Archives For Cardinal

The Magic Tree

Carol Freeman —  November 7, 2012 — 1 Comment

The Magic Tree is the Holy Grail for photographers. It’s the sweet spot where all the wildlife seems to magically appear for minutes or sometimes hours at a time. If I’m lucky I will find it a few times each year. The trick is I never know when or where the Magic Tree will be. The Magic Tree doesn’t just reveal itself to everybody. You have to show it respect. You can’t just walk up to it and start firing off pictures – that breaks the magic, and all the birds will scatter.

Whenever I pull into the Garden, the first thing I do is roll down my windows and drive very slowly down the entry road. I’m looking and listening for any clue as to where I might find something interesting to photograph.

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Cedar Waxwing eating a berry. ©Carol Freeman

On this particular day I hear a few chirps and see the flash of a bird. I park in the first lot and quickly grab my gear and head for the place where I think I saw it.

As I get close, I hear Cedar Waxwings conversing. Wow, there are dozens of them, hopping from branch to branch grabbing ripe berries and gobbling them down whole. They move so fast that it’s hard to get a shot before they move on to the next branch or bend down for another berry— but it’s fun to watch! I take many shots, attempting to get one where the Waxwing has a berry in its beak. Timing is everything here. Too soon and all I see is the top of the bird’s head; too late and the berry is gone.

There are many young Waxwings who have not yet mastered the art of grabbing the berries, so many are dropped onto the ground. That’s good news for birds like the Hermit Thrush, which like to scavenge on the ground. The Waxwing’s loss is the Thrush’s gain. Seems like a good compromise – and there are plenty of berries to go around.

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Robin getting in on the action. ©Carol Freeman.

Joining the Waxwings are Robins. They, too, can grab berries and swallow them down whole. Along comes a couple of Cardinals. They love berries too, but it seems like they get more on their beaks than they eat. Even the squirrels are getting in on the action, climbing out on the thin branches to get the delicious fruit.

I stand here for over an hour. The birds begin to accept me like part of the landscape. I’m able to inch closer and closer to the birds without them minding me at all. This is what nature photography is all about for me: being accepted by the wildlife that I’m photographing.

I realize today I have found The Magic Tree. I thank the tree and all the critters for letting me in on such a wonderful experience. I am grateful that I have been allowed to share in the magic of The Magic Tree.

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Cardinal “Do I have something on my beak?” ©Carol Freeman.

All photos were shot with a Nikon D300s camera, Nikon 80-400mm lens, hand-held.

I love Warblers! They are amazing and beautiful little birds. They migrate thousands of miles each year. A few of these jewels breed in the Chicago area, but most only pass through for just a few weeks each spring and fall on their way to breeding grounds. I marvel at their journey. They fly when the winds are favorable, and look for green spaces to spend the day fueling up on insects before heading out again for the next leg of their journey. I can only imagine how good the Chicago Botanic Garden must look to these tired birds as they approach the city. It’s a green oasis with trees, prairies and water.

My choices of possible warbler locations in the Garden are many. Mary Mix McDonald Woods, near the entrance, is a likely place to spot many birds so I head there first. As I approach, I’m greeted by a lovely female cardinal – a nice start to my walk. I slow my pace. Many birds can be found along the edges of the woods, and I don’t want to scare them off. I walk in a few feet and I hear the chirps of white-throated sparrows, another migrating bird. After a few minutes I see the flittering of small birds. Yes, here are my beloved warblers. They are first-year yellow-rumped warblers, hopping from tree to tree picking off bugs. One poses just long enough for me to focus and fire off a few shots. Another migrating bird makes a brief appearance, the Brown Creeper, scooting quickly up one tree and then another. I hear a call from the top of the trees. I focus my camera lens on the sound to find a yellow-bellied sapsucker. So many birds, and I have yet to make it off the first bridge! – All this in less than half an hour! I am anxious to see what else is around, so I start walking the paths. The rest of the woods are surprisingly quiet. I remind myself that when the birds are “hopping,” THAT is the place to be. It is not “better” someplace else. It’s good lesson in life as well. The grass is not greener on the other side!

I hope to see more warblers before the fall is over. There will be birds moving through for weeks to come. A good time to check for warblers is after a night of winds from the north. The birds will fly with the wind and will drop down onto the Garden in the morning. The woods, prairie, and top of the waterfall garden are all great places to check for new arrivals.

Warblers move so fast and are often hidden behind leaves and branches. It is a real treat for me when I get a good shot of these tiny birds. I probably toss 2/3 of all the shots I take. The best advice I can give to you is to get out often and to practice as much as you can. It WILL be worth it!

Photo shot with a Nikon D300s camera, Nikon 80-400mm lens, hand-held, 1/500, f7.1, ISO 800.
©2012 Carol Freeman

We learned some interesting things about hummingbirds in this interview with Ecologist Jim Steffen. You’ll find hummingbirds in many of our 24 display gardens and in our three native habitats. You’ll also find many other resident and migratory birds at the Garden because of the diversity of plant life. Visit chicagobotanic.org/birds for more information on birding at the Chicago Botanic Garden.