Why Caracaras Cost Me Money

Why Caracaras Cost Me Money

March 23, 2018 ~ It is hard for a photographer to chose their favorite bird, but Crested Caracaras are special to me. They are not all that common so you get excited when you see one. The high-contrast dark and light plumage is a challenge and since they are scavengers as well as hunters, their behavior is unpredictable. When I first started taking photos and writing a blog I shared this photo:

Young Caracara in the early dawn
Panasonic FZ200 1/40 sec f/2.8 ISO 800 focal length 105mm

I was meeting a group of birders at the Attwater Prairie Chicken Reserve early one winter morning in 2012. Heading down the long approach to the Nature Center I saw this guy perched near a gate. I don't think I even knew what it was except it was a big bird and it didn't fly away when I got out of my car. I was shooting a bridge camera, the Panasonic FZ200 on Automagic back then and just hoping for the best. You can read about my early efforts here: Tastes Like Chicken?

Young guy on a fence post
Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 1/1600 sec f/6.3 ISO 400

Then on one trip to Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge in the fall of 2014 Bill Maroldo and I found this youngster. The long road into the park has few tall trees, and Caracaras often perch on a fence posts. Juveniles are more brown than black and have buff-colored throats. I was shooting the Sony A77II by then with the Sony 70-400 G2. On a crop camera like the A77II the lens yields a focal length of 640mm, so I could get something crop-worthy with good detail. And I could shoot over Bill's shoulder in the truck. I remember being so happy with this because his wings were up and he had lifted his foot!

Adult Caracara after the rain
Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G f/6.3 1/1000 sec ISO 1000; braced against truck window

By February of 2016 I was still using my Sony A77II but Bill let me use his Sony 500 f/4 after he bought his Nikon gear. I was thrilled at the extra reach and detail. That monster lens was almost impossible for me to hand-hold but I learned to prop it on anything handy if the tripod wasn't feasible. This Caracara was on my side of the road and I could shoot out the window. We had just had a big shower and the bird was still wet. I remember Bill pulled off on the shoulder and when he got out ... the bird flew away. 

Very expensive image of Caracara with nesting material
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 600mm f/4 FL ED+ Nikon 1.4x TC ~  1/2000 sec
f/7.1 ISO 640

But eventually Bill took back his Sony 500 f/4 when he got the Sony A99II and was using it pretty often for birds. I was back with my 70-400 and really felt the loss. One afternoon he suggested I use (or did I ask?) his Nikon rig since he wasn't using it ...and that is all it took. The Nikon 600 f/4 was balanced so much better than the Sony 500 f/4 I was surprised how easily I could hand-hold it. Plus the optical viewfinder on the D810 was huge and clear and bright. And it tracked moving birds and kept the focus much much better than the Sony equipment I had been using. And this is the Caracara sighting that started my biggest adventure in Going to the Dark Side where I switched over to Nikon.

We laugh about how expensive that shot above is as I ordered my own Nikon D810 and 500 mm f/4 the next day. 

Caracara with PLC
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
 sec f/6.3 ISO 2000

But hands-down the best experience with Caracaras was that late afternoon I shared with you in A Chance Encounter with CaracarasWe turned the corner, again at Brazoria and found two adult Caracaras having a Coot for dinner. And they stayed on the road long enough for us to get hundreds of shots. I knew I had made the right decision with the Nikon gear. 

Wary Crested Caracara in the tree tops
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1600
 sec f/6.3 ISO 1600

So last week we had been to Brazos Bend for the Earthquest Raptor Show and then on to Ft. Bend Regional Landfill (The Dump). Later we were just driving around on the back roads trying to find hawks. We pulled off and stopped to get a few shots of this guy, and he flew a short distance down the road. 

And I won't stay here, either!
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1600
 sec f/6.3 ISO 1250

And landed on an even BETTER perch. We moved forward and barely got out of the truck before he decided to fly. 

Airborne!
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1600
 sec f/6.3 ISO 1250

I was pretty excited to keep up with him and got four excellent keepers before he flew behind the trees alongside the road. He flew toward us, which is always better but doesn't happen that often. We were so stoked we kept driving and looking and ended up back at the dump. 

Caracara in another tree
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2500
 sec f/7.1 ISO 800

We found another adult in the top of a Chinese Tallow looking out at the lake. You know they are going to fly, so you just get ready. Get that shutter speed UP!

Caracara flying in front of the trees
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2500
 sec f/7.1 ISO 800

And he did fly. But notice, he is flying toward us in front of the trees and the Nikon 9-spot focus mode did not get distracted by the busy background. I was again reminded how much better the Nikon tracks birds-in-flight and performs in low-light situations than my Sony equipment.

I told you we had been to the raptor event at Brazos Bend and they did the show near the big trees at the nature center. It was overcast and dark under the trees. I had taken my old Sony A77II and the trusty 70-400 G2 because the birds would be too close for the big 500 f/4. That was one of the reasons I had kept it; to have a set up for close in birds. 

But the situation was just too much for the Sony rig. The camera tops out at ISO 1600 (noise) and is not fast enough in low contrast situations. I got a few shots of the birds, but nothing worth keeping. Finding and shooting the Caracaras afterwards with the Nikon gear just underscored how much I like being on the dark side. But I still need a lens for birds closer than 500mm (or 700mm with the teleconverter). 

So, I sent off my Sony gear to the B&H Used Dept and will be using the proceeds to get a Nikon 300 mm f/4E PF. It is super light-weight (1.66 lbs!), sharp and maneuverable, and with the 1.4x teleconverter (focal length of 420mm) it will be great for close subjects and the lighter weight will be nice for BIFs.  And... it is easier to have just one one system. So again, the Crested Caracaras have been a catalyst; a deciding factor in my photographic adventure. And as you know, hobbies are not cheap!

Have you ever changed systems? Did you sell your equipment to B&H or on Ebay? Or do you have unused equipment gathering dust in a closet? Let me know in the comments below. 

Traveling East

Traveling East

Short Stories - March 2018

Short Stories - March 2018