Black-billed Magpies ~ It is Nesting Time!

This is the third consecutive year that I have photographed Black-billed Magpies (Pica hudsonia) working on their nest in this same location. I’m really glad I spotted that first bird disappear into the Sagebrush that morning with something in its bill. It made me curious enough to want to stop and see what was going on and I have been well rewarded for that curiosity.

Black-billed Magpie flying towards the nestBlack-billed Magpie flying towards the nest – Nikon D300, f6.3, 1/2500, ISO 640, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 264mm, natural light

Black-billed Magpies are not easy birds to expose correctly because of the combination of bright white and black plumage. The blacks can block up easily if the exposure compensation is not set right and if you raise the exposure compensation too high the whites can be blown out. I find that if I expose a bit bright in the camera then bring the whites and lights down in post processing other wise if I lighten the blacks too much in editing I can bring in unwanted noise.

Black-billed Magpie leaving the nest Black-billed Magpie leaving the nest – Nikon D300, f6.3, 1/3200, ISO 640, +0.7 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 272mm, natural light

With the right light angle the purple, blue, teal and green iridescence can be seen and photographed. These are not just plain old black and white birds. With the nest being at a certain location I can prefocus on the area where I think the birds might fly in and I find I get sharper shots that way.

Right now the Magpies are bringing in sticks and twigs to fortify the old nest and later on they will bring in mud or Bison manure to line the bottom of the nest along with soft grasses.

Black-billed Magpie in the snowBlack-billed Magpie in the snow – Nikon D300, f6.3, 1/400, ISO 640, +0.7 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 272mm, natural light

Two days ago when I photographed this Black-billed Magpie there was snow on the ground but the bird was still finding small twigs there to bring to the nest. They sure stand out well against the snow.

Black-billed Magpie just after lift off

Black-billed Magpie just after lift off – Nikon D300, f7.1, 1/2000, ISO 640, +0.7 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 278mm, natural light

I have found that early morning is the best time to photograph Black-billed Magpies, when the sun is higher the whites are much easier to blow out. This morning the light was wonderful but the birds weren’t as active as normal so I was only able to get a few keepable images in the time that I was with them. This Magpie had just lifted off after shoving a twig into place on top of the dome of the nest.

Black-billed Magpie coming in with nesting materialBlack-billed Magpie coming in with nesting material – Nikon D300, f6.3, 1/1600, ISO 640, +0.7 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 285mm, natural light

These last two images are of the same bird bring nesting material to the nest. I wish I would have had better eye contact but I like that I was still able to get a sliver of a catchlight in both frames and I like the action.

Black-billed Magpie landing with nesting materialsBlack-billed Magpie landing with nesting materials – Nikon D300, f6.3, 1/1600, ISO 640, +0.7 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 285mm, natural light

I am looking forward to having more time to photograph these Black-billed Magpies through their nesting season and perhaps; if I am lucky, I will be there the day that the young fledge. I have missed that the past two seasons. They are such beautiful birds.


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About Mia McPherson

I am a nature lover, wildlife watcher and a bird photographer. I first become serious about bird photography when I moved to Florida in 2004 and it wasn’t long before I was hooked (addicted is more like it). My move to the Salt Lake area of Utah was a great opportunity to continue observing their behavior and photographing birds. My approach is to photograph the birds without disturbing their natural behavior. I don't bait, use set ups or call them in. I use Nikon gear and has multiple camera bodies and lenses.


  1. Spectacular photos Mia! I love Magpies, and your photos of them are just wonderful. :-)

  2. Awesome shots Mia! I hope you get to see them fledge, I bet the young are cute! When we were out there (& in Yellowstone) in August, I thought I would see tons of these, but I just saw them one brief time in Yellowstone. They are such cool looking birds!

    • Thanks Karen, they are cool looking birds. It seems that as soon as the young leave the nest for the first time they are hard to spot for awhile. Then they can be found hollering for food from the adults. I saw them at Yellowstone too!

  3. I think these birds color scheme and patterns are very interesting. Wonderful flight shots, nice job in getting these difficult images, very well done.

  4. These are terrific images, Mia. Love to see them with their wings spread. They sure look anything but plain when you see them at the right angle and see those iridescent colours. It’s very difficult to get close to a Magpie in our rural area. They still frequently get shot at around farm yards. We have been enjoying a pair that has being visiting our yard lately, though.

    • Thanks for your wonderful comment Scott. The magpies I have been photographing are used to people being nearby so they are less of a challenge to get images of and still stay a comfortable distance and without disturbing them. They are lovely birds.

  5. Terrific post Mia. Informative and you nailed the exposures. Wonderful action shots. My favorite is #5.

  6. Your photographs are just stunning. Thank you for sharing them.

  7. Great Find Mia. Very nice photography as always..

  8. Wonderful photo series Mia. These are such gorgeous birds, love the iridescence in the tail. Wonderful you get to watch them build the nest.

  9. Outstanding photos Mia! Great action shots!!

  10. Oh Mia! These are just wonderful. You absolutely nailed the exposure – a real trick much like shooting Black Skimmers. The irridescent aspect of the black feathers is just wonderful and I do love the last two images with the nesting material in the beak. Just outstanding!

    • Thanks so much Kathy, they are a bit like photographing Black Skimmers as far as exposure goes, they are both a challenge. I photographed a few more this morning.

  11. Awesome photos Mia, thanks for sharing

  12. Gorgeous photos! LOVE that second-to-last one!

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