Story & Photos by Tom Haxby
If you ever want a challenging photo subject, try wood warblers. These small, fast-moving birds are the ultimate test of being able to quickly track and capture a photo. The other hurdle with capturing warblers is that they are frequently found in thick vegetation. I cannot tell you how many times I have had a branch or leaf in just the wrong place. But persistence and lots of practice can eventually pay off with a fantastic image of a compelling subject.
Habits and Habitat
Capturing great photos of any type of wildlife requires an understanding of the habits and habitat of your chosen wildlife subject. Warblers are no exception. Wood warblers look their best during the spring in their breeding colors. In fact, if you want to be able to find warblers, they are a whole lot easier to identify, and I would add more photogenic, when they are in breeding plumage. Their breeding colors can rival the color of any butterfly. (Their fall colors are quite drab, which makes them difficult to find or identify.) The other thing, of course, is knowing when warblers will be in your chosen area.
Most warblers migrate from the tropics in the spring and the biggest wave of birds will closely coincide with the emergence of insects and new leaves on trees and other woody vegetation. Yep, the bugs that make some people go all goofy are the protein source for warblers. They are actually doing us a favor by consuming lots of insects. Depending on species and where you live, you may have migrating warblers from March through June. The peak in my area of northern Michigan is in early to mid-May. Your area may also have warblers that stay year-round for the breeding season. Birding guides and many websites are great resources for understanding the migration and breeding cycle of warblers.
Here is another thing I have learned, and it relates to weather and migration patterns: warblers tend to use tailwinds to assist their migrations. If you have strong southerly winds during the migration periods, expect to have more warblers passing through. Last year I observed that we had the perfect weather pattern for warblers to be moving through and I lucked into Wilson’s, yellow, common yellowthroat, palm, yellow-rumped and northern parula warblers – all on the same day and all within the same fifty-foot area. And two things that will make warblers slow down and feed more heavily are strong northerly headwinds and heavy rainfall which can knock bugs out of the tops of trees. When warblers pursue bugs that are closer to the ground this is an even better time to have your camera ready. One other time that seems to be best for warblers is early in the morning. They are ready to feed after a long night, just as we do for breakfast.
Finally, just knowing their preferred habitats can help you find warblers. The real experts in birding can identify and locate the birds by their calls. I have a favorite-isolated spot near my home which is a marsh and mixed woodland. Yellow warblers and common yellowthroat warblers really like that area. In fact, the yellow warblers will quite often stay for breeding season. If you watch carefully you may even find preferred trees on the edge of their nesting territory where the male yellow warblers will protect their area by perching and singing.
Other warblers prefer hardwood or conifer forests. The one warbler I have never seen or photographed is the Kirtland’s warbler which, by the way, has just been removed from the endangered species list. This population ,which was once extremely rare, has been steadily recovering with help from forest management. The Kirtland’s warbler prefers young, dense jack pine forests which are usually the result of wildfire. These dense jack pine forests are being created artificially by harvesting and planting jack pine densely in patterns to mimic fire effects. One of the greatest concentrations of this habitat is in the interior of northern Michigan on sandy outwash plains. Access to Kirtland’s warbler areas is limited during the breeding season and those wanting to see or photograph this bird should check with the local Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) or the US Forest Service offices in these areas.
After you have done your homework, your scouting and have your warblers arriving, it is time to head out to photograph the wood warblers. You will need a long telephoto lens as getting close to these small birds will be difficult. I use a 500 mm lens with a 1.4x teleconverter on a full-frame sensor camera. And because this is a heavy combination, I use a tripod with a gimbal head. Some of the newer and lighter weight lenses would be ideal for hand-holding.
While I have not found the warblers to be shy—they seem to be too interested in feeding—I have still observed that they will react to a lot of movement or noise. So, I try to stay still and quiet and let the warblers come to me, which minimizes my impact on the birds. I want to photograph these birds while practicing good ethics and so never use bird calls or other methods to lure the birds.
Knowing the auto-focus system on your camera is a must to quickly focus on the fast-moving birds and even framing the birds in your narrow field of view takes practice. Your biggest challenges will be blocking vegetation and getting your auto-focus to lock on the birds before they move off. Using a high ISO will allow use of a faster shutter speed. Depending on ambient light, I will use anywhere from ISO 800 to ISO 2000 to allow me to use a shutter speed at 1/1250th of a second or higher. Some photographers use a flash with a flash extender, but personally I have had better luck in my shooting situations without flash. I watch the direction of light carefully to make sure that there is good light on the bird. I also consider my aperture because I want a balance between having as much a possible of the warbler to be in focus while also having a soft background to allow the warbler to stand out. There will be lots of photos where the warbler is out of focus, a branch or twig is in the way or perhaps the bird flew out of the frame, but if you use your burst mode, hopefully there will still be lots of keepers.
Processing your warbler photos is a lot like processing any of your other wildlife photos. The one thing you may be tempted to do is to crop to have the small bird take up more of the frame. I am fortunate that my camera has a high-resolution sensor and this allows for a lot of cropping. However, cropping is an entirely subjective decision and you may even want to consider leaving some of the surrounding vegetation to show the bird in its habitat.Another option would be to use a crop sensor camera as this will allow the bird to take up more of the frame. Lately, I have also been using the Topaz DeNoise AI software to remove unwanted noise from my high ISO images and, so far, I like the results.
I would end by saying to have fun and embrace the challenge of capturing photos of beautiful warblers as they pass through your area this spring. You will also be capturing one of nature’s great annual migrations.
Tom Haxby is an award-winning nature photographer and the 2019-2020 President of NANPA. His photography is influenced by over 25 years as a natural resource professional and a lifetime spent exploring the outdoors.