Nesting Has Begun

White-breasted Nuthatch captured by Z 6II / 500PF

Sharon and I are one what seems like an all station alert watching the bird activity at The Ranch. That’s because this is our first full spring here and we don’t know what to expect, from whom to when. We’re now up to 59 species of birds at The Ranch with the new addition just yesterday of Western Bluebirds. With that surprise and the Red-breasted Nuthatches that nested in one of our boxes we’d just hung last year, we’re open to any surprise. Well, I thought we were when we saw a pair of White-breasted Nuthatches start to get busy around a nest box I can see from my great room chair. Darn if they weren’t taking nesting material into the box, and at the beginning of April!

I instantly got out Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds and Birds of Montana and did some quick reading. I learned that indeed, it was an early start for nesting and that they don’t play nicely with other birds around their nesting cavity. They do use boxes and the female does all the incubation with the male bringing the female food while on the eggs. They tend to be site tenacious which tells me that with do precaution I could photograph them. All I wanted was some photos of their bringing in nesting material for now.

White-breasted Nuthatch captured by D6 / 180-400VR

Having photographed them on feeders, I had a good idea of the distance I would need to be from the box for the image I wanted (about 7 feet). I grabbed the 500PF I have on loan from a friend, connected it to the Z 6II (via the FTZ) with the WR-R10 attached (remote control) and waited until both adults had come and gone from the box before approaching. With them gone, I scooted in, setting up the gear, focused on the center of the nest box hole, took a couple of test shots and walked away. I grabbed a chair, cup of joe, my bins and watched and shot. After a couple of hours, I repeated the process in reverse bringing in the gear.

Now the calendar is ticking until the eggs hatch and as life would have it, I should be home when the first egg hatches. I’ll wait 4-5 days after hatching and then go back to photographing the activity. While we’ve seen other birds courting, this is the first actual nesting behavior and it’s so early. It’s going to be a fun spring at The Ranch as the nesting has begun!

Getting Closer – Biology Working

Pileated Woodpecker captured by D6 / 180-400VR

The size of a crow, you’d think they are easy to spot. At least, that’s what we thought but we’ve found the Pileated Woodpeckers here at The Ranch to be pretty darn crafty. We’d not actually seen one since the first confirmed siting which I was able to photograph on 02 Feb. We had seen signs of them but that’s not a real confirmation with so much woodpecker activity here at The Ranch. We have a gang of Red-shafted Flickers at The Ranch and their call is a near copy of the Pileated’s though their drilling noise is quite different. So using our ears to determine they are here hasn’t been an aid. We have four suet feeders placed about which are always busy but they don’t seem to be bringing the Pileated’s in, at least enough for our pleasure. So off to the books I went.


I found pretty quickly that Pileateds prefer feeders with tail rests. I assume that being the size of a crow, hanging from a suet cage alone is either not possible for feeding or just not comfortable so they don’t use them. You can buy commercial tail-rest suet feeders but they are kinda pricey. I decided to go home built. I grabbed the chainsaw-on-a-stick, cut off a piece of limb, attached a $3 suet cage on it and hung it from a tree. In less than 36 hours we saw a Pileated feeding on the new feeder! We had seen sign before that of them eating from it, but didn’t actually see them on the feeder. Ok, so we got a Pileated feeding one time from the new feeder. That doesn’t make it successful.

The next day I’m sitting at my desk and see this dark form out of the corner of my eye. I turn to see the Pileated on the tree out the window. I no sooner than told Sharon and it flew around the corner of the home. We raced through the house in the direction it flew and saw it on the new feeder feeding. Two days in a row, now we were feeling a little more confident of the new feeder is working. As it turned out, we were fortunate being able watch the Pileated work the feeder for quite a while. Then we were treated for another twenty minutes watching the Pileated check out a number of different trees on The Ranch not truly foraging, not really sure what it was doing. In all, we had over forty minutes observing a great bird that was one of the three target species I wanted to enjoy at The Ranch. We’re getting closer – biology is working.

This could be a Killer Spring for Kids!

Bison cow & calf captured by D2Hs / 200f2 w/1.4x

One of the upshots of the pandemic are critters got a little breather from being loved to death. With the pressure in some locales lessened by folks staying home, there was less stress and more time for things like eating, sleeping, and sex which leads to, yep, you guessed, more babies. With few exceptions, no matter the critter, they are at their cutest when they are born. I hope this is on your radar because it certainly is on mine with plans being in the right place to hopefully make some cute images. How can you prepare for the fun?

What time are that young born, that’s the first thing you need to think through. You might need to find something close to home, like you’re own backyard which would mean nesting birds. At The Ranch, we have Black-billed Magpies grabbing branches and flying off to the shrub which means they are making a nest. This is just one sign you need to watch for telling you nesting is beginning. If you’re thinking colonial nestors like Great Blue Herons, in some regions they have big kids in the nest already. When it comes to the photography, you might wanna check out this paper I wrote a while back on photographing nesting birds. At the same time, you want to pick up a copy of Nests, Eggs And Nestlings of North American Birds by Harrison (seemingly very hard to find) which is my Bible for nesting biology. This will guide you through location and timing which is essential. What if you’ve been vaccinated and ready to go further than you backyard? Well …

I would start by deciding what critter you wanna photograph. If you’re thinking about Moose, that would take you to a different region than say Bison like you see above. At the same time, Moose drop their calves in different regions at slightly different times then Bison. As you look at different mammals, the timing of when they give birth changes. You want to take this information and then think through locales that had little impact by humans in the past twelve month. Yellowstone for example had record numbers of folks so perhaps not your prime location compared to Roosevelt Nat’l Park which was/is a ghost town (and a gorgeous, gorgeous place!) with lots of Bison. When it comes to a reference, I recommend The Smithsonian Book of North American Mammals

What about camera gear, what kit to pack? Yeah … no, I don’t have one simple answer there for you, sorry. You can find a number of solutions I’ve used over the years by searching the site. In general right now, I’m heading out with the D6 / Z 6II with either the Nikkor 180-400VR / 800mm. But that’s me, you should use what’s in your kit and then do your homework so you can pack the most important tools … your heart and mind! You wanna get out there, that’s the most important thing. This could be a killer spring for kids!

MFD is So Essential!

White-breasted Nuthatch captured by D6 / 180-400VR

Just how close can your lens focus? That’s what MFD or Minimum Focusing Distance is all about. You might think this is something you only need to concern yourself with doing macro work, but it’s just as important in portraits, editorial, and wildlife photography. It’s how you can get great image size in a frame with a really short focal length. It’s MFD you combine with basic biology to create the dramatic shots with critters.

This photo of a White-breasted Nuthatch is your classic kinda shot. Nuthatches travel down a tree stashing seeds they’ve gathered in the bark. The pose you see is typical as they get ready to launch and take flight. What the nuthatch is hanging on in this photo is a peanut feeder, food being a killer way to get close physically to a critter (the basic biology). With the 180-400VR on a tripod, I simply kept slipping closer (took about 30 minutes) until finally I was within five feet of the feeder, the MFD of the lens, and was able to get this image size zoomed to just short of 300mm. What if the lens you own now doesn’t focus very close, simply at an extension tube (not a teleconverter) and you can radically make a difference.

If you have a backyard shooting gallery (for birds of course), then you don’t need a long lens to make the great shots. If this sounds like a great idea but you don’t know how to create a shooting gallery in your backyard, basic biology, or lenses, be sure to check out my class at the Wildlife Photograph Conference! But the bottom line, in wildlife photography, the speed of the lens is not as important to me but MFD is so essential!

All This And I Never Moved

Pine Grosbeak
Pine Grosbeak captured by D6 / 180-400VR
Ermine captured by D6 / 180-40VR
American Red Squirre
American Red Squirrel captured by D6 / 180-400VR

As in literally, did not move my tripod and these are just a couple of the 900 images I captured in a couple of hours standing next to a building working a bird feeder. I was planted, quiet as a church mouse just watching and shooting. This is the simplest and most effective technique I know and can share for successful wildlife photography.

I saw photographers come and go, saw the light come and go, saw critters come and go. The only thing that didn’t come and go was me and my two companions I was shooting with. It’s the same strategy I’ve used since, forever. Sit still and let the critters come to me. When they can go about their life on their schedule, at their ease and you’re a quiet documenter to it all, the photographs just happen. It doesn’t take patience, just a passion for your subject and letting the story unfold. It’s easy, it works, all this and I never moved!

To Share or Not to Share

American Kestrel captured by D6 / 180-400VR

Some might be very tempted to crop the begiggers out of this image. Some might wanna Photoshop a photograph into this image. That’s because it is less than good, it has issues. But that’s not what I want to talk about. There are moments we are so fortunate to witness and capture out in nature that goes beyond the parameters of good or bad that simply need to be shared. An American Kestral on the wing eating the beetle it just plucked off the ground is simply a cool moment. Yep, I would love it large in the frame, would have loved much, much better light but I wouldn’t change the gesture, the story for a heartbeat. And that’s why I’m sharing it. Share your image, tell your story about your subject as you can change the world with your photography!

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