By Paul Malinowski
“Are you here for the singerin?” asked the woman excitedly as I passed her on a well-trodden trail near my home outside of Denver, Colorado. My brain asked itself a hundred questions within one full second like, “What’s a singerin?” and “What are the consequences of saying yes/no?” Asking her just what a singerin is would equate to something like asking for directions and, well, I was not about to do that. So, not having the slightest clue of what she was talking about, I responded with a hearty, “Duh! Of course I am.” Actually, I didn’t say the “duh” part but I’m sure my tone implied it.
Somehow my brain did manage a visual clue or two, like noticing powerful binoculars wrapped around her neck and a camera in her hands. “Hey, buddy,” my brain yelled quickly, “you’re holding a camera with a 100-500mm lens on it so she must think you’re a bird photographer.” Hard to argue my brain’s logic and indeed in a rare moment of clarity, it was right.
“Well, just follow the trail to the group wasting its time looking for the singerin,” she almost mockingly suggested. “You’ll hear it, but Virginia rails are on quaaludes compared to the singerin.” Fortunately, I knew about the difficulty in seeing, much less photographing, a Virginia rail, so her odd reference to birds on drugs made sense.
Now, I should point out here that if you’ve already grabbed your Sibley’s handbook to find a “singerin,” don’t. Instead, turn to “sedge wren,” the correct translation of my misunderstood word. I finally figured it out when I met up with the three photographers looking forlornly at a thicket of brush, reeds and tall grasses bordering the South Platte River. Taking a deferential position at the end of the line I causally asked the friendliest looking one of the group in a whisper if “he” was still there. As if responding to me personally, I heard him, the call of the sedge wren. Everyone else immediately lifted their camera and binoculars and pointed to…the darkness and nothing else inside the bush. Gradually all cameras came down and disappointed looks returned. Julie (the friendly-looking one) gave me some insight into how the sedge wren is rarely seen west of Kansas (actually it’s rarely seen, period) and how it is perfectly happy to reside deep in vegetation that protects it from predators and photographers alike.
One woman in the group walked dejectedly away and then shortly thereafter a man in the group announced, “Well, 3 ½ hours of never even a glimpse is long enough for me.” Then after hushed conversation waiting to hear it again, Julie gave up, too, wishing me good luck.
Finally being alone I could consult my Merlin app without embarrassment for more information. I found it but there was no picture. Just a note that information on the sedge wren could be found in other geographic packets that I did not have loaded on my phone. Since I’d now been there over an hour, and I really came to hike and take actual photographs of birds, I decided to leave and continue down the trail. Fortunately, I had some success with other species, catching a white-breasted nuthatch seemingly jumping for joy (see above) and an adult bald eagle effortlessly flying overhead in the now very late, soft afternoon light (see below).
After those shots I called it a day and headed home, happy with what I got but frustrated with what I didn’t get. I couldn’t stop thinking about how close I came to getting such a rare bird. So I returned the next day. No one was there when I arrived. I heard nothing in the same location, so I walked up and down the trail, hearing the now familiar call about 100 feet away from where I had been the day before. And, like the day before, I heard a lot of rustling in the bushes, but with the same results. I realized I might be living Einstein’s definition of insanity by doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. An hour later I gave up – again.
On day three, life’s routines rudely prevented my chase of the “singerin.” I began to feel smug that I didn’t allow this elusive bird to taunt me that day. Plus, I rationalized that he was likely long gone, having realized his built-in GPS had failed him and he would be heading somewhere more appropriate to this time of year.
But, alas, the sedge wren was living in my head, rent-free, no less. For that night, I dreamt I was searching for him and he was calling me over and over. But, in my dream, and I swear this is the honest truth, he not only showed me where he was but where I needed to be positioned to see him. I woke up excited to test this premonition even though I later realized that in my dream I was standing in the river, a location I quickly determined to be unfeasible.
Awake and undaunted, I headed to the area my dream led me to. It was halfway between the two previous locations. I began to feel silly putting such stock in a dream. But, in not even a minute’s time, that faith was rewarded and I heard the now oh-so-familiar call. Well, I reasoned, if that part of the dream was correct, the standing in the river part might be right, too. So I found the slightest clearing in the dense vegetation and walked the ten feet or so down a slope to the river’s edge. And, despite this year having a high-water level of the river, I somehow found a patch of about a foot and half of shoreline, allowing me to now face back towards the bushes. I can’t say the view was really any clearer than the previous vantage points, but the wren’s sporadic calls seemed to be getting closer.
Now I had to think about how I’d photograph the little guy if it actually appeared. I quickly realized I had two of my standard go-to techniques totally wrong for this scene. The first was my use of a 1.4x teleconverter on my Canon R6’s 100-500mm lens. I realized that this focal length would be overkill and leave no “wiggle room” for the bird to flit through the frame. So I removed the teleconverter as quickly as possible and stuffed it in my pocket, praying that my coat pocket wasn’t scratching the glass.
Then I realized that neither the wonderful Animal AI focus of Canon mirrorless cameras nor the standard autofocus would work, since dozens of branches were layered throughout at differing depths. So—yikes!—manual focus it would have to be! I also realized I would need a lot of exposure to shoot so far into the bush, so I settled on 1/500 second shutter speed, down from my normal 1/1000. A wide-open aperture setting would have allowed a low ISO, but I also knew I would have some depth of field issues with that lens even at a shorter focal length, so I settled on f/11. Lastly, I could see in my electronic viewfinder that the ISO worked at 1600, a bit high but certainly acceptable. Besides, Topaz DeNoise had worked wonders for me in the past at even higher ISOs.
Literally seconds after I made all those adjustments, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. Branches were moving and getting closer and closer to a nice gap where I knew I could capture an image if he alighted there. My heart was pounding now, and I worried he’d hear it and move on. I gambled that he’d be in the gap soon and I focused accordingly, while mentally oddly fixating on the that British subway (aka “tube”) idiom of “Mind the gap!”. Seconds later he was in my screen! My manual focus gyrations started, and branches came in and out of focus. I was too excited to mentally analyze if I was getting in-focus shots of the actual bird or just branches.
I got off about 30 shots in the few seconds he stayed there and then he was gone. After waiting a bit to see if he’d return (he didn’t), I nervously checked my display, knowing I would likely never get such an opportunity again. First image: blurry bird, sharp branches. Second image: blurry bird, sharp branches. And this repeated for quite a while, until the tenth image when I finally got the reverse – in fact three in a row! And then all the rest were terrible again. But I had done it! Sure, there were no Showcase winners in the lot and my keeper ratio was only 10%, but it didn’t matter. I had gotten at least one in focus that I could admire forever (see below).
I couldn’t run to my car fast enough to get home and off-load the SD card to my computer and immediately run numerous backups. But on the way, I ran into two women heading down the trail to where I had just been. They were carrying binoculars and cameras. I stopped, smiled, and asked, “Are you here for the singerin?”
Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, some time prior to the advent of the Gregorian calendar, Paul grew up appreciating art from his trips to the Art Institute. His love of art transitioned into a love of photography when he picked up a Konica Rangefinder camera in college. He self-taught himself photography by purchasing the entire multiple-volume collection of the Time Life series on photography. “Life” derailed photography for years but creativity was not lost as he pursued acting and writing for theater where he successfully self-produced a full-length play he wrote.
In the last five years alone, Paul’s photographs have been exhibited in over forty galleries or art centers from New York to San Francisco, Chicago to Houston, Oregon to the Carolinas and, of course, in his home state of Colorado. Paul has lived in beautiful Colorado for almost five decades, but he believes in seeing beauty in any place at any time. That’s why the tag line of his website is “Visually interpreting the present moment.”