A Black-necked Stilt And The Quirkiness Of Reflections

We often think of reflections of birds in water as being exact upside down copies of the birds themselves but that’s just not the case, even when the water is as smooth as glass. “Mirror images” aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.


black-necked-stilt-9535-ron-dudley1/3200, f/7.1, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

This image of a Black-necked Stilt taken at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge two months ago is a case in point. There are many differences between the bird and its reflection (that are not caused by tiny disturbances in the water).

Notice for example the blue space between the birds bill and its neck that doesn’t exist in the reflection. The same is true of the blue space between the wingtips of the stilt. There are other differences too but let’s focus on the eye.

The eye of the actual bird has absolutely no catch light but there’s a distinct one in the reflection. The eye is partially closed and that part of the eye that could reflect light directly to our own eyes is hidden from view by the eyelid. But the reflection doesn’t come to us directly from the bird – instead it comes from a particular spot on the surface of the water. If we were viewing the bird from that spot on the water we would see a catch light in the eye of the bird. In effect that’s what reflections allow us to do – see the bird from a different angle and contrary to common belief that angle gives us a different and distorted view of the bird.

It’s as if we’re viewing the bird from the water’s surface rather than the actual position of our own eyes (or in this case, my lens).

I know, I know… I pay too much attention to minutia. I think it’s in my genes.


PS – I’ve covered reflections in a previous post but I thought this stilt was another good example. Besides, repetition is a good way to learn…


34 comments to A Black-necked Stilt And The Quirkiness Of Reflections

  • Its as if you were viewing the bird from under the water’s surface.

  • Jean

    Great shot, and interesting details!

  • Patty Chadwick

    This drives me nuts!!! This posting and astute comments, plus those of previous postings about reflections, remind me that I have painted reflections WRONG, WRONG, WRONG for YEARS!!!!!!! Until you pointed out that the water acts as a mirror, reflecting more of the underparts of a bird than it is just an exact upside downimage, I had been making that exact mistake–totally oblivious of what I was doing…NUTS ! DOUBLE NUTS!!!!!

    • Patty Chadwick

      This is a beautiful image, anyway….

    • Don’t tell anyone, Patty, and no one will ever know. We’ll all keep your secret!

      Some birders have learned that if they pay as much attention to the reflection as they do to the bird itself they can learn more about the ventral plumage, especially if it’s a long-legged wader.

  • Ron: Beautiful image, thank you for sharing. I believe the eye we see in the top of the photo is the stilt’s right eye, while the eye we see in the reflection is it’s left eye. What do you think?

  • I remember your earlier post on reflections, and have been looking at them more carefully since. And loved this reminder. Mind you, I often think of the Calvin and Hobbes (how I loved that series) take on them. Calvin is standing before a puddle wondering whether the reflection disappears when he moves away – or he does….

  • Thanks Ron for an interesting article (again). We are in sync lately, just yesterday I was back photographing the pied-bill grebes on a reflecting pond and thinking how cool it was to see the catch light also in the reflection from the pond, and thinking back to your article on catch light in the eyes of birds. I will try to pay more attention the next time I am photographing on reflective water. The angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection (angles measured relative to the normal to the surface, in this case an imaginary axis perpendicular to the surface of the pond).

  • Fascinating! So the reflection is going to change and show different things when the photographer changes her vertical orientation (ie whether looking down onto the bird vs being at its eye level). I notice the tip of the bill, which is actually more hidden in the “real” bird than it is in the reflection in which you can see it parting the feathers. If you were at the bird’s level, the reflection would almost disappear or be very flattened/foreshortened.

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  • Susan Stone

    I immediately started looking for differences between the bird and the reflection, before reading what you had to say about them. It’s like the kids’ game where you have to find all the differences between two pictures. It’s definitely a fun challenge. The point in this photo that really helps me to understand that the reflection is coming from a different angle is looking at what is visible of the bird’s beak on the bird and then in the reflection. Fascinating stuff.

  • A panorama photo of reflections hangs above my fake fireplace here in Boise; I mention it because it was taken on a bird photography trip with you and Mia. Reflections add visual interest to a photo, especially either perfect or interestingly imperfect reflections.

  • Judy Gusick

    Beautiful! I love reflections! What we are seeing in the bird and what’s actually being reflected can be different – something not always apparent unless one looks closely. 🙂

  • Laura Culley

    Water reflections have always fascinated me, but I haven’t had a lot of time to study them. I’ve just enjoyed them as I encounter them. They’re just a magical part of life on this planet.
    Thank you so much for the opportunity to study them up close and personal. AND, I’ve never seen a black-necked stilt before–at least not that I know of. 🙂

  • Charlotte Norton


  • Dick Harlow

    Nice shot, but great reflection almost like looking in a mirror!
    Thanks for sharing.

  • This one is fascinating, Ron, thanks for posting. I’d not looked that closely at the differences before, but they really are evident when you spend a little time looking. I love the catch light in the reflection. It’s as if we have twin birds here, with one ignoring you knowing the other is keeping close watch. 🙂

    • Todd, I think many of us love reflections but we just don’t look very closely at them and we make assumptions about them that just aren’t true. Those with art training (which doesn’t include me) pay much more attention to reflections than most.

      Your point in your last sentence is well-taken and emphasizes the importance of light in the eye.