I don’t think there is anything harder than photographing warblers during migration, when they are generally feeding frantically to fuel for the next hop, and always, it sometimes seems, at least partially obscured by foliage and branches.

Magee Marsh/Crane Creek, along the Ohio shore of Lake Erie, is a good place, in some ways, to try. The birds are certainly there. In a few hours you can see 30 or more species of warblers every spring, staging for a day or sometimes two, along with Tanagers, Orioles, Thrushes, Grosbeaks, Sparrows, etc., nesting Screech Owls, and resident Rails and Herons. And the warblers are there in good numbers. You can see a dozen Prothonotarys, 20 Blackburnian, 50 Black-throated Green or American Redstarts in the space of an hour. Then too, the persistent will encounter the occasional rare Connecticut, Morning, or Golden-wing. Lots of birds, for sure.

But with that comes lots of birders. And photographers. Hence the “some ways” above. The past two years the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, Ottawa NWR, and Tropical Birding Tours, have organized an event around the phenomenon of Magee Marsh and migration. The boardwalk is often so jammed with binocular and camera wielding humanity that it is literally impossible to move. Little old ladies (and big strong men) get stranded for hours a few yards short of where everyone else is seeing the Connecticut. Even when the press is less, it is not uncommon to find 200 birders and photographers in 100 yards of boardwalk. And tripods supporting 600mm lenses? Don’t get me started on that! While I understand the impulse to drag a 6 foot tall tripod, 14 pounds and 24 inches of lens, and a foot long flash hood out on to a boardwalk with hundreds of birders trying to see warblers (and all the little folk with their 300mm zooms), I can not say that I fully approve. Nothing stops traffic like a tripod blocking half the boardwalk.

It is a unique experience, however you look at it. And, despite my quibbles, one I would not personally miss for anything! In fact I am thankful for The Biggest Week in American Birding…without which I might never have heard of Magee Marsh.

But back to P&S for Wildlife. Given the abundance, but also the the difficulty, of the subjects, along with the press of humanity, the Magee Marsh boardwalk provides the ideal torture test for Point & Shoot for Wildlife. “Wicked warblers” as they would say in my part of Maine. Wicked hard on a P&S. If a superzoom can manage to get satisfying warbler images under Magee Marsh and The Biggest Week in American Birding conditions, it can manage anywhere, any time.

Prothonotary Warbler: 810mm, f5.7 @ 1/1000th @ ISO 160

Full disclosure here: the images that illustrate this post are among the 211 that I processed out of 1650 exposures that I took while in Ohio. That is a keeper rate of about 13%. Some of those 211, certainly, are only good “for the record”…saved only because they are the only decent image I got of a particular species. I used my User selected flight and action mode on the Nikon Coolpix P500, which means that I shot 5 images at 8 frames per second with every press of the shutter release. That accounts, in part, for the large number of exposures…but it also accounts, in part, for the relatively high percentage of keepers. “Wait,” you say, “how is 13% high?” In my opinion, and my experience, anything better than 1 in 10 is a high keeper rate when shooting long lens…even if the long lens is the long end of a P&S zoom…maybe especially if the long lens is the long end of a P&S zoom…and certainly when shooting warblers in the woods…with any camera!

User Flight and Action mode:
full size (12mp)
fine image quality
8 fps for 5 frames
center and continuous focus
center metering
auto ISO and a minimum shutter speed of 1/125 second
hybrid Vibration Reduction
LCD off
zoom fully extended (810mm equivalent)

Even at longest zoom, many of these images were cropped from the full frame.

American Redstart: 668mm, f5.7 @ 1/125th @ ISO 160

Scarlet Tanager: 500mm, f5.7 @ 1/640th @ ISO 160

Rose-breasted Grosbeak: 810mm, f5.7 @ 1/400th @ ISO 160

Chestnut Sided Warbler: 500mm, f5.7 @ 1/200th @ ISO 160

Catbird: 810mm, f5.7 @ 1/125th @ ISO 160

Blackburnian Warbler: 668mm, f5.7 @ 1/500th @ ISO 160

Gray-cheeked Thrush: 668mm, f5.7 @ 1/125 @ ISO 500

The Thrush was taken in very poor light, sprinkling in fact, and the minimum 1/125th setting I use as part of my Flight and Action program caught and pushed the ISO up to 500. Not bad at all! The Black and White that follows is also an higher ISO shot, due to subdued light, but most of the time the P500 managed to hold the base 160 ISO.

Black and White Warbler, 668mm, f5.7 @ 1/125th @ ISO 180

Prothonotary Warbler, 810mm, f5.7 @ 1/640th @ ISO 160

Wood Thrush: 668mm, f5.7 @ 1/125th @ ISO 280

Yellow-rumped Warbler: 668mm, f5.7 @ 1/125th @ ISO 500

Magnolia Warbler: 668mm, f5.7 @ 1/320th @ ISO 160

And three shots of a Golden-winged Warbler…none of which capture more than a piece of the bird, but which you can assemble like a puzzle to see it.

And we will finish (almost) with the obligatory Screech Owl shot.

810mm, f5.7 @ 1/160th @ ISO 160

Just for fun, one last shot of half-dollar sized infant Painted Turtle on the boardwalk at Ottawa NWR. Taken with the macro setting at 500mm. Full frame, uncropped.

500mm and macro, f5.7 @ 1/400th @ ISO 160

I am more than happy with the results of the Magee Marsh Point & Shoot for Wildlife torture test. Certainly I might have bettered these with a DSLR and longish lens, but it would have been much more unwieldy on the boardwalk, and much less flexible (no zoom for one thing). Wicked warblers. Bring them on!