Beginning Friday, May 5 I had the opportunity to embark on my most challenging yet delightful photographic adventure – photographing warblers and other songbirds at Magee Marsh. You may be thinking “I’ve been doing songbird photography for a few years, I’m sure warblers cannot be that much harder,” – which was precisely my reasoning prior to visiting Magee, but I now have a much deeper respect for photographers who have documented warblers so beautifully. In this post, I would like to share a few things I learned from my experience at Magee as a first-time warbler photographer.
If you are unfamiliar with Magee Marsh, it’s located on the Southern shore of Lake Erie. As the warblers migrate from the South, carried by strong tail winds, they are faced with the challenge of crossing Lake Erie. Since they are reluctant to do so, they accumulate in large quantities at the Magee Marsh Wildlife Refuge. Even though the wind conditions were poor during my time there, the quantity of warblers greatly exceeded my expectations. There were literally birds in every direction I looked! In fact, I personally saw 23 species of warblers, and our group saw over 80 species of birds in one day, demonstrating why Magee Marsh is considered one of the top locations in the U.S. for birding.
With that inspiring description in mind, let me take a few moments to describe why producing clean images of warblers with creamy backgrounds proved so challenging. First of all, during the first two weeks of May, which is the best time for birding at Magee Marsh, the foliage has scarcely begun appearing. This means your backgrounds are cluttered with brown sticks and twigs, instead of the lush, green appearance that we want.
Furthermore, the warblers are incredibly fast. From my experience, backyard birds will often fly away while your camera focuses, but at Magee, they’re gone as soon as you point the camera towards them! You’ll find yourself sorting through thousands of images depicting warblers with distracting backgrounds, with their heads covered by branches or their tails clipped by some obstruction. Not to mention, you’ll be bumping shoulders with hundreds of people. Nonetheless, I was able to capture several pleasant images of warblers, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. As some of the photographers at Magee pointed out, warbler photography is the most challenging form of wildlife photography, and possibly of photography in general.
Prior to visiting Magee, my research informed me that a 300mm lens would be plenty sufficient for warblers on the boardwalk, however, I beg to differ. I brought my Nikon D810 (full frame) and 200-500mm f/5.6 lens, and still used a 1.4x teleconverter much of the time. Even this was too short for many shots and I found myself cropping much of the time. There were, however, a few instances where a Yellow Warbler came within several feet of me, but this was certainly not the norm. I would recommend bringing the longest lens you can feasibly handhold without restricting your ability to maneuver yourself quickly to avoid twigs
As mentioned previously, warblers are very fast. As a result, you will need the fastest f-stop you can get. My 200-500 f/5.6 with a 1.4x teleconverter produced an effective aperture of f/8 which was often very difficult to work with, especially in the evening.
Autofocus at Magee Marsh is a challenge, to say the least. Even the best 500mm lenses and latest cameras will struggle to acquire focus due to the numerous branches and twigs which the autofocus sensor will mistakenly lock on to. Of course, my notoriously slow 200-500 struggled severely because of this, especially with the 1.4 teleconverter. I found manually focusing until the bird was roughly in focus and allowing the camera to do the fine tuning sometimes worked better. Even when the bird is perched out in the open, warblers move so fast that the autofocus system simply may not acquire focus before the bird moves to another perch. In the end, I recommend doing the best you can. Faster autofocus will certainly help, but will not be a magic bullet that solves all of your autofocus challenges.
Although many photographers bring their 600mm or 800mm lenses with bulky tripods, I tend to prefer handheld. This way I can easily position myself accurately in order to shoot through foliage without obstructing the bird, or easily move through crowds of people. My 200-500 f/5.6 lens offers vibration reduction down to 4.5 stops which I found extremely valuable.
I brought roughly 80gb worth of SD/CF cards along with a computer to download pictures to. With the 36mp images from my D810, I could capture about 2000 images before needing to dump the images. To my surprise, this was barely enough to get through the day. I recommend bringing enough storage to shoot at least 2,000 images before needing to download.
Time of day
Every morning I arrived around 6:00 am, however, I do not recall successfully shooting even one “keeper” picture until around 8:00 am. If it’s your first time to Magee Marsh, I do recommend arriving around that time in order to scout out the place before the crowds arrive. Otherwise, there’s no need to get there until around 8:00 am.
If you want the best deal for accommodations, I recommend camping. Camp Sabroske allows you to set up 2 tents for $18/night which includes showers, bathrooms, and even provides a building where you can charge your phone and camera batteries. Camp Sabroske is less than half the cost of the more popular Magee East Marina campground, yet was completely satisfactory.
Borrowing Canon equipment
If you come at the right time, Canon has a booth where they will lend you equipment to try out for free. Just show them your driver’s license, tell them what lens or camera body you want, and allow you to use it for 24 hours. Even though I shoot Nikon, I decided to borrow their latest 500 f4 and 1DX II. In my opinion, the 500 f4 is the best lens for Magee. At only 7 lbs, it’s easily handholdable and provides fairly smooth bokeh and fast shutter speeds with the f4 aperture. I also borrowed a 200-400 f4 with a built-in teleconverter and was extremely disappointed. The bokeh was bad, and the extra pound of weight made it difficult to lug around. Needless to say, it stayed in my car much of the time.
Keeping a record
If you keep a life list, you will find it invaluable to stick close to the pro birders. They will point out species that would otherwise be very difficult to find and identify. You will need a phone or notebook easily accessible in order to quickly jot down the species name. Birds move so fast that it can be very difficult to find time to write down the species’ name, so make sure it’s easily accessible.