Thursday, January 19, 2012

Nesting Black-billed Magpies

Black-billed Magpie with nesting material ~ Antelope Island State Park, Utah
D200, f6.3, 1/1500, ISO 400, 200-400mm VR at 400mm, +0.3 EV, natural light, not a set up
On my own blog I have mentioned that the more I know about each species the better my chances are for creating wonderful images of the birds because I can anticipate what the birds might do next. I try to learn as much as I can about a subject I am interested in photographing through bird guides, reference books or on line at BNA (a subscription site) but my powers of observation, the ability to detect certain behaviors and knowledge about the habits of my target species are also very important skills that benefit my bird photography.

Black-billed Magpie in flightD200, f6.3, 1/1000, ISO 400, 200-400mm VR at 360mm, +0.3 EV, natural light, not a set up
These images of nesting Black-billed Magpies (Pica hudsonia) would not have been possible without my powers of observation. Black-billed Magpies are common in Utah, western Canada, the west and southwest US and can range as far north as Alaska. In some places, like Rocky Mountain National Park and Yellowstone magpies can be fairly easy to approach, I don't normally find that to be the case in my local parks, wildlife refuges and nature preserves. Magpies are very wary of people here in Utah but there are exceptions.

One day while out on Antelope Island State Park while looking for other birds to photograph from a distance I noticed a Black-billed Magpie in flight and it appeared to have something in its bill. Then I saw it land on a sagebrush and disappear inside the branches. I wondered about it for a few seconds then saw the bird leave the sage brush and it didn't look at all like it had anything in its bill. Then I saw another magpie fly into the sagebrush with a small twig in the bill. Also from that distance I saw what looked like a nest so I had to get closer.

Black-billed Magpie on top of the nestD200, f6.3, 1/800, ISO 320, 200-400mm VR at 390mm, +0.3 EV, natural light, not a set up
After slowly and carefully getting closer by using a vehicle as a mobile blind I was able to verify that my observations were correct, the magpies were constructing a nest in the sagebrush.  If I had not been paying attention to the first magpie's activity I would have missed the opportunity to photograph these birds over the next several weeks.

After spotting the nest magpies the first time I did some research and found out that Black-billed Magpies take approximately 40-50 days to construct their nests. The nest I spotted was nearing completion so I will know next spring to look for nesting magpies about 4 weeks sooner to take full advantage of photographing them and their nesting activity.

Black-billed Magpie landing on the nest
D200, f7.1, 1/1250, ISO 400, 200-400mm VR at 400mm, 0.0 EV, natural light, not a set up
 Black-billed Magpies are loud and in urban areas their calls can be an annoyance to some people. There are some photographer's who won't raise their lens to photograph common birds like Black-billed Magpies, exotic European Starlings or the much maligned Brown-headed Cowbird. Not me, if it has feathers I will photograph it and do the best job I possibly can with the image too.

This locally common, but striking black and white bird has a beauty all of its own with its long tail and lovely pied plumage. Because of the high contrast between the blacks and the whites of the magpie's feathers they are challenging to expose correctly, but in my opinion they are well worth the challenge and if I can capture the beautifully iridescent greens, blues, golds and purples of the tail and wings I am extremely satisfied.

Black-billed Magpies use twigs to create their domed shaped nests then line the bottom with grasses cemented to the nest by either mud or manure from bison and or  cows. I've wondered if the dome on the top of the nest is to protect the chicks from aerial attacks from predators, it would certainly hide the young birds from a hawk flying overhead.

Because of other photography trips I was not around when the chicks from this magpie nest fledged, I would have loved being there and seeing their first attempts at flight. Maybe next year.

Black-billed Magpie landing with nesting materialD200, f7.1, 1/1250, ISO 400, 200-400mm VR at 380mm, +0.3 EV, natural light, not a set up
These magpies gave me hours of enjoyment photographing them plus I learned more about the species by observing their behavior. I'll be even better prepared to take images next time I have them in my viewfinder.


Ethics on photographing nesting birds:

  • Do not approach too closely
  • If the birds show any sign of distress, back away
  • Don't trim leaves, twigs or branches to get a clearer shot, you may inadvertently attract predators or cause the eggs/chicks to over heat
  • Follow local, state and federal guidelines concerning nesting birds
  • Don't harrass the birds to get an action shot


  1. Nice action - love the flight shots!

  2. Wonderful post, with some awesome action shots, Mia ... lovely!

  3. Thank you Kevin and Jim. Magpies can be loads of fun to photograph!

  4. Super cool post. I enjoy magpies and really appreciate your insight into their nest building behavior. Wonderful photography!

  5. Great post Mia. The Black-billed Magpies we have in Alberta make their nests a little differently, with large sticks, and they make their nest more a dish than a dome.

  6. Excellent post Mia. Your photos are always amazing! I consider myself a birder first, beginning photographer second. You make me want to always do better with the photography part.

  7. Thanks for your comments Robert, PrairieBirder and Jeremy.

    Thanks for the info on Black-billed Magpie nests in your area of Canada PrairieBirder, I wasn't aware of that.

    Jeremy, your photos are lovely!

  8. Wonderful post, Mia. I love seeing birds we don't have around here, and the shots show off their environment and behavior beautifully.

  9. Beautiful photography of a striking bird!

  10. Wonderful post filled with intesting information and terrific images! It's always fun for me to learn about birds not seen in the area in which I reside. What a joy that must have been for you to observe the nest building magpies. Glorious action photographs!

  11. Lovely photo series and interesting post!

  12. Terrific post. Very interesting and your photos are excellent!

  13. Thanks for your comments on this post Kim, Chatterbirds, Julie, Linda and Scott.

  14. What a gorgeous bird, Mia...and your photos are (of course) spectacular! Glad you had your eyes open to see this...

  15. Stunning action shots of an often overlooked bird. Magpies are among the cleverest birds and have provided me with hours of amusement. So nice to see them featured!

  16. Thank you Kelly and Pat, I know a lot of people here in Utah consider Black-billed Magpies common, noisy and irritating but I think they are lovely, smart and very entertaining to observe and photograph.

  17. I personally love magpies. You have captured them well. I love it that your posted the birding ethics. Well done.

  18. Your bird photography is always phenomenal Mia and this post is no exception. I have found that learning species specific behavior is indeed a key to being able to get close to birds and being able to anticipate their moves. I find BNA (Birds of North America Online) invaluable in this regard.

    Your in-flight shots are simply amazing. I have been fortunate to see this bird a few times at the western edge of its range in northern California, not too many miles from the Yellow-billed Magpie's range.

    Being a Bluebird trail monitor, I am often able to observe other nesting birds I discover while monitoring my nest boxes. I appreciate the fact that bird photography ethics are at the forefront of your work and that you pass on your ethical practices to others.

    I am in awe of your work and strive to approach the results you achieve with your photography. Thank you for sharing your beautiful photographs and your ethics with us.

  19. Fantastic photos Mia and a wonderful post showing us how you found them.