This is the third consecutive year that I have photographed Black-billed Magpies (Pica hudsonia) working on their nest in this same location. I’m really glad I spotted that first bird disappear into the Sagebrush that morning with something in its bill. It made me curious enough to want to stop and see what was going on and I have been well rewarded for that curiosity.
Black-billed Magpies are not easy birds to expose correctly because of the combination of bright white and black plumage. The blacks can block up easily if the exposure compensation is not set right and if you raise the exposure compensation too high the whites can be blown out. I find that if I expose a bit bright in the camera then bring the whites and lights down in post processing other wise if I lighten the blacks too much in editing I can bring in unwanted noise.
Black-billed Magpie leaving the nest – Nikon D300, f6.3, 1/3200, ISO 640, +0.7 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 272mm, natural light
With the right light angle the purple, blue, teal and green iridescence can be seen and photographed. These are not just plain old black and white birds. With the nest being at a certain location I can prefocus on the area where I think the birds might fly in and I find I get sharper shots that way.
Right now the Magpies are bringing in sticks and twigs to fortify the old nest and later on they will bring in mud or Bison manure to line the bottom of the nest along with soft grasses.
Two days ago when I photographed this Black-billed Magpie there was snow on the ground but the bird was still finding small twigs there to bring to the nest. They sure stand out well against the snow.
Black-billed Magpie just after lift off – Nikon D300, f7.1, 1/2000, ISO 640, +0.7 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 278mm, natural light
I have found that early morning is the best time to photograph Black-billed Magpies, when the sun is higher the whites are much easier to blow out. This morning the light was wonderful but the birds weren’t as active as normal so I was only able to get a few keepable images in the time that I was with them. This Magpie had just lifted off after shoving a twig into place on top of the dome of the nest.
These last two images are of the same bird bring nesting material to the nest. I wish I would have had better eye contact but I like that I was still able to get a sliver of a catchlight in both frames and I like the action.
I am looking forward to having more time to photograph these Black-billed Magpies through their nesting season and perhaps; if I am lucky, I will be there the day that the young fledge. I have missed that the past two seasons. They are such beautiful birds.