“Seeing a cardinal usually means something good is on the horizon, and it urges you to follow your passion and dreams.”

We just visited the Desert Photo Retreat just north of Tucson in the outskirts of Marana, cardinals on our minds. It is our first overnight trip in many months. We chose this place because we wanted a change in scenery, an excuse to take photos, and to be safe. The Desert Photo Retreat met all our needs. It is safe (we are the only visitors), we are vaccinated (dose one plus three weeks) and it is known for birding with two blinds that are magnificently designed for taking exquisite photos of birds, up close and personal. As I’ve stated many times before, I am not a birder, eschewing tweety birds for epic landscapes. But, if I am going to photograph birds, I prefer large and/or colorful bids. This leads me to my goal for the visit – photograph the cardinal, male and female, up close. Why the cardinal? They have a well-known shape, an amazing red color, and are prevalent in the area. And they are gorgeous.

Instead of my usual mode of shooting, spray and pray, I decided to set up a set of rules for my photography weekend, a set of cardinal rules. Do you remember what is a “cardinal rule”? It is a rule that is so important that if broken there will be dire consequences. There are the seven cardinal rules of life, three cardinal rules of real estate, and there are the three cardinal rules of photography, stated simply as, “composition, composition, composition”. My cardinal rules for photographing cardinals are:

  1. cardinal must be in great light,
  2. no distractions in scene (i.e., other birds),
  3. absolutely no man-made objects in scene, and
  4. delicious, creamy backgrounds.

If a photo does not meet all these rules, it gets discarded. Maybe it should not have been taken? That will be a story for another day.

We entered a blind late afternoon ready to see what nature would bring us. Would a cardinal visit? The answer turned out to be a resounding yes. Our host, Ron, set up a perches and desert flora for the birds to rest and pose. Furthermore, he stocked the area with food including suet, a treat for the cardinals. Within minutes there were at least 50 birds ready for capture with a couple of Cardinals in the mix.

The cardinals seemed somewhat skittish, hiding out in surrounding trees and brush, looking for an opportunity to swoop in and get some food. Before long there were up to ten cardinals around the blind. But they did not all look like the cardinals I know. It turns out that there are two species of cardinal that frequent the area, Northern Cardinal and Pyrrhuloxia (aka, Desert Cardinal), male and female of each. All four are stunning birds.

Male Northern Cardinal. This is what I associate with a cardinal. I can see why the Saint Louis baseball team and Arizona football team chose this bird as their logo.

Female Northern Cardinal. The female has the same base shape as the mail, same bad hairdo, but the coloring is completely different.

Adult male Desert Cardinal (Pyrrhuloxia). I guess the desert cardinal has spend too much time in the sun, bleaching much of the red from its body.

Adult female Desert Cardinal (Pyrrhuloxia). This female is very similar in look and color to its Northern Cardinal cousin. 

By the end of our photo journey, the cardinals and me became close, pals of sorts. Check out this guy who parked himself just a few feet from me.

This guy couldn’t have been more that 10 feet from me. He alit on the side of a boulder, posed, winked, and possibly grinned. A great way to finish off the weekend.

I had hoped to capture a cardinal in flight. It turns out that it is nearly impossible with our setup. I was shooting with a very long lens, up to 500mm. This is great because I can fill the field of view with the bird. But it becomes a liability when trying track the unpredictability of the bird’s motion. After 1000 photos of blurry cardinals, I gave up getting a sharp photo.

The cardinal is a bit soft in this image. I would have liked to get a sharp version but it was not to be.

The stills will have to do.

Remember, it’s all about the light (on the cardinal).