This is one of those photographs you want to make, don't expect to be able to, and then are surprised with the result. It's one of my favorite images from the time I spent as artist in residence at Homestead National Monument, wandering the small prairie and getting to know the residents on a daily basis.
I love to photograph birds. It's an extension of the feeling I've had for them as long as I can remember. They seem to be so complete in themselves - going where they want, living where they want, taking things as they come.
Prairie birds are always on the go. Looking for food, mates, nesting sites, finishing a migration or getting ready to go on one - these guys have a full day and rarely sit still. A typical songbird of the prairie, this dickcissel is in full mating plumage and letting females know he's available through the sharp sounds he makes from his perch. It's apparently the only time he takes a break from hunting for seeds and insects.
The prairie being restored at Homestead is small, just a part of the 160 or so acres representing the original homestead. I found simply wandering through the tall grasses, watching the wildlife around me and listening made me familiar with the more common residents. Of course it helped to have a staff biologist to tell me what I was seeing! Frustratingly the vast majority of birds are pretty small and very skittish - getting close was mostly out of the question. Like much of life, however, it turned out if I stood still and waiting, they would get close to me.
Out in the field away from the visitor's center (that's the brickwork in the background) I watched this guy flying around singing. He'd stop on one twig and give voice for a short time, then fly to another and start over, never spending more than a couple of minutes in any one place. Even with my longest lens it seemed there would never be a composition close enough for the details I wanted. Nonetheless, it was relaxing to watch him make his rounds through the grassland.
I guess he decided I wasn't going to be a threat because his pattern of landing sites started getting closer and closer. Maybe he was getting some positive feedback from potential mates in that particular area or maybe he thought the acoustics were better nearer to me. For whatever reason, he landed on this branch not more than ten feet away and started his song again.
One lesson I'm learning with wildlife photography is you can be excited later - at the moment it's time to get the technical stuff right and make the image.
The sun was behind him providing a wonderful rim light on his body and the clear sky was radiating plenty of light to make him easy to expose against the darker background. I had my settings on open aperture because I wanted a fast shutter speed and that gave me the shallow depth of field that would put the background out of focus and make him the obvious subject in the frame. He pretty much ignored me as I fired off several shots while he sang, then hearing something attractive over by the tree line he left me looking down at the back of my camera to see what I'd made.
This was the best of the bunch. A little cropping to make him the star of the image, a little sharpening and here he is - another guy in the world just happy to be there and letting everyone in the area know about it.
I never got a better opportunity the rest of the time I was there. Perhaps he took pity on me as I hopelessly watched his colleagues zip around me or maybe he just one of those animals that loves to have his picture taken. I can't say for sure but I do know it was a great experience to be there and share the moment with him. After seeing the final image I felt like throwing my head back and singing as well!
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