Sunday, November 8, 2020

Post #186 - Rusty Blackbird Spotlight

When an out-of-range Rusty Blackbird (RUBL) was found at the southern end of my home San Mateo County (California) on October 27th, I faced mutually-exclusive choices for the morning of the 28th.

Option #1 was to pursue the bird by bike. The wandering individual was the first RUBL to stray into biking range since I moved to San Mateo in May of 2017, and the species would be a fantastic addition to my cherished Bay Area Bike List (324 species to date). With over 3,500 feet of climbing spread across 74 round-trip miles, the ride would be an exhausting undertaking and consume an entire day.

Option #2 was to pursue the bird by car so I could photograph it. RUBL would be a new species for my photo collection, and the folks who observed the bird on the 27th noted that it was very approachable. My 600mm lens is too valuable and heavy to carry on the bike; even if I was willing and able to ride with it, then I'd to need to leave at 3am to reach the the bird by sunrise. So yeah, I'd drive if I opted for photography.

Decision, or photograph?

Rusty Blackbird range (left) and hypothetical ride (ride)
Map adapted from this informative website

Extended hemming and hawing aside, the photos I captured were better than anything I imagined. I could not have asked for more from this winter plumage female, and I hope the color in these frame impresses the benefits of getting into shooting position ahead of sunrise. By the time the sun reached the optimal angle 45 mins after that event, the bird was totally cool with my presence. My amphibious belly-crawl through the creek was cold and nasty, but that's what it took to create the smooth, golden surrounds. As an aside, the bird was flushed by a Peregrine at 9:15am. It was not observed again, by me or anyone else. I would not have arrived in time to see it had I been on the bike. #carforthewin, this time anyway.

***click on the images for larger views***

Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/1250 at f/7.1, ISO 1600
Splash is from a failed stab as a small fish

Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/1250 at f/7.1, ISO 1600
I think she found this fish dead on the edge of creek

Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/1600 at f/7.1, ISO 1600
Posterior perspective exaggerates the color on the layered feathers

Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/2500 at f/7.1, ISO 1000
Love that yellow iris!

Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/2500 at f/7.1, ISO 1000
My favorite of the bunch. Gotta have eye contact!

These results are some of my 2020 favorites, particularly the last two. I hadn't appreciated how beautiful this species is before this encounter, so I was hella stoked to capture images which show the female so well. Most hardcore bird photographers focus on flashier subjects like waterfowl, birds of prey, and warblers, but I've always been happy to pour time and effort into species which others ignore (shorebirds, sparrows, e.g.). I guess that's my birding background coming through the camera.

On an important conservation note, Rusty Blackbird has suffered precipitous declines in the last half-century, and current estimates suggest the species persists at 10 to 15 percent of historical levels. Unlike many other blackbirds which thrive in standard-issue reeds, agricultural areas, and/or suburban environments, Rusties specifically seek the interface between woodlands and marshes. Boreal bogs in the undeveloped Canadian wilds present ample habitat during the summer breeding season, but continued development in the eastern half of the lower 48 states has hugely degraded their winter options. Rusty Blackbird isn't as iconic as some other threatened or endangered birds, and I think it's comparatively nondescript appearance has allowed many to overlook or ignore the declines the species has suffered. Unfortunately, appearances matter as much for birds as they do for people.

For those interested in learning a bit more about Rusty Blackbird biology and conservation, I offer the following links:

Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/1250 at f/7.1, ISO 1600
I really like the round body and spindly legs.

Until next time, cheers!

1 comment:

  1. Superb shots of a once abundant bird! Thank you for posting these.