A Soothing Interview With A Master Of Slow-Motion Bird Videos
10:37 AM EST on December 29, 2021
Springtime will arrive before too long, and little songbirds will start bopping all over and tuning up their warm-weather songs, and shining up their warm-weather togs, and you and I will have the thought: I should put some bird seed out and get some of those bright little cuties to move in for a closer inspection. There is never a larger crowd in the bird aisle of my local home improvement megastore than in those first few weeks of spring, when a few signature bird calls inspire half of all human civilization to briefly take up bird-feeding.
It's a fine time to pick up the hobby, in the sense that colorful and vigorous spring and summer birds reward attention, and in the sense that bird houses put up in spring have a decent chance of welcoming mating pairs during the months of hot-and-steamy bird action. But true bird heads know the best and in fact correct time to feed the birds is in autumn and winter, when natural food sources are scarce, daylight hours are short, the climate is punishing, and our fluffy little bird pals need all the help they can get. January birds will clean out a feeder in a few short hours that the birds of summer would nurse over the course of a week or longer. Chickadees and juncos and rowdy gangs of house finches will impatiently yell at you from just out of arms reach quite literally while you are filling up their preferred feeders. A cold and hungry songbird will do desperate things for a mouthful of sunflower hearts.
This condition presents opportunities for the patient and Snow White–like. Wildlife photographer Jocelyn Anderson is such a person.
Anderson snaps compelling shots of Michigan songbirds all year round, but possibly her most popular work is a series of slow motion videos she produces showing hungry wintertime birds landing and perching and snacking and sometimes battling with other hungry songbirds, right in the palm of her outstretched hand. The steadiness of her feed hand while being contested by darting little sharp-beaked visitors puts Michael Corleone to shame, and her knack for capturing in pristine ultra-slow motion fascinating little moments that would otherwise be incomprehensible to the human eye is really, really something. There is an internal Defector Slack channel for bird sickos, and a solid 40 percent of what's posted in there is Jocelyn Anderson bird videos.
It seemed only right that Defector should speak with Anderson about birds. Initially this was intended as a discussion of photography and capturing the majesty of wildlife, but because it was at heart a conversation between two bird enthusiasts, ultimately it resolved into two adults giggling about our favorite birds, sharing birding stories, and then, yes, making bird noises at each other. Anderson spoke with Defector from her Michigan home, between birding excursions. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
I read that professionally, in addition to photography, you do web development. How did the bird photography start? Was this just like you were walking through the woods one day and thought, there's lots of beautiful birds out here, I should take photos of them?
There is a little bit of backstory to it. So about 10 or so years ago—I've always been into running, but I was really into running, like I'm doing 80-mile weeks. I was doing ultra marathons. I still love running. But back then that was what I was doing in my spare time. I’m just running around. And when you do the bigger distances, you need more time to recover. The park that I was running at, Kensington Metropark (which is where I do all my videos and take most of my photos), I was using their paved-track trails for running. And I realized they had nature trails, too.
And I was like, well, to recover from all this crazy running, I'll go walk on the nature trails, and I was like, oh, this would be a good time to pick up photography. And then my family was incredibly generous, they got me a camera kit. So, a camera body with the lens. And so I'm out there fooling around on the trails with the camera, and I fell in love with it almost immediately, because, like, going out there and realizing there were so many birds around, so so many birds I just didn't realize were around. And I've always loved animals. So I was immediately hooked. That's how it happened: Once I got that camera down on the trails I immediately fell in love.
Had you done much visual art stuff before? Was this a seamless integration with the web developer toolkit?
Not really? I always enjoyed, like, art classes in high school. And I do enjoy designing things, composition-wise. I guess that could be a piece of it. But that's really about it.
Were you at all surprised, then, to discover that you have such a knack for it? Like if I walk outside right now and try to take pictures of birds, which I love very much, the quality will be just awful. It will be a blurry silhouette of something that is definitely either a bird or a leaf or an old shopping bag. But you take these really striking photos of birds, despite starting out as just a hobbyist, and not even that long ago! Honestly it seems a little unfair to me.
Well, thank you very much for the kind words! I really—I have to say, first of all: Birds are amazing! And if I can capture that, I feel like I'm doing something right. I only do wildlife photography, because I will take photos of a landscape—I have some friends who will do landscapes and sunrises and all that beautiful work—and I can not do it. There'll be a beautiful sunrise, and I know it's gorgeous. And I take a photo and I'm like, I know that's garbage. I know that it's bad. People have tried to help me, they're like, “Take a photo of these trees.” And I'm like, “OK!” And then I'm like, “It's bad!”
I feel like it’s so easy with birds! And I feel like I really do care about the birds. Hopefully that comes through in my photos. And also, I take lots and lots and lots of photos. So I can choose the ones I think are the best.
Seems like you are trying to pass the credit along to the birds, which is very generous of you.
Well, hmm. Maybe one day in my photography journey, I'll get more into landscapes and other things, but right now it just doesn't hook me like wildlife does. I think that’s something you could tell from the photo! I'll take a photo and just know, it's not good.
How far along your wildlife-photography journey were you before you had the thought, “Hey, what if I just put some food in my hand and make the birdies come to me?”
Well, it's a well-known park, Kensington Metropark in Milford, Michigan. People have been hand-feeding the birds for literally decades, which makes it great for photography, as well. So if you go on the nature trails, the chickadees and the tufties, they'll come right next to you. And sometimes they’ll get a little crazy in the colder weather, because they really want food. Like I'll be walking along and they will buzz my head, trying to get my attention, because they have learned that people have food. So it doesn't take—like, anyone can show up with some peanuts and sunflower seeds and just walk around and hand-feed the birds. So I just started taking videos.
I think the videos work kind of the same way as the photos, in the sense that the little ones, the little birds, are just so, so fast. With the slow motion I feel like you can see them in a new way. I feel like you can even see them thinking sometimes. I try to keep pretty quiet because some of them will spook easily. But sometimes they're just, like, launching the seeds and the peanuts, like they're just so disgusted with what I'm offering. But it's high-quality food, I paid good money for this food! But in those moments you can see their little personalities come through. It's like with photography, they move so fast, but you can capture action that way. And certainly with the slow motion videos, you can see the birds thinking, you can see little scrums that are going on, and people seem to really enjoy it. For me, one of the best things I can hear is when people say they’ve gotten more into birds from my videos. And I'm like, yesssssssss.
Yeah the slow-motion videos are fascinating, sometimes there’ll be a moment at the end of a video where it reverts to normal speed, and I’m always like “Oh wow, right, those suckers are moving so fast.” It’s amazing how much a little teeny songbird is processing, all the caution and spatial awareness and then the careful, sometimes even finicky, selection of the right seeds, and it happens in just a fraction of a moment.
Right! Sometimes I won't even realize what has happened until I'm looking at the footage later. There's been a couple of times where the downy woodpeckers and the chickadees get into a little bit of a scrum. I remember one time, from this feeling on my hand I knew that something had happened, and I went to the footage later and it turned out that a downy woodpecker had grabbed a chickadee by its head feathers and threw it off my hand!
And for those sorts of videos I’m like, do I post it? Because it gets intense! And, like, the little chickadee was OK, and I always try to mention, “Hey, everyone's OK.” But that interaction, just watching it in slow motion video, it was a little intense for the little chickadee!
So is there a whole archive of outtakes of just songbird violence and carnage?
Well, not really. Ninety-nine percent of the time they just grab a seed and go. I try to post the more interesting interactions. A lot of the time, they just all queue up and they come and grab their seed and they take off. That's most of the footage. I try to record every single time they land on my hand, but it doesn’t always work out that way. There's been a couple of times when, for example, I'll see a friend coming down the trail, and I’ll chat with my friend. There was one time, there was a red-winged blackbird and this chickadee was just bombing it! He was bopping it on the head, and I don't have that footage because I wasn't recording. So now I try to get every, every interaction. And then the good ones, the ones I think are most interesting, I will share on social media.
Are there birds you will refuse to film or photograph? Around here we have one jillion new world sparrows, plus house sparrows and house finches and occasional flocks of European starlings, and even as a sicko bird-lover when I see a bunch of house sparrows at the feeder I’m just, like, ugh. I am here for the nuthatches and tufties and goldfinches, I have no time for these house sparrows.
This park doesn't really have—hmm, I shouldn’t say that, I think they might have house sparrows, but only over where there's more buildings in the park. On the nature trail they do not have house sparrows. They do have starlings, the starlings are just not interested. I do have those sorts of birds in my yard, and yes, definitely, when they show up everyone else pretty much clears out. But thankfully those birds don't show up so much on the nature trails.
Have you ever tried hand-feeding the birds at your house? I will admit that since I became aware of your videos I have thought very seriously about just … standing in my yard with a pile of sunflower seeds in my hand for a very long time.
Well, no, I haven't gotten any of my birds here to hand-feed because usually, I do the hand feeding at the park. And then I come home and it's usually pretty cold out, so I just put out some food and then come back indoors. But there is a red-breasted nuthatch who seems to be thinking about it. I’ll come out, it'll look at me, and I have the food, and it seems like he’s considering it. He hasn't done it yet. But I'm encouraged! It's 50 degrees today, which is pretty warm for us, but it's gonna get real cold in the next month or so. The birds, the same thing happens at the park, they're always a little more daring, they need to eat more food. They need to get more food so they tend to be a little bit bolder.
We only get white-breasted nuthatches here!
We get those too!
I think they’re really adorable. They make that little “wermp wermp!”
[sound of two adults giggling about the vocalizations of the white-breasted nuthatch]
And then you spot one and he’s hanging upside down on the tree, looking down. They’re such eccentric little weirdos.
Awww, yeah they’re great.
Is there a bird that for you is like your Moby Dick? Not in the sense that you are waging a campaign of vengeance unto the ends of the Earth, but in the sense that there are lots of birds out there but really there is one in particular that you are really after?
Oh, I'd love to come across another owl. People go absolutely bonkers for owls. So whenever I see a tree cavity, like a hole in the tree, I'll check it. I've done that hundreds and hundreds of times, and in the last few months I actually found a screech owl. I’m always trying to find those. Just finding an owl—I’ll hear reports, like, “Hey, there's an animal nesting over here.” But the owls do tend to get crowds, and I'm not big into camping out, like I would love to see just an owl while I’m walking along, checking the trees. It's happened a couple times, “Oh my goodness. There's an owl, right there.” If I could see an owl this winter, that would be amazing.
I'm really the sort of person, if there's a rare bird around, unless it's super close, I won’t go out and see it. I'm much more of the sort of photographer where I'm just gonna go out on the nature trails and whatever I see, you know, that's gonna be awesome. I always think of it as a nice nature walk, and then if I see something special, that’s amazing, that’s the cherry on top. It’s not, like, “I’m finding this kind of hawk today.”
That’s very zen of you.
Yeah! It's like whatever nature wants to show me today, that's what I'm going to see. Some days are just absolutely incredible. There's hawks, and the chickadees are giving good looks, and then some days, it's like, well, I got a photo? But that's part of the fun. You never know, which I love. Every time I go out, I'm like, what am I gonna see today?
Yeah I can’t relate to that at all, I think because I got into birding by way of a particular bird. There’s a hill southeast of my house and a noisy creek, I was walking over there one day in winter and I spotted a pair of eastern bluebirds going to town on some winterberry shrubs. And I said “I must have those birds.” And then I spent a couple years courting them to my yard—mealworms, berries, suet, birdhouses, the works—which along the way meant incidentally attracting lots of other birds, which were nice but were not the real prize. I’m fond of all these birds but for me it’s all about the next Special Bird.
I haven't put up mealworms yet because the starlings come through, and they'll just wipe out everything. That's great that you have a bluebird house! How fun!
They’re so pretty, and they’re not, like, needy? The way some of the other songbirds are, where they just move on in wherever the seed’s good. Bluebirds are sort of aloof and take care of themselves, which makes it really flattering when you finally do get one to come in close.
Aww, they’re so sweet. I love them.
What are some of the cool migratory birds that pass through up there? The short-timers?
I have started to go bonkers for warblers. This started two years ago. Michigan is amazing. We have two flyways. So we have lots of warblers coming through the area. I'm doing this [swooping hand motion] because, like, they're going up into Canada. That happens in May and then in September and October. May is much more exciting because all the boys are dressed up to impress the ladies, they’re a lot more colorful. And it was two years ago, in 2019. I was out birding at a local park. And there were just warblers everywhere, just stunning, stunning birds. I was like, what is going on? What are all these birds? They were all low and they were just gorgeous, gorgeous birds. And that's when I learned about how many warblers come through here.
So you get warblers there! They’re yellow, yeah?
Yes, we have yellow warblers, and our yellows, which are so handsome, they stay through early fall. But some warblers are just shooting up on their way to Canada, like chestnut-sided warblers, and there’s the blackburnian, which is yellow and orange, just pretty, pretty birds. After I discovered all of these birds I was wondering, why haven't I ever seen these before? That was when I learned, oh, they're only here this time and this time, and you should get up early to see them, and these are the good warbling spots, and so on. That's always something I look forward to, and then in the fall we also have a crazy duck season, so like the mergansers. What are some other crazy ducks? There’s the goldeneye …anything that’s not just, like, a mallard. We’ll get some that have crazy beaks or like crazy hairstyles and that's really fun to look forward to in the fall. Now that we're finally starting to get a little colder, the ducks will come through.
I love ducks. I love shorebirds, generally. I was reading about sandpipers recently, people are used to seeing them on Atlantic coast beaches but they actually are the most northerly breeding birds in the world, they breed on these terrifyingly remote gravel bars way up in the Arctic ocean. That’s so fascinating to me, the idea that every time you see one it is in the middle of this incredible transit covering an insane distance.
It’s amazing! They’re not big! They’re tiny, delicate little animals. Like the warblers, they’re these tiny, tiny little birds and they travel thousands and thousands of miles each year.
Do you ever change up the seed mix when you go out so that you have a better shot at attracting a warbler, or one of the other super cool birds?
I keep it pretty much the same. It's usually peanuts and sunflower seeds, with the occasional cashew or an almond. I’ll also use little suet nuggets. I did try switching up the feed recently. It was even a more expensive “high-quality blend,” it had walnuts and suet nuggets, and it had something else in there. It was like lots of walnuts. I'm thinking the birds are gonna love it. I tried it twice and the chickadees were like, what is this trash? They looked at it and they put their little beaks up, like, no. And I’d been so excited about it! I was thinking, here's the super, super good stuff. And they're like, uh-uh. They want the same blend, the same old blend. Every once in a while you’ll see, if there’s a slow motion video where there's a shelled peanut—an in-the-shell peanut—it means I'm trying to get a blue jay. Sometimes there'll be a blue jay really close, so if an in-the-shell peanut shows up, it’s because I'm trying to get a blue jay to come over. It hasn't happened in months, but an attempt is being made.
Are blue jays into that? They like the shells?
They are. The blue jays I've only gotten to hand-feed when they're really desperate. Usually it's late summer and it's an adult and there's like five young ones that are just demanding food. They’re pretty rough, they’ll just grab a beak-full, shove it into a young one’s mouth, and then do it again. The few times I’ve gotten to hand-feed blue jays, they seem to really go for the in-the-shell peanuts. I mean, if you put some on the ground they’ll immediately come and take some. But that’s not quite the same as having one land on your hands, you know?
Do you use seed to attract the birds for the still photography, or is that mostly just for the slow-motion videos? Do you set up a little buffet for the birds and then, like, pick out the best position for snapping photos?
Sometimes! If it's absolutely bitterly cold—I have pretty poor circulation so my hands, at a certain point I can’t use my hands. Which is like, why don't you have gloves? And it's like, I do, but I'll take them off to shoot and put them back on. So if it's bitterly cold, like if it's 15-below, I'll put a little pile of seed to take photos that way. But a large majority of the time, because the birds know people have food the birds will just show up. So usually I’ll take photos first, like, usually chickadees and tufties and the blue jays, and then I'll offer food. It's like, hey, I got your photo and here's some food in return. It's usually like that: The birds just show up along the trail and I'll take their photo and then I'll try and get a couple videos.
Now that you’ve had success as a wildlife photographer, have you thought about traveling to distant places to shoot more exotic wildlife?
Well, it’s funny, I'm very much a creature of habit. If I'm taking photos, I'm going to one of four locations. And they're all like, a two-minute drive from where I live. And like I mentioned earlier, if there's a rare bird even in one of those locations, I usually won't chase it, unless it's close by. But one day I do hope to go on some birding trips with our local Audubon Society. It was canceled last year, but they take a trip, an international trip. I'm trying to remember where the last one was planned for? But it’s places like Costa Rica, like really great places. I would very much want someone, like a guide, to show me around, like here's where all the good birds are. That kind of thing is definitely on my to-do list. But I'm very much, like, I know this place—there's some really good parks that are an hour or two away, or I can just drive like 10 minutes and go to Kensington! There's so many good parks that are so close. I do eventually want to travel and see some totally new birds I’ve never seen before, I'll see photos from fellow photographers and, oh my goodness, it’s just amazing the different birds that are out there.
Yeah! Even some of the birds that are almost normal for you would be totally exotic to me. We never see warblers here. I’m looking at a photo of a warbler on your website and I think I would scream if I saw this guy in person. They’re pretty elusive aren’t they?
I think it might depend on where you are in their range. When I actually see them at the local parks, they're usually on the edge of the woods next to water, because they like the bugs. But in my experience of looking for warblers, yes, they can be incredibly hard to find. There might be just one or two days a year where they're really close to the ground and you're getting great looks. It's very much a timing thing. And I didn't even really realize these little beauties existed around here until I found a good location to find them, and even then they're only around this specific time of year. So yeah, they are elusive, for sure.
What’s a good angle of entry for a person who wants to get into bird photography? Just, like, grab your smartphone and get out there?
That's really what I was thinking! The first thing I would do is, if they're looking for birds in particular, birds are found absolutely everywhere. I would suggest going to ebird.org and looking for a local hot spot, which will be a good spot for birding. You can pull up the list and it’ll show you what birds have been spotted there. If you just want to see some birds, it’ll tell you, here's a good park for birds. You can totally go out with an iPhone, you don’t need some fancy setup, or like $10,000 equipment, to look at birds. You can just get some binoculars and just go look for birds. There’s also—Michigan, for example, has a couple of Facebook birding groups you can join. Local Audubon Society groups, too, that's a good one, that’s where you can find some really hardcore birding. The first time I showed up to my local Audubon Society walk, it was kind of terrifying. Everyone knows so much more about birds. Like, I like birds. I like them a lot. But I'm like, everyone here is—there’s some hardcore birders.
But I've been to a couple of different walks, different county walks, and everyone is so welcoming! Because they love birds, and they want others to love birds. Some of these walks, I should mention, they’ll lend out binoculars. So it's like if you just want to check them out and go stare at some birds and have a good time, I'd say check out the local Audubon Society walks and events. Or if you prefer to go out on your own, check out the eBird hot spots in your area.
Something I’ve gotten into a lot, which is run I think by the same people who do the eBird website, is the Merlin app.
Yes! Oh yes, I use it all the time. Like if I take a photo of a bird, if I'm not sure exactly what it is, I'll compare the photo to what they have on Merlin. Even if it’s not the exact bird right away, it gets me pointed in the right direction. It's like, “This is a kind of hawk and it's either this one or this one.” So I love that app. Love it.
As our website has several disgusting Michigan homers on staff, I feel that I must ask whether you are another sicko die-hard supporter of all Michigan sports teams.
Yes, absolutely. Well, are we talking pro sports? Or college?
Any. Unfortunately, I am referring to any Michigan sports.
So, University of Michigan is my alma mater. So Michigan football has been super fun this year, except when we lost to Michigan State. I’m really big into college football, anything Michigan does, I'm on board with. Pro teams? I am not a Lions fan. So I watched that circus—I'll put it on like if the game’s streaming, I’ll watch whatever circus is going on but I’m not emotionally invested there. The Pistons are like a dumpster fire, and I’m not really into it.
I used to go to Red Wings games when they were good. They’ve been really bad for a while but we got Yzerman back, so I’m starting to pay a little more attention. We have a lot of great sports teams here! Well … we have sports teams here.
Seems like the Tigers might be climbing back into relevance!
I’m not really into the Tigers. College sports are more where my passion lies. I can for sure tell you that Justin Verlander was fun to watch with his tight pants. His pants were so tight. But other than that, not really. I’m sort of like, “yeah, go team” about all the local teams, but really the passion is there for the college teams, the emotional investment.
What bird at the local park would you say is the top bird, the Michigan Wolverines Football of local birds?
Hmm, the top bird. Do you mean like the bird I’m most excited to see? Or…?
We’ll just use the word “elite” and leave it at that.
Ah, so we’ll say the bald eagles. There’s a nesting pair of bald eagles there. That’s an elite bird, I always get excited when I see one. Everyone is always so excited by them, if they’re visible from the side of the road cars will pull over and everyone gets their cell phones out. So I’m gonna go with the bald eagle.
And so which awful bird would you say is the Detroit Pistons of Michigan birds?
Can I say house sparrows? I don’t see many house sparrows there. Or maybe starlings?
I mean, nobody wants to see a starling.
They can't help it. Starlings and house sparrows, they can't help what they are. But they’re just so bad for native birds. When I was younger I used to love the house sparrows at Disneyland, because they’re everywhere! When you’re eating at one of the tables outside they’re underfoot, you can feed them! I thought they were so cute! It’s exciting! But nowadays I’m just like, Ugh, house sparrows.
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