This gray catbird is a scene-stealer. Joel Sartore was photographing Baltimore orioles, including the one featured on our cover, when the silvery sneak swooped in to munch from feeders in the area. It was there for just the blink of an eye. “The orioles ran it off,” says Sartore—but not before he snapped the photo. “That’s a lucky picture.”
The feathered interloper became one of several species that Sartore photographed for a series on migratory birds that also features American goldfinches, cliff swallows, and least terns, among others. He had a lofty goal: emulate the work of his favorite bird artist, John James Audubon. “He was such a great naturalist,” says Sartore, “I wanted to try and pay homage to him.” Sartore shot birds up close, against a backdrop representing their characteristic habitats. For Baltimore orioles, he needed an accommodating area at the forest’s edge. A bit of sleuthing at a local birding store led him to a farm near his home in Nebraska. After securing permission from the owners, Sartore set up a camera connected to a radio trigger that he pulled from 50 yards away. He also used a “softbox” to subdue the flash and cast the birds in a more natural light. About 40 work hours later he had a winning oriole image—his favorite from the series—plus a bonus catbird.
The differences between the pictures capture the two types of photography Sartore likes best: images that convey a sense of mystery—the Baltimore oriole fixates on some unseen treasure below the frame—and those that snag climactic moments, like the fleeing catbird.
“It reminds me of why I love still photography,” says Sartore, “because it freezes time,” revealing details that the naked eye might miss, such as the fine contours of the plumage on the catbird’s wing. “You just kind of look at the wonder of how this bird is built,” he says. “There’s not a feather to spare.” Frozen in takeoff, this catbird is yet very much alive.