Birding joy: Finding the unexpected on your camera roll

It happens frequently on my outings that I point my binoculars at a distant bird and can’t figure out what it is. If I’m lucky, I have enough time to point my camera and capture a few frames, hoping that the bird’s identity will be revealed once I get the images up on screen back home.

The past three days are cases in point. On Saturday, I went to John A. Roebling Park in Trenton to see what was happening at Abbott Marshlands. A lot of birds were out on Spring Lake with the two mute swans who have been in residence for many months.

A couple of birders making their way back to the parking lot had a seen a redhead through a scope. I wouldn’t find it but I was able to learn from the birders that the birds floating in the center of the lake were mostly gadwalls. I couldn’t figure out exactly what they were by peering through my binoculars but I squeezed off several frames in my camera, hoping they’d reveal what was out there.

Drake (left) and hen American wigeons on Spring Lake.

When I got home, I was able to confirm that several gadwalls were floating near the swans, but as I zoomed in, I spotted a pair of birds that clearly weren’t gadwalls. One had a two-tone head, appearing green and brown through the grainy image on my screen. The image I cropped was too poor for the Merlin app to assess, so I put the image up on the Central New Jersey Birding Facebook group and hoped for an expert to weigh in.

Within minutes, I had the answer: it was a pair of American wigeons, something I wasn’t expecting to see.

My camera paid off again Sunday on the Reed-Bryan Farm side of Mercer Meadows. As I came down the path from the parking lot, I spotted a bird atop one of the dead trees spiking out of the gully to the left. The bird was in shadow and I had no chance at an id through my binoculars. Maybe a kestrel, I thought, but I hadn’t a clue. I pointed my Canon and hoped for the best.

As I returned to the parking lot, two big black birds came swooping in. One flew overhead and the light was right, so I raised by camera and blasted off a few frames. Turkey vultures, I figured, with just a nagging touch of uncertainty in my head.

Home I went, and I first called up the putative vulture images on my laptop screen. Not so! It was a common raven, a bird that isn’t often spotted at Mercer Meadows.

Merlin at Mercer Meadows.

I moved down several frames to the bird in shadow, and my decision about 18 months ago to switch to shooting RAW images paid off again. A quick auto-fix of the image revealed the bird was a merlin, which made perfect sense. Merlins often sit atop those dead trees in that part of the park.

With Monday off for the Martin Luther King holiday, I did a morning Pole Farm visit, drove up to Somerset County to look in vain for sandhill cranes and made a final outing in the afternoon at Colonial Lake and Park near home.

It was all mallards and ring-billed gulls, or so it seemed until I started making my way back to my car. Across the lake I spotted a small group of birds on the water. Through my binoculars, I could make out a male common merganser to my left and a male hooded merganser to my right. In between were a few brown birds, which I figured were females. But of which type of merganser?

The camera again captured enough detail so that when I got home and brought the images on screen, I could make out the puffy heads of what clearly were female hooded mergansers.

Many birders get by on the naked eye and binoculars. I suppose I could, too, but for me, the camera and my zoom lens are essential equipment that bring more joy of discovery day after day.

Not a vulture: a common raven soars above me at the Reed Bryan Farm side of Mercer Meadows.

Published by Dan

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

3 thoughts on “Birding joy: Finding the unexpected on your camera roll

  1. Greetings from Orlando! Some really cool experiences! When I was a young kid birding in NJ there were no ravens, having long been extirpated. It wasn’t until the 80s or early 90s that they started to be seen again with any regularity.


    1. Hi, Pauline. Thanks very much for the kind comment. Take it step by step, as time and your budget allow. I started shooting birds at our feeders out our windows with an iPhone and a basic DSLR with a 24-75 mm zoom lens. Then I bought a refurbished Canon 75-300 zoom for $100 that allowed me to get a lot closer to the birds at the feeders and those out in the parks. Somewhere along the line I upgraded from an old Canon XTi body to an SLR2 (each is near the bottom of the line in price and features but they work for me). The biggest leap, though, came in fall 2021 when I plunked down $900 for the Sigma 150-600 mm Zoom lens that I now use daily. It enables me to catch so many shots that the shorter zooms couldn’t make. That’s the way I’ve done it. I have yet to invest in a tripod, probably my next big expense. You don’t have to go the DSLR or mirrorless route. One of the best birders in our area shoots with an all-in-one Nikon zoom camera and gets fantastic photos. Basically, there are nice options in all price ranges. As I found with the refurbished Canon lens, used and refurbed equipment can help get you better gear for less. Happy shooting!


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