Road Trip in Search of Warblers
In May, Jim and I took our birding on the road. We headed off to “The Biggest Week in American Birding” festival and to see warblers at Magee Marsh near Lake Erie in Ohio. We spent a solid week birding at the marsh and around the area and loved the adventure. During our time there, we saw 101 species of birds and added 27 to our birding life list.
Along the way, we photographed some of these birds, me with a point-and-shoot Nikon Coolpix p900 zoom lens camera and Jim using a DSLR Canon 7d Mark II with a 400mm lens. In this post, I will share pictures of some of these cool birds. Most were taken with the Nikon, but with a few with the Canon. So you can compare the results when two people using two different cameras photograph birds under the same conditions.
Magee Marsh: Warbler Migrant Trap
While we were excited to see all of the wide variety of birds in the area, warblers were our main goal for the trip. Warblers are tiny little birds. If you can see them at all, they are often moving fast high up in the branches of trees or hidden in a thicket. They can be hard to photograph and staring up at them in the distance can notoriously lead to “warbler neck”.
One of the cool things about Magee Marsh, is that it becomes a “migrant trap” each May. While that sounds nefarious, what it means is that birds migrating long distances sometimes need to stop along the way due to weather or geography. They look for good habitat where they can rest and feed up for the next stage of their journey. Many of these birds travel from as far away as South American up into Canada where they spend the summer.
Those that go through the center of the U.S. often come through Ohio. They stop along the marshes found near the shores of Lake Erie before tackling the crossing of this huge lake. Magee Marsh, one of the last remaining patches of the Great Black Swamp, is a prime spot for these migrants. It’s a great place for people to see them. The mile long boardwalk through the marsh gives birders a closeup, often eye-level view, of the birds.
Photographers on the Boardwalk
Magee Marsh reportedly draws as many as 90,000 people over the first three months of every May. Among them are professional photographers and many others with advanced skills who photograph birds as a pretty serious hobby. On Magee’s boardwalk, people try to snap pictures with everything from a cell phone or inexpensive digital camera to camera rigs costing tens of thousands of dollars.
Camera Lens Lengths Sweet Spot
One cool thing about Magee though is that because the birds tend to be so close, you can successfully photograph them with a lens of 400mm or less. Longer lenses can actually work against you in trying to focus on a bird that is so close.
Your cell phone camera is still not going to cut it. But a point-and-shoot with a decent zoom lens can get photos it might not be able to get in other places where the birds are further away. Is the quality and detail going to be the same as a professional lens? Of course not. But you can still get some very pleasing photos.
The photo above is an un-cropped photo I took for comparison using my old Nikon DX40 camera with its lens zoomed to 55mm. While faster than the p900, the lens doesn’t reach far enough for good warbler shots, even when they are as close to the boardwalk as this one. It’s a bit like a Where’s Waldo game to find the bird and the picture doesn’t hold up to cropping.
Nikon Coolpix p900 Advantages
The camera I used instead is the Nikon Coolpix p900, a super-zoom camera that I’ve seen described as a super-zoom lens with a camera on the back. It’s a wonderful camera for some types of bird photography but does have limitations.
It is a great light-weight camera for taking photos of birds sitting fairly still or moving predictably. So it can do very nicely for backyard birds or for reaching out to distant still or slow-moving birds.
The above photo was taken two days later in the same general area of the boardwalk instead using the Nikon Coolpix p900. It is also uncropped. Much easier to find the bird don’t you think? That super zoom really makes a difference.
I find that in most cases when I take photos of birds with this camera, the lens is completely zoomed out to 357mm. (Because the camera has such a small camera sensor, this yields an “angle of view equivalent to that of 2000mm lens in 35mm  format” according to Nikon.)
Because it is so light, you can hand-hold this camera easily. I’ve only wanted a tripod on windy days when the wind can really move such a light camera around or for shooting videos. (I find it challenging to hold this camera steady enough for videos while continuing to breathe!)
Coolpix p900 Limitations
But as I said, there are limitations. The p900’s lens is slow compared to a good DSLR lens and the viewfinder is not as good as you’ll find on a typical DSLR camera either. Picking out a bird on a distant busy background through the viewfinder can be challenging. Taking pictures of a bird flying, or zipping around quickly among the leafy branches of a distant tree is not likely to turn out well.
But with patience, you can succeed at getting a photo of even a quick moving bird in a nearer tree. But being close to the birds is the beauty of Magee Marsh. So in planning the trip, I was cautiously optimistic I’d be able to photograph the birds that I saw there.
Snap-Back Zoom Button
I wrote a blog post a while back on the camera settings I use for birding. They are still my default settings for bird photography and used them at Magee Marsh. The one trick I’ve added is that before the trip, I practiced with a “Snap-Back Zoom” button on the camera.
The p900 can zoom way in, which is great for photographing birds, but when the camera is zoomed way in, it can be hard to locate the bird with the camera. Pushing the Snap-Back Zoom button allows you to quickly zoom out to a wider view so that you can find something within the larger scene, point the camera toward it, and then, by letting go of the button, zoom back in.
This is quicker than using the regular toggle to zoom the lens in and out, but still takes time. Photographing quickly moving birds on the boardwalk, required a lot of continuous zooming in and out. This can get a bit tedious. But with patience and if the bird hangs around long enough, you have a decent chance of getting some good photos.
Photographing Larger Birds
I find that some bird species tend to be relatively easy to photograph with this camera. Fairly obviously, larger birds that move around on the ground, are well within the ability of this camera. So non-flying photos of the many Great Egrets or Double-Crested Cormorants we saw all over the area were very doable.
Similarly, I got lovely photos of Trumpeter Swans and Canada Geese families at the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is right next to the Magee Marsh property so be sure to visit. (The above photo was taken later in the day and the light was nice as well.)
Photographing Ground Feeding Birds
And photos of ground feeding birds along Crane Creek by Magee’s boardwalk were fairly easy to photograph. A Green Heron will sit still for long periods of time, giving lots of photo opportunities for a photographer willing to wait for the right pose, although sometimes you need to work around low branches along the boardwalk.
When confined to the boardwalk, you can only move around so much to get a good angle on a bird. You may also need to wait for the bird to turn around or move into a more open area for an unobscured photo. The Green Heron in the photo above gave us this view for quite a while.
Killdeer and Solitary Sandpipers often walked around out in an open area next to the boardwalk, so they are also a fairly easy target.
Easier to Photograph Warblers
Palm Warblers, although smaller birds, often move around on or near the ground in the open. They could be found at the east end of the boardwalk early in the week, sitting in low trees next to the boardwalk or walking along the muddy ground next to it.
They move slowly enough and predictably enough that with a little persistence, you could photograph them. (Persistence is something you often need for bird photography, even with faster high-end cameras.)
The Yellow Warblers were everywhere while we were in Ohio and do birders a favor with lots of singing, so you know where they are. They tended to be found in low branches singing away or looking for bugs. Being low, close and tending to pause after moves, made them a bird you could photograph even with a slow lens.
Some birds were hard to photograph at one point but could be photographed another time. One day we watched three Warbling Vireos moving around up in one of the taller trees on the east end of the boardwalk. Two of them were chasing each other around and around and around.
I tried to photograph them at first. But I realized, they were too fast and too high for my camera to get a picture. (I suspect it would have been challenging even with a fast high-end camera for that matter.)
So after trying for a little while, I realized that it was just one of those times where it makes more sense to just set the camera aside and enjoy watching the birds. But I had other opportunities to photograph Warbling Vireos later in the trip when they were more settled. The photo above was taken a few days later of a Warbling Vireo who was not zipping around as much.
Predictably Moving Warblers
In trying to photograph warblers, I came to see that they move around in different ways. For example, Black-and-White Warblers tend to move methodically along a tree’s branches and trunk. So even with a slow lens, if you are persistent, you can follow their movements with your camera and get a photo.
Nashville Warblers also are more predictable as they work their way through the branches of a tree. They had a tendency to dangle from the tip of a branch for fairly long periods. This allows plenty of opportunities for a shot.
Harder To Photograph Warblers
Black-Throated Blue Warblers were a different story. They zip here and there in a less predictable pattern. I had a lot of trouble getting a photo of a full bird. This is the best photo I got of a male Black-Throated Blue and it isn’t great.
I like this one that Jim took a couple days later better. My lens got closer, but his lens was fast enough that he had a higher chance of getting a shot of the front of the bird. (Note: Bird photos taken with the 400mm lens, typically needed to be cropped to focus on the bird more than photos taken with the p900’s longer reach.)
Black-Throated Green Warblers were a similar experience, although it got a little easier when we found this one (above) on a tree just outside the west entrance to the marsh. Sometimes the fringe of trees along the parking lot have an advantage because you are both close and in a sunnier location. I think I could have gotten a better picture of this particular quick moving bird, but I would have needed to spend more time on him.
I had better luck with the Chestnut-Sided Warblers like the one above. These little guys were foraging in the mid-level branches of trees near the boardwalk for long periods of time. This created lots of opportunities to get a good photo of them if you were persistent and kept trying for a while.
Here is Jim’s photo of the same Chestnut-Sided Warbler (above) taken with the Canon and a 400mm lens at almost the exact same time.
Warblers I Couldn’t Photograph
There were some warblers that Jim was able to photograph that I wasn’t able to get, sometimes because they weren’t hanging around long enough for my slower camera to capture like this Prothonotary Warbler that Jim got a picture of using the Canon.
Other warblers did hang around for quite a while though, and I still wasn’t able to catch the bird in a good shot. Jim sometimes had better luck with his camera.
But there were also warblers and other birds where neither of us was able to get a good photo. This was Jim’s best photo of the very beautiful Blackburnian Warbler. I wasn’t able to get a photo of this one at all.
And Jim was able to get some photos of birds in flight that my camera just can’t handle. For example, the Coolpix wasn’t fast enough to get these Dunlins wheeling in the air over the Magee Marsh Causeway.
Using The Coolpix p900 at Magee Marsh?
So what is my opinion of using the Nikon Coolpix p900 to photograph warblers and other birds at Magee Marsh and other birding hotspots in the area? I’d say my results were mixed.
I am pleased with the pictures that I was able to take, but there were also photo situations that were beyond what it is reasonable for this camera to handle. Still, for the price and weight of the p900, I think it did a darn good job.
In an ideal world, I would love a camera as light as the Nikon Coolpix p900 with a lens that reaches as far as its lens does, but faster. I’d like a viewfinder that gives me a clearer view of something on distant busy backgrounds.
But I’d like the relatively low price of the Coolpix too! But hey, I’ll settle for the p900. I don’t think you can beat what you get for the price and I enjoy taking photos of birds with it. I’ll just need to go back to Magee Marsh in future years to fill out my warbler photos!
Also see: Backyard Bird Photos: Basic Tips
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