Edith L. Moore

Experiencing Animal Lives

Every seed is awakened, and all animal life.–Sitting Bull

Cooper's Hawk with Pine Bark, Edith L. Moore, Houston, Texas
Cooper’s Hawk with Pine Bark for Nest, Edith L. Moore, Houston, Texas. Canon 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Although Sitting Bull spoke these words in the context of spring, the vitality he sensed is present throughout the year. It is this very vitality we seek through birding and nature photography.

When we can pry ourselves from the grip of work and obligation, capturing images of animals going about their business puts us back in touch with the natural world and out of touch with the annoyances of Mankind . . . .

A Blue-winged Warbler Hunts Caterpillars, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
A Blue-winged Warbler Hunts Caterpillars, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. The grapevines at Lafitte’s Cove are food plants for caterpillars eagerly gobbled-up by trans-Gulf migrant songbirds returning to North America from the Tropics. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC), High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

One of our favorite photo-birding spots is open again (yay!) after being closed due to the devastation Harvey brought. The stretch from 40-acre Lake to Elm Lake at Brazos Bend State Park seems to have weathered the storm without too much damage–certainly less than the previous round of flooding.

Even the birding wasn’t too much off from a typical day this time of year. Marsh Wrens, Swamp Sparrows, and Common Yellowthroats were abundant. Northern Harriers hunted above the rice, and the air was filled with the clatter of Belted Kingfishers and the chittering of scolding Ruby-crowned Kinglets. I apparently just missed a male Vermilion Flycatcher and a small flock of Blue-headed Vireos. All in all a nice visit to a beloved place that will likely steadily improve . . . until the next catastrophe.

Baby Alligators on Mom's Back, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Baby Alligators on Mom’s Back, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Calling Moorhen, Pilant lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Brazos Bend is Back! Calling Moorhen, Pilant lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2017 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Those Charming Titmice

Charm is an intangible. Chutzpah, charm, charisma, that kind of thing, you can’t buy it. You either have it or you don’t.–Colm Feore

Tufted Titmouse, Edith L. Moore, Texas
Tufted Titmouse, Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston, Texas (ELM). Image taken in February. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Among the most charming of the small songbirds are the titmice. Along the Upper Texas Gulf Coast, Tufted Titmice are common year-round. And they are a delight to encounter in the woods, as they peer back with those curious, yet suspicious eyes!

Tufted Titmouse Chick, Edith L. Moore, Texas
Tufted Titmouse Chick, ELM. Tufted Titmice nest at ELM. Image taken in March. Canon EOS 7D/100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS. Hand-held, natural light.

Tufted Titmice seem to prefer arthropod prey (including spiders and their egg cases), but will eat nuts, seeds, and fruit during the winter. They will also visit seed and suet feeders during the lean months, but to my eye, they never seem completely at ease in doing so, being true wild creatures of the forest.

Tufted Titmouse with Caterpillar, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Tufted Titmouse with Caterpillar, Tower Trail (Warbler Alley), Brazos Bend State Park. Titmice are great arthropod hunters. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Small super-active songbirds like the titmice may be the supreme challenge for the bird photographer—especially under completely natural conditions (i.e., not baited and not near a feeder). Take a look at Elisa’s beautiful image of a singing Black-crested Titmouse from Lost Maples. We often see Bridled Titmice on our frequent trips to southeast Arizona, but I have yet to capture any really nice images (These birds are fast!).

We have seen all but two species of North American titmice: The Oak Titmouse (California), and the Juniper Titmouse (Southwest U.S., west of Texas). I have no doubt they will be just as challenging and charming as their Gulf-Coast kin!

©2015 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Stalking Forest Birds

Tufted Titmouse on Tree Trunk, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Tufted Titmouse Hunting on Lichen-encrusted Tree Trunk, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. This bird ran up and down the trunk in search of caterpillars. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

About this time of year we always begin planning for our big summer birding trips. We try and include as many different types of habitat as possible. This year we will focus on the high elevation forests of the West. Finding and photographing forest birds is the toughest challenge I know in photography: it makes getting desert (and even marsh) birds seem simple by comparison. The openness and spectacular, clear light of the desert can make shooting a joy. The complex three-dimensional nature of the forest, often with shafts of brilliant illumination adjacent to patches of near-darkness, can test the capabilities of the birder-photographer.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston, Texas
Bye-bye, Now! Red-bellied Woodpecker, Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

I have chased birds in many forests, and I am always a bit apprehensive about birding and shooting in these environments (and spending my precious, precious vacation time here) for one main reason: it’s possible to come away with nothing at all—no good shots or even a good look! Forest birds (songbirds especially) are often so suspicious and spooky that you may get one glimpse, and they’re gone! In the really big parks, they can disappear into the vastness in a snap. In the really tall trees (like those in Sequoia National Park!) the birds can just zoom up to fantastic heights and wait for you to go away.

Although not especially spooky, the tree-clinging birds like treecreepers, nuthatches, and woodpeckers are a special challenge to watch and photograph. It’s almost comical how woodpeckers will sometimes spiral around a tree trunk to get away from the hapless photographer! Brown Creepers may allow a very close approach, sometimes almost ignoring the shooter, as they hop up a trunk in search of arthropods only to sail downwards to the base of the next tree and begin the process again. Nevertheless, Brown Creepers are really hard to photograph as they cling to the tree trunks, staying in the shadows and deep recesses in the bark, and will even spiral around to the other side of the trunk to hide from the photographer in woodpecker fashion. In contrast to creeper behavior, nuthatches often hop down the trunk in search of prey—but they, too, cling to the trunk and poke into nooks and crannies making shooting difficult much of the time.

Athough I love the marshes, swamps, estuaries, tidal flats, and bottomland forests of the Texas Gulf Coast, I look forward to getting to very different habitats. The steep, high-altitude alpine habitats I have in mind for this summer will probably require quite a bit of sans-supertelephoto, binoculars-alone birding—unless I can talk Elisa into scouting out ahead and waiting for me at elevation with a defibrillator!

Brown Creeper, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Brown Creeper, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Note the stiff, pointed, woodpecker-like tail feathers used for propping the bird up against the trunk. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

A forest bird never wants a cage.—Henrik Ibsen

©2015 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Appreciating the Totality of Nature Through Photography

Cross Vine with Bee, Houston, Texas
Crossvine Flower (Bigonia capreolata) with Bee, Houston, Texas. Step One in appreciating a plant: Is it native? Step two: Is it a food plant for birds? Yes and yes. Crossvine is a Texas native and a source of nectar and insects for hummingbirds and other birds. Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS. Hand-held with high-speed synchronized ring flash.

Back when I was a geologist and in the field my eyes were almost always turned to the ground. I was looking for fossils, minerals, sedimentary structures—in short, anything that could tell me about the depositional setting of the rocks I was studying . . . .

Neotropic Cormorant at the Hans and Pat Suter City Nature Park in Corpus Christi, Texas
Neotropic Cormorant at the “freshwater channel,” Hans and Pat Suter City Nature Park in Corpus Christi, Texas. The brilliant blue eyes provide the “spot of poison” in cormorant color theory. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Having an interest in the life sciences, though, I would from time to time notice a plant here or a lizard there. I would perhaps even make a mental note about field marks and look up the species in question once back in the museum or departmental library.

Back in those days, I carried either my Yashica Super 2000 (w/55mm f/2.8 ML Macro), until the Canon EOS 7D my most beloved camera, or a Contax RTS II (w/CZ 50mm f/1.4 Planar) 35mm film camera to document what I saw geologically in the field. Thinking back, it’s almost comical how little photographic firepower I carried into the field in those days: I might bring two or three rolls of 24- or 36-frame rolls of film!

Anole confrontation at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, West Houston
Green Anoles (Anolis carolinensis) fight it out! at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, West Houston. When head-bobbing and dewlap extension aren’t enough, teeth will do the trick. The lizard on the right was king of the log and bullied the other out of his kingdom. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

At first, I was skeptical about the digital photography revolution, worried that digital cameras offered quantity and ease at the expense of quality. Now a digital convert, I’m armed with more equipment than I can carry at any one time. The current challenges are having the right lens at the ready for any given situation and making optimal use of each piece of equipment.

Although birds are my primary target, I am always looking for new things to photograph: plants, fungi, and vertebrate and invertebrate animals are all potential subjects. I scan the trees for squirrels, frogs, lizards, and snakes, jelly fungus and mushrooms; bromeliads and other epiphytes. I scan the sky for birds, bats, and insects, and the brush for what’s lurking there. I might even pull the ultra wide angle lens out of the bag to document the context of what I’m seeing, the habitat itself.

Every image is now a potential research project. Insects (that need identification) are perched on flowers (that need identification). Birds grab unfamiliar bugs, fish, and lizards—all these critters are crying out for study and identification. Now that the weather is getting nice again, I can’t wait to get out there, feel the stress of daily life melt away, and find out what’s going on!

Queen Butterfly on Gregg's Mistflower at Casa Santa Ana, Rio Grande Valley, Texas
Queen Butterfly (Danaus sp.) on Gregg’s Mistflower (Conoclinium greggii) at Casa Santa Ana, Rio Grande Valley, South Texas. Although not ideal, super telephotos can be used to get some shots of really big bugs. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it and over it.—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Where Have All the Red-winged Blackbirds Gone?

Female Red-winged Blackbird at Myakka River State Park, Florida
Female Red-winged Blackbird in winter at Myakka River State Park, Florida. Many references state that Red-winged Blackbirds are one of the most abundant birds in North America. But is this still really true? Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

A sighting of two female Red-winged Blackbirds eating cautiously from the seed feeders at the Edith L. Moore Sanctuary in west Houston on the afternoon of February 27 reminded me of what I saw recently in the north woods of Wisconsin and Minnesota. These suspicious birds were likely hungry migrants on their way north, to perhaps the very same Great Lakes region habitats I visited last summer.

After that trip, I wrote about ecological changes I observed  birding the woods of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. One of those changes was an apparent drastic reduction in the number of Red-winged Blackbirds in a variety of habitats relative to what I remembered from childhood. Rather than large flocks in cattail marshes and around the margins of lakes and rivers, I saw only scattered small groups of fewer than ten birds.

In 2009 APHIS, part of USDA, says it poisoned 489,444 red-winged blackbirds in Texas, and 461,669 in Louisiana.—Martha Rosenberg, huffingtonpost.com

Further reading after these observations substantiated impressions of massive population losses. Ever since that time, I have kept an eye out for these birds wherever possible. I am aware, however, that reports based on anecdotal evidence will likely convince no-one, especially those with a vested interest in denial.

Singing Male Red-winged Blackbird at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas.
Singing Male Red-winged Blackbird in winter at Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

The “famous” taxpayer-supported USDA program of mass poisoning of icterids (blackbirds, grackles, cowbirds) and other agricultural pest species like magpies and European Starlings called “Bye bye blackbird”  is probably just the tip of the iceberg of officially sanctioned avian extermination. I say famous because this is a well-known program widely reported on in the blogosphere—but never (to my knowledge) in the really “big time” popular media outlets, the ABC Evening News or the PBS Newshour, for example. (Sidebar: Why is this? Why must we look only to elite publications like Audubon’s  “Common Birds in Decline” or National Geographic ‘s “Last Song for Migrating Birds” for reports of the destruction of the environment and the slaughter of its innocents? I guess it would take time away from reports of Justin Bieber’s latest brush with the law and interviews with random passersby about the weather.)

Furthermore, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (part of the Department of the Interior) has issued a directive, a so-called depredation order, that anyone can kill any number of pest birds they suspect of causing economic damage or posing health risks (sometimes with avicides like Starlicide and administered by professional contractors in the form of poisoned brown rice baits). These private activities are perhaps more disturbing than the USDA programs because of the much larger potential scale of the killing–and the USDA kills birds by the millions! In the eyes of the federal government (and many farmers) icterids are apparently vermin of no worth whatsoever—despite detailed agricultural studies showing that as a result of insectivorous blackbirds, farmers can use 50% less pesticide.

For me, the bold, difficult to describe call of the Male Red-winged Black-bird is the sound of a marsh. Males perched atop cattails with females poking around in the brush below is what a marsh is supposed to look and sound like. Should the Red-winged Blackbird go the way of the Passenger Pigeon, marshes across North America will lose some of their most defining characteristics and aesthetic qualities—the experience of visiting a marsh will be immeasurably degraded.

Perhaps the plight of the Rusty Blackbird will focus some more attention on systematic, deliberate avian extermination. Rusty Blackbirds have suffered an estimated 85-98% reduction in population over the past 40 years likely due, in part, to agricultural poisoning by the government and private individuals. The Rusty Blackbird (along with the Mexican Crow) has been removed from the depredation order—at least taxpayers are not paying for the extermination and protection of the same species. Perhaps that’s all we can hope for in the current Age of Dysfunction—although I fail to understand how Rusty Blackbirds and Mexican Crows will be kept from eating the poisoned rice.

Male Great-tailed Grackle at East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
A Male Great-tailed Grackle Intimidates Rivals Over a Seagull Carcass at East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. According to the federal government such birds are vermin and can be killed with impunity. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

I value my garden more for being full of blackbirds than of cherries, and very frankly give them fruit for their songs.—Joseph Addison, The Spectator

©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Birding the Future

Pencil drawing of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird by a young artist.
Trepp’s interpretation of my Ruby-throated Hummingbird image. Nature illustration is one of many ways young people express their interest in and curiosity about the natural world.

We don’t often see children out birding. Frankly, as high school teachers, we inked that feature into the “pros of birding” column when we were auditioning feasible hobbies. Children, it seems, neither make happy birders nor birders happy.

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeds from a lantana flower cluster at Lafitte's Cove Nature Preserve on Galveston Island, TX.
A Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeds from a lantana flower cluster at Lafitte’s Cove Nature Preserve on Galveston Island, TX. Notice the dusting of pollen on his head
Portrait of Chris Cunningham in pencil by a young artist
Trepp captured Chris discussing our camera set-up during the HANPA April 2013 meeting.

It may seem ironic but, we were pleasantly surprised to see two young visitors to our “Behind the Blog” presentation at the Houston Audubon Nature Photography Association (HANPA) meeting in April. (Willing students are always appreciated!) Brothers Richard and Trepp, eight and six, stayed as long as their bedtime would allow. We were impressed by the quality and depth of their questions and received several wonderful sketches capturing parts of the program. Encouraged by this passionate interest at such a young age, I was reminded that birders need to cultivate the next generation of birders if bird conservation – let alone nature conservation – is to have a future.

Flashback to the late 1990’s when Chris and I lived in Austin: We were the only “kids” in the creek beds during school-term weekends.  We were re-living our childhood–where were the real kids spending theirs? Was this a generational shift to the indoors or a shift born of crime statistics, real and imagined?  My parent friends tell me it was fundamentally the latter. Computer activities were (and presumably still are) the safer option. How do we foster exploration and conservation if the great outdoors needs a chaperone?

It’s up to us. How will you bird the future?

 

“The future depends on what you do today.”

— Mahatma Ghandi

Birds of the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary: A New Collection

Carolina Wren with nesting materials at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston
Nesting? In early February!?! You gotta be kiddin’ me! A Carolina Wren collects skeletonized leaves for a nest under the eaves of the cabin at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston. February 2013 started out warm, signaling an early spring. Several major cold fronts soon followed, however.

Houston Audubon’s Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary is a gem: 17 acres of dense forest and thicket in an easy-to-get-to suburban setting. A great diversity of food plants, both native (e.g., yaupon holly, trumpet creeper; scarlet buckeye) and non-native (Ligustrum, Pyracantha) no doubt contribute to the diversity and abundance of wildlife.  Any time is a great time to visit, but we visit especially often in winter and spring, particularly for the resident and migrating songbirds and raptors, some of which can be seen in this small collection.

American Robin with Ligustrum Fruit at Edith L. Moore Sanctuary, Houston
American Robin with Ligustrum Fruit at the Edith L. Moore Sanctuary, Houston. Ligustrum is a foreign invasive, but Robins and Cedar Waxwings enjoy the blue-black fruit.
Cooper's Hawk with nesting materials at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston
Cooper’s Hawk with Nesting Material. A mated pair of Cooper’s Hawks is currently nesting at Edith L. Moore. One bird is seen here with some conifer bark it just stripped from its perch. Photo taken in late March.

© 2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Spring Migration Has Begun: Early Migrants Have Arrived on the Upper Texas Gulf Coast! (Just in Time for Wildflowers)

Male Northern Parula at the Sabine Wood Sanctuary, Texas Gulf Coast
Male Northern Parula at Sabine Woods.

We spent Spring Break 2013 (March 9-17) visiting some of out favorite birding sites along the upper Texas Coast in search of early migrants, with mixed results. Places visited included Lafitte’s Cove, East Beach, Sabine Woods, Edith L. Moore, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), Brazos Bend State Park, and the Big Thicket National Preserve (Pitcher Plant Trail). The weather was spectacular–crisp and dry. Recent frosts, however, probably have diminished the diversity and abundance of wildflowers in some areas.

Leather flowers at Anahuac NWR (Skillern Tract)
Blue Jasmine (Clematis crispa) at Anahuac NWR (Skillern Tract). This elegant plant was one of the few wildflowers in bloom here.

The insect (i.e., food) supply varied dramatically by location. Brazos Bend, as is typical, had relatively few biting insects but had a lot of crane flies, which at this time of year seem to be a staple for insectivorous birds. I saw American Pipits and Myrtle Warblers feasting on them. Likewise at Lafitte’s Cove there were few biting insects, but abundant Black and White Warblers and Northern Parulas were also dining on crane flies. Also at Lafitte’s Cove we were treated to a shy mated pair of Mottled Ducks.  Anahuac NWR had far fewer biting insects than is usual–but also fewer birds. Sabine Woods was, as always, loaded with biting insects–mosquitos, gnats, and other flies. At Sabine Woods, Gray Catbirds, a Louisiana Waterthrush, Black and White Warblers, and Northern Parulas were about. I was disappointed not to see Hooded Warblers in the lantana thicket on the east side of the sanctuary given that I had just seen one among the cane on the east end of Galveston the day before (March 12).

American Pipit with crane fly at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
American Pipit with Crane Fly at Brazos Bend State Park near 40-Acre Lake. Crane flies are a staple for insectivorous birds during cool late winter/early spring weather. Photo taken hand-held, Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS.

We erred in not calling ahead before visiting Big Thicket. A recent controlled burn had swept through the Pitcher Plant Trail, leaving the understory and ground cover (including the Pitchers!) ash–although some grasses were making a recovery. The whole area was dry, black and desolate. A few titmice could be heard singing, a few woodpeckers drumming, but that was about it.

Louisiana Iris at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston
Louisiana Iris (Iris sp.) at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary.

The last day of birding over spring break was Saturday, March 16. We spent almost the entire day at Brazos Bend State Park, where male Northern Parulas could be heard singing in the trees. Also on this day, male Ring-necked Ducks could finally be seen and photographed out in open water with their mates. Over the past few weeks they have only been visible hiding out in the shallows off the islands in Elm Lake. A mated pair of Wood Ducks has been hanging around one of the nest boxes on the trail between Elm and 40-Acre Lakes, but they have been very shy, swimming for cover any time someone approaches. I finally got a decent shot of the male. I will keep trying for a shot of the pair.

Black and White Warbler at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Black and White Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island.

Within a few weeks or so the woods and thickets should be hopping with additional migrants . . . Palm Warblers, Hooded Warblers, Magnolia Warblers . . . and we can hardly wait!

Scarlet Buckeye at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston
Scarlet Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston. One of the earliest splashes of native spring color in Gulf Coast woods.

 © 2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

To Flash or Not to Flash, That is the Question

American Goldfinch at the Edith L. Moore Sanctuary, Houston.
American Goldfinch at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston. American Goldfinches seem to largely ignore flashes–especially if there is significant ambient light. Photo taken with high-speed synchronized flash: Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4 TC)/600EX RT flash.

It took me quite a while to try flash nature photography, and I am still a bit uneasy about my decision to do so. The decision: to use flash on a very limited basis, only when no other technical solution is possible, and when I am sure that the animals are not too upset by it. Some bird photographers consider flash absolutely necessary, and others vehemently reject it. I come down somewhere in the middle, but tending toward rejection in many cases.

To be clear, I know of no evidence that flash photography harms birds–if I did, I wouldn’t use flash. Period. We have all had our pictures taken with flash, and I know that I have not been injured by it. The question of whether or not birds (and other wildlife) are upset (i.e., stressed) by flash is a different matter, and I know that some species are clearly annoyed by it. Of course, many species of animals are stressed simply by humans being in the wild. In many cases, birds react no more strongly to the flash than they do when I move an arm or click the shutter. This is probably because I use the high-speed synchronized flash setting with a fast shutter speed (1/800-1/1250). This “fill flash” approach means that the flash output is much lower than it would be if the flash were used as the primary light source. In general, it seems that birds notice the flash less when there is a significant amount of ambient light–which makes sense.

Pine Warbler at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary
Pine Warbler at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston. This beautiful little bird found the flash interesting and actually came closer to investigate.

I began using a ring flash for botanicals and macro. I shot a variety of herps with the flash on the high-speed synchronized setting and saw no reaction whatsoever . . . until I tried shooting an Ornate Box Turtle (Terrepene ornata). This fellow startled every time the flash went off: no more flash photos of ornate box turtles. Indeed, no more flash photography of any terrestrial chelonians (turtles and tortoises). Aquatic turtles apparently ignore flash.

When flash can be used ethically, it provides an incredible expansion of possibilities for bird photography. For example, It allows photography throughout the day, especially in dark or contrasty heavily-wooded areas–where many of the most exciting and challenging species are to be found. I no longer feel confined to the optimal shooting times in the early morning and late afternoon (the “golden hours”). On the down side, it is very easy to blow out whites or to make the bird appear as though it was suspended in a cave, surrounded by a severely underexposed background. Despite numerous technical challenges, I look forward to exploring the possibilities in the world of avian flash photography.

Red-bellied Woodpecker at Edith L. Moore Sanctuary, Houston, Texas
Red-bellied Woodpecker at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston, Texas. Image taken with high-speed synchronized flash. This bird reacted negatively (startled/flinched) to the flash, although not as strongly as Red-headed Woodpeckers. I don’t plan on using flash with these two species again.

 © 2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.