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08/20/11
To shoot a Bobolink
Filed under: General, Birding & Outdoors, Illinois, Birding "Patches"
Posted by: Ken @ 1:27 pm

Travel, first to Alaska, and more recently in Europe, has occupied much of my past two months. Before leaving for a visit to Spain and a western Mediterranean cruise earlier this month, I wrote three blog posts and scheduled them for publication on consecutive Saturday mornings. I now have to catch up and tell about the varied results of my recent hunting experiences.

The great painter John James Audubon was known to cook and eat many of the birds he collected.

“Although he would shoot the birds for sport, he also shot them in order to paint their features.  In his mission for new specimens, Audubon would shoot a minimum of a hundred birds each day. ” http://www.princetonaudubon.com/audubon-.htm

Audubon was known to be quite an epicure, and I remember reading his accounts of the varying flavors of different birds and mammals (including at least one rat). However, he was not an insensitive killer.

“Because he worked in the wilderness for long stretches with no other food source, he had to eat those birds, too. (He recounted one occasion when he drew a live hawk in his kitchen, and the bird’s eye ‘directed towards mine, appeared truly sorrowful.’ He released the creature as quickly as he could.)” 
http://www.strangescience.net/audubon.htm

Well, relax– I only hunt birds with binoculars, and more recently, a camera. Therefore I will not be discussing a recipe for blackbirds in a pie, but take a good look at this one.

The front view of this Bobolink only hints at its beauty.

Bobolink front view 20110706

Bobolinks on the prairie near our NE Illinois home have been a main target for me the past several summers. (Click on this image for more views):

Bobolink 6-20110707

I keep trying for the”perfect” shot of a male Bobolink in breeding plumage. It must be taken from a rear quarter, with the bird turning his head halfway, to show the contrast between his face and the nape of his neck. Then, the light must be just right to provide some eye shine against the dull black face. The bird must be near enough to permit definition of its feather patterns, and it must be in perfect plumage.

These elements have never yet been aligned in my many attempts for Bobolink “perfection.” Just before departing on our July Alaska trip I visited Nelson Lake/Dick Young Forest Preserve near our Illinois home.This time I saw up to 20 Bobolinks, mostly adult males. Those near the path always seemed to see me first and high-tailed it to distant pastures. Only two rested within camera range. Although in plain view, they were always at the outer limits of my camera’s resolution, and the images were soft when cropped. Some had scruffy plumage, like the one I photographed the previous day (See: Illinois prairie in early summer). My most common flaws have been failure to catch light in their eyes, and failure to get near enough for a crisp image.

I also keep trying to “bag” a singing Dicksissel at close range, such as this perfect specimen with a clear yellow breast:

Dicksissel singing 2-20110707

Common Yellowthroats seemed to be everywhere, including this female, foraging for insects in the spent flower heads of Queen Anne’s Lace::

Common Yellowthroat 20110819

American Goldfinches are now breeding, their life cycle tuned to the ripening of the thistles that provide down for nests and food for nestlings:

American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) and thistles 2-20110707

It’s fun to try to catch a goldfinch in an interesting posture, but one must be very quick (and lucky):

American Goldfinch 20110707

Let’s depart momentarily  from the “yellow bird” theme. I particularly enjoy chasing down the “Little Brown Jobs.” This year, though I have heard them singing in the grass, the rare Henslow’s Sparrows have eluded me. However a Field Sparrow kindly stepped up to represent the family:

Field Sparrow 2-20110707

In a lucky shot, I captured another Field Sparrow in flight, as it launched from its perch just as I depressed the shutter:

Field Sparrow in flight 20110819

After the Henslow’s Sparrow, this year’s most elusive quarry has been the Sedge Wren.  The prairie grass is now 5 or more feet high, and it is very difficult to shoot through the vegetation. Yesterday Mary Lou and I encountered two pairs of Sedge Wrens that appeared to be protecting a nest or fledglings close to the path. Nearly all my photos were partially obscured by greenery, and the first bird was back-lighted when it finally came out into the open. I used fill flash because of the very bright conditions and dark shadows. I had been trying all summer to get a clean shot of one of these prairie sprites, and this was my finest opportunity this year.

These are probably the best I could expect, but they capture the Sedge Wren’s reclusive nature: 

Sedge Wren 20110819

Sedge Wren close 3-20110819

A male Indigo Bunting graced us with his presence:

Indigo Bunting 20110707

So far I have not been successful in obtaining the classic shot of a singing meadowlark on a big round fence post, and have to settle for one that dwarfs his skinny perch :

Eastern Meadowlark 20110505

Or an earlier one, ready to hang on the wall with my other “trophies:”

Meadowlark Framed 20090605

15 Responses to “To shoot a Bobolink”

  1. holdingmoments Says:
    Fantastic selection Ken. I love that Field Sparrow, and the first Sedge Wren.
  2. Kathiesbirds Says:
    Well done! Most of these are exquisite! Love the sedge wren and the Dickcissel and the Meadowlark, and …LOL! they are all good. I would love to even see a bobolink as I have only seen them once when I was on a birding trip in west Virginia. What an beautiful and interesting little bird it is. I am in love with it.
  3. Andrew Says:
    A lovely series Ken… Meadowlark for me!
  4. springman Says:
    Masterful post Ken! I must say, your analysis of the “perfect” bobolink setting and pose had me cracking up. You are as anal as I am, poor soul. Still these stunning shots show that your artistic vision is achingly within reach. Just a few more hours in the field each week and perhaps a $15,000 600mm lens should get you there! That and a good woman to carry it. Safe journey to you Sir!
  5. Mick Says:
    A great series of photos. Beautiful color in the birds.
  6. Modesto Viegas Says:
    Great series! Very good photos!
  7. Boom & Gary Says:
    Wonderful photos!! Boom & Gary of the Vermilon River, Canada.
  8. eileen Says:
    Gorgeous birds and photos. I love the Bobolink and the Dickcissel. I hope to see them both soon.
  9. Larry Jordan Says:
    Gorgeous shots Ken, really. I can’t wait to get to the point where I have so many “good” photos of different species that I can attempt the perfect ones! I reiterate Dave Springman’s comment above ;-)
  10. Larry Jordan Says:
    Oh, I forgot to mention, the Sedge Wren photos are exceptional and should be entered into a photo contest! I would be elated to simply see one much less get a shot like those.
  11. Hilke Breder Says:
    Ken, you succeeded in capturing perfect images of the Sedge Wren! And a perfect Meadowlark! Amd a perfect Dickcissel! And…and… All are really gorgeous. The Bobolink image is excellent. I know how hard it is to make the eye stand out and get detail in the black plumage. but you did.
  12. Pat Says:
    Wonderful series! Your photos are superb!
  13. Sondra Says:
    WOW some fantastic bird photos here!!! I am really loving that meadowlark with the singing pose…excellent.
  14. Neil Says:
    Beautiful colours and photos.
  15. Ken Says:
    Thank you all, for your encouraging comments! Ken

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