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Monday, March 05, 2007

Cleaning up Pygmys

Whoa- a blog title like that might have a non-birder scratching their head... In this case, it means that I already had photos of a bird species (Pygmy Nuthatch), but they weren't great until I "cleaned up" the species by finally getting shots of it that I liked. Some birds are just hard to photograph at all, (Yellow Rail comes to mind), and others can just be personal bugaboos (I still don't have pics of Barred Owl that I really like, but at least I have the excuse that I don't get to see them much- I think there are only two Colorado records and one is from the 1800s.)

If you've ever tried bird photography you know that some common birds are harder to photograph well then most birders would think. A great example of this is the Pygmy Nuthatch. If you spend any time in the ponderosa-covered foothills of Colorado you are likely to be inundated by these birds, and yet until yesterday I can't say I really had any great pics of this species. Let's review some of the photographic challenges the wee Pygs generate. They:
  • Just love to stay high in trees, particularly among the long ponderosa needles (ugh)
  • Are therefore usually backlit by bright blue or cloudy skies (argh)
  • Are tiny, so even at a range reasonable for most birds they look small in the frame, and at the tops of ponderosas they aren't much more than specks (ack)
  • And they move frenetically, so even when one shows itself well the photo opp usually lasts for about 1/2 a second, challenging even the most rapidly reacting photographer and autofocus. (expletive deleted.)
Yesterday my dad and I were at a famous Rosy-Finch spot, the Fawnbrook Inn in Allenspark, Colorado. While rosies gave us some action, there was a lot of no-finch time. I noticed PYNUs regularly coming in to a feeder. Many would grab their seed and disappear into the trees to hammer them open in seclusion, but a few would use a nearby weathered timber sign post as their anvil. Between feeding sorties I eased into position about 10 feet away and just hung out quietly. I wasn't hiding, but by just standing still and being patient I wasn't worrying the birds, either. Pretty soon another round of feeding began and Pygs would take their nut to "hatch" on the board. Their movements were too fast to react to a good pose, so instead I tried to judge when the light looked twinkly in their eyes and then fired bursts hoping that some of the frames would look nice. I got lots of throwaways, but so what?I also lucked out and got a PYNU in a more natural perch, clinging upside-down to an aspen trunk as it waited for its turn to dart in and get a sunflower seed. These things really defy gravity, which I guess isn't as hard as it sounds when you only weigh about 10 grams. I think the last pic with the inverted bird's head facing out is an iconic pose for nuthatches.

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