Waves of warblers

A male Northern Parula

May is always a crazy month with so much going on that I wish that there were 60 days in it. Bird and flower diversities are at their highest but some species can only be found for a few days. My plant photography suffered this spring as I spent most of my time pursuing neotropical migrants like warblers, vireos, orioles and tanagers. Photographing small, frenetic warblers is often an exercise in frustration. These birds are almost constantly on the move as they search for insects, fueling up after a long migration from the tropics. Many will continue much further and pause only briefly in southern Michigan. Following them in a camera’s viewfinder as they flit and jump from branch to branch take’s a lot of practice. I find it best to manually focus on these birds until they move into an open area in the vegetation. Only then will I use autofocus; otherwise, the camera is more likely to focus on an unwanted branch or leaf instead of the bird.

The understated Orange-crowned Warbler.

I look forward to the huge migrations of these birds that fill nighttime skies and flood weather radar screens with their own fronts. Warblers filter through like seconds on the seasonal clock’s sweeping hands. Yellow-rumped, Pine, Palm, Yellow, Black & White, Black-throated Green. Then Yellowthroat, Nashville, Redstart, Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, Blackburnian and on it goes — culminating in a late-May mix of over 30 species. These along with vireos, flycatchers and many other species make it easy to find over 100 species in a day!


A male Black-throated Blue Warbler

I love photographing birds with my 600mm f/4  but that huge lens can be a hindrance in warbler photography. It’s very heavy and difficult to carry and the closest it focuses is 15.7 ft. Warbler photography is often in close quarters like trails through thick brush where it’s difficult to back up from birds. This is where my 300mm f/2.8 comes into play. It gives great image quality with all of the Nikon teleconverters, and I use the Nikon TC-20E II often with this lens. This gives me a 600mm at f/5.6 that focuses as close as 7.5 ft.  I usually stop down to f/7.1 or f/8 for the best results. Generally I find that teleconverters give good results on subjects that are already close, but unfortunately they are not as sharp on distant subjects. This is still a  heavy kit and requires a sturdy tripod which can be frustrating at times. By the time the tripod is moved from my shoulder to set up on the ground the targeted bird has moved on. A more mobile and cheaper solution would be using the Nikon 300mm f/4 with a teleconverter or the 80-400mm f/4.-5.6. Canon users have several choices in the 300mm f/4, 400mm f/5.6 and 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lenses. Sigma and Tamron also offer several telephoto zoom lenses. Depending on lighting conditions I sometimes use fill flash to bring out details and balance harsh highlights and shadows.

Long distance champion – Blackpoll Warblers breed as far north as northwestern Alaska and winter as far south as Peru.

Always a sucker for “pishing“, a male American Redstart sizes me up.

The effects of this year’s brutal winter carried on into the spring and slowed leaf growth considerably. This made for much easier observation and photography of spring migrants. Geography plays a big part in photographing birds during migration. Peninsulas, points and waterways concentrate birds as they move north and hesitate crossing large expanses of open water. These “migrant traps” include places like Magee Marsh, Ohio; Point Pelee, Ontario; Tawas Point and Whitefish Point in Michigan. Cold dreary days often have the birds feeding low on sluggish insects. The birds are sometimes so intent on hunting that they are oblivious to humans. Windy days force insect life into the lee of dunes and pines. These areas can be full of dozens of birds with the sounds of snapping bills as they gorge on insects.

A male Yellow Warbler grabs a midge.

Midges are most often what these birds are feeding on and the swarms of these aquatic insects can be impressive! Sometimes what look like huge columns of smoke drifting along the shoreline are midges. In the willows, dogwoods, and pines songbirds feast and in the air swallows and swifts blast through the swarms with mouths agape. Be careful when changing lenses around these midge swarms so they don’t end up inside your camera. It’s a good thing that they don’t bite!

A couple of midges (Chironomidae) along the Lake Huron shoreline.



A male Scarlet Tanager hunts for midges among the maple blossoms.

I wish I knew more about these beautiful little insects and will be working on that. But for now I’ll just enjoy the spectacle of bugs and birds in a gigantic cycle that is always too fleeting.

A male Blackburnian warbler with a juicy midge.

Thanks for taking a look and I hope that if you missed out on this incredible spectacle this year, that you will plan for it next spring!



~ by David Stimac on June 6, 2014.

9 Responses to “Waves of warblers”

  1. Great set of pictures!! And very nice to see birds we don’t have over here, thanks for sharing!

  2. Outstanding photos, as always!

  3. Thanks

  4. Absolutely Wonderful David!! And the MACRO of the Midge is stunning!!! I have yet to photograph a Blackburnian as many times as I have heard their “faint’ calls. Elmer got one last year in north-central PA on a trip with me to a BOG. He had the 600 and I just the 100-400 so I lost out on that bird!

  5. Once again, highly informative as well as a pleasure to read. Thanks, Dave!

  6. Forgot to mention the exquisite

  7. Excellent photos, and information.

  8. Thank you for this informative article. My husband and I were astounded by the “smoldering pines” in Wilderness National Park (northern lower penninsula, Michigan) last week. Mystery solved! Wonderful pictures! The focusing tip is VERY helpful!

  9. Thanks for taking the time to comment everyone. I really appreciate it!

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