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Bluebirds and Stink Bugs

We have a bluebird nest in our backyard. There are two fledglings, and this is their dad.

To me, bluebirds have always had a specific connotation (i.e., the "bluebird of happiness," or more lately, "Twitter"). But this guy is a fearless badass. He'll fight off other birds, cats, squirrels—and photographers—if they get too close to his nest.

And for two afternoons this week, this particular bluebird led me down a photographic rabbit hole.


Here's the photo that got me started:

Just an ambient-light grab shot from the kitchen window with a long lens. But interestingly, that's a brown marmorated stink bug he is eating. (Or, making his kids eat. Insert your own broccoli joke here, parents.)

Thing is, BMSBs are a big thing around here in that they are a) invasive, b) ruining crops and c) have no real natural predators. (Praying mantiss, maybe. But that's pretty small potatoes.) Except as you can easily see here, they do now have more efficient natural predators. I had shot/written about the BMSB for HoCo360 in 2010, but this unexpectedly blessed predation was a new wrinkle.

So I thought it would be cool to report this development to the consortium of scientists (no, really) who are working together to save us from the smelly, hungry little aliens.

Also, now I was kinda hooked on this guy. So I started thinking about lighting him and getting something cool. After all, I had a nest/box for a location. So I knew where he was always gonna be headed once he caught a bug. And it turns out that lighting a bird in flight is not as hard as you'd think. But it is also not as intuitive, either.

The weather was variable, moving from sun to shade. And the bird-to-flash distance would be variable, too. So you say three Hail McNallys and get out the TTL flashes, right?

Wrong. The pre-pulses delayed me enough to ensure I never caught him as he flew through my shooting zone while heading towards the box. It was like shooting a martial arts expert with a Buzz Lightyear camera. Not good.

So I switched to full-manual flash: One remote, tripod-mounted camera with a 28mm, an on-camera flash, one beneath for fill and a back/right flash for texture.

Here's the setup:

Even in manual, there were problems. With full sun, I had to shoot at 1/250th max, which gave me a deep aperture and a lot of depth of field. Also, I had to overpower that sun with my flashes.

But I needed fast t.1 times to stop the bird. And low-power settings for fast recycles. Trust me, when this guy swoops in or out, you do not want to be waiting for a 4-second recycle time. You want to lay down on the PW remote button and bing-bing-bing-bing at 9 frames/sec.

With that setup, I got several promising photos over the afternoon, including this one which I liked because it was from a cool angle with a wide field of view:

It kinda looks like he is being backlit by the sun. But the flash was too bright; too overdone. And it was hard to design the light because you never knew what the positioning/pose of the bird was gonna be.

Plus, the bluebird did not exactly like the bing-bing-bing-bing and 28mm lens right next to his nest, either. He attacked it. And me, when I went to check it. 'Cause he's a badass. We eventually reached an agreement, and he got used to my gear. But not to me. Ever.

Our relationship defined, I decided to stalk him for a second day. I went back to my own site's archives to pull some good info on bird photography. Learning from that, I set up a backdrop in my shooting zone—a piece of white foam core. Then I backed the camera up and went with a 70-210 lens.

How to light it? How many flashes? What the hell, let's bring a bunch out to cover our bases. Here was my setup for Day Two:

There were six flashes in all. First was on the PW-remote camera to trigger the others. Second was aimed at the backdrop to erase any weird shadows. Flashes three and four were rim lights. Flash number five was my key, up and to the right. Flash six was a fill from the bottom.

Power-wise, I needed to balance recycle with t.1 pulse times and the ability to at least match (if not overpower) daylight. So every flash was at or below ⅛ power. So I could bing-bing-bing-bing.

That setup gave me a number of cool frames, including the one seen at top which is repeated here:

He's not quite frozen. But to do so I would have had to have been a lot more intrusive with the gear (more Einsteins than I own, a boom, etc.)

But for what started out as an ADHD-induced diversion, this was loads of fun. And I learned a lot about bluebirds (other than the fact that they are impossibly beautiful) in the process. There was a lot of learning and predicting involved.

And the fact that I was freezing the inbound chuck wagon, time after time, gave me the ability to analyze the menu in a way that would be otherwise very difficult.

Surprising result: fully half of the food runs resulted in BMSBs for dinner. This is fantastic news, and birds predating the invasive insects will really up the scale of our efforts at controlling them. Not to mention, the fledglings are learning that BMSBs are now legitimate food.

I sent my pictures off to some of the scientists, and a half dozen of them have already written back expressing enthusiasm for the new information. This is news to all but one of the scientists, and that one had only seen it once before. So this is being viewed as corroborating evidence.

Way cool, as far as I am concerned. Plus, it was an awesome way to spend a couple of spring afternoons.

Next: Soprano Rebecca Hargrove Pt. 1


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