Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Bright red fruits attract more than photographers

with 38 comments

Click for increased clarity.

So there I was on a cul-de-sac in my Great Hills neighborhood in Austin near noon on January 17. I’d been on my way home from taking pictures along Bull Creek when I spotted a well-caparisoned possumhaw standing out against the clear blue sky, so I slowed down, made a U-turn, and pulled back around into the cul-de-sac to take pictures of the tree as my last subject in that morning’s photo outing. Using my wide-angle lens, I was in the middle of photographing the possumhaw when I sensed something whooshing by. I took my eye away from the viewfinder and looked around but I didn’t see anything. When I put my eye back to the viewfinder and began photographing the tree again, I suddenly saw that a bird had landed in it.

I took a few quick pictures, but a wide-angle lens is hardly the thing you want for bird photography. Walking slowly back to my car so as not to frighten the visitor away, I quietly opened the car door, got my longest lens out of the camera bag, put it on the camera, and moved slowly back into position to do a better job than before. You see one of the results here.

Having almost no knowledge of the birds in central Texas—there’s only so much one person can delve into, right?—I e-mailed a copy of the picture to my birder friend Susan, who e-mailed me back and said it’s “a mockingbird guarding its stash.” At a time of year when not much is blooming and there isn’t a lot to eat, various animals rely on the small possumhaw fruits, and in fact I did see the mockingbird swallow one of them while I was photographing it.

For more information about Mimus polyglottos, the northern mockingbird, which happens to be the official bird of the southern state of Texas, you can read an article in All About Birds. For more information about the possumhaw, Ilex decidua, and to see a state-clickable map of the places in the southeastern United States where this tree grows, you can visit the USDA website.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 24, 2012 at 5:06 AM

38 Responses

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  1. Beautiful colorful photo with bird. I like it.


    January 24, 2012 at 5:28 AM

  2. Wow! The colors just pop out!


    January 24, 2012 at 5:51 AM

    • I made sure in Photoshop that the saturation in such a bright image stopped short of blowing out the red highlights.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 24, 2012 at 7:08 AM

  3. We are fortunate to have the Northern Mockingbird live in our gardens. They frequent the sumac stand in our backyard. They are also quite a friendly bird never flitting off when I work outside!

    Bonnie Michelle

    January 24, 2012 at 7:07 AM

    • It’s nice that we can share this bird, if not most of the other things that have appeared in these pictures.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 24, 2012 at 7:11 AM

  4. Steve! I may have to revoke your Texan status for not being able to recognize a mockingbird. It’s time to dig out that dusty old bird book. Just kidding, of course, but Texas is actually not a bad place for birding. Most any time you hear beautiful birdsong, it’s the mockingbird. They are also quite pretty–and very prevalent in your neck of the woods.

    Mind Margins

    January 24, 2012 at 7:21 AM

    • Ah, what can you expect from someone who grew up in New York? I always recognize mockingbirds when they sing, but this one was silent. Maybe it was too busy thinking about eating.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 24, 2012 at 7:30 AM

  5. Your post delighted me for personal reasons. I know the birds but not the plants. And for someone not to be able to identify one of Texas’ most common birds, not to mention that it’s the state’s bird, makes me feel less dumb about not being able to identify so many common plants. Years ago, like you, I realized there is only so much one can delve into and I chose the birds. One of the reasons I best enjoy learning about the plants you write about is because then I can say what’s the name of the bush the marsh wren is hiding in or what flower has attracted the black-chinned hummingbird, or what tree the yellow-rumped warbler is singing from. Thanks for sharing the plants with me.

    Pat Bean

    January 24, 2012 at 8:30 AM

    • You’re welcome for the plant sharing (and there’s still a lot more for me to learn about the native plants just in my little part of the world). Now I’ll have another person to turn to, Pat, if I need to get a bird identified.

      Synchronicity: just as I was writing the above, the silence was broken by the sound of a bird singing somewhere outside. And no, I can’t tell you what sort of bird it was, except that it wasn’t a mockingbird.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 24, 2012 at 10:01 AM

  6. Both subjects are stellar here! The possumhaws are incredibly vivid and eye-catching, and it’s no wonder that birds would want to stake them out as personal treasures. I may have to put a couple in our backyard for the many birds that like our greenbelt back there (and I suspect some of the non-avian critters would appreciate the berries too), as well as for the incandescence they bring to even a dark day. This shot really shows off the intensity and saturation of the berries perfectly; I can understand how you might have had to wrestle to keep the reds from bleeding the image into oblivion.

    The mockingbird, meanwhile, is elegant and dainty with its wonderful stripes and the long tail that it tips and rocks for balance (you’ll notice, if you watch a bit, that on the ground a mockingbird often forms a neat V shape because it frequently holds its tail a little higher than other birds do.


    January 24, 2012 at 12:01 PM

    • Thanks for your stellar review, Kathryn. That day was beautifully clear, and the light brought out the saturated red of the possumhaw fruits. The name implies that possums like them as much as the avian critters.

      On the technical side, I always shoot in raw mode, and when I first opened this image in Adobe Camera Raw, the reds were oversaturated. The main advantage of taking pictures in raw mode is that I can fix things like that, in this case by moving the Recovery slider to the right. So it was a kind of wrestling, but one that didn’t wear me out.

      In looking at the picture, I did notice the mockingbird’s long tail, as you mentioned. It’s about as long as the rest of the bird’s body. I’ll be on the lookout for a mockingbird’s contours when it’s on the ground.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 24, 2012 at 12:24 PM

  7. We have berry producing plants in our yard for the birds and the birds really like it. Beautiful Photo – thanks for sharing!


    January 24, 2012 at 1:40 PM

    • You’re welcome for the sharing. I’d like to eat possumhaw fruit too, but I think my stomach would strongly disapprove.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 24, 2012 at 1:47 PM

  8. This is stunning Steve!!!


    January 24, 2012 at 2:20 PM

    • Thanks, David. I lucked out that the mockingbird happened to land there when I was already photographing.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 24, 2012 at 2:30 PM

  9. Beautiful work Steve! The processing is spot on. I’ve noticed with reds that they tend to over saturate. I never had that trouble with film, but I’m learning to overcome it in the digital.

    Michael Glover

    January 24, 2012 at 3:37 PM

    • Thanks, Michael. I’m a veteran of film too, but I’ve gotten thoroughly at home in the digital world, especially since I began shooting exclusively in raw mode six or seven years ago. With that and increasingly powerful versions of Photoshop, I’ve had much more control than I ever did with film.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 24, 2012 at 3:51 PM

  10. I have not seen that much color in a couple of months! wahoo!


    January 24, 2012 at 4:19 PM

    • Happy color to you!

      The landscape as a whole has dulled down here too, but we still have bright spots like the possumhaws, and a few wildflowers have continued flowering through this mild winter.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 24, 2012 at 4:34 PM

  11. Mockingbirds have an utterly charming habit of singing just before making a huge swoop into the air. Then, they flutter back down to the roofline or branch they’ve been perching on. It’s just for fun, like hawks kettling up thermals.

    Two years in a row I was blessed with the presence of a mockingbird that liked to imitate the mallards who roam around here. The first time I heard quacking in the live oak (as I thought) I wasn’t sure what to think. Neither were the ducks.


    January 24, 2012 at 10:51 PM

    • Unfortunately, I don’t believe I’ve seen what you describe: all the mockingbirds I’ve observed singing have stayed put afterwards. But maybe I’ll luck out now that I’m aware of it. And if I hear any quacking transported from a pond into a live oak, I’ll have a handy explanation ready.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 25, 2012 at 7:53 AM

  12. Absolutely love how the colors pop in this image with red against that brilliant blue. And the angle of the branch. Perfect.

    I’m not a photographer of birds, don’t have the proper lens or interest. But I can certainly appreciate fine, fine photos like yours. Well done.

    Minnesota Prairie Roots

    January 26, 2012 at 10:00 AM

    • Thank you. I’m not a “real” bird photographer either, but when an opportunity comes my way I put on the longest lens I have and do what I can. If I happen to get a good picture that way, then I’ll show it; if not, not. It’s much easier to deal with plants, which may move in the wind but aren’t inclined to be wary and fly away.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 26, 2012 at 10:11 AM

  13. […] with the red theme that today’s picture of a blue bird has put an end to, was when I found a mockingbird in a possumhaw tree just two days earlier. To see mockingbirds in suburban-style neighborhoods here is nothing new, but […]

  14. This is a remarkably lovely shot. Thank you


    January 29, 2012 at 5:20 PM

  15. A photo suitable for framing!

    Watching Seasons

    January 30, 2012 at 4:57 PM

    • Thank you. This was one of those happy cases when I set out to photograph one thing and ended up including something else. That most often happens for me with insects and spiders, but there have been occasional birds and squirrels.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 30, 2012 at 5:15 PM

  16. […] name Ilex vomitoria, is close kin to the possumhaw, Ilex decidua, that you saw most recently playing host to a mockingbird. While the possumhaw loses its leaves in the winter, the yaupon retains them; the tiny red fruits […]

  17. […] was on March 2 heading home after a couple of hours photographing. I was driving on Bluegrass Dr., just as I’d done after a session on January 17, when my eye was caught once again by the bright red fruits of the possumhaw, Ilex decidua, planted […]

  18. These colors are magnificent and this bird is beautiful !


    January 11, 2013 at 2:48 PM

    • There’s that possumhaw again. For more information about the mockingbird, you can follow the All About Birds link near the end of the text above.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 11, 2013 at 7:18 PM

  19. Interesting to have a Northern bird as the official bird for a Southern State. This ‘many-tongued mimic’ reminds me of our talented mimics, the tui and the magpie. And whilst looking up mockingbirds, I learned that one of the collective nouns for the mockingbird is a plagiary of mockingbirds.


    August 26, 2014 at 6:42 AM

    • That north ~ south thing is curious, isn’t it? I just looked back at the linked article and noticed that its map shows this species of mockingbird throughout North America but not at all in South America, so I’m wondering if that’s what generated the name “northern”.

      I’d only recently heard of your tui but I didn’t know that it’s a mimic. And thanks for that collective noun, plagiary, that ties in so well with my recent post about plagiarism.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 26, 2014 at 7:00 AM

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