09.19.21: Cold female cardinal

A female Northern Cardinal ruffles its feathers to keep warm on a snowy morning, Blendon Woods Metro Park, Westerville, Ohio.

A female Northern Cardinal ruffles its feathers to keep warm on a snowy morning, Blendon Woods Metro Park, Westerville, Ohio.

Tech specs

  • Date/time: Dec 24, 2009 11:17 AM   
  • Camera: Canon EOS 7D
  • Lens: EF600mm f/4L IS USM +1.4x 
  • Focal length: 840mm
  • Aperture: f/5.6
  • Shutter: 1/320 second
  • ISO: 400

Winter scene shows bird’s subdued colors

Male Northern Cardinals are attention-getting birds, with their brilliant red feathers, red-orange beak, black face and sharp crest. You can spot the red in green trees and bushes during the summer or against snowy backgrounds during the winter since cardinals don’t migrate.

That’s not the case for female Northern Cardinals. They are primarily a yellowish-brown with warm reddish tinges on the tail, crest and wings. The subdued colors blend with their surroundings, making them harder to spot.

I see cardinals in the summer but have very few photos of them with green leaves. That’s because cardinals are extremely shy birds, flying off quickly if they detect motion. There’s little to keep them in one spot when I approach in the summer.

The vast majority of my photos of cardinals are taken during the winter months in Blendon Woods Metro Park. The park has a viewing shed that provides bird watchers with a chance to watch a variety of waterfowl on a nearby pond during winter months (the pond has an aeration system so it doesn’t freeze solid in the winter).

The park also has a well-stocked bird feeder to the side of the shed. That’s why I go.

I use the shed as a photographer’s blind, keeping me out the birds’ sight while protecting me from wind and snow (the shed isn’t heated, so I have to deal with the cold). Cardinals, nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, a variety of sparrows, woodpeckers, Blue Jays and a number of other species queue up on surrounding limbs, bushes or fallen logs while they wait for a spot at the feeder. That’s when I get my shots.

Winter in Ohio tends to be extremely gray— dreary, overcast skies result in dreary, dim lighting and poor photos — so I often set up several flash units on wireless remotes when I’m shooting at Blendon Woods. I aim the flashes at areas where I anticipate seeing birds and set the exposure so the flash supplements the available light instead of serving as the primary light source.

In this photo the female cardinal was perched on a tree limb about 10 feet behind the feeder. A recent heavy snowfall blanketed the surrounding forest, providing an uncluttered background. I exposed for the snowy background, allowing the flash units to balance the lighting on the bird in the foreground with the light background.

I like how the photo shows the cardinal with its feathers ruffled, helping to protect the bird from the cold. The photo also captures the bird’s feather details, including the touches of red on the wings, tail and around the eye.

The vast majority of my photos of cardinals are taken during the winter months in Blendon Woods Metro Park. 

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