Readers’ photos: Virginia rail (and a trick for photographing birds)

May 17, 2013 • 4:14 am

I’m very pleased that posting of some some readers’ photographs has inspired others to send me their nature photos. If you’ve got good ones, send them along, but I reserve the right to choose which ones to publish.

This one clearly made the cut. Reader John Chardine, a professional bird photographer, sent me a picture of a shy North American bird, the Virginia rail (Rallus limicola), adding this note:

I’m a bird photographer- yes they do exist- so thought I would send this calling Virginia Rail to you. They are incredibly secretive birds, sticking to the marsh, but at this time of year you can coax them out with a little song fro your iPhone.


Of course I had to ask John about the iPhone app and how it worked, and he replied:

The iPhone app is called “Birdtunes” and offers up songs and calls for all North American bird species. Lang Elliot- the recordist- provides several different songs and calls for each species. The app is one of several available but I like this one. The idea of course is to play the call of a male of a certain species and have a nearby territory holder react by approaching and calling back. In a sense this is like sending a message directly to the brain of the bird in question so one has to be careful and not over-use the technique. Usually a short burst of sound is enough to bring a territory holder into view. At this time of year these birds are doing this all the time with real territory holders around them, so the additive effect of a recording being played is minimal, again so long as it is done judiciously. Once the bird is in view I then use my professional Canon camera equipment to make the images.

Check out John’s website here; there are some gorgeous images, including birds, other animals, plants, and landscapes (there are several pages for each category).

For a gallery of Virginia rail pictures by other photographers, go here, and a collection of videos is here.

Finally, do not confuse the Virginia rail with the Virginia reel:


25 thoughts on “Readers’ photos: Virginia rail (and a trick for photographing birds)

  1. These are such beautiful photos. I especially like the vulture: I have a certain love of vultures because everyone thinks they’re ugly and treats them like untouchables for eating dead things….poor vultures and some are quite pretty.

    Taking pictures like these takes a lot of patience, a small fortune in long heavy lenses and above all – skill. When the result is tack sharp, nicely composed and beautifully finished pictures like these, it is truly impressive.

  2. I want to add stress to the modifier “used **judiciously**”. The use of recordings to attract birds is a controversial topic. I think it’s okay as long as it’s not causing undue stress on the birds or obnoxiously confusing other birders in the area. But you do really need to use some common sense. Don’t screw with endangered species, don’t do it in crowded birdwatching areas, and don’t do it excessively.

    Also, I would like to congratulate John. That was a great rail shot! I have gotten some good Clapper Rail and Sora shots in the past, but I haven’t ever gotten a nice photo of a Virginia Rail.

    1. Controversial indeed. I don’t ever use any kind of artificial means to attract birds for photography, bait or audio recordings. No photograph, no matter how beautiful, is worth the potential of stressing the subject.

  3. Jerry where should we be sending these photos? I have an Eastern Screech Owl of my own to submit — nothing like as good as the last one, but better than most of my attempts.

  4. The increasingly easy access of bird song playbacks has put a new stress on an already stressed group of creatures, wild birds. Photographers of birds, a rapidly growing demographic due to the advent of affordable digital photography and ubiquitous iPhone playback apps, can be an especially irresponsible group as they always want to get “just a little bit closer” to birds. Birders with binoculars are usually content to be at least 10 paces farther away than the photographers but are also heavy users of playback equipment.

    Luring a bird off a nest points out the nest location to predetors and parasites like Blue Jays who will raid the nest or Cowbirds who will deposit their own egg in the nest. Additionally, photographers often use flash equipment to get the best light at the highest fstop aperature setting with it’s increased depth of field and many birds are startled by the light causing them to fly off.

    Nesting, secretive birds have a hard enough time as it is without the additional stress generated by this new activity. No one has ever suggested that luring birds out of hiding is beneficial to them and it is self serving at best to suggest that such intrusions are harmless. Whenever you see a beautiful picture of a bird like the Virginia Rail above, you can be sure that wildlife has been disturbed, the only benefit accruing to the photographer and his viewers. Further, the best photos are probably the cause of the most stress.

    1. I’ll second this. I was on a bird tour recently (as a tag along as my partner was one of the people hosting) and some of the birders whipped out iphones to play bird songs to call certain species closer. They were politely but firmly stopped by the tour leader.

    2. Rob- With respect, your post is full of generalizations and inaccuracies. It is too easy to paint a negative picture like this if you don’t know the facts and have no experience of what you are talking about. The fact of the matter is that EVERYTHING we do in life affects the species around us. I assume you breathe, live in a house, take walks, and might plant a garden, mow your lawn, or trim your hedge? All of these “innocent” activities directly or indirectly kill or at least disturb other species.

        1. While I do not have nor do I know of any real studies of the phenomenon, I do indeed have a number of years of anecdotal experience birding in an urban migrant trap, Brooklyn NY’s Prospect Park. We get unusually high concentrations of migrating songbirds as the park is a patch of green in a sea of concrete and asphalt. Migrating songbirds fly at night and look to land and feed when the sun comes up. Because of population density and modern communications (we get flash mobs when word of a rare bird goes out on twitter) we also get an unusually high concentration of birders and photographers.

          One example I offer is of a scene I ran across recently. I heard the song of a Prothonotary Warbler nearby and went in search of the bird as I had heard one had been seen in the park. When I located the source of the sound I saw an iPhone laying on the ground playing the song continuously while 3 photographers with their 400mm lenses on cameras on tripods with flashes set had their equipment focused on the area by the iPhone. The bird was flitting about nearby the area seemingly upset at the mysterious whereabouts of his competition. This bird is an overshoot in our area, they generally breed south of us and sometimes fly too far migrating. They as all migrating songbirds are generally exhausted already when they are in our park and you would have a hard time making the case that these photographers were helping that bird. Birders with binoculars typically play the song once or twice to get the bird to show itself and then are able to follow the bird.

          David Sibley’s advice is sober an judicious but has the unintended consequence of tacitly sanctioning birdsong playbacks. Please remember that birdsong playbacks are always only in the interests of the bird watcher never in the birds themselves. The stress may not be lethal but it probably is contributive to the stresses that can be the difference between success and failure for a bird. Probably no where near the stress of habitat loss or feral and domestic cat populations but stress nevertheless.

          1. I am not a birder, so have no strong opinions on the subject, but the objection that “birdsong playbacks are always only in the interests of the bird watcher never in the birds themselves” seems bizarre. One could just as well say “bird watching is …”

          2. Rob- The Prothonotary Warbler example is heinous and I too would be totally put-off by the use of playback if I witnessed that. However, playback is here to stay because it is now so easy to do with iPhones and cheap but effective apps. The activity can’t banned (except in conservation areas, parks and the like) so my personal approach is to educate people about how to use the technique in a sensitive way. Your Brooklyn bird photographers were probably not doing what they did out of malice, rather, out of ignorance or stupidity.

            I will say though that you have a knack for painting bleak pictures. Bird photography is very definitely not all about “flash mobs” chasing exhausted migrating birds.

            Two more quick points. First, I am sure Sibley’s motive was not to dissuade the use of playback, but to educate. I see no missed attempt at dissuasion in his article.

            Second, fewer and fewer people are being exposed to nature and the outdoors these days. One of the things that motivates me is that nature photography exposes people to natural beauty and if you do it well can engage people at an emotional level. Though not as effective as getting them out there for themselves, this nevertheless can have a positive effect on people’s attitudes towards wildlife and a nock-on effect on conservation. So I am making a case for a conservation role for nature photography and a consequent payback to the birds.

            Ultimately, the rule I work by is I love my subjects more than photography.

    3. “Further, the best photos are probably the cause of the most stress.”

      Nope, the most disturbance is caused by casual snapshooters wielding point-and-shoot cameras, who charge right into a site so they can take their picture at a range of four feet. Since they usually don’t know the first thing about photography, their photos often aren’t that good anyway, even if their quarry isn’t in the next county by shutter clicking time. The real pros have kilobucks worth of many-frames-per-second many-megapixel cameras, long focal length huge aperture lenses, and huge memory cards. They spend hours selecting the viewpoint, sun angle etc., informed by their knowledge both of how birds behave and how to get the best out of natural lighting. They take thousands of frames, and keep one or two. They seldom get very close to their subjects.

      Of course sometimes there are happy exceptions. I was strolling along a beach one day with nothing more than a point-and-shoot pocket camera, and was able to take some fine pictures of a juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Heron at a range of three feet. I didn’t stalk him or even stumble upon him; he flew across a bay and landed (literally) on my feet. He stayed around for several minutes, utterly fearless, snapping up sand crabs. I hope his fearlessness didn’t betray him in the end.

      I was once kayaking in the same bay, passing about 100 yards from a rookery with many Snowy Egrets nesting. Suddenly a couple in a power boat motored past, and crashed right into the mangroves at the base of the rookery so the camera-wielding woman could get a closeup of the (terrified) egrets. These yahoos far outnumber the good photographers, do far more damage, and seldom have anything memorable to show for it.

      1. Your experience is true enough and typical casual encounters with what are called “charismatic” birds, Egrets, Eagles, Owls, Herons and the like. These are birds a casual observer can see and they often behave as inappropriatly as you describe.

        My example above is of 3 such experienced photographers with all the right equipment, a scene I have witnesses all too often. Another example I offer is of photographers who trimmed the branches in front of a roosting Saw-whet Owl as the branches obscured their photo. These Owl’s survival tactic is to stay stock still and they can actually be picked right off the branch at times. I don’t think it could be said to be in their best interest to be so handled.

        1. “Further, the best photos are probably the cause of the most stress.”

          This remains the statement I most object to. If I see a great bird photo, must I suspect the photographer of bird abuse? Must I be more suspicious than I would be if the picture were only OK but not great? You have yet to provide any evidence to back that up.

          My own experience, anecdotal as well, is very different. I know several people who take high quality bird photos fairly regularly; never have I seen them do outrageous things to birds. The reason they often take great pictures is that they spend a lot of time in the field, and use good equipment and excellent technique. They do not need to torment birds to do their work.

          Virtually all of the serious bird abuse I have seen has been perpetrated by much less experienced people, directed against charismatic and non-charismatic species alike. Some of the perps carry around a lot of expensive photo gear. And yes, I suppose it may be true that once in awhile some habitual bird abuser takes a great photo. But you seem to be arguing that photo quality and bird abuse are significantly correlated, and I have yet to see any reason to believe it.

          “David Sibley’s advice is sober an[d] judicious but has the unintended consequence of tacitly sanctioning birdsong playbacks.” Well, no, I’d say he is intentionally and explicitly sanctioning birdsong playbacks in situations that neither seriously stress birds nor annoy or confuse nearby birders. If you call, it’s your responsibility to be clear on both points. If you do anything else in the vicinity of wild birds, the same.

          “Please remember that birdsong playbacks are always only in the interests of the bird watcher never in the birds themselves.” No, again it depends on context. I know of a lot of Spotted Owls whose habitat wasn’t logged because teams of birders used birdsong playback to establish their presence.

          1. I see I hit a defensive cord. I find people generally defend what is in their interests as you do. My general point is not to single out people as malicious in any way. Birders and photographers are basically the same people. Birders themselves will be generally respectful of flight distances of birds and not disturb habitat UNLESS it is a really great bird. I have seen birders chasing a rare (in our area) Fork-tailed Flycatcher over and through protected dunes at Captree State Park as it flew away when it was put up by people inching too close.

            Another phenomenon I have witnessed is when birders become photographers, something that happens when birders pass the novice stage and look to up the challenge a bit. Put a camera in a birder’s hand and he takes a few steps closer to the bird. As one professional bird photographer said “the lens is never big enough” meaning it’s always better to be closer to the bird for the photo. I am not referring necessarily to “outrageous” behavior, more to the one or two steps extra that stress the bird. The rule of thumb is, move in till the bird takes flight then back off two steps.

            With the exception of documentary practices like protecting the Spotted Owl, song playback can not be defended only tolerated and resigned to it’s inevitability, much like nuclear power (too far?).

            1. “I see I hit a defensive cord. I find people generally defend what is in their interests as you do. My general point is not to single out people as malicious in any way.”

              I see I’ve encountered an amateur psychologist. In fact, the number of times I’ve used playback in many years of birding is very low (<10) nor do I own playback equipment; if playback vanished overnight it would make little difference to me, so here too your analysis falls flat.

              Your problem (if I may play the amateur psychologist for a moment) seems to be a strong tendency to attach yourself to Great Truths you believe to be self-evident, perhaps especially those that allow you to assume a stance of moral superiority, and then look for a few examples to illustrate them. To believe that “Further, the best photos are probably the cause of the most stress.” is a Great Truth that you have yet to support with significant evidence, and I strongly suspect to be false.

              This kind of thinking leads finally (as in your last sentence above) to statements of the form "Except for all the exceptions, X is still true." Cue "What have the Romans ever done for us?" in Life of Brian.

              The topic grows stale, and I'd rather be birding, so the last word is yours.

  5. As a train-spotter/rail enthusiast I should like to express my disappointment at the title of this thread. Virginia Rail indeed. You got me all steamed up there for a minute.

    1. And the term “thin as a rail”, although potentially applying to railway lines actually refers to bird rails. Their body plan is laterally flattened, making them thin, and allowing easy movement between stems of emergent vegetation in marshes.

  6. could anyone here follow up there comments about the dangers of using recordings to draw the attention of birds with some research? I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with either side, but some hard data to back up either would be nice. Thanks.

  7. First thanks for the great comments on the image.

    I had a feeling that whyevolutionistrue readers would have opinions about playback as a tool for birding and photography, and you didn’t disappoint!

    A good review of the subject is provided by David Sibley here:

    He has arguably taken the place of Roger Tory Peterson and the preeminent North American birder, author and artist. I encourage people to read his review of the subject.

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