Nature Photography is very much like capturing the “human form” in that we isolate and devote attention to certain segments of our subject’s presence to highlight as the “selling point” and center of attention. A vital definition of our work is to project “life” into every image we capture in someway or another rather the subject is a landscape, plant, bird or animal. Anyone can just “take a picture”, but as a serious amateur or professional nature photographer; we balance lighting; natural or artificial, proper exposure; with compensation to define certain tonal values and range for shape and subtle detail, white balance; color temperature for a natural presentation, “story-telling”; interest or impact and finally artistry and composition; the subject/s and visual elements arranged inside of the image frame to enhance and complete our canvas.
For humans, birds and animals, “the eye” is our center of attention 90 percent of the time. After all, what else can project life better than “eye contact” from a subject toward his photographer? It’s something we all strive for. The eye or eyes play an important role in our calculation of depth of field from that focal point. The eyes also set a rule for composition and for positioning in the frame; giving the human, animal or bird somewhere to look towards or go to.
My Favorite Eyes
As a dedicated avian photographer, I have my favorites in relationships with the “eyes” of certain birds telling the story of the species. Some are more noticeable than others. Some stand out and some are more subtle. I could spend hours discussing how to get the most from the “eyes” of our subjects through lighting and image post-processing but I will spare you the boredom of drawn-out discussions of techniques.
Two of my favorite species with the emphasis on “eyes” as a direct influence to their identification include the White-eyed Vireo (Vireo griseus) and the Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus). Both are common and highly present within my geographical area and are easy to identify through sight and sound. I see and hear both species on a daily basis during my spring and summer photographic adventures.
The White-eyed Vireo
I can remember back when I first discovered this species during the early days of my birding and avian photography experience; and which until moving to the Mid-Atlantic States was mostly related to a few “small bird” species of warblers, sparrows and such. I was like so many other photographers; interested only in the larger raptors, waterfowl and wading species that were easily found along the Texas Gulf Coast. One of the primary reasons for my initial interest in the larger birds is that most of the smaller species were just temporary visitors to the Texas coastal area during the period of migration and the observation and photography opportunities were limited to a shallow envelope of time.
Upon relocating to the Mid-Atlantic region, and finally to my new home in south-central Pennsylvania, my opportunities for observation, study and photography of small songbirds has blossomed from a curious interest to almost an obsession. During the past few years, many of the species that were just passing through Texas have ended up here in my new area, and on breeding territories in all of their colorful glory and have provided extended and ample periods for viewing and photography.
I am blessed with hundreds of acres forming a mixed-forest watershed habitat less than five minutes from my home and it was here where I discovered my first individuals of four Vireo species; White-eyed, Red-eyed, Yellow-throated and Blue-headed Vireos.
I have quite a few locations within the watershed where I can quietly sit in my vehicle unnoticed and close to vegetation that is an attractant to feeding birds. These areas provide numerous opportunities for photography at close range of the inhabitants without any type of enticement on my part. One of my favorite locations consist of a willow stand within a brushy pasture along a small creek bordered by a narrow dirt road with where I can pull along the side and safely sit for hours to observe and photograph the avian activities.
I had been photographing a Northern Parula warbler frolicking less than 10 feet away from my vehicle when I heard this rather explosive chuckling song. I had to really scan the dense vegetation hard to find the culprit projecting this tune and once located; thought to myself, Wow!!!, “look at those white peepers”. I rushed to quickly grab a “Bird Book” to see what this thing was!!! He hopped from limb to snag, blurting his tune and then disappeared into the brush only to reappear a few moments later gulping down a tasty morsel. I was fascinated with my new feathered discovery.
His song seemed to entice other species to the area as well. Shortly after his discovery, I had an Eastern Phoebe perched slightly above this little character with the look of curiosity towards his persistent vocal ruckus. I must have spent a good 15 minutes or more watching and photographing this noisy and busy little creature.
The White-eyed Vireo “Facts”
The White-eyed Vireo is a medium-sized vireo roughly 5 inches in length with olive-green upper-parts and white underparts with yellow sides and flanks. Spectacles are pale yellow and iris of the eye is white. Wings are dark gray with two white bars. The legs and feet are dark gray.
Normally secretive by nature, the White-eyed Vireo will avoid busy urban areas, but can be found in the less traveled and isolated of parks. The White-eyed Vireo is one of only two perching birds with white eyes. The other is the Wrentit, (Chamaea fasciata) found in the westernmost portion of the country.
The White-eyed Vireo breeds from Nebraska eastward to Massachusetts and southward to eastern Mexico and throughout Florida. It winters from the southern Gulf Coast to Central America; from coastal North Carolina, the Bahamas, and Bermuda to the Caribbean. Favored habitats include in dense stream-side thickets, overgrown pastures, old fields, cypress swamps, and mangroves and along brushy edges of roads, and ponds.
A Similar Species, the “Bell’s Vireo” is grayer overall with a broken eye-ring and lacks the yellow spectacles; usually shows fainter wing-bars, and has dark eye as an adult.
“One to be heard before seen.”
I noted the song as major part of locating this species above and its fascinating that up to twenty-five different songs are predominate within the White-eyed Vireo population in the eastern United States. Each individual bird can have a repertoire of about a dozen songs delivered in an eventual-variety manner. Only males sing on the breeding grounds. However, both the male and the female sing on their wintering ground to defend territories.
As with many young birds, singing is believed to be learned behavior, with young birds adapting the song variations from their father. White-eyed Vireos may repeat an individual song type numerous times before switching to another song, and the order of songs appears to be random from one singing bout to the next. There is extensive song sharing among White-eyed Vireos, and any two males usually share about half of their song repertoires.
One of the most common birds of the eastern forest and like the White-eyed Vireo; more often heard and not seen is the Red-eyed Vireo. Like the small Oven bird warbler, the song of this vireo is forever present throughout the day during the spring and summer months in both deciduous and mixed deciduous woodlands along with urban parks with large trees. The song is quite a familiar tune within my neighboring watershed. The first time I heard the song, I associated it with that of a warbler, but after going through my songbird recordings for a positive ID, I discovered the tune to that is of the Red-eyed Vireo. I wanted to see the bird so I attempted a little phishing without any luck. The bird seemed quite shy and was unwilling to make an appearance. It was late summer so I decided to try using playback of the Eastern Screech Owl and as luck would have it, the bird made a brief appearance and allowed a short duration of photography.
Simply by its chosen habitat; normally deep in the shadows of the forests, the Red-eyed Vireo is not an easy bird to photograph. Then mix in hot-spots of sunlight with harsh shadows and photography can become quite a challenge of chasing exposure and compensation. The “flash” was the way to work with this species. I wanted just enough artificial light to “gentle” the shadows but not act as a “main” source of light so I added “diffusion” to the flash head to tame the output. The darker images in this article were taken using the existing light only and the more even lighting was with the flash. You can see a vast difference. The darker and contrasty images were from the Michaux State Forest in Franklin County, Pennsylvania; just west of Gettysburg and the others were from the watershed.
Red-eyed Vireo Facts
The Red-eyed Vireo is a medium-sized vireo, roughly 6 inches in length with olive-brown upper-parts and white underparts. Its head includes a gray cap with a white eyebrow, black eye-stripe, and red eyes. The legs and feet are blue-gray.
The Red-eyed Vireo breeds from western Canada eastward to Ontario, and Gulf of Saint Lawrence and southward to the Gulf Coast and Florida. It spends its winters in the tropics of South America. Red-eyed Vireos living year-round in South America are suggested be a separate species.
The Red-eyed Vireo is a Neotropical migrant that performs long-distance flights twice yearly between North and South America. During the migratory flights, these birds are nocturnal and will join mixed species groups or groups with up to 30 other vireos. They may reside with mixed species groups on the wintering grounds in South America, but they are solitary and territorial during the breeding season. Vireo olivaceus is a more aggressive species that will chase or physically attack others of either sex. They spend much of their time in the upper to mid canopy levels of dense forest, and are most active during dawn and dusk during the breeding season.
The Red-eyed Vireo primarily forages for insects, especially caterpillars of gypsy moths and fall web-worms but will also consume fruit during the winter.
A similar species but larger, is the Black-whiskered Vireo (Vireo altiloquus) found in extreme southern Florida and has reddish-brown eyes and a distinct mustache stripe. Other similar vireos lack the red eyes.
The Red-eyed Vireo has become one of my favorite Vireo species and photographic, along with observation opportunities have become numerous since I have learned the habitat and behavior of these birds. The Michaux State Forest along with my watershed and the Kowomu Trail, just south of the Mason-Dixon Line in Carroll County Maryland, are my favorite locations to look for this species along with the White-eyed Vireo. I never tire of photographing both species and look forward to many more images.
“The Eyes Have It” certainly describes both species well and it’s a “fitting” title for my photographic adventures with the White-eyed and Red-eyed Vireo. I have other Vireo species I want to cover and will in the future. I still have a few to actually discover and photograph. Song Birds are my passion and I plan to devote as much time as possible to them.