Photographing bluethroats in Charente-Maritime

Every year, we look forward to the months of April and May in Charente-Maritime. This is the best time to photograph bluethroats singing. The bluethroat is a type of sparrow also called the “Swedish nightingale.” Besides having melodies of its own, the bluethroat can imitate the songs of many other birds, including the chiffchaff, the great tit and the barn swallow. This sparrow has some habits which make it very interesting to wildlife photographers. Every spring for 3 years, we spent some time sitting in a blind, watching and photographing bluethroats.

A male bluethroat bird singing in a wetland of Charente-Maritime in France.
A male bluethroat bird singing in a wetland of Charente-Maritime in France.

A migratory passerine

The bluethroat, Luscinia svecica namnetum, is a small migratory passerine which comes to Charente-Maritime in March to breed. It lives mainly in salt meadows and salt marshes. The birds start arriving from North Africa in late March, and leave again in September.

The bluethroat is a small bird, weighing less than an ounce. However, despite its small size, it is capable of traveling up to 60 miles per day.

A protected species in France

In France, bluethroats are completely protected. It is illegal to trap them, remove them from their habitat, or intentionally disrupt their environment. Since their nests are built low to the ground in wet areas, it is essential to avoid walking on the breeding grounds. Otherwise, you run the risk of damaging the nests. For this reason, before a photo shoot, we always spend time exploring the area and finding out where the nests are so that we can stay well away from them when taking photos. During our exploration, we are always very cautious: we study the field with our binoculars to see where the nests might be, and never wander into unfamiliar areas where we might step on one.

A very attractive, interesting bird

The male bluethroat has a large blue apron with a hint of either white or red, depending on the subspecies. He is the usual subject of photos. The female also has an apron, but it is grayish-white. Since she is less colorful and she does not sing, she is less interesting to photographers.

In ordinary times, the bluethroat is not particularly noticeable. However, when the breeding season approaches, the male begins to act in a very interesting way. He comes to the nesting area a few days early and claims a territory, sometimes several hundred square yards in extent, which he fiercely defends against competitors. During this period, he will often perch on the high branches of small shrubs and sing. His melodious serenades can last all day. Sometimes they are accompanied by a courtship routine to attract females.

Male bluethroats have an impressive repertoire of pleasant sounds. Their songs are a mixture of metallic sounds, repeated musical phrases, and imitations of other birds. It is easiest to photograph the male when he is singing. His coloring is on full display and he is in plain sight. When the female has laid her eggs, the male stops singing. After the chicks hatch, both parents take care of the brood.

The advantage with this sparrow is that the parents raise a second brood in June. The ritual of claiming and defending a territory, along with the beautiful songs, is repeated. There is a second opportunity to take beautiful pictures.

A male bluethroat bird singing in a wetland of Charente-Maritime in France.
A male bluethroat bird singing in a wetland of Charente-Maritime in France.

The scenes can be difficult to compose

Although it's easy to photograph a bird that is sitting high up and singing, it is still difficult to create a beautiful photo. The scene must be chosen carefully: the background must be clear of obstructions and uniform in color. The branch where the bluethroat is sitting must not be broken or damaged.

The difficulty in photographing bluethroats is choosing a good background. When photographing birds, we always try to have the best possible bokeh. We leave most of the scene blurry. Only the subject is in focus. However, to achieve a beautiful blurred effect, the background must be exactly the right color. Solid green or yellow is best. When we are fortunate enough to find a scene which meets these criteria, we take advantage of the opportunity.

The other challenge is positioning the sun correctly. In wildlife photography, there should always be a sparkle in the subject’s eye. The bluethroat is not an exception to the rule. For a photograph to be successful, there should be a flash of light in one of the bird’s eyes. We must find a position where the sun is behind us or off to one side.

Choosing an environment which will highlight the subject and placing the sun to produce that sparkle in the eye are the two main challenges that a wildlife photographer faces in creating a good photo.

Another trick we use in photographing bluethroats is to always take pictures in the morning. The light has a different quality then. The texture of the feathers is more visible and the contrasts are better. Also, the birds are more active in the morning.

Finally

The bluethroat is a beautiful bird to observe and photograph. Choosing an appropriate environment is essential for the photograph to be successful. However, the gradual disappearance of wetlands along the coast has endangered this species. Fortunately the department of Charente-Maritime has established protected areas where this beautiful sparrow can come to raise its broods in peace. Photographers must participate in this effort by respecting these areas and not disturbing the birds in order to take photographs.

A male bluethroat bird singing in a wetland of Charente-Maritime in France.
A male bluethroat bird singing in a wetland of Charente-Maritime in France.
A male bluethroat bird singing in a wetland of Charente-Maritime in France.
A male bluethroat bird singing in a wetland of Charente-Maritime in France.
A female bluethroat bird singing in a wetland of Charente-Maritime in France.
A female bluethroat bird singing in a wetland of Charente-Maritime in France.
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