Of Course They Fly Away... They Are BIRDS!
Nov 9, 2018 ~ Last Sunday was cloudy so Bill Maroldo and I packed up and headed south. It has been raining a lot; in fact I got almost 4 inches Halloween night! That is good.. and bad. We need the water table replenished and for all this to soak in BUT the marshes are still too flooded for most of the waders. At least the areas we can get to.
He was way out there and in the middle of preening. And the sun angle was not ideal but sometimes you just have to take a chance. The very top of his head looked a bit blown out (too bright) so I selectively darkened it a just a tad in post-processing. That is what editing is all about; making a nice image better.
Not much chance of him feeding for a while so we moved on. The day started out cloudy, but the sun would break through now and then. Some of you use Auto ISO but it can fool you, IMO. It is really good practice to re-evaluate the light conditions frequently and get to the point you can change your settings quickly on the fly. An intermittent cloudy/sunny day will give you loads of practice. And yes, it is hard to give recommendations without knowing the lighting conditions but generally I start with ISO 1000 and go from there. Take a few test shots and adjust as needed. And re-adjust during the day.
The Ospreys are definitely back around Surfside. We found one on the cross bar of a utility pole on Casko, and then another on the access road beside the bridge overpass. Both flew of course (make sure you have a high shutter speed when you start) AND flew away from us. When they take off, often the shots are blocked by the wires/poles. So I worked hard on keeping up with him in flight. The Nikon D850’s 3-D tracking works so well against a plain sky; try it, you will like it!
Sometimes Ospreys and hawks will circle around and land near the original perch. Don’t give up too quickly!
This Osprey flew from a wire perch but I kept up with him as he flew away. And I was rewarded with this shot where he is definitely looking back at us!
After some early success I decided to just keep using my NIKKOR 500 mm f/4 with the Nikon 1.4x TC and practice with the 3-D focus mode. Lately I have been concentrating on one feature during an outing; as much as possible given the opportunities. So this was a 500 f/4 with 1.4x TC hand-holding 3-D day.
The water was high on each side of Crab Rd in Surfside, and the only waders we found were back lit. A female Great-tailed Grackle posed for me on top of a bush. I have my D850 set up so I can select a multi-focus mode (9-spot or 3-D for instance), and then toggle back to Single Spot by holding in the Preview button. It will stay on Single Spot as long as you hold it down. If the bird flies, let go of the Preview button and it toggles to the the multi-focus mode to catch it in flight.
Except the Grackle flew down behind the bush. They do that a lot. Fly away and down.
Turning onto Thunder Rd we spied a nice Red-tailed Hawk sitting on the power pole. He was on the left, Bill’s side, so I slipped out and braced my big lens in the opening between the door and truck. The light was brighter than we like, but workable. Remember, you are exposing for the bird, not the background. Who cares if you blow out the sky? Another reason to learn manual exposure settings.
Right after this he turned around to show us his backside. And you know when they poop, they are going to fly.
And of course he flew. I kept up with him rather well. I am just determined to get better at hand-holding the 500 f/4. It is heavy (6.81 lb / 3.09 kg) but it is not impossible. Hand-holding and panning and following a bird in flight takes practice, practice and more practice. You will definitely get MOAR shots since you aren’t restricted by the tripod.
He flew to the next pole and we followed. I got a few more in-flight shots when he flew for the second time but then he turned out over the marsh. And this one did not look back at us…
Our other favorite places were disappointing. No Curlews in the yards. Bay Rd was unremarkable. High water, birds off in the distance. The sun was shining more than not. The road to Bryan Beach (does it have a name?) showed high water in all the ditches and ponds. There were a few Coots off in the distance, but nothing in the deep water next to the road. And a big puddle to cross just before the small bridge; I am not sure if cars would make it.
Just after we turned onto the beach we found a dead cow up by the dunes. After some discussion we think she must have drown somewhere else and was washed up on the shore. The tiny strip of beach was full of debris and we had to drive right next to the dunes. Brazoria County must spend a fortune keeping the beaches clean and open for all of us.
On the road to the Qunitana Jetty we found this beautiful Red-tailed Hawk starring down at us. I took this standing by the truck. And same story, he shortly flew and headed away from us. In fact, he dipped low and my view was blocked by the cab of the vehicle.
Just so you know… for every soaring bird image you see, wings spread just so… the photographer has deleted a bunch like the one above. More often than not they fly away from you. Away and down. Only once in a while do they fly toward you and those times you are so in awe you usually don’t get the shot.
After finding nothing much at the Quintana Jetty (except too many fishing guys and an idiot in the water casting for bait) we decided to go home via Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge. The sun was lower in the sky, we have found Merlins on the entry road this time of year, and who knows? Maybe there would be something interesting. And why do you see hawks on poles on Hoskins Mound Rd right near that curve where you cannot safely stop? Happens all the time!
What we did find was a couple of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers staking out the traffic signs close to the Nature Center. They let us get fairly close and often returned to the same sign after chasing down a bug.
They have beautiful coloring and are a huge challenge. Most of the time you see them on a post or wire and they fly off before you can even get the camera in position. It was surprising these guys let us walk around aiming the bazookas at them. Even at close distances, it is difficult to keep the long tail in focus and within the frame. They do flick the tail a lot. If you want to see some fantastic Scissor-tails in action, check out our friend Randall Patterson’s gallery. That guy must pay them to pose.
After 171 shots of Scissor-tails, we made a quick trip that confirmed the continuing shortage of birds around the auto tour. The water is so high it is covering the platform with the park bench at the last pond! The only birds we saw were two Caracaras on the T-pole that were hopelessly backlit. We tried anyway, but nothing good enough to show you.
So, we headed home.
And stopped in the middle of the exit road for this.
When have you seen a Belted Kingfisher perched on a fence post? These guys are usually on high wires and are notorious for flying off when you THINK about stopping. They are tuned to changes in the engine noise, I think. But this one just sat on the post and looked back at us. There might have been water in the ditch, but there was no pond or open water around. I opened the truck door and propped my lens on the window. Bill started slowly walking toward him. He wrote this about approaching Kingfishers in particular:
We have noticed that approaching kingfishers in a vehicle, so you can shoot out the window, is almost always unsuccessful. More successful is parking at least a hundred feet away, then slowly walking straight toward the bird. Every 20 feet of so, stop, take few pictures, then continue. Stop immediately at any point when the bird seems to be noticing you, then continue when he is not. At some point you will get noticed and the bird will fly off, I guarantee it, but you will have some images! Sometimes close enough for a decent image, sometimes not. Going straight toward the bird may help. From the birds perspective you may appear to be getting larger the closer you get, but there is no lateral movement for the bird to notice.
He walked closer and got some great images of her perched (the female has the bright colors) and I stayed where I was. When she did fly (and yes, keep the shutter speed up because they will fly) I got off a few shots.
Small in the frame and it is a YUGE crop, but my first time to get one in flight. We did find a very cooperative young Kingfisher two years ago in Belted Kingfisher Stays for Dinner, but none of those shots were in flight.
Are you happy with your bird-in-flight skills? Do you practice new techniques or focusing modes? Did you know photographers discard more images than they keep? Let me know what you think in the comments below!