March 17, 2016
Northern Cardinal portrait
Northern Cardinal portrait
There are certain species that birders never tire of seeking, observing, and perhaps trying to photograph, and these species run in two directions:  those with colors so bright they can be out of gamut if photographed in direct sunlight—think Northern Cardinal; and those with camouflage coloration that makes even finding them a treasure hunt—think owls.  For those of us who grew up east of the Great Plains, the flash of a cardinal’s red or the splash of an oriole’s orange against the monochrome of the eastern forests always made for a great day of birding.

When we moved permanently from the Midwest to the Southwest, we had done our research and knew there were cardinals here despite the protestations of all the non-birding fans who thought when the football cardinals made the same move they should brand a different mascot because there weren’t really any cardinals in the desert were there?  Well, yes, there are.  But of course here they aren’t yardbirds like back home in the east, but residents of scrub lands, washes, and foothills along the margins of civilization.  Edge habitats.  For several friends who live close to the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, Northern Cardinals are, indeed, yardbirds.

As we began to welcome and talk with out-of-state birders, we started hearing that “our” cardinals were a brighter red than theirs.  We had not noticed and weren’t even sure that was possible, but a photograph taken last week in perfect sunrise light suggests why this may be true.  Here’s way more information than you need, but there are eighteen(!) subspecies of Northern Cardinal, and our southwestern bird is part of the seven subspecies Igneus group—Cardinalis cardinalis superbus—roots words right there for ignite and superb.  Sounds very red doesn’t it?

Superbus is, in fact, the largest subspecies, and one in which the black lores of the male do not meet across the forehead.  These two characteristics taken together may certainly account for the appearance of superbus being a brighter red—there’s just simply more of that red.  Can there be too much red on a Northern Cardinal?  Photographically speaking, yes.  When I edited my shots from last week I tried, as I always to, to add a little saturation, but the color popped so much that feather detail in the breast and crest were blown out.

The image accompanying this column was taken in perfect, direct, early morning sunlight at the easiest place to be guaranteed a Northern Cardinal sighting in central Arizona—Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park.  Interestingly enough, after twenty years of bird photography, this is now the best image of the species I have ever gotten, not an action shot, not even particularly interesting, but it sure is red.

It got me to thinking, as I do every few years, I really need to go back to the Midwest some winter, and photograph Northern Cardinals in snow.  And, I have to admit it still seems weird, after all these years, to see cardinals here in the desert Southwest.