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The other day I decided to photograph Vermilion Flycatchers. Just about every public park in Tucson or in nearby Pima County has its complement of Vermilions. These birds are not desert dwellers. They prefer treed areas adjacent to open fields with at least some water nearby. Our local parks departments have obligingly furnished ideal habitat for Vermilions (they also inhabit Tucson’s largest cemetery).
These beautiful little flycatchers are classic perch hunters. The males of the species stake out territories consisting of a few trees and shrubs. They perch on exposed branches. From there, they make forays after flying insects. They are almost unbelievably adept at seizing tiny insects in flight.
Photographing Vermilion Flycatchers can be a frustrating experience. Finding these birds is the easy part. On a winter day a Vermilion Flycatcher stands out against bare vegetation like a neon sign.
However, seeing them and getting close enough to take a photo are often two entirely different things. Many of these birds avoid close contact with people. Vermilion Flycatchers have exceptionally keen vision that is sensitive to the slightest motion. I’ve had the following experience many times: I slowly creep towards the bird, knowing that its comfort zone is about 15 yards. If I enter within that zone, the bird will fly no matter how stealthy I am. However, at 15 yards, the flycatcher still watches me closely. Most of the time the act of my raising my camera to eye level will spook the bird.
In this next photo the flycatcher is staring directly at me as I photograph him. Vermilion Flycatchers have crests and this one has raised his in apparent alarm. His beak is open as he utters what might be a distress call.
There are exceptions to this wariness, however. A few Vermilion Flycatchers seem to be relatively unconcerned by human presence. The flycatcher in the first and final images landed on a branch as I was standing underneath its tree. It seemed indifferent to me even though I was just a few yards from it. That may be a consequence of the bird residing in a public park where there are lots of dog walkers.
Only the male Vermilion Flycatcher is bedecked in brilliant scarlet. The females are brown with pale breasts and yellow to orange abdomens. They are nonetheless beautiful birds, just more subtly so than are the males. Females don’t seem to stake out territories the way that males do, but are somewhat more nomadic. I find the females to be extremely timid. So far this year I haven’t successfully photographed a female Vermilion Flycatcher. I’ll keep trying, however.
Images made with a Canon 5Diii, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting. The first and fourth images shot at ISO 640, f8 @ 1/2500. The second and third images shot at ISO 1000, f8 @ 1/200.