Today I turn to one of my favorite species of birds. I’ve had the great pleasure of intensively studying the Rusty Blackbird for the past five years as part of my work at the Alaska Bird Observatory. They breed throughout the boreal forest, in wetlands, from New England through Alaska. Their habitat is difficult to access and even more difficult to move through. In interior Alaska we’ve found they prefer to put their nests in willows, or short black spruces on the edges of seasonally flooded fens and wet meadows. This is not walking-friendly terrain, knee boots are mandatory, and waders are probably better. I’ve spent many a wet and cold morning searching for nests of Rusties, my boots filled with water from mis-steps in the tussocky meadows. And yet I love these birds. Their calls are a incredible mix of sharp whistles, clicks, and “chuck” notes. Sometimes when I’ve walked into good breeding areas, it seems the trees are filled with Rusties, and others, sometimes in the same areas, they seem oddly absent. Rusty Blackbirds are a little strange, not very well understood, and sadly, declining at a precipitous rate (90% of their population has disappeared over the last 50 years). So there is your primer in Rusty Blackbirds. Suffice to say I could go on for hours about these lovely, understated birds, but I won’t. On to the images!
All three of these images were made on the same evening, at a local wetland area not far from my home in Fairbanks. It is one of the few areas I know where one can get close to Rusty Blackbirds without hiking well off the road. These were made just a few days after the previous images of the juncos, and represent some of my early work with Canon 500mm f4L IS. The first two images are males, (identifiable by their immaculate black plumage) and the third is a female.
The top image is probably my most published wildlife photo (followed closely by the second image). I’ve sold it a few times and given it away to non-profits for use in their conservation work, a few more times. I like the image a lot. The background is great, nice and clean with just a hint of trees and brush. The bird’s pose is dynamic with the beak open in song. The bird is acceptably, if not perfectly, sharp, well exposed and in near-perfect light. Also I left enough space around the bird where text can be inserted, a selling point for the shot. On the negative side there is a distracting roundish blur in the upper right part of the frame, it’s minor but I find my eye wandering there as I look at the photo, (I could probably have pulled this out with some work with the clone tool). I’d also have liked the bird to be looking just a touch more toward the camera, but its a minor quibble.
The verdict? And excellent and saleable image.
This second image was made around the same time as the first and is a bit more of close-up. It has a few things going for it. Good light, sharp, and some action. The green background is nice and smooth which makes the bird stand out. Given the choice I’d have asked him to perch on a less messy branch and to please step out away from the one partly obscuring it’s left side. I’d also clean up that partly blurred branch on the middle left. Otherwise, its a pretty darn good image, and based on the number of times its been published, I think others agree.
Verdict: Another good one.
This final image is a female. She was perched, somehow, on the very top of a broken cattail stem and was looking warily at me back over her shoulder. I like the pose, I like the interaction, I like the atypical perch. I love the near-perfect background of greens and browns. I like that she is tack sharp with every detail in her deceptively elegant feathers clear, but dear god, I hate those blown out stems on right and left. I have a version of this where I’ve cloned those out, and to the casual viewer it looks fine, but I can tell that there has been digital work done to that image, and it bugs me. Someday perhaps I’ll sit down in photoshop and spend the necessary time to get those removed in a way with which I’ll be satisfied, but that day hasn’t yet come. In the mean time, I’ll just be irritated by their presence. This too has been a successful image, having sold a few times.
Verdict: Good, but I hate those twigs.
Prints and digital downloads of these images and other Rusty Blackbird shots are available on my stock site here.