Don't Forget to Look UP When Photographing Birds by Todd Henson

Great Blue Heron flying away from the scene of the crime.

WARNING: This topic, though light-hearted, may not appeal to all viewers. But it does teach an important lesson if you photograph birds in the wild.

I love photographing birds, especially when I’m able to document birds in flight. But there is at least one potential downside to this activity, something that could ruin your day if you’re not careful to avoid it.

A Great Blue Heron. Such a beautiful bird. And yet... see the photo further below.

What am I talking about? Why is the title of this post, “Don’t Forget to Look UP When Photographing Birds?” Well, birds often defecate while in flight, or just before taking flight. And it’s not fun to be on the receiving end of this.

I feel sorry for any poor paddler in the river below this Great Blue Heron! Click on the image for a larger view. Go ahead, I dare you!

Thankfully, I’ve never been on the receiving end of a Great Blue Heron or Bald Eagle. As you can see in these photographs they can make quite a mess. But I have been hit by a Canada Goose flying overhead. It was so low I almost felt the air from its wings. Geese mostly eat plant matter so what I was hit with was fairly solid and didn’t make much of a mess. But birds that eat fish, animals or insects aren’t as easy to clean up from. I have been hit by a smaller song bird. Not fun.

So what’s my advice?

Don't stand too close when looking up at Bald Eagles! Not sure what you're seeing? Click on the image to see a larger version.

  • Always be aware of your surroundings. Try to determine the birds typical flight path, or places they commonly perch. You can’t plan everything, there’s always a chance one will fly over you, but being aware of where they may fly or perch at least gives you a chance of avoiding any bad encounters. If you see one heading your way just be aware of what might happen and be ready to move. The odds should be fairly low, but it does happen.
  • Learn the behavior of the birds you’re observing. Many birds, such as Bald Eagles and Osprey, will often defecate before taking flight. So be careful if you are observing a perched bird from down below, especially if it begins to left its tail feathers. They have more range than you might think!
  • Always wear a hat! Your clothes may still be a mess but at least it will help protect your head. When the goose let loose it hit my hat and backpack and mostly bounced off. No real harm done. When I was hit by the song bird I wasn’t wearing a hat. I had to clean off my hair, the side of my face, and my sunglasses. And all this in the middle of a busy city. Not my best day, but hey, “it” happens!
  • Always carry a towel or cloth of some kind with you, just in case you might need it. It’s not fun cleaning up this kind of mess without a cloth, trust me!
  • Bring some of that portable hand wash with you. Wiping it off is one thing, but getting yourself clean is nice, too.

Well, that’s it for today. I apologize for the somewhat unappealing topic, but it does happen and it’s best to plan ahead in case it ever happens to you. And worst case, if it does happen, you’ll have quite the story you never want to tell your friends about! 😀

Have fun out there. Enjoy photographing nature. And always remember: Look UP when photographing birds!!!

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Eastern Phoebe Catching Insects for its Young by Todd Henson

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Eastern Phoebe looking to the left

This Eastern Phoebe was found in my favorite wetlands park, just off the boardwalk that extends over portions of the wetlands. It was common to see these birds in this section as they created a nest under the boardwalk each year.

Eastern Phoebe tilting its head towards the camera

This particular bird was catching insects to bring back to the nest. Eastern Phoebe are a species of flycatcher, and when watching them you can easily see why they fit that name, catching insects, often in the air. Amazing little birds.

Eastern Phoebe with an insect in its beak

Eastern Phoebe with another insect in its beak

According to Wildlife of Virginia and Maryland and Washington, D.C., by Charles Fergus, they eat a variety of insects, including small wasps, bees, beetles, flies, and moths. They sit on a perch and watch for flying insects, then dart out and catch them. And as with most all flycatchers, their “drab plumage makes the waiting birds hard to see, not just by its prey, but also by hawks that hunt for flycatchers and other small birds.”

Eastern Phoebe looking back over its shoulder

Many of the flycatcher species can be difficult to tell apart. Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds of North America lists the following as identifying characteristics of the Eastern Phoebe:

  • downward tail-bobbing
  • no eye ring
  • no strong wing bars
  • small, all-dark bill
  • dark head
  • its song.

Additionally, the Eastern Phoebe is known to nest in sheltered spots such as under a bridge, which was exactly the case with this phoebe (or perhaps it was actually a pair).

Eastern Phoebe preening

Spending a little time standing in the same location can sometimes pay off when observing and photographing nature. Doing so allowed me to notice this phoebe flying from beneath the bridge and onto a nearby perch. I noticed it kept returning to the same set of perches after darting off to catch an insect. And it always flew back under the bridge in the same spot. When I walked over that spot I could hear the young chicks in the nest.

So stop and stand (or sit) every so often on your hikes. Just rest a while and observe. Look around and listen. Maybe you’ll notice something interesting.


Wings of Spring: Courtship, Nesting, and Fledging by Tom Vezo and Chuck Hagner by Todd Henson

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Wings of Spring: Courtship, Nesting, and Fledging   (book cover)

Wings of Spring: Courtship, Nesting, and Fledging (book cover)

Spring is a wonderful time to be a bird lover. This is often the time of year when birds look their best, when their colors are brightest, their feathers most spectacular. It is a time of such spectacular behavior, watching courtship displays, observing birds building nests, watching young grow, fledge, and leave the nest. Wings of Spring: Courtship, Nesting, and Fledging, is a celebration of birds in spring, bringing us into their world and showing some of the beauty and magic we can find there.

The book is organized into 4 major sections: Territory, Nesting, Nurturing, and Growing. Each section is full of beautiful photographs by Tom Vezo of many different species of birds from all over the world. Each photograph is accompanied by a paragraph written by Chuck Hagner describing details about the the species.


Wings of Spring   (pages 16 - 17). Painted Bunting and Baltimore Oriole.

Wings of Spring (pages 16 - 17). Painted Bunting and Baltimore Oriole.

Many bird species migrate during the spring, moving from their wintering grounds to the place they will rear the next generation. Many species have particularly bright and vibrant plumage during this season, all the better to attract a mate. In the sample photo from this section we see a Painted Bunting on the left and a Baltimore Oriole on the right, both very colorful birds.


Wings of Spring   (pages 56 - 57). Burrowing Owl and Cliff Swallow.

Wings of Spring (pages 56 - 57). Burrowing Owl and Cliff Swallow.

Once birds establish their breeding territory they have to find a nesting location and build a nest. There are almost as many different ways of nesting as there are species of birds, from tree-top nests of twigs and grass to nests of mud built on a building or cliff. The example here shows a Burrowing Owl at the entrance to its burrow, and a grouping of nests built by Cliff Swallows. According to the text Cliff Swallows often lay eggs in the nests of their neighbors, or move eggs from nest to nest.


Wings of Spring   (pages 88 - 89). Great Kiskadee, Broad-billed Hummingbird, and Eastern Bluebird.

Wings of Spring (pages 88 - 89). Great Kiskadee, Broad-billed Hummingbird, and Eastern Bluebird.

After their eggs hatch most young birds require some level of nurturing from their parents in order to grow enough to survive on their own. Some chicks are completely dependent on their parents, whereas others are more quickly able to move about on their own. In this sample photo we see three different species, the Great Kiskadee with a small lizard in its beak, a Broad-billed Hummingbird feeding chicks in the nest, and a couple photos of Eastern Bluebirds.


Wings of Spring   (pages 140 - 141). Black-bellied Whistling-Duck and American Black Duck.

Wings of Spring (pages 140 - 141). Black-bellied Whistling-Duck and American Black Duck.

A young bird has a lot of growing to do. Many look very different when young than they will as adults. Most will eventually learn to fly, but need to first eat enough to gain the strength required to lift themselves from the ground or water. Some must learn to swim. In the sample photo here we see a family of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks on the left and American Black Ducks on the right.

I very much enjoyed this book. The photography is beautiful, and the text is full of interesting facts, many of which I’d been unfamiliar with. This is not a field guide, nor is it strictly a photography book. Instead it is a book for those who love birds, who always look forward to spring, and who long to get back outside to watch (and perhaps photograph) the amazing colors, behaviors, and beauty of the Wings of Spring.