Getting the right shot of the tricky Eastern towhee

The Eastern towhee was one of the first non-backyard birds that caught my attention as I started birding regularly at the Mercer Meadows Pole farm three years ago. I first heard the bright “twee!” call one April morning three years ago, and it would be a few visits more before I spotted one about 10 feet up in a tree. It was the first time I’d ever knowingly seen one, and I was thrilled.

Since then, I’ve heard hundreds of towhees in several locations and seen them often. But I struggled to take a photo that does the bird justice and makes me happy. It finally happened this afternoon, on a day off from work when I went to the park for a second visit.

I logged seven towhees on e-Bird on my morning walk, and I was ruminating then on how tough it is to get a good shot of one. The black hood on the bird’s head seems to suck all the light out of the sky, and in most towhee photos I take, the head is so dark that I can barely make out the bird’s eyes.

But photo fate smiled upon me this afternoon. As I walked over a pair of footbridges that are at a juncture on one of my regular trails, I heard a towhee clearly singing. (I swear the words to their song are, “E-Bird meee!”)

The woods at that point (maybe 50 yards from where I spotted my first towhee in 2019) are thick. The sky was partly overcast, and little sunlight penetrated.

I spotted Mr. Towhee on a thick branch about 10 feet above ground, maybe eight feet in from the trail. I bumped up the ISO setting on my camera to 3200 from 800 and shot about 10 frames before the bird flitted away.

Eastern towhee singing from a tree branch.
I”m pleased that this photo came out so well.

Not expecting any result but the usual “dark shadows,” I was pleasantly surprised when I brought the images up on my laptop back home.

That’s not quite true. I was delighted!

The image at top and the one in the middle of this post were taken a split second apart, and I made only minor adjustments to optimize the image. I suppose it would be slightly better if the bird were turned a bit to the side to show more of its undercarriage, but I am quite happy to show the world my best Eastern towhee photo to date as is.

I also want to add that a fellow birder told me he had spotted a female towhee and said it was a brown beauty. I had assumed male and female towhees had the same markings (monomorphic is the term), but they do not.

I was lucky enough to spot a female last week, and the photo below will give you an idea of what she looked like, at least from behind. I’m hoping to get a better photo of a female. Check back in three years!

Female Eastern towhee on the ground, facing away from the camera.
Female eastern towhee, June 28, 2022.

Published by Dan

University media executive by day, blogger by night, I am a well-traveled resident of New Jersey

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