Readers’ wildlife photographs (i.e., moar birds)

January 20, 2014 • 1:25 pm

For some reason, the wildlife photos that readers sent me are about 90% pictures of birds. Where are the mammals, the insects, the plants? Well, I can’t complain because I do love a good photo of our feathered friends.

Reader Bruce Lyons sent in some nice bird photos, and a description of where and how he took them:

I live at the base of campus at the University of California in Santa Cruz. The photographs were all taken from within my house, looking out an open window into the canopy of a hawthorn tree that brings in the birds.  We call it Bird TV—just sit, watch and the activity come to us. We get lots of frugivores coming in to eat the berries—robins, waxwings, hermit thrushes, among others.  Interestingly, waxwings are far more likely to hit the windows than any other species and we suspect it has to do with the way they leave the tree as a flock, perhaps as an anti-predation mechanism. Raptors learn that fruit trees are bird magnets and we occasionally see Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks going for birds in the hawthorn tree.

A hummingbird feeder near the window also brings in Anna’s Hummingbirds (you recently posted a video of a male courtship flight) and I will also include a couple of photos to show what a male Anna’s hummingbird looks like close up (short answer is spectacular). The hummingbird photos were taken on a rainy day so the bird was covered with tiny water drops and his gorget colors just glowed.

Anna’s hummingbird (Calypte anna; male). What female could resist such gorgeous plumage?

Anna's 1

Anna's 2

Male house finch (Haemorhous mexicanus). They get a lot of their red breast color from carotenoids in the food—as in the photo—and the females are attracted to redder males. Some theorize (and there are supporting data) that the females have evolved this “choice” because redder males are better-fed males, and would make better parents, feeding the young more frequently and, perhaps, being less susceptible to disease or parasites.

Male house finch

 I asked Bruce, since readers like to know technical stuff, what equipment he used to take the pictures. He replied:

I use a Canon digital SLR. The robin and backlit waxwing were taken with a Canon 100-400mm zoom lens, excellent value for the moderate price. The hummingbird, finch and waxwing eating a berry were taken with my new Canon 500mm F4 lens (astonishingly good) with a 1.4 extender added (making the lens a 700mm lens).  I also get extra magnification because my camera does not have full frame sensor camera (yielding a 1.6 magnification crop factor). Altogether, this setup gives me 23 times magnification—like a telescope—completely crazy and it opens up lots of opportunities.

Cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), one of my favorite birds because of its crest and cool color pattern:

Cedar waxwing 1

Waxwing 2

American robin (Turdus migratorius):


And I’ll throw in as lagniappe a photo of a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) by regular contributor Stephen Barnard from Idaho:

Great Blue Heron

34 thoughts on “Readers’ wildlife photographs (i.e., moar birds)

    1. We got a heron buzz us a couple of weekends back, bursting out of cover beside the cycle path. Of course, it circled until I’d almost got the camera out of the bag before disappearing into the distance.
      They do it deliberately, I’m sure. Regardless of the status of their free-will.

  1. Bruce’s photos are spectacular. By the way, I use the same lenses, but with a full-frame camera. Interesting fact about Cedar Waxwings: They occasionally eat overripe and femented berries, get drunk, and are slaughtered by cars and by flying into buildings.

    1. I’d like to get a lens like that. I don’t know a thing about photography but I’ve got a Canon T3 Rebel that I take out in the woods with me from time to time. I don’t even know if it’s a decent camera, and I don’t really know how to work it.
      By the way, could I use one of these lenses without a tripod?
      Last week I ran into a cougar here in BC (my dogs chased it up a tree). I took video footage of it, but it sure would have been nice to get some shots of it with one of these lenses.

      1. You can take great photos with cheap cameras and shitty photos with expensive cameras. Look at it this way: Your Canon T3 Rebel is better than anything available at any reasonable price 15 years ago.

        I use my 500mm w/1.4 extender hand-held most of the time.

        1. In addition, almost any pro, given a choice between a consumer body (like the Rebel) paired with a pro lens (like the 500 f/4) or a pro body (such as the 1DX) paired with a consumer lens (say, a 75-300) will almost invariably go for the cheap camera with the expensive lens.

          But, beware…if you think cameras are expensive, even the top-of-the-line ones are cheap compared to lenses. Canon’s cheapest “L” lens (their pro line) is going to cost twice as much as a Rebel body. And you don’t want to know how expensive they get….



          P.S. Great photos, Bruce and Stephen both! b&

            1. Yup.

              It’s also worth mentioning that there’re often real bargain lenses that, though not necessarily well suited for everything the really expensive ones excel at, can still be used to create superlative images — so long, of course, you’re aware of their limitations.

              These days, at the top of that list is the “kit” lens that the manufacturer sells in the same box as the camera. Unless you know exactly what you want to do that that lens doesn’t let you, there’s no point in getting anything else. Most kit lenses these days have superlative image quality, and their main shortcoming is that they don’t have especially large maximum apertures. If you want a super-shallow depth of field or if you’re trying to shoot in low light without using flash, that’s a problem. Most people, however, generally want more depth of field for the kinds of things they’re shooting, and they’re quite happy with the camera’s built-in flash, rendering moot the biggest limitations of those lenses.

              That’s not to suggest that there’s no point in spending lots of money on lenses; the good ones really are worth every penny. It’s just that, like any other tool, if you don’t know what you’re doing with it, buying a more expensive version of that same tool isn’t going to change the work you do with it.



              1. One of the best cheap lenses I bought it she so-called plastic fantastic or nifty fifty: the bargain 50 mm f/1.8 lens that Canon makes.

              2. That one belongs in every bag. Cheaper than a not-sucky filter, and really very good optics.

                A somewhat more modern alternative, with not just merely very good optics but superlative optics, is the “Shorty McForty,” the new 40mm pancake.

                Also very well worth mentioning is the 50mm compact macro. It’s insanely sharp and has distortion so low it’s almost impossible to measure. Sure, it’s not as fast as the others and the autofocus is slow and loud, but it eats the other 50mm lenses for lunch in all other respects.



    2. They are indeed spectacular, and invariably so are yours. I always enjoy your pictures of your beautiful corner of the world, will have to try and visit Idaho next time I am over in that part of the US. Thanks for sharing them with us!

    3. Having watched waxwings fly into my windows so often I am now starting to wonder about the drunk waxwing hypothesis. I wonder if people see the birds fly into building and vehicles and assume they must be drunk. The birds in my yard are clearly not drunk—they just seem to have a style of flock departure that does not work well now that they live in habitats with windows.

  2. Regarding the heron: They’ve just arrived in force at on my ranch, only to find that a pair of Bald Eagles has taken up residence in their rookery after their nest tree blew down last July. These two species do not get along and I expect fireworks. The rookery is large enough (more than 40 nests) that I expect they can coexist, but any herons that try to nest near the eagles will be in dangerous territory.

    1. Herons are not to be messed with either. I hear from banders that they’re more dangerous to handle than hawks. When feeling threatened at close quarters, they apparently stab at the eyes with their knife-like beaks — and even the smaller species are a threat. But, maybe eagles have ways of dealing with them.

  3. “For some reason, the wildlife photos that readers sent me are about 90% pictures of birds. Where are the mammals, the insects, the plants?”

    There’s something about birds that makes them particularly attractive to many people. There are far more bird watchers than insect watchers and likewise rodent photography has just never caught on.

    1. Birds are simply more frequently seen than mammals. I see hundreds of birds for every wild mammal I see, and mammals are very common here.

      1. Very true, but your ducks, swans and herons are also just a lot more photogenic than most voles, bats or coyotes. Mammals are frequently pretty secretive too, and nocturnal of course. That’s probably a lot of the problem. Nocturnal animals just don’t get photographed much. Who wants to be out lugging a tripod at 2:00 AM?

    2. At least three reasons, the first two of them having to do with us primates being unusual mammals in ways that make us more similar to birds.

      1. Like most birds, we’re diurnal, while most mammals are nocturnal. When they’re around, it’s hard to see them. Or photograph them.

      2. Like most birds, we’re visually oriented, while most mammals are more into smell. So birds have colorful visual signals, which we find attractive too. If we were normal mammals, we might have a hobby of mammal-smelling.

      3. Birds can fly, which is not only cool but tends to make them more willing to be seen, since they can escape more easily from predators than the average mammal.

      4. Birds are fairly large animals, which explains why there are fewer insect-watchers despite insects having all three of the previous characteristics.

      5. Archosaurs rule!

  4. Great photos. I do not mind the preponderance of avian subjects either, given that I have never outgrown my love of dinosaurs I acquired as a kid. However, I can’t fail but notice that of late readers’ contributions largely come from North America. This is not meant as a complaint (if anything, the more pictures of hummingbirds I see the happier I am), but rather as a challenge to readers elsewhere to contribute some pictures as well. Given the worldwide readership of this website, I would love to see readers’ wildlife pictures from all corners of the world. Any Australian or NZ readers wanting to share pictures of their extraordinary wildlife, for example?

    1. Alektorophile:

      And let’s not forget South Africa too! Speaking of spectacular animals, S.A. is hard to beat.

    1. Excellent point — probably more of those than everything else combined. Hili alone probably outnumbers the birds.

      Amphibians — we’re terribly short on those.

      Or, maybe one of our two Santa Cruz area photographers can get a nice shot of the UCSC mascot, the banana slug. A mollusk or two might be OK.

  5. Oh that I could live in such a rich natural environment! Alas, I’m in a totally urban surrounding and the only exotic wildlife animals come to town for a couple of weeks every year, with the circus. I have taken a few good pictures there, though.

    Otherwise, I am limited to sparrows, pigeons, and up on the roofs there are crows or ravens, and up in the sky the black kites (that fly in from Africa in the spring and fly back there in the autumn) and the buzzards (one can tell them apart by the shape of their tails).

    There also are seagulls that fly near my windows as well as ducks that will come every evening on the large flat gravel-covered rooftop below my windows to roost and to mate, and fly back to the lake in the mornings.

    Then there are also grey herons flying high up in the sky as they go back to their nesting areas in the evening after a day’s fishing on the lake.

    On summer evenings, at dusk, for a fleeting instant there are small bats flitting around outside my window. I used to hear them until just a few years ago when my aging ears no longer could perceive such a high pitch.

    1. Do you have some handy parks? You’d be surprised what’ll turn up in a park. Even Central Park in New York City has an amazing bird list. Cemeteries and sewage lagoons are also likely spots. I do most of my photography at a 40ha groundwater recharge site, a city park, a botanical garden, and a somewhat local arboretum. They’ve all provided me with wonderful subjects, which of course Bruce and Stephen would handle far better than I do.

      I’d like to add my voice to the requests for moar representation, both of groups of organisms, and also of locations around the world.

    Sorry I couldn’t find our recent Eric the Zpenguin discussion, but had to share this Roz Chast jingle from a recent New Yorker:

    “please don’t eat my little wings!
    Eat a goose down to the bone,
    but leave the penguins all alone.
    Baby ducks are very sweet,
    Much more taste than penguin meat.
    If you see me in a store,
    Please don’t shop there anymore.”
    ( this is accompanied by a grocery display case with a sign saying Today’s Special, Penguin)

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