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Fall Migration is Here!

Many species we don't normally see are moving through our area

Carol Freeman —  September 14, 2013 — 1 Comment

Twice a year we are blessed with the migration of birds, butterflies, moths, and dragonflies. Many species that we don’t normally see (or don’t see in large numbers) are now moving through the Chicago area. Each day is a mystery as to what I might come across.

These guys were moving through the woods, stopping to eat berries. ©Carol Freeman

These guys were moving through the woods, stopping to eat berries.
©Carol Freeman

Today I chose to head over to McDonald Woods. Before I could even get to the path, I was greeted by red-eyed vireos. I stayed there and watched them for some time. One thing I have learned is to photograph birds wherever I see them, and to avoid the impulse to assume I’ll find more birds, or better birds, elsewhere. Just because the birds are hopping here doesn’t mean they will be hopping everywhere: best to take advantage of the birds wherever they are, even if it’s just the parking lot.

Only when the activity slowed did I head into the woods to see what else might be there. Right away, I saw some movement up high. Yep, warblers. I could tell by the flash of the tail feathers that these were redstarts. My instinct is to try to focus on any bird that moves. However, another thing I have learned is to resist the urge to photograph birds up high and backlit. The best photos are taken at eye-level. I look for movement and listen for bird calls to help me find a likely place to get some good photos. When I do, I relax and wait. Yes, wait. It might take 15 or 20 minutes for the birds to filter down. It is tempting to try to find the birds, or to follow them, but all that tends to do is send the birds higher up.

I was ready when this little one came back to it's favorite perch. ©Carol Freeman

I was ready when this little one came back to its favorite perch.
©Carol Freeman

After just a few minutes, I see a young warbler hopping in the lower branches. I get a few shots before it takes off. Then, in zooms a hummingbird. The nice thing about hummingbirds is that they will often come back to the same perch over and over again. So I slowly move toward where this little one is sitting. Just as I get close, it takes off. So I position myself with a good view of the perch, and wait. Yes, there is that word again. Trust me, the “wait” will be worth it! Soon the hummingbird is back, and yes, it lands right on the same perch, and I’m able to get some really nice shots. Learning about the habits of birds comes in handy. If I did not know that the hummingbird would be back, I would not have been ready to take the photo when it got there. One way to learn about the habits of birds is to hang out and chat with birders. I like to go on bird walks with them and read bird books when I can.

When I’m waiting for warblers and other migrants, I like to practice my photography skills on the more common and perhaps slower-moving birds. It’s a way to make sure that my camera is set properly, and it helps me get comfortable with my equipment choices for the day. If I can’t take an amazing photo of a common bird, it is unlikely that I will take an amazing shot of a tiny, quick-moving rarity. Practice is key! For bird photography, I like to use my 80-400mm lens, but anything over 200mm will work. I keep my shutter speed at 1/400 of a second or faster. Sometimes that means upping my ISO to get the faster shutter speed. Otherwise these little birds will be big blurs.

What a treat to see so many of these buzzing around the garden today.  ©Carol Freeman

What a treat to see so many hawk moths (also called sphinx moths) buzzing around the garden today.
©Carol Freeman

I have to keep an open mind. Even though I might really want to photograph a yellow-winged warbler, what I might get instead is a blue jay, or not even a bird at all. Sometimes my best “bird” shot of the day is a butterfly. Or like today, I was treated to dozens of hawk moths! I’ve never seen so many in one spot, and what amazed me most was how many people walked right past them! They were so focused on something else, they missed what I thought was the coolest migrant of the day. I can’t tell you how many times I went out with one intention and came back with shots of something I could have never predicted—all because I kept an open mind to all the wonders that are out there to discover. There will be a stream of migrants visiting Chicago through November, and I hope you can get out and enjoy the amazing wonders that the autumn migration will bring right to you.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Butterflies are beautiful, magical, and mysterious creatures.

PHOTO: Sara Longwing

Sara Longwing
©Carol Freeman

They have to be one of nature’s greatest achievements. Their transformation from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly is truly mind-boggling when you really think about it. Seeing one is a joy. Seeing hundreds at one time is truly amazing! I had the pleasure of photographing butterflies at Butterflies & Blooms last summer. I had a wonderful time, and was just thrilled with the variety of butterflies and the quality of the plantings.

When photographing butterflies, I like to look for fresh specimens on pretty perches in a well-lighted area. Even though there are a lot of butterflies there, finding one you like sitting still on an attractive surface might take some time. One approach is to find a flower that you like and position yourself ahead of time. First, set up your camera. Then, make sure there is nothing distracting in the background, and wait. Usually within just a few minutes, a butterfly or two will land in the area. Another option is to look for the kind of butterfly you like already perched on a flower or leaf. Most newly hatched butterflies will stay still on flowers or foliage while they dry, giving you an excellent opportunity to photograph them.

PHOTO: Paper Kite Butterfly

Rice Paper Butterfly
©Carol Freeman

Since this is an indoor exhibit, the structure of the building and the people walking around can often complicate shots. My favorite lenses for photographing butterflies in this situation are my 105mm and 200mm macro lenses. They allow me to be a comfortable distance away from the butterflies, get excellent details, and also keep the background soft.

As with all wildlife, I always focus on the eyes. It is human nature to look at the eyes first. If they are in focus, then the whole photograph will have a more satisfying feel. If you are photographing the side of a butterfly, get parallel to the wings to keep your plane of focus aligned with entire length of the butterfly. That way you can get more of the wing details in focus without having to increase your depth of field (aperture) which would mean a slower shutter speed and possibly a soft photo. While there is plenty of light, the screen mesh does cut down the available light, and shaded areas cut the light even further. It will take some experimenting to find settings that work for you when balancing your shutter speed, ISO, and aperture to get sharp, interesting photos.

PHOTO: Hecale Longwing

Hecale Longwing
©Carol Freeman

To keep from getting in the way of other guests, I leave the tripod at home and handhold my camera. This means that I search for butterflies on flowers in the sun, so that I have a fast enough shutter speed for sharp photos. My most successful images come from observing the butterflies for a while and seeing what flowers seem to be the ones that get a lot of attention. There always seem to be a few plants that have more activity than others. If I’m lucky, one or two of those plants will have some nice light on them. Then I wait, enjoying the butterflies that land on me instead, eventually being graced by a few that choose to stop by and allow me to photograph them.

PHOTO: Detail of Owl Butterfly

Owl Butterfly
©Carol Freeman

PHOTO: Friar Butterfly

Friar Butterfly
©Carol Freeman


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org