Beyond the Bird on a Stick

Beyond the Bird on a Stick

March 17, 2017 ~ Once you start bird photography, there comes a natural evolution in your goals. While you were once satisfied with a documentary photo of a new or favorite bird, now you want a really sharp and clear image. And then you want more than just a bird on a stick or one standing still; the bird needs to be doing something! You want a dynamic image of the bird spreading his wings, preening, lifting a foot, scratching, fluffing, or ....

Eating something! So how can you get images of birds and their prey?

Grackle dining on frog legs
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1000 sec f/7.1 ISO 1250; braced on truck window with bean bag

Take advantage of surprise opportunities even with common birds

We were driving along the road from the locks/boat ramp at Anahuac and noticed a group of blackbirds. This time of year it is common to see mixed flocks of Grackles, Red-winged Blackbirds and occasionally even Brownheaded Cowbirds. The birds were on MY side of the vehicle for once, so Bill Maroldo slowed down and stopped just behind them. We saw the Common Grackle on the fence post had something. I thought it might be some long grass, but it is a bit early for them to be nesting. Once I got him in focus I could see the Grackle had caught a hapless frog and still had the legs yet to eat.

Birds are opportunistic creatures. You know Grackles will eat anything; you see that in the Wal Mart parking lot every time you go. But I never thought one would hunt down and kill a frog! And I would have missed the whole thing if I had dismissed the blackbirds as too common for my attention.

Osprey overhead with fish Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/8.0 ISO 400; tripod

Osprey overhead with fish
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/8.0 ISO 400; tripod

Make sure you have enough shutter speed when he flies

We surprised this Osprey as well; he was perched on the top of a tall utility pole until we interrupted his lunch. It didn't take long for him to notice us and bolt. And you know they are going to fly sooner or later. Generally, they will fly AWAY from you and you get the back side, but this one was more obliging and made a few lazy circles overhead. Perhaps he couldn't decide where he wanted to land.

In this case, it was bright light, I knew 1/2000 sec was fast enough for flight so I just stopped it down some (f/8) since ISO 400 was enough. You can get by with a higher f/stop (smaller aperture) than necessary in this case since there is nothing behind him but sky. If there is a close background (foliage, branches) then the smaller aperture might put that in focus as well as the bird. Just a thought.

Ospreys are so strong. Not only did he plunge in the water to grab this fish, and propel himself out of the drink, he can easily carry his catch with just one foot.

Tricolored Heron fishing and missing and ready to go again Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/7.1 ISO 2000; braced on truck window and bean bag

Tricolored Heron fishing and missing and ready to go again
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/7.1 ISO 2000; braced on truck window and bean bag

Don't take single shots; shoot in bursts!

Here is a little experiment. I posted the 3-photo uncropped sequence of a Tricolored Heron to show you how fast the birds are and how fast you have to be to catch the action. All three images were taken at 12:42:21 pm according to my camera EXIF data which means I shot them in a burst. My Nikon D810 will shoot 5 fps (frames per second), and that is considered rather slow by today's standards. For example, the new Nikon D500 will shoot 10fps. You can rarely catch interesting action in just one shot as you aren't fast enough to time the click that accurately. So, you resort to quick burst shots as you see the bird start to do something. Set your camera to Continuous Shots and hold down the shutter as the action starts.

This is where knowledge of bird behavior pays off; seeing the bird tense and make a slight movement can be a precursor to a lightening fast stab at the prey. You have to be ready and focused. It is easier if the bird is in the same horizontal plane of your view and your settings provide an adequate depth of field. Then the whole bird will be in focus when he moves. Alas, they often don't cooperate and do lunge slightly toward you and then the body is in focus, but the head is not. You can try focusing on the water where you think he will lunge. Try it both ways.

Just one more thought about cameras and burst shots. The internal processing capabilities of your camera matter, too. When you take a photo, it has to write that data to the flash card. A camera with a small storage buffer (to temporarily hold the data as you are shooting) can not write fast enough for quick, successive shots. And you have to have a fast card. Additionally, RAW files are much larger than JPGs, so you are asking a lot of a camera to capture action that happens in split seconds.

Great Blue Heron that hangs out near the red building and the Surfside bridge Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/7.1 ISO 400; tripod

Great Blue Heron that hangs out near the red building and the Surfside bridge
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/7.1 ISO 400; tripod

Practice patience

Great Blue Herons also stalks his prey and then stabs it, usually when you have looked away for a second. We have sat on crates and watched herons stand motionless, staring intensely at the water for a half hour. Or longer. We talk quietly to them. "Come on guy, don't you want to be an internet star? Have your photo on FB?". This one got his fish when I wasn't looking and then turned his back to me. He finally walked a bit and turned so I could see his eye as he swallowed the fish.

It is frustrating when the action is blocked or missed but an image of the back of his head without the bird's eye clearly in focus is not going to be as successful. Catching or holding the fish is good; flipping the fish in the air to swallow is better.

And the Green Heron shown at the top of this post was taken at Leonabelle Turnbull Nature Center on our recent trip south. I was kneeling on the boardwalk with the camera lens braced on the bottom rung of the railing. One of the most uncomfortable positions I have been in lately and I was trying not to block the walkway from all the people that wanted to tell me about the alligator eating a turtle just down the way. He was almost directly below me barely in minimum focus range. There were a lot of limbs and sticks in the way, and it was dark and shady. And I waited and waited some more. Finally he lunged forward; I got a shot of the back of his neck and the pull-back with the fish in the burst shot. Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/640 sec f/8.0 ISO 1600

Reddish Egret shadow fishing Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 1250; braced on back of truck bed and bean bag

Reddish Egret shadow fishing
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/6.3 ISO 1250; braced on back of truck bed and bean bag

Practice more and more and more

A really challenging bird is the Reddish Egret. First, you have a darkish bird usually against shallow water that can be quite reflective. Your light meter might average all that lightness and cause you to underexpose the images. Next, he is going to move quickly, often and erratically. That is just the way he hunts (like a drunken sailor). If you do underexpose, you will lose feather details when he spreads his wings. A fast shutter speed is really necessary here.

We found this guy off Rockport Beach. Bill was shooting from a tripod/crate set up and I was using the corner of the truck bed as a support. The bird worked his way down the shallows and then turned and worked his way back. Don't give up when they get out of range; often they will return if you remain still. Be patient.

He missed in the shot above but found the tiny fish again in a few seconds. And that is the additional challenge; he seems to prefer really small fish. One advantage is that he will be hunting in shallow water close to shore (because that is where tiny fish are!), but when he does catch a one, it is hard to see. And he swallows it quickly. That is how fast they are. Remember, they have more practice at catching prey than you have taking photos.

Pied-billed Grebe with sunfish in the waters at Smith Oaks Rookery Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1600 sec f/6.3 ISO 2000; tripod

Pied-billed Grebe with sunfish in the waters at Smith Oaks Rookery
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1600 sec f/6.3 ISO 2000; tripod

Watch diving birds when they come to the surface

This Pied-billed Grebe got my attention by running across the surface of the water. He was being chased by another grebe hell bent on stealing his fish! You know that is how they take off to fly, being dense little creatures with strong legs set too far back on their bodies to walk much on land. Anyway, he made a lot of racket but settled down, so I quickly focused on him and saw he had a rather large sunfish. I had watched one last summer dive and come up with pipefish, and seen photos on FB of grebes with crawfish but this was pretty exciting. And I am still upset I wasn't fast enough to getting him running across the water!

Diving birds are not just diving for fun to swim around underwater; each time they dive, they are looking for food.  And you need to be ready when they break the surface.

Study and learn bird behavior

Technique and gear can get you a long way, but learn where the birds are and what they might be doing. Read up on their habitats and habits. Learn their calls and sounds; for example, if you hear a Belted Kingfisher, then start looking for likely perches. If the tide is in or the water is high in the marsh, look for large waders, as the smaller waders will be somewhere else. Know what birds are in your area depending on the seasons. Learn what they prefer to eat and how they find it. Watch birds (with binoculars or through your lens) for subtle cues they are going to fly, dive or strike. You know when a perched bird poops, sure enough he is getting ready to fly! Learn to anticipate.

Are you ready to take your photography to the next level? If you want birds with prey, then some of these hints and tips might give you ideas. If you want to get better at birds in flight, then go to Texas City Dike and take photos of soaring pelicans and gulls all day long. If brightly colored songbirds are your goal, practice on backyard birds while you save your money for a quality telephoto lens. Whatever your passion, you have to invest time and money and effort to improve.

And work at it. Let me know what your are working on now in the comments below:

The Mysterious Truck of Bay Avenue

The Mysterious Truck of Bay Avenue

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Courtship Roseate Spoonbill Style