Winter Birding – Photography in Dim Lighting (Sound!)

Once per week, usually on the weekend and weather permitting, the DirtNKids family picks a spot for nature hiking, birding and — for Mom — nature photography. Many times, it’s right in our own neighborhood during the school day when Dad’s at work, but when Dad picks the spot, we usually go well south of Houston to our favorite public park: Brazos Bend State Park.

If you type ‘brazos bend‘ into the search box beneath the header of the blog or even just click on the Tag Brazos Bend State Park, you’ll find that we frequent this beautiful wild space. Hiking at dusk has its upsides and its downsides. There are fewer crowds and loud kids (other than mine) to deal with, but the lighting is usually hit-and-miss.  With a long lens handheld in dim light, the result sometimes can be frustrating.

After several months playing with a new big glass — required for birding — I have finally got the hang of the right settings to get the job done. Unlike most birders, I don’t carry a tripod; my camera and lens are strapped to my body instead. As a high ISO is never preferred (making a photo ‘noisy’ or ‘grainy’), the trick is a large aperture (f/5.0 a 150mm, f/5.6 at 600mm) and slow the shutter as much as possible, usually around 1/250″. I set the ISO = auto and let the camera choose the best for the varied lighting conditions, not to exceed 3200 (my preference). When I’m in a squat or fixed position with elbows firmly on a knee, I can turn the (image stabilization) IS = Off so that the lens drive does not ‘fight’ the lack of movement.

The Canon 60D and Tamron 150mm-600mm rarely fails me, and I continue to do no post-processing of my images. I do, however, save all images as JPG+RAW for the one day (retirement?) when I do find the extra time to fiddle with Lightroom® or Photoshop®.

Alligator Family

Mama Gator…and babies!!

Go ahead. Say Awwww. Click the image to count them in hi-res (they are to her left). How many babies do you see?

(Play the track as you read the rest of this post. It’s not from Brazos Bend or even my recording, but it’s what BB sounds like!)

It was fun watching the American Coots, Common Moorehen, and Blue-winged Teal displaying for their mates. This teal did his job nicely of showing his pretty feathers to me…er uh, her.

Blue-winged Teal Pair

Hey Lady. Check me out.

Blue-winged Teal

Flexing my muscle…

Blue-winged Teal

Like these pecs?

Down the path, this Great Blue Heron let me get pretty close. They seem to be used to people on the path. My feathered buddies out by the creek at home are decidedly less forgiving of us photographer types.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

A close-up

There was a pair way off across the marsh that had set up shop and were *ahem” gettin’ down and dirty right there for all to see. Funny how birds never close the doors first before having sex. Everytime he mounted her, I was on the ground shooting something in the water. My timing is usually not very good.

Great Blue Heron Nest

Great Blue Heron pair, nested

The downside to have ‘fixed’ settings on a camera is that when conditions change suddenly or if I want to shoot a moving subject, I am stuck with what I have, having only a couple of seconds to make on-the-fly changes. It’s all fingers and thumbs, and the result looks something like this:

Roseate Spoonbill Flyover

Roseate Spoonbill, shaky flyover

That is a shaky, blurry Roseate Spoonbill flying straight over my head suddenly, shot on the short end 150mm. You could say we got buzzed! All I could do was point and shoot and hope for the best, but with image stabilization already off, combined with a slow shutter, a heavy lens not well supported and pointed overhead, well…that is the best I could hope for.

I look forward to shooting this beautiful bird with more purpose when they are nesting and mating (the post is when I went last year) in just few months. You will want to come back for that one!

Angie found the only new one for our list for the day: a Tri-colored Heron. She’s got a great eye.

Tri-colored Heron

Tri-colored Heron

Our favorite feathered beauty of the evening is one known to my kids as Thunder Pumper: the American Bittern. It was my first time to see one for the year (Scott and Angie bagged him last month), and I usually see one far off the with field lenses instead.  Such a treat to get him close-up! In usual ‘birding effect’ fashion, once I saw one, I suddenly spotted them everywhere. We counted six along the path, but we heard several more in the reeds (where they usually are).

If you are listening to the recording embedded at the beginning of this post, you will hear them in between the Red-winged Blackbirds. The kids says the bittern sounds a lot like Wii Tennis.  This one was kind enough to let me do some portraiture on him.

American Bittern

Thunder Pumper! American Bittern

American Bittern

American Bittern, poser

It is a busy month! Lots of activity means lots of posts.
Now that the school is in routine, I have an hour a day to spend writing. Yay!

Click any photo or click DirtNKids’ SmugMug for galleries.

24 thoughts on “Winter Birding – Photography in Dim Lighting (Sound!)

  1. These are all very nice photos. I love birds and they are often the subject of my paintings. I am just getting started with a nice camera myself and I’m saving up for a better lens so I can take reference photos of the songbirds in my yard.
    I have followed you so I can see more of your bird posts for inspiration. Good luck out there!

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    1. I take pictures of birds and other wild animals (insects) more than I do of my kids! Glad you enjoyed. If your an artist, you will find no shortage of beautiful birdie faces here. Glad to have you!

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  2. Wow, baby gators! How cool!

    Lovely photos! I struggle with low lighting shooting, but I have only my wee digital point and shoot. Someday I will get a big girl camera and learn more about proper photography! Your photographs are always stunning and I would, like you, not bring a tripod, either. Its nice to be able to climb and get around more easily without one!

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    1. I generally now only carry three things when on a short birding hike: the key (to the car), the big lens, and the iPhone. Field lens always hangs around my next. There’s freedom in not having too much stuff — especially when it’s time to squat in the woods. 😉

      Hope you get the big glass soon. Worth the $, in my book. Remember: I don’t post-process. All images come straight off the SD card and onto the blog.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Gorgeous, again. Love the baby alligators especially. The bittern shots are super, and made me smile because I can never see a bittern without thinking of the time we went to the local wetlands centre and a bittern had showed up, not that we could see it for the forest of camouflage clad digiscopers! Much amusement for all. My husband asked me if I would like a set of camouflage for my birthday. I gave him my best Paddington Bear stare.

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    1. “Paddington Bear stare.” Ha! We talk on and off about making a bird blind out by the creek. We flush birds off the banks regularly when we walk out with our coffee. Would be so good to have cover…

      Those bitterns…we have a few stories about them as well. I eeked with delight when I found a sound track with Thunder Pumper in it. Perfect!

      Thanks for coming by, Rachael. You know I think you’re da bomb. (And you like buggie-wuggies, so you must be awesome.) Cheers, Lady! And be sure to do a fly face macro for me every once-in-a-while.

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    1. Hi Julie, thanks for coming by while you’re at work! Yes, the bigger screen helps for my photos as I don’t post-process — it all comes as is from the camera card. My stuff might be better if I cropped and enhanced detail, but I promise you. What you see is what I saw that day. Did you like the sound track?

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      1. Just listened to the soundtrack (didn’t have headphones at lunch) – it was great! I could use an hour of that to get to sleep at night. About the baby gators were there 8 of them?

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    1. Thank you, Lisa. And it’s the first time I embedded a sound track with it. That ‘thunder pumper’ is really something. As I am getting into recording some of my own sounds, I hope to do this with a few future nature posts. I do hope all’s well in Arizona.

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