It is my belief that even birds that people consider too common, plain, drab, or boring can be photographed in ways that create visually compelling images, for instance when I am photographing American Coots I look for colors and patterns that will compliment or be in contrast to their dark plumage, appealing settings, great action or an interesting pose.
American Coots are the most widely distributed members of the Rail family in North America and are very abundant in habitats with open water. Some bird photographers pass up on photographing American Coots because they aren’t colorful and are common but if you have been following my blog for any length of time you know that if it has feathers and it is a bird, I’ll photograph it.
These members of the Rail family have large, lobed greenish feet, red eyes, very dark bodies with ivory colored bills topped by a reddish shield. They are often in the presence of ducks and are at times they are mistakenly labeled a “duck” by people not familiar with birds. Coots can make a lot of noise and while they are gregarious they will often chase each other around in displays of aggression which is great fun to watch and photograph.
American Coots are difficult to expose correctly because of their very dark bodies and their very white bills, it can be a challenge to get details in the black without blowing out the whites in the bill. Paying attention to the angle of light and deciding whether to use negative or positive exposure compensation is critical when considering what settings to use when photographing these birds.
I photographed the American Coot in the image above on a very chilly winter day at a pond near where I live. The shades of white in the water were caused by snow on the bank of the pond and the golden tones were from the colors of the dried cattails along the shore. I decided to compose this image with the American Coot small in the frame because I felt the water was dramatic and was as visually stimulating as the bird itself.
Earlier I mentioned that I look for great action when photographing American Coots, I feel that the action can convey not only a sense of movement but lends a bit of excitement too.
When I photographed the bird in this image I had been concentrating on bird that were close to where I was sitting with my tripod in front of me when I heard the Coots making sounds that indicate a squabble might happen soon so I zoomed back and got prepared for some action. I saw one of the birds sneaking up on another and when the lead bird took off running across the top of the water I started tracking the bird that was doing the chasing and created a series of images of this Coot “walking on water”. Make that “running”. I didn’t even mind the out of focus Pied-billed Grebe in the frame because it was so out of focus and not intersecting with the main subject plus I also liked the feeling of depth the Pied-billed Grebe added to the image.
I also mentioned that I look for interesting poses when photographing Coots and sometimes that includes the head angle of the subject. I know some pro photographers would “wish” that the bird’s head in the frame above was tilted a few degrees downward and to the left side of the frame to convey better direct eye contact between the subject and viewer but I sort of think that is splitting feathers and I simply do not feel that I “must” always have the subject looking directly at me.
I can clearly see the eye here and because the bird is looking up I can imagine it was looking at something in the sky and for me that adds interest and doesn’t subtract from the overall appeal of the image.
Some of the features I like most about the image above is the silkiness of the water, the profile view of the head of the bird and how the ripples in the water distorted the reflections of the snow and vegetation to create a wonderful contrast from the plain colored bird not only in the colors but in textures and swirly patterns.
This American Coot was standing on thin ice near the shoreline and just the mere weight of the bird pushed the ice slightly under the water, just enough that the stand of cattails was reflected on all of the water’s surface visible in this frame. Because the warm bronzy tones of the water are in contrast with the dark plumage of the bird the Coot stands out very well from the setting.
Even “Plain Jane” birds can sparkle in the right light, setting or pose. Don’t you agree?