Wild Ideas: Photographing wildlife by available darkness  

The past week has been one of wonderful surprises and great frustrations, the latter mostly because of dark, rainy weather.

When I taught photography at a community college in Wyoming, I used to try to impress upon my students that “photography” is Greek for “writing with light,” which means light is required to take photos. They, like I when I was a student, were always trying to shoot by what photography instructors refer to as “available darkness” — or, put another way, try to photograph “a black cat in a cave at midnight.” I find myself falling into the situation a lot this on recent rainy, dark days, testing my equipment and my patience to the limit.

Despite the weather, I was happy to see not one but two male scarlet tanagers hunting for food within a few yards of each other in the trees next to my deck one morning recently. In recent years, I’ve seen a lone tanager male stop by briefly in April, soon moving on, likely deeper into mature forest, the preferred habitat for this species. But these two males have now been hanging around for more than a week and, on that morning, didn’t seem to mind hunting close to each other.

Male tanagers are gorgeous, with a scarlet-red body and black wings. Although the two males in question came tantalizingly close to the deck, the conditions were not conducive for my telephoto lens, so I was not happy with the results. Wanting a decent photo of a male for this column, I sent an SOS out to some fellow nature photographers and got back some good ones from Dave Boltz, an avid amateur nature photographer (see more of his photos at flickr.com/photos/daveboltz).

A male scarlet tanager perches in a tuliptree in Huntley Meadows Park, in Fairfax County. By Dave Boltz

While I’ve never spotted the drabber female of the species here, I’m still hearing or seeing at least two males on my morning walks and observing from the deck. Their distinctive, rambling song is easy to identify among the cacophony of avian singers this time of year.

As I was watching the two male tanagers that morning, a female cardinal flew by the deck, carrying something long, perhaps grass or bark. She quickly disappeared into a mass of honeysuckle smothering a young ailanthus tree on the far side of my driveway (nice to know both nonnative, invasive species are good for something). Using binoculars, I could see her doing something in the notch of the tree and assumed it was building a nest, but it was too dark and far away to be sure. Except for being within a few feet of the driveway, it was a perfect site for a cardinal nest.

Turning around and around in her nest, a female cardinal recently seen building it uses her body and feet to help form it into a cup shape. By Pam Owen

The female in a cardinal pair takes charge of nest site-selection and construction. While males may sometimes help supply material, the male in this pair only accompanied the female occasionally to the site, standing guard from a nearby branch while she worked. At dawn and dusk, he often sang loudly high in a tree above the nest, warning off other males from invading his territory.

Knowing she was in charge, for the next few days I kept an eye on the female as she hunted for nest-building material, prepared it for use, and carried it back to the nest under construction. When building a nest, a female cardinal starts with an outer shell of small twigs, flattening them with her beak so she can bend them. I saw this female systematically flatten a long, slender twig she found in the copse next to my deck with just her mouth, like a person eating an ear of corn without using their hands.

By the second day, the female was bringing strips of bark. She pushed the nesting materials into place using her beak, then continually turned around in the nest, forming it into the shape of a cup. Once, again I tried to get photos from far enough away to avoid freaking out the cardinal pair, but with the dark location and rainy weather, I was unhappy with the results. See below for a slideshow of cardinal nests, eggs and young I’ve photographed over the years.

Cardinals can take six days to build a nest. After working on the nest even into last weekend’s rainy weather, by this Tuesday (May 14), when I filed this column, the pair seemed to have disappeared, although I did see a lone male briefly land in the copse. I’m hoping they pair will return to the original nest site so I can try to get more photos (hopefully in brighter light), while limiting visits to the nest for their sake. If the first site hasn’t worked out, the pair will surely find another nearby, so I’ll keep looking for that.

© 2019 Pam Owen

Northern cardinal nest construction

Cardinal nests have four layers, according to the All About Birds website: “coarse twigs (and sometimes bits of trash) covered in a leafy mat, then lined with grapevine bark and finally grasses, stems, rootlets, and pine needles.” Females use their feet, as well as their beaks and bodies, to push the materials into a cup shape. The nest typically takes three to nine days to build, with the finished product measuring 2-3 inches tall, 4 inches across and with an inner diameter of about 3 inches.

In Virginia, according to the Virginia Fish and Wildlife Information Service, northern cardinals have 2-5 speckled eggs in each clutch. The female incubates the eggs for 12 days. The chicks fledge after about 9 days old, with the male continuing to feed and care for the brood while his mate lays and incubates the next clutch. Typically, the pair have two clutches a year, sometimes three.

Love birds? Don’t plant nandina

Nandina, or “sacred bamboo,” is a genus of attractive, nonnative evergreen shrubs that have bright-red berries. Nandina domestica, also called “heavenly bamboo,” is a favorite of landscapers and property owners. The berries also attract fruit-eating native birds and is far from heavenly for these species. The berries contain small amounts of cyanogenic glycosides (cyanide) that are poisonous to all animals, particularly ruminants, according to the U.S. Forest Service. In quantity, this toxin can kill native birds.

Nandina, such as the “heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) above, is a popular landscaping plant, but its bright red berries can be lethal to birds. By Wouter Hagens via Wikimedia

Bird deaths from the berries have been reported in several locations, notably a flock of 14 cedar waxwings, in Decatur, Georgia, in 2016. Birds that don’t succumb also help spread this invasive species, as do some mammals. For landscaping, some native shrubs offer bright berries and lovely flowers but are also safer for our native wildlife and serve as hosts for insect larvae, which are the primary food most songbirds feed their young.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 341 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”


  1. I love your articles! Your observations of the female cardinal building her nest was quite neat to read. We have several pairs of Phoebes around here that typically each manage to successfully raise two clutches per year. What good little birds…and boy do they catch a lot of insects to feed their little ones! I noticed a pair started a nest in the rafters of one of our sheds. They might be first-timers, as the mud was too wet on the initial attempt and all of it slid off its precarious perch and landed on the ground. They got it right eventually though and finished their beautiful nest covered in moss and mule hair :) I hope there are eggs in it.

    Have you noticed more blue jays than usual? We have a flock of them visiting every day for the food we put out. I’ve never seen so many in 20+ years of living here.

  2. From SoCalifornia,,Va is so beautiful and green… Wow!!! Ca brown and HOT…Enough is enough!!! 5$ gas and,
    Spoke with BEAVERDAM construction the other day, and may be a VA resident soon. Had it with Ca…
    . Beautiful pics of native Va!!- so nice to see woods and imagining a place that rains… Thank,you for sharing theae.

    • Thanks for your comment. I lived in SoCal for a while, and while it was interesting, I was glad to get back to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. I lived also lived in Wyoming, which is quite dry in the summer and also yearned for the lush green of Virginia and the warm summer rains, but having had near 100 inches of rain my hollow last year, the desert and high plains don’t sound so bad. I would miss the mountains, woods, and high biodiversity, though.

  3. Wow, thanks for the tip on Nandina. I have a large one that I think I’ll get rid of before it puts out new berries.

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