Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Grackles revisited

with 29 comments

Grackles flocking at twilight; click for greater detail.

“Every day now, beginning around 6 o’clock and increasing as the sun goes down in the western sky, hundreds and hundreds of grackles fly in and gather on the electric station towers and power lines near the intersection of US 183 and Braker Lane in my northwestern part of Austin.” So I wrote on October 18. In the almost two months since then the phenomenon has continued at dusk every day, except that with the seasonal dwindling of the amount of daylight the birds begin gathering more than an hour and a half earlier, at least as our clocks measure things; unlike some of us, the birds weren’t confused by the change back to Standard Time and they insist on taking their clue from the sun. And I’ve insisted on going back at least three times since October 18 to take more pictures of them.

The last time you saw the grackles, Quiscalus mexicanus, most of them were sitting on some power lines, where many are content to stay put for short or long stretches. Others  forage for food on the ground or settle onto the tops of nearby trees. But if something startles these birds, they can suddenly rise up in large numbers and form dense flocks that turn and wheel as if all following the same split-second signals. It’s then, in many people’s opinion, that the grackles are at their most impressive, as you may agree when you look at today’s photograph from December 7. Who would expect to see such a large a swarm of birds, not at a wildlife refuge but above a freeway in an urban area of a million people?

Every time I’ve been to this location, the massive grackle flights reach their peak when daylight has faded to the point that taking pictures is difficult. So I crank up my camera’s ISO to 1250, as in this picture, or even as high as 2000 in some others; I also use an external flash to try to lighten up the birds’ dark bodies a little (and only a little, given how quickly the light falls off according to the inverse square law). Even then I often have to add exposure when I process the images on my computer afterwards.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

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Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 10, 2011 at 5:22 AM

29 Responses

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  1. Synchronized grackle flight is an impressive sight to behold. I used to see them at a Mexican restaurant (Casa Chimayo) in Manassas, Virginia when I lived there. Oh – if you could translate “Chimayo” that would be a bonus!

    jomegat

    December 10, 2011 at 7:21 AM

    • I’m glad you’ve gotten to the their synchronized flight and also find it impressive.

      As for Chimayó, I knew it only as the name of a village north of Santa Fé, so I went to the Internet and at

      http://www.ranchodechimayo.com/history/history.htm

      I found: “The name Chimayó itself is from the Tewá Indian language meaning superior red flaking stone.” I can’t vouch for the correctness of that translation.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 10, 2011 at 9:09 AM

      • No one at the restaurant knew what it meant either. The grackles would settle in right around dinner time, which was always nice.

        jomegat

        December 10, 2011 at 7:33 PM

      • Ah, but walking below so many birds perched overhead has its dangers. So far I’ve been lucky.

        Steve Schwartzman

        December 10, 2011 at 8:35 PM

  2. I have a similar encounter each year but with snow geese. They arrive in November or December and stay until spring. A flock can easily cover an entire field. One day last March I knew they were near due to the noise I heard inside my home. If you are intersested check out my March 10th post. It was amazing walking into the flock!

    Bonnie Michelle

    December 10, 2011 at 7:29 AM

  3. Reblogged this on hayleyhigson.

    hayleyhigson

    December 10, 2011 at 9:14 AM

  4. When I drove to the hill country last weekend, there was a terrific mix of snow and Canada geese out on the Katy Prairie, between Katy and Columbus. I’ve not seen so many in three or four years. I can’t imagine anyone had planted rice there, but they seemed to be foraging for something, and rising into the air in great clouds, like your grackles.

    Our grackles have disappeared, so I’m glad to see yours. They’re one of nature’s most amazing sights.

    shoreacres

    December 10, 2011 at 10:49 AM

    • Ah, too bad I didn’t know about the geese on the Katy Praire; what’s a drive of a few hours in the service of photography? If your grackles have disappeared, I wonder if at least some of them are the ones currently in Austin. I’d expect the opposite, that they’d leave a cooler place first, but what do I know about grackle logic?

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 10, 2011 at 11:02 AM

  5. I’ve seen this sort of phenomenon with “small” birds in the Midwest, but it’s usually starlings, not grackles.

    There’s a spot in the NW quadrant of Indiana–Jasper-Pulaski NWR–roughly halfway between Chicago and Indianapolis–which is a way station for migrating Sandhill Cranes. When they’re at their most prolific, they absolutely fill the sky when there’s a bird “blast off.” It’s not Kearney, Nebraska and it’s not Bosque del Apache, but it’s pretty impressive in its own right.

    kerryl29

    December 10, 2011 at 11:35 AM

    • I’m glad you’ve gotten to see (and I assume also to photograph) your local equivalents, Kerry, both on the smaller scale of starlings and the larger of sandhill cranes. South Texas is a magnet for birders because of the many species that migrate through there, but, not being a bird photographer (except when one or a group comes my way), I haven’t been to any of the wildlife refuges there or on the coast.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 10, 2011 at 3:32 PM

  6. Thanks for describing how you took the picture! I’m always interested in the techniques behind the pictures.

    dogear6

    December 10, 2011 at 12:44 PM

    • You’re welcome. I balance some of my comments between botany and photography because different readers are interested in different things. One thing I neglected to mention on the technical side is that in addition to using a high ISO, when I’ve photographed the grackles I’ve also usually added a camera exposure compensation of 1/3 or 2/3 of a stop as another way of dealing with the darkness of the birds relative to the brightness in the sky.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 10, 2011 at 3:41 PM

  7. very Alfred Hitchcockish

    Claire Takacs

    December 11, 2011 at 12:31 AM

  8. Steve,

    Thanks for always showing us the beauty and majesty of nature, even when it’s a species that many consider a “weed” or a “pest”. Everything that is where it belongs (ie, if it’s native to that area) then it has a purpose and should be appreciated.

    Diane Sherrill

    December 11, 2011 at 11:54 AM

    • Thanks, Diane. You’re right that many people find the grackles to be a nuisance, but the birds haven’t hesitated to settle into our human world, even to the point, as here, of congregating around electric towers and power lines alongside a busy freeway.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 11, 2011 at 12:01 PM

  9. Judging by this shot, it must be very impressive, and maybe a bit intimidating, indeed to see this huge flock take off suddenly. Nice capture in the faltering late-day light! Cheers!

    Steve

    December 11, 2011 at 12:24 PM

    • It is impressive, so I’m sorry you can’t experience it in person (or maybe you can somewhere near you). As a photographer you can appreciate the difficulties of working in the waning light.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 11, 2011 at 12:53 PM

  10. Reminded me the famous “Birds “film by Alfred Hitchcock. It was amazing. Thank you, with my love, nia

    niasunset

    December 16, 2011 at 11:15 AM

    • Several other people have made that association, Nia. I wish Hitchcock were still alive and making movies. I used to watch his black and white television show 50 years ago.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 16, 2011 at 11:32 AM

  11. stunning!

    sdiekmannphotography

    December 23, 2011 at 3:54 AM

    • Thanks. It’s a spectacle worth seeing.

      In your blog post of December 12 you said that it was your first day without rain in a long time. Here in Austin we had days of rain and cooler weather for most of the past two weeks, and that combination seems to have been the signal for the grackles to depart till next year. They’re gone.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 23, 2011 at 7:03 AM

  12. Steve
    Nice shots. I didn’t know what a grackle was until now. It’s described as a blackbird on wikipedia but I wonder whether it is of the thrush family like our common blackbird in the UK or perhaps is more like a starling. It certainly has glossy plumage like a starling. I liked this image and your other with them collected on the overhead wires. You also led me to the pictures of flocking geese on another site (Iris and the lily).
    This flocking is very hard to depict in art and still photography I think but you both show it can be done. Also the dynamic and patterns made in formation flight vary between species. I regularly watch lapwings startle, circle and soar then come again to land. Capturing this movement is hard but clearly can be done. I have photographed and painted lapwings in flight but have not posted yet because my image looks flat and still. I’ll post this painting now but you’ll see what I mean. This is something I will return to.

    kestrelart

    December 24, 2011 at 2:10 PM

    • Glad to introduce you to the grackles, which are very well known here (nay, notorious). I’m sorry that I don’t know more of the ornithological details.

      Yes, it is possible to capture the motion of the birds, provided there’s enough light. My problem with the grackles is that the peak activity seems to occur when the light has waned to the point that my camera has trouble recording an image. But I’ll try again next autumn. At least with painting you have the freedom to add all the light you want, something I wish I had.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 24, 2011 at 7:04 PM

  13. […] of birds forming huge formations in flight is clearly fascinating to others.  A comment led me to https://portraitsofwildflowers.wordpress.com/2011/12/10/grackles-revisited/ and a further comment on that site took me to another blog and an image of flocking […]

  14. Nicely done, love the scattered energy, sort of panicked

    lmsorenson

    September 16, 2012 at 3:52 PM

    • Thanks. Often the grackles would fly around on their own, but sometimes my flash would send them scurrying off the wires and into the air.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 16, 2012 at 4:16 PM

  15. […] to me whether the use of bajo is due to influence from English. It is clear to me that anyone who observes flights of birds from below may need protection from what falls from […]


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