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Morning Breath

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Every once in awhile, you see an image that sticks with you, one you'll never forget. The sailor/nurse smooch on Armistice Day thanks Magpie! comes to mind. There are many others I won't invoke, for not all of them are nice. There is an image that has stuck with me for years, and it's one of my favorite photographs of all time. I never knew who created it, though. Lazy, I guess. I could have Googled and found out. Duh. Imagine my surprise when, in browsing through the photos of a new Facebook friend, I saw That Image. Bryan Holliday had made it. I don't say "taken," and you'll understand why when you read his story.

Every once in a blue moon, when I make a nice photo, I'll hear, "Wow. You must have a really good camera." Every photographer hears this. And most photographers do have a really good camera. My iPhone is a really good camera. So is my old Canon 7D. But it's the brain, the eye, and the mind behind the lens that makes a photo. It's the thought that counts.

Sit back and be humbled, as I was, by the story of how this off-the charts fabulous image was made by a middle school science teacher, who is also blazing his unique way as a visual artist, doing what he was made to do. My humblest thanks to Bryan Holliday for answering the call when I asked him to write it up, that I might share it here. If the image of this man skipping all the way home, lugging a large telephoto, delights you as much as it does me, give him some love in the comments section!

One early spring morning in southwest Michigan, I was teaching a group of students about pond ecology down at the local wetland.  The red-winged blackbirds had just returned and the males were singing and displaying to establish their territories before the females arrived.  It was a calm, chilly morning and we were down there early, just after sunrise.  One male bird flew in fairly close, flared out those gorgeous red epaulets, and sang.  And I saw his breath!  It never crossed my mind that it would be possible to see a bird’s breath, but there it was.  So cool!  He sang again a few more times, each time with his breath puffing in the cold air.  I just stood there, enjoying this rare sight while it lasted.

I decided this needed to be photographed.  So the next day I went down with my camera.  The birds were there, but it wasn’t cold enough.  No breath.  A couple days later, when it was colder, I tried again.  It was windy.  No breath.  I tried again, but this time it was cloudy.  No breath.  Thinking back to the first time, I realized there must be a particular set of conditions that are necessary for this phenomenon to occur.  So I tried more mornings, hoping for a repeat of the conditions.  No luck.  Soon it became too warm, and my attempts would have to wait until the next spring.  I tried again the second spring, with marginal results.  I was able to photograph some breath, but I wasn’t satisfied.  I wanted an image with impact.  Something extraordinary.  Soon the females arrived, nests were built, and babies raised.  So I had to wait again.  

The third spring finally arrived and I could hardly wait for the blackbirds to return.  I carefully watched the weather forecasts to try to predict if there would be breath in the morning.  One night the forecast looked promising, so I set the alarm for early.  The night was short and I was up, ready to go before dawn.  I carried the camera gear out the front door, paused to let out my own breath.  Couldn’t see it.  It wasn’t quite cold enough.  The thoughts of climbing back into my warm bed were very tempting, but knowing that there is never any regret from trying, I went down to the wetland.  As I got close, the air felt colder and heavier, but still no breath of my own.  I kept going.  Once I reached the edge of the wetland, I set up my camera and went in.  The sky was brightening and the birds were singing and calling all around.  I moved ahead to where a male had been singing in the days before, in hopes he would return to his spot for his display.  Almost time for sunrise.  In the last few moments before the sun, the dead-calm air cooled another degree or two, and I could see my breath!  All the conditions were right, I just needed a bird.  I positioned myself right where I needed to be, and he flew in!  For a few glorious minutes, this male red-winged blackbird perched in front of me and sang his heart out.  He flared those patches of red, splayed his tail feathers, and belted out his song.  The sun cracked the horizon and backlit his breath, which hung out in front of him for a split second, allowing me to capture this unbelievable sight.  All 3 notes of his konk-a-reeeeeeeee were there in the pattern of his breath.  He flew off, so I peeked at the back of my camera, and found THE SHOT.  I pulled the memory card out of the camera, stuck it in my pocket, and skipped all the way home.  You couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.  

Though I tried for 3 years to photograph this moment, I never once imagined the song of the blackbird could be captured.  I was going for a stream of breath and knew I had a great shot in front of me that morning.  But realizing the whole song was visible in his breath put the image on a whole different level for me.  I titled this image “Morning Breath” and it has been used in various ornithology lectures in conjunction with sonograms and audio recordings to help students study birdsong.  To this day it is widely considered to be the only photograph in existence that shows the song of a bird.

Zick: !!!!!!!!! A VISUAL SONOGRAM IN THE SPRING AIR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

If you’re interested in purchasing this award-winning image, please contact Bryan Holliday for the details to make it happen.  He can be reached at bryanhollidayatgmaildotcom. 

Zick: Address deliberately scrambled to foil cruising spambots. Substitute @ for at and a . for dot and you're good to go.

You can see more of Bryan's work at


That is just purely fabulous. I applaud his persistence. And what a reward he got for it! Brilliant.

First Bryan's blue eyes drew me in then his fabulous photo took it over the top. Thanks for sharing Julie.


Favorite bird now favorite photo. Amazing!!
Read the story w/out peeking. Made it more exciting!! Thanks for sharing!

Tiny cloud song!

All the ladies in the house say YEAH

What an extraordinary capture! And I can appreciate the dedication and tenacity that went into getting THE shot! Love it and the story. Thanks so much for sharing it.

That is dedication! I struggle to remember inspiration hour to hour let alone over 3 years. Fabulous post!

"There is no regret in trying." A proven reminder of that in this delightful, singular capture. What a gift, this morning. Thanks for seeking out the story and passing it along. I look forward to seeing more of his work. Wunnerful.

Stunning and amazing! I'm so glad you were able to share his story with all of us!

My god, how thrilling! On so many levels. Like getting Myles Davis' notes on film.
IF I had had Bryan as a teacher my life would be different. Beautiful❤️

Great story of perseverance! Thanks for sharing, Julie. I don't recall ever seeing this image attributed either, glad to know who made it and love his story. So much of birding is in the seeking. Life, too.

Posted by Gail Spratley April 7, 2016 at 8:27 AM

Amazing result from a determined person.

The photo is just "WOW". The story is inspirational.

As a photographer, I get the same comments about my camera. The truth: I have won prizes with photos taken by tiny cameras as well as expensive big ones. He is correct in that you have to be there. Cartier-Bresson would wait all day for the perfect "moment". Some of my most successful (financially) photos were taken on a day I had to get up way too early to help my husband drop his car off at the mechanic's. As I was driving home, the light was perfect, there was fresh snow on gas-lit, Main St., and I groaned, I get it. I went home and got my camera and tripod. It was just me and the truckers out there and the three best photos made were gorgeous. Then again, one of my best emotionally evocative photos was snapped quickly using a tiny camera at a christening of my half-Ethiopean great niece. Go figure. To paraphrase Lance Armstrong, it's not about the camera.

Posted by Tina Tolins April 7, 2016 at 9:12 AM

WOW! Awesome shot!

What a find, JZ: the photo, the story, and the persistent photographer. Wow.

I love this so much. Thanks to him for taking all that trouble to get it and share it with us. And to you for putting it on your blog.

Thank you!

Is he married??? Ha; just kidding, since I AM married. And I love the description of "making" a photo; so true. A professional photographer nearby calls her business "Eye of the Lady;" I've always loved that because it describes it exactly.

Wow! I am blown away.

Persistence pays off! Love the photo.

I love this so much. Three years in the making and worth every second of it. A stunning and mind-blowing photograph. Thank you for posting this.

hard to believe, but I've never seen this photo before! I love his perseverance...his recognition that it would be a really good photo...and the amazing results. Wow!

OMgoodness!!!!!!!!!! I had not seen this post before. This image is impossibly magical. Just wow.

Posted by Elise (aka Fangirl) September 12, 2016 at 8:19 AM
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