A Downy Woodpecker on Phragmites

How I finally captured a vision I had in my mind for years.

I have had a specific photo in my mind of a Downy Woodpecker for at least 5 years now. It was usually a fleeting idea that only showed up in my brain when I would see a Downy Woodpecker while out wandering around. Then, usually moments later, the thought would fade away and not come up again for a while. It started when I began to see Downy Woodpeckers clinging to Phragmite Reeds. I would see them bouncing around in a dense patch of the tall reeds and they would land on stalks and begin pecking at them to find something inside. The behavior was most prevalent in the winter when everything was brown. After seeing this behavior over and over again I started to formulate a specific vision of a shot in my mind. 

The vision was of a Downy Woodpecker clinging to the Phragmites, the bird would be rather small in the frame and only the bird and one or two of the reeds would be in focus and everything else would be soft and out of focus, making the bird stand out. I figured I would be shooting through a lot of the reeds so I could get a nice out of focus foreground as well as background and with all that soft brown the black and white bird would stand out nicely. This was the concept and it took me literally years to achieve it. 

Every time I would come across a Downy in the Phrags, usually hearing it first, I would try to get this shot. Spending 10 or maybe 15 minutes seeing what I could get. I would always walk away quickly frustrated and move on to something else. Finally in February of 2018 I decided I was going to make this shot happen, or at least try like hell to make it happen. I had a good degree of confidence I could capture what I had in my mind but as with all things wildlife, you never really know.

My first solid attempt proved a few things to me. First off, this was not going to be easy, not even a little bit. I had found huge clusters of Phragmites and it didn’t take long for me to find a Downy or two moving in and out of them. If you have never stared through a cluster of these reeds it’s basically a criss cross of thousands of straight, thin, brown sticks. Many of them are angled in the same direction but almost as many are at all sorts of different angles. They are so dense that after about 30 feet you can’t see through them any more. Trying to get a clear view of a tiny bird though this mess is hard enough let alone focusing on the bird! The shot below is just a quick grab shot to give you an idea of just how dense these clusters are.

Secondly these Downy Woodpeckers do not hold still very long when they are feeding in the reeds. They quickly move up and down a single reed and hop from one to another looking for food. The only time they hold still is when they have found something and start pecking away at the reed to get what is inside. They are rather skilled at doing this so that usually doesn’t take them too long either. 

Below is my first decent attempt at the shot in my mind and it came after a solid 30 minutes of trying. This image has a few of the things I was looking for, the Downy is small in the frame and the reed it is clinging to is pretty much the only thing in focus. The problem is that it’s not really sharp, I missed focus a bit and the light was really blah. I was figuring overcast would be best to create this image since strong sun would just add shadows from all those reeds and probably be a total mess. So this was close but not exactly what I was hoping for. I stayed for nearly 2 hours on this morning and walked away with some solid attempts but not “the shot” I wanted. I did manage to capture a few out of focus shots that gave me the look I wanted so that gave me hope that it was possible.

Three days later I was back for round two! On this morning I knew right where to go to find the Downy Woodpeckers. During the previous visit I saw one particular bird hanging in the same area most of the time so I went straight there. The weather turned out to be even better on this morning with partially cloudy skies. This meant I was getting some sun and a little direction to the light but since there were thin clouds blocking the sun it was a nice diffused light and wasn’t throwing any harsh shadows. One of the first shots of the second morning is below and while I love the light on the woodpecker you can see how having stronger sun starts to highlight the reeds and create stronger lines in the image, not exactly what I was looking for.

The next shot below shows how it gets much easier if I moved in closer to the bird. This means there is much less crap to shoot through and also allows for the background to fall out of focus easier. While I think this is a nice portrait of the woodpecker it’s not exactly the look I wanted so I found myself over and over again backing up from the bird to make it much smaller in the frame.

At this point I had been chasing this woodpecker around every time it dropped into the Phrags. Sometimes it would drop in way too deep and there was zero chance of getting a clear view, other times it would be right on the outside edge and there wasn’t enough foreground to shoot through for my shot. Finally after roughly an hour of chasing, shooting, bobbing, weaving, manually focusing here and there, I got one. The shot below is the first that I managed that gave me the exact look I had been thinking about for years! The Downy Woodpecker was small in the frame, nothing else in the image was in focus except the bird and the single reed it was clinging too. I was shooting through a decent amount of foreground reeds which helped to make everything else blurry and I also had nice soft light on the bird with a perfectly profiled pose. I didn’t know it until a few minutes later when I had a moment to look on the back of the camera but I had the shot. I did remove one slightly off angle reed that was soft and in the foreground on the left in post.

No more then a few minutes later I got another shot with the woodpecker peeking out from behind a single reed, a fun look. The surroundings weren’t as soft as the first shot but it still worked for me.

Soon, things got really good. The Downy slowly made its way to the top of the Phragmites. This is when things started to get really pretty. The top of Phragmites have large fluffy tops to them, where its seeds are stored is my guess. These help to break things up from just the straight lines of the reeds and also I started picking up bits of sky. The shot below is one of the last ones I got right before the Downy flew away and I didn’t see it for a long time after.

Below is my favorite shot of the day. This was taken just before the previous shot when I noticed the bird starting to work its way up the reeds. I had been shooting horizontally and I really wanted the tops of the Phrags in the frame but couldn’t fit them. So I quickly rotated vertically and moved my focus point to the bottom left of the frame and made this composition. I really like the soft fade of brown to blue in the background. The tiny woodpecker stands out nicely and the soft tops of the Phrags add a great texture the to image I think. So I finally had the shots I had been thinking about for years. It felt really great to have a vision, work hard to capture it and finally have the shots to share with everyone. I hope you get to do the same some time and I know personally I’m going to start trying to envision specific shots and then make them happen. While incredibly challenging the entire process was so much fun.

Nature photography has become a very passionate hobby of mine and whenever I get a chance I love to get outside and enjoy being outdoors. I am also the co-owner of KGM Expressions, a wedding and portrait photography business, with my wife Kim. This is how we make our living and I love that we get to do that together.