This is the first time I've spotted a juvenile cowbird; they blend right in with a lot of other similar birds.
There are two things that are special about this shot. No, make that three things.
Number one: every single bird has character, beautiful an individual flair. But ever bird’s plumage is also dictated by its species. More often than not, the males get the fancy dress, and the females are more subtle, and the young birds are all over the map in terms of looks.
This is as true of cowbirds as it is of any other species. The male has a shiny black body, with a brown head that ranges from dark chocolate to coffee with cream. The females vary quite a bit, with various mixtures of texture, spots, subtle striping, and it can be hard to even know it’s a cowbird. Male juveniles are a faint echo of the male plumage; I saw the resemblance in the bird above but I just couldn’t believe it at first.
Number two: how do you tell what kind of bird you are looking at, when there are so many different kinds, and so many variations (male/female, young/old, time of year, etc.)? I really puzzled over this one. In the back of my mind, the very first thing I noticed was that subtle brightness change between the head and the body. It reminded me of a male cowbird (and one should always ask: is this a variation on a bird I’ve already seen around here?), but…only a little. So I spent the better part of an hour going through all the different bird species you can find in Washington state and striking out on every single one. So, I Googled for ‘female cowbird’ because I just wasn’t really clicking much on this being a juvenile; there’s just no sign of the black body. Now, Google is not often useful when searching for matches to a bird photograph, and this was no exception; it took the better part of an hour finally realize: hey, I should search for ‘juvenile cowbird’. And that’s what it turned out to be.
Number three: I finally reached into my software bag of tricks and did some serious post-processing on the raw image. (short version here; longer version below in ‘technical details’)
I sharpened the image using AI tools, and I also trimmed down the noise a bit to get a smoother overall image. Here’s a close-up of the bird to show how much detail there is:
See the technical details section below for how this result was achieved. It was partly luck, partly good technique, and partly artificial intelligence.
By the way, here’s an image of a male brown-headed cowbird. This has has the lighter head, with a look like cast bronze.
Many people do not like cowbirds at all; they are brood parasites—like the cuckoo, they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds and dominate the nest for food from the parents.
I used special software to bring out the details in this image. I use a super-telephoto lens to capture these close-up images, and in this case, everything went right.
I was close to my subject, less than fifteen feet away. So the bird is fairly large in the frame, and the details in the feathers are clearly seen.
In order to get good focus, I have to ‘stop down’ the aperture on the lens. The lens, a Sony 200-600 f/5.6-6.3, already has a small aperture, but if I want both the head and the tail of the bird to be in focus, I have to use an even smaller aperture—f/10 in this case. That’s not a lot of light hitting the film, and is best used on a sunny day. In the case, the sun was coming and going, and at the time of this shot, it was overcast. So one strike down: a small aperture.
To compensate for the lack of light, I had to use a higher ISO than I would have liked: ISO 1000. My camera’s optimal ISO setting is 100, so I was way off of that. A high ISO leads to noise in an image, and noise makes subtle details hard to see. Strike two.
The last of the three critical settings is shutter speed. The image was shot at 1/1000th of a second, which is fast enough to freeze any movement (and birds area always moving, even if it’s not obvious: little twitches, swaying on a wind-blown branch or feeder, moving their head around to look for trouble, etc.). This fast shutter speed also limits the light: strike three and I’m out.
The final image was…nice, but it did not have the snap I wanted. So I decided to experiment with AI-based noise reduction and sharpening. Enter Topaz Denoise tool. This is a clever bit of software that ‘knows’ about such things as lip texture, bird feathers, and may other things with small detail. It analyzes the photograph, and enhances small hints of such structures hidden in the image data. A lot of the feather detail was actually clear in the original image, but the software was able to bring out details in the head area (despite my short shutter speed, there was a tiny bit of head movement that every so slightly blurred the details).
Here is the original image, which is still striking, but not quite sizzle sharp:
I was pleased to see that the software did not add any unnatural details, or mess up any of the natural details. It adds just a touch of sharpness. What has me excited is the software’s ability to bring out what’s already there without creating false details.