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.

Continued on Next Page >>




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