BRAINERD - For a brief period each spring, colorful songbirds gather. Some are migrating -- en route to the north -- while others are busy staking out nesting territories. The males, of course, are singing, and flashing their vibrant breeding plumages, showing off to the females and warning other males to stay away.
At the same time many species of trees are in bloom, including plum, lilac and crab apples. This provides an opportunity to visually combine showy blossoms and vivid birds, a delight for birders, and a chance for a photographer to capture, perhaps, the ultimate image.
At least in my mind.
Each spring I have such visions: an orange and black Baltimore oriole perched among the pink or white blossoms of a backyard crab apple tree; a male indigo bunting, singing from among the white flowers of a serviceberry bush, chanting loudly that he can out-blue even a bluebird; a male rose-breasted grosbeak sitting contentedly in a crab apple tree adorned with pink blossoms.
Capturing such images is not easy. It requires some forethought along with a bit of luck. I prefer images taken during the first three hours of the morning, in full sun, or hazy sunshine. Other photographers may disagree. On rare occasions, the light illuminates birds "just right" under medium overcast, but those days are few.
By far the best chance to attain my optimal feathered visions occurs on cool, calm, sunny mornings following the passing of a cold front. When nighttime temperatures fall, usually with a north wind, come sunrise insects are often low to the ground where the air warms first. Sometimes, if a person is lucky, he or she can witness the trees "dripping" with birds when they gather to hunt the insects. A day later, or even hours later, the birds might be gone.
Trees don't stay in bloom forever, and sometimes the entire blossoming event is over before I have a chance to take advantage of the combination of an influx of birds, a good weather day, and plants in full bloom.
Wind is a bird photographer's nemesis. Wispy branches stirred by spring breezes whip back and forth, making a sharp photo impossible. Birds are usually less active and more skittish on windy days.
This spring the conditions were favorable to photograph birds in the flowering crab apple trees I planted in my backyard on only one morning. Or at least I was only able to take advantage of one good morning because of other obligations.
I upped the odds of birds landing in the flowering crabs by placing bird feeders nearby. A blind was then situated to take advantage of the morning light and left out so the birds could become accustomed to it.
A week or so ago I arose just after sunrise and found photography conditions near ideal. The temperature was in the low 40s and patches of hazy clouds occasionally muted the sun. A slight breeze intermittently stirred the leaves but was not strong enough to move branches.
From the confines of my blind I observed a yard full of colorful birds; rose-breasted grosbeaks, orioles, house finches, goldfinches, ruby-throated hummingbirds. Cowbirds, grackles and various species of sparrows gathered, too; less attractive, yes, but fun to watch nonetheless. The males of the species bellowed their courtship calls, and scolded when competing males approached.
It's amazing, even under ideal conditions, how few "perfect" photo opportunities presented themselves -- a tree branch swayed, an errant shadow covered a portion of a bird. Oh, and just like people, birds blink at the most inopportune time.
After about two hours of photography, I shot just a handful of good images.
The colorful blooms are gone now, and so are many of the birds. But I have a few mementos stored in my mind, if not images on a hard drive.
Bill Marchel, an outdoors columnist and photographer, lives near Brainerd.