Whether on a backyard bird feeder or on the streets of Manhattan, you’ve likely seen a Sparrow. Many associate the term solely with the common nuisance species, the House Sparrow. These birds are known to nest in the eaves of homes. However, upon further inspection, one can start to note differences in the birds they simply call “Sparrow”. Nearly 50 species of Sparrow exist in North America. Of them, 19 can be spotted in New Jersey alone. Some are migratory, while others remain in the Garden State Year-round. Of the migratory species, one had caught my interest in recent years. The Grasshopper Sparrow.
About the Bird:
Introducing, the Grasshopper Sparrow. This is not your typical backyard bird. Instead, this sparrow is highly habitat specific. The Grasshopper Sparrow is a grassland bird, preferring patchy meadows with little to no shrub cover. This allows this species to freely move across the ground. You heard correctly; this bird is primarily a ground dweller. Here, they forage and prey upon insects and such. True to their name, these Sparrows do eat plenty of grasshoppers, though they will also eat beetles, spiders, caterpillars, and such. Surprisingly, their hankering for grasshoppers is not what earned them their name. In fact, it is the grasshopper like song they emit.
A buzzy trill, their song is much quieter than most common sparrows. It is also only when singing that these birds show themselves. From the top of a stalk, they make their presence known to rival males and potential mates. If all goes well, the singing male will attract a female and thwart intruding males. Then the nest making begins. Nests are located on the ground and usually consist of a mix of grass, hair and other fine materials. The nest is a typical bowl, though it is usually covered in a dome of dense vegetation, allowing access only from the side. Once completed, the nest can house about half a dozen eggs. Each egg is more important than the last as this species is in steep decline.
With an ever-shrinking habitat, the Grasshopper Sparrow is increasingly more difficult to find. Since the mid 20th century, its population has drastically declined. Populations have declined as much as 97 percent in New York State alone. This is mostly due to habitat loss. This is largely due to land development and vegetation succession. These occurrences lead to grasslands becoming smaller, fragmented and as a result, less favorable to the Grasshopper Sparrow. Luckily, this species responds positively to a number of human agricultural management activities such as scheduled mowing, grazing and controlled burns. The old practice of turning marshes into landfills has also had a surprisingly positive effect on grassland species. While detrimental to marshland species, most of these landfills were eventually isolated and capped. This created prime grassland habitat where species like Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlark and of course, the Grasshopper Sparrow could thrive once again.
How I Got the Shot:
With any wildlife photography, I recommend a starting lens no less than 300mm. A basic 70-300mm kit lens will suffice. That being said, if there’s one type of bird that pushes us to longer focal lengths, it’s songbirds. An APS-C, or “cropped”, sensor paired with such a zoom will provide some relief, though you’ll learn quickly if a longer lens is needed. I was shooting with a 500mm prime lens for most of my outings with these birds. I found this lens paired with a full frame DSLR just long enough to get the results I was after. I personally like some empty space in my images, but it’s a look that’s not for everyone. Someone equipped with a 600mm lens and an APS-C body would have gotten much closer results.
Next comes lighting. I always recommend shooting in the first hours of daylight or the last few with the sun either to my back or facing me directly. This varies on what effect I’m going for with my images. More often than not, you’ll want the sun on your back as it is in the image above. We call this shooting on “Sun-angle”. Shooting in these hours not only provides the most pleasing light, it also happens to be cooler, which in turn, makes for active wildlife. It’s also worth shooting when the sun isn’t visible at all. Overcast days provide soft, diffuse light that can be pleasing throughout the day. In fact, I prefer to shoot on these days for most other songbirds I photograph.
As this species prefers life on the ground, finding one in the open was quite the challenge. As luck would have it, this patch of grassland habitat harbored a number of singing males. This resulted in territorial skirmishes between neighboring birds. Once a male had successfully chased the intruder off, it would perch atop a grass stalk and sing. The height of the grass allowed me to crouch down and remain almost invisible from the height of the sparrow. As this is not a heavily visited location, the birds were not accustomed to human presence. I had to tread carefully. Once in position, I remained in the area for much of the evening. By sitting as still as possible, I managed to photograph three individual males.
As stated above, if there’s one time and place you want the longest lens possible, it’s here. Songbirds, especially these sparrows, are small and skittish. As stated above, I spent most of the shoot crouching along the fields edge to stay hidden. I also got low as to shoot from my subjects eye-level. Being at the same level as your subject is essential to engaging your audience. It’s scenarios like these where super-telephoto zooms are ideal. If the bird comes closer, you can always zoom out without moving and startling the bird. These lenses also tend to be lighter than their prime counterparts, although new mirrorless lenses as well as Nikon’s Phased Fresnel optics are narrowing the margin.
A major aspect I made sure to check before situating myself, was the backgrounds. I made sure to keep an eye out for bright objects in the distance. Any one distracting element can throw the whole composition off, and I try to avoid removing spots in post as much as possible. A wide aperture and the vast field ultimately made for a nice, smooth background. Remember, the farther away the background, the blurrier it will become. As long as you’re using a long lens, this occurs regardless of aperture.
Once I was set up, I could begin thinking about positioning the bird in the frame. If you’ve attended one of my focus sessions at BCC, you’ve heard me talk about the rule of thirds time and time again. This is for good reason. All too often I see images with the bird or animal smack dab in the middle of the frame. There is a time and place for this, but more often than not, it’s not ideal. By positioning the bird in the lower right third of this image, it gives a sense of space. The bird is singing into the emptiness of the frame, allowing the viewer to imagine what lies ahead. This empty space is often referred to as “dead” space. Learn to use it well, and you’ll be on the path to strong compositions. If you can’t do this in the heat of the moment, remember, you can always crop in post. The beauty of modern cameras is their resolution. You can crop with little to no image degradation. I would be lying if I said I nailed the composition in-camera every time. I crop most if not all of my images to some degree.
Lastly, always prioritize the well-being of your subject. Allow space for the birds to feed, sing, and go about their business uninterrupted. Don’t panic if you accidentally flush a bird. We’ve all done it. Learn from it and avoid doing so in the future. Where applicable, stay on designated trails and respect boundaries. Wildlife refuges and parks are riddled with trails and roads for authority and park staff use. Authorized personnel signs mean authorized personnel only. Do not enter. Where trails are narrow or simply do not exist, watch your step. Many animals, not just the Grasshopper Sparrow, nest on the ground and don’t shy away from leaving young on or near trails. Be careful, wear your sunscreen and insect repellent, but also have fun with it.
If you’re interested in learning more about my bird photography techniques and outings, click here for more. We will be adding in-the-field workshops to our website in the near future, so stay tuned. Sign up for our weekly newsletter for updates.
All the best,