Birding Column: Moments of Photographic Rapture

Mathew Tekulsky
The Birdman of Bel Air
for National Geographic News
August 17, 2004
Over the years a number of my bird photographs have stood out to me as
being somehow special, either because of the subject matter or because
they resulted from a happy accident. Probably my favorite of these is
the photograph of the orange-cheeked waxbill.

One spring an orange-cheeked waxbill decided to hang out with a flock of house finches, and I was privileged to be able to observe this African bird in my yard for a number of months. He had no doubt escaped from a cage somewhere in the vicinity, but this bird only showed up in my yard when the finches did. There's a good reason for that—he's a member of the finch family himself.

This orange-cheeked waxbill had a very special way of foraging for the mixed birdseed on my platform feeder. Like the oak titmouse, his favorite modus operandi was to land on the feeder for a second, grab a black oil sunflower seed, and immediately retreat into the bushes to consume his catch. He would do this every ten minutes or so for the better part of an hour sometimes, so I would have six chances to record him on film—each chance lasting for about two seconds.

Every now and then, however, this orange-cheeked waxbill decided to linger a bit longer on the platform feeder and eat a millet or a milo seed before scooting off with his black oil sunflower seed. One day I caught him in the act of munching on a millet seed, and when I looked closely at the photograph (shown above), I noticed that the husk of the millet seed is plainly visible dropping from the bird's beak back down to the feeder. This is probably the only photograph in the world that shows this happening with a freely flying orange-cheeked waxbill at a backyard platform feeder.

Under the category of happy accident, I had walked for about a mile in approximately 100-degree (38-degree-Celsius) heat to the visitor center at Malibu Creek State Park one day in early June, and I happened upon an Anna's hummingbird that was busy nectaring on a cactus flower. I followed this bird around that cactus, trying to catch up with it and get a good photograph.

Finally, I got a good angle on the bird. As I looked through the viewfinder, I saw a bee fly into the frame and approach the yellow blossom to the left of the blossom that the hummingbird was approaching.

I clicked the shutter and prayed to the photography god that the photograph would work out. Thankfully, it did.

Less than a week earlier I had been in Medea Creek Park in Agoura Hills, California, and I noticed an American crow fledgling walking around on the ground beside a soccer field. Its parents were screeching at it from the pine trees above, no doubt letting the little bird know that they weren't far away with food and/or protection.

As I followed this little bird around, I noticed that it hardly moved away from me at all. I wondered if it were injured, or perhaps had left the nest a little bit early.

Anyway, I stood about 6 feet (1.8 meters) away from him, with my trusty 80mm-210mm Tamron lens, but it was early evening and it was starting to get dark. Fortunately I had 400-ASA film in my camera, but even then, I had to shoot at one-thirtieth of a second, and I had no tripod with me. Miraculously, the photograph of this fledgling came out fully in focus.

Then there was the time one April at Bryce Canyon Lodge in Utah, when I got a photograph of a white-breasted nuthatch that had perched briefly on a limb of a pine tree behind a building. As soon as the nuthatch moved off, what appeared along the same patch of bark on the same tree but a pair of pygmy nuthatches.

The male pygmy nuthatch was busy feeding the female bits of food from his beak, but at one moment, he paused from this activity and looked over in my direction. That's when I clicked the shutter.

You can see pieces of seeds in his beak, as the female waits for another feeding. A few moments later, I got a shot of one of the pygmy nuthatches perched on a limb of the same tree, after the feeding session.

A couple of hours earlier I had been standing at the Bryce Canyon Lodge lookout. Suddenly a bright blue object flitted by in such a way that I knew that it could only be one thing—a Western bluebird. The funny thing was, it had flown over from above the canyon to the rim, where I was standing, and then it perched at the tip of a limb of a tree about 20 feet (6 meters) away from me.

I immediately went into action, but before I composed the shot, I knew that the moon would be visible in the background at just the right angle. I'd like to call this photograph "Western Bluebird and Moon Over Bryce," but what really strikes me about it is how extremely tiny that bluebird is in relation to the universe.

And we humans aren't much bigger.


The orange-cheeked waxbill is a member of the family Estrildidae—the so-called true waxbills. Its range includes most of central and western Africa, except for South Africa. However, it has been introduced to Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Spain.

In Honolulu it flies freely about Kapiolani Park, and in the Karibuni Reserve area of the Honolulu Zoo, it feeds on the tall clump grasses that have been allowed to grow in this artificial African savanna.

The grasses grow from 2 to 5 feet (0.6 to 1.5 meters) high. When they put out seed clusters, the orange-cheeked waxbills (along with the common waxbill, Estrilda astrild, which has also been introduced to Hawaii) land on the stalks and cling to the seed clusters.

The stem falls down from the weight of the birds—often turning the birds upside down. When the stalk stabilizes, the birds continue eating.

According to Peter Luscomb, general curator at the zoo, "If you let grass go to seed, in many cases you will attract large flocks of waxbills." In Luscomb's yard in Maunawili, just outside of Honolulu, the common waxbills not only eat from the seed clusters of the taller clump grass, they also eat the seed from his lawn grass when it is from 3 to 6 inches (8 to 15 centimeters) high, and they even forage for grass seeds off of the ground after he mows the lawn.

Note: If you miss seeing the orange-cheeked waxbills flying freely at the Honolulu Zoo, you can always visit them in the African Aviary there, along with many other species of African birds.

Mathew Tekulsky writes a regular column about birding in his backyard and neighborhood in Bel Air, California. You can follow his encounters with the birds of the Santa Monica Mountains here on National Geographic News Bird Watcher every fortnight or so.

Previous columns by the Birdman of Bel Air
New Bird-Watching Column: "The Birdman of Bel Air"
Birding Column: House Wrens' Twice-a-Minute Feeding Frenzy
The California Towhee, Boldly Bland
At Home With Hooded Orioles
Scrub Jays Go Nuts for Peanuts
Northern Mockingbird is a Wary Neighbor
Christmas With the Pelicans
California-Quail Close Encounter
Yosemite Steller's Jay Encounter
Banding Birds at Devils Postpile
California Condor Close Encounter
California Condor Rebound
Going Nuts With Wilderness Ravens
Hummingbird Chicks Fly the Nest
Mexican Jays' Dogged Pack Mentality

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