It's difficult to get a sharp, clear, and unobstructed photograph of a wild bird like the stunning Vermilion Flycatcher on the cover of our June 2008 issue.
But let's suppose it's your lucky day, and the red and black bird lands nearby. Do you really think its perch will be bathed in beautiful light with no distracting branches? And will your luck last long enough to snap the picture before the bird flits away?
There's a saying -- chance favors the prepared mind -- and no one could be more prepared than veteran bird photographer Alan Murphy, who took this remarkable photo on the Ramirez Ranch in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Texas.
The ranch has a side business catering to bird photographers (you can write to Roel Ramirez, the owner, for information), and Murphy visits annually. On his first visit, he noticed a Vermilion Flycatcher that hunted for bugs in one four-acre patch of land. "When hunting, they'll have several perches, in a circle," he said. But this particular flycatcher liked a space that was a little short on perches.
So two years ago, Murphy put his observations to work. He made a perch from a dead branch and took it into the flycatcher's territory. "I took note of the sun's direction in the morning and placed the perch in front of some mesquite trees, so the background would be green. Within hours, the bird started using the perch."
Then Murphy set up a tent-like photo blind about 15 feet away, in a spot from which he could see the bird in the best morning light. But he didn't take any pictures. He left the blind unattended for three days, so the bird would not sense any threat.
On photo day, he arrived at the blind before sunrise, cut a fresh mesquite branch, and attached it to the perch. "My goal is to create a perch with the same diameter as the bird's feet or grip." Within 20 minutes of sunrise, the flycatcher came over, hovered for a second, then settled on the mesquite branch, but not in the precise spot Murphy had anticipated. Instead, the bird perched on the flimsy, topmost boughs. "They like to get as high as possible," he said.
"It stayed for 20 minutes." Murphy told me. "It would fly off and come back. I got multiple shots as it turned its head and posed. It doesn't always work out that way."
The flycatcher, of course, had no idea it was the star of a precisely built stage. But that's the beauty of Murphy's fieldcraft. His setups are built around the bird's desires and needs, not his own.
The bird you see on our cover is a wild bird, pictured at a moment when it felt safe and secure, despite Murphy's presence. And because of his advance observation of lighting and sight lines, the image you see is what he saw through his lens, with no retouching or digital alteration. --E.M.