you for sharing your process – the mental steps involved in obtaining these great pics. Just like anything, it’s trial and error but good to have a plan.

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