To photograph wildlife outside the confines of a blind is a rare opportunity. Most species of birds and mammals do not allow a human to approach within camera range, even if the photographer is sporting a long telephoto lens.

Yellow-headed blackbirds are an exception.

Compared to most other bird species, they are relatively tame — especially now during the breeding season. A photographer slowly can move to within 20 or 30 feet without disturbing them. The courting males are especially tolerant of humans.

The males are busy defending their territories by singing their odd courtship song: It’s a raspy cry that appears to take a lot of effort. Some people compare the sound to a rusty door hinge. But for their song, they are particularly striking, with their bright-yellow heads and breasts in stark contrast to their black bodies.

All of that said, the bird’s habitat is not easily accessible by foot. The colorful birds live mostly in cattail marshes. Thus, a photographer hoping for a close-up photo must don waders and enter the marsh. Without care, carrying heavy photography equipment while navigating through weed-strewn, muddy water can lead to unpleasant results. In fact, twice in my career I’ve had expensive photography gear take a drink in marsh water. Water and electronics don’t mix well.

To capture the image with this story, I entered a cattail marsh. I could see and hear several males singing from atop cattail stems from the shoreline. I slowly moved into the muddy, waist-deep water, the sun at my back. I advanced, lifting the tripod-mounted camera ahead of me with each step. I was careful not to lose my footing for reasons mentioned above. The mucky bottom threatened to pull my feet from my waders.

The male yellow-headed blackbirds were involved in their breeding ritual, and several of them allowed me to get frame-filling images.

Navigating through the marsh with my camera gear made for high anxiety. But it proved worthwhile.

I came away with a number of quality images. And I and my photography equipment stayed dry.


Bill Marchel, an outdoors photographer and writer, lives near Brainerd.