Turd Birds; errr… I mean Sage Thrashers

Sage Thrasher nearly hidden in the brushSage Thrasher (Oreoscoptes montanus) nearly hidden in the brush – Nikon D300, f6.3, 1/2000, ISO 500, -0.3 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 305mm, natural light, not baited or set up

Yes, I call Sage Thrashers “Turd Birds“, that is what I call any birds that are difficult to get close to or birds that seem to have the ability to read a bird photographers mind and when they hear “I’ll get just a little closer before I start taking pictures” at which point the bird takes off.

Sage Thrashers quite often perch on top of sagebrush and rabbitbrush and you would think they might be easy to photograph. Hah! They see you coming and dive down towards the bases of the bushes to hide. Or they let you see them but with a really messy background, like in the image above. Just about any bird photographer I know loves to have a clean, pleasing background that doesn’t compete with the bird itself.

I guess those Sage Thrashers didn’t get that memo.

Sage Thrasher tucked behind the flowersSage Thrasher tucked behind the flowers – Nikon D300, f8, 1/1250, ISO 500, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light, not baited or set up

Sage Thrashers know how to test a bird photographer’s patience, I see them partially hidden behind flowers and stop to get my exposure and aperture set all the while the thrasher just sits there looking at me over the flower heads. I get into position in case the Sage Thrasher moves towards the top of the shrub to showing me its feathered body in glorious light. Checking the depth of field again, if it does come up I want to have enough depth of field to get the whole body sharp.

And I wait, never taking my eye off of the bird through the viewfinder. And I wait some more.

Sage Thrasher in flightSage Thrasher in flight – Nikon D300, f8, 1/1600, ISO 500, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 305mm, natural light, not baited or set up

About the time I give up on the thrasher getting on top of the shrub I start to think about changing my settings in case the thrasher lifts off. I want less depth of field, more shutter speed so I can freeze the action.

Those thoughts are the Sage Thrashers cue to lift off before I’m able to get those settings changed. Not enough shutter speed to freeze the action, argh!! Even worse, it doesn’t even give me a great angle when it flies.

Turd Bird.

Sage Thrasher on the groundSage Thrasher on the ground – Nikon D300, f6.3, 1/2000, ISO 500, -0.3EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 260mm, natural light, not baited or set up

Some times though a flock of Sage Thrashers will show up. When do they do that; you might ask? Oh, when the sun has gotten high enough that the light is really contrasty and harsh, never when the light is sweet. Another time they will show up in flocks is when you can’t get out of your mobile blind (vehicle) out of fear of scaring them away. Then all I can get is a bad angle. You know, like I am taking it looking down from the top of the vehicle?

I almost forgot, those flocks will also show up and I think I am getting some really nice photos until I get home and pull the images up on my screen and see some twig stuck to the birds feathers somewhere.

I guess the Sage Thrashers didn’t get the memo about looking their best either.

Sage Thrasher, way too closeSage Thrasher, way too close – Nikon D300, f6.3, 1/2000, ISO 500, -0.3EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light, not baited or set up

Then there are the Lunatic Sage Thrashers. I pull up and stop because I’m seeing Sage Thrashers, keeping one eye on the birds to get my exposure set, adjust my aperture all the while paying attention to the bird with my other eye. I finally get it all together when out of the blue the Sage Thrasher runs over to get as close to me as it can, even going so far as to dash under the vehicle fearlessly! There goes my depth of field.

I can’t acquire focus on the Lunatic Sage Thrashers because they don’t ever stay still long enough, they race around willy-nilly until dizziness forces me to stop watching them. Think Ricochet Rabbit.

I honestly think that the Lunatic Sage Thrashers believe they are Roadrunners! Meep, meep!

Sage Thrasher Ahhh! Gotcha – Nikon D200, f7.1, ISO 320, +0.3 EV, Nikkor 200-4000mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light, not baited or set up

Then there are the “Grab Shots“, those unexplainable images where a bird shows up out of no where, posed in lovely light, no time to change any settings, just lock on focus and shoot and the photos come out looking beautiful. No Planning. Go Figure! The trick is to get those grab shots before the thrasher even realizes you are there.

There sure are a lot of frustrations being a bird photographer but I wouldn’t change that for anything. The Lunatic Sage Thrashers will soon be gone for the winter and I won’t see them again until next year. I’ll have all winter long to think about how to out smart these cunning Sage Thrashers next year.

Yeah, right, like that is going to happen! They already have my number and already know how to yank my chain!



  1. Ryan October 24, 2011 at 9:07 pm

    Beautiful shots. I love them all!

    • Mia McPherson November 4, 2011 at 1:09 pm

      Thanks Ryan, it seems all the Sage Thrashers have gone for the year now, perhaps I’ll get some more shots in the spring.

  2. Laurence B October 23, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    Psht those shots are all excellent. I liked the first shot with the hectic background a lot. It really accentuates the amber eye and demonstrates the bird’s natural adaptations. Sometimes that natural setting is harder to transmit via a photo than those better-framed shots were the bird is politely posed atop a branch (even though those are usually the more beautiful photos).
    I saw my first Sage Thrasher (for all of 5 seconds). It’s a beautiful and under sung bird that I hope to see more of. In the mean time, I’ll come here.
    Thanks for sharing.

    Laurence B

    • Mia McPherson October 23, 2011 at 2:55 pm

      Thanks for stopping by Laurence and for your kind comments on my images. I actually like the photo you mentioned a lot too, for the same reasons. Sage Thrashers are delightful birds, just hard to get close to and photograph.

      Best regards,

  3. Skip Harris October 22, 2011 at 7:43 pm

    Thanks Mia, I going out to San Jacinto tomorrow morning. All packed and ready to leave around 4:30 a.m. I have not been out for about a week and I am getting antsy. Your post has reminded me to take along my patience. My most aggravating avian is the male common yellowthroat.

    Great narrative and images Mia.

    Skip Harris

    • Mia McPherson October 23, 2011 at 2:59 pm

      Skip, I joked last night that I need to come up with a new product just for bird photographers, I would call it “canned patience for bird photographers”!! Pop the top any time you need to refresh your patience. I hope that you had great luck at San Jacinto today, let me know! I went out this morning and was frustrated by Northern Harriers that insisted on flying close & slow… but on the wrong side of the road in bad light! Didn’t spot a single Sage Thrasher though so I think they have headed south.


  4. Dan Huber October 22, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    Love the post – actually a bird I got to see well on a trip out to NM this spring – great shots.


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