Red-shouldered Hawks with a SNAKE and More at Brazos Bend

Red-shouldered Hawks with a SNAKE and More at Brazos Bend

Feb 15, 2019 ~ We have made a couple of trips with the new lens to Brazos Bend State Park. We took the two 500s, two 1.4x teles, a 300 f/4 PF (which was not even used) and one tripod. The cart was so easy to pull! Bill Maroldo used my Nikkor 500 f/4 (Heavy 500) for a while, and then we swapped, and swapped back again. I wanted to evaluate the image quality for the two 500s, using the same camera models, subject and conditions.

On our first trip, the skies were cloudy and threatening to rain when we got there. In fact, I think we had sprinkles driving out. Just as we were unloading our gear we heard the screaming call of a hawk. Close and loud. We found one perched at the top of a dead tree just at the edge of the parking lot at 40-acre lake.

Red-shouldered Hawk calling for his mate?
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR with Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1600 sec f/8.0 ISO 1600; hand-held

Pretty danged exciting to get that close to a hawk, although I have heard the Red-shouldered Hawks are not as skittish as the Red-tailed. This one called and called but no one showed up. I was really pleased with the image even with the teleconverter. I am not used to shooting at f/8 unless the subject is close and I need the depth of field. This shot looked a bit dark in on my LCD monitor, but when I was checking the shot in ACR I only had to open the shadows a bit.

The background is totally blown but … who cares? it is just sky. This is where your meter can mislead you; a big expanse of light sky on any auto setting will probably underexpose the bird. I know, you Aperture priority people use Auto ISO and do all that fancy Exposure Compensation math calculations - which seems more complicated than just picking the correct ISO for the subject in the first place. But, hey… that is just me.

Hmmm. Maybe I should collaborate with Bill and write a blog on Exposure… with lots of examples.

So, on our next trip last Sunday we couldn’t wait to check the parking lot area for hawks. And sure enough, there was one perched a bit lower in the same dead tree.

Calling Red-shouldered Hawk. Note the fluffed up chest feather…
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/5.6 ISO 1250; hand-held

This one started calling as we walked up. We were trying to get closer but feared it would spook and fly off I had the new 500 f/5.6 PF but no teleconverter. Bill had the Heavy 500 and I think he did have the 1.4x TC. We were clicking and creeping…. AND….if you look really closely, you can see the hawk has a snake in its talons. Go ahead. Click and embiggen and take a look.

We kept moving closer.

Oh, you have a surprise for ME!
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/5.6 ISO 1250; hand-held

And out of nowhere another hawk showed up! The one in the back with the snake’s head in his beak is the newcomer; original bird (check the fluff of feather on its chest) is almost knocked over by the arrival of the new bird.

We were standing below in awe. Click click… walk closer … click click

Well, thank you my dear…
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/5.6 ISO 1250; hand-held

Original bird moves his foot to allow newcomer to take the snake. You notice I did not change my settings. With this kind of unpredictable situation, you just don’t have time to dither. Walking up I checked I had high shutter speed (1/2000 sec, they were not all that close so f/5.6 would work and ISO 1250 seemed reasonable. I think I took one shot, glanced at the LCD for the tones (not too dark or bright) and soldiered on.

Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/5.6 ISO 1250; hand-held

Obviously this is a pair since the original bird willingly turned over the snake to the newcomer. The literature says the female is larger than the male, but even side by side it is hard to tell. Do you think the newcomer is slightly larger than the first bird?

Could be just the angle, you know.

Snake bringer leaves …
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/5.6 ISO 1250

In fact, the original bird LEFT the prize with the newcomer. You can see the misplaced chest feather on the bird in flight which shows rather well in the first image. It all happened so fast, Bill and I had to look at each image in the sequence to figure it out. In fact, I was positive the newcomer brought the snake when it flew up.

Until I looked again and again.

Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/5.6 ISO 1250; hand-held

The hawk held the snake, which must have been dead by now for a few seconds and then flew off. I have no idea what kind of snake it is, do you? I joined the Texas Snake ID FB group, so maybe they have an idea.

And of course it took about 5 minutes to get an answer: Broadbanded Water Snake Interesting factoid: non-venomous and they bear their young alive!

Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/5.6 ISO 1250; hand-held

Documentary shot of hawk leaving with its lunch. But who was who? If I had to guess, I think the male caught the snake and called for the female. When she arrived he left her with the prey.

From Texas Parks and Wildlife: Nesting and hunting territories are usually 0.25 to 1 mile (0.4 to 1.61 km) in size. The birds aggressively defend these areas during the spring when eggs are in the nest. The females incubate the eggs while the males hunt for them. Once the eggs have hatched, both parents hunt. The females are larger and hunt slower prey. The males are smaller and more agile, hunting smaller and faster prey. Because of their wing structures, red-shouldered hawks can soar for extended periods without tiring.

Well, it was hard to top that encounter.

Glamour shot..
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/5.6 ISO 1250; hand-held

After the hawks left we met up with Greg Lavaty and spent some time getting head shots of a cooperative Anhinga. As I have said before Brazos Bend is famous for messy backgrounds, but this guy was on the shore of the lake just next to the trail. Bill sat in the grass and I had my crate, and Greg was lying on the ground to get low enough so there was only water in the background.

Which I did smooth out a little bit using the techniques from a recent tutorial Layers and Masks. But you wouldn’t have known if I didn’t tell you… right?

Showing off my long neck and bill…
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/4E VR with Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1250 sec f/6.3 ISO 1250; hand-held

And we found a tiny young Tricolored Heron hunting among the dead reeds. After 50-some odd shots of him darting in and out of the foliage, I settled on this close crop instead of trying to show the whole bird. Close crops are sometimes better than seeing all the obstructions and and blurred foliage.

Vulture close up
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR with Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1600 sec f/8 ISO 1600; hand-held

We got down to the spillway without stepping on any alligators. They were sprawled out in the grass alongside the muddy trail and I did get closer to one than I intended. Bill walked out on the bridge and I worked on a perched Black Vulture. I confess, I cleaned up some spots on his back feathers (they are so messy) but I was really pleased with the clarity of this.

Remember the fleshy skin on the Muscovy Duck’s heads from Ordinary Birds at the Park? This is the same structure caruncles on the Black Vulture’s head and neck.

The background is softly blurred from the foliage across the canal (no, I did not change it). The light was pleasantly overcast all that day, but I upped the ISO because this is a dark bird. He didn’t move much, but I was afraid he would get spooked and fly away so I kept the shutter speed up just in case.

Plus, this Nikon D850 has such a huge sensor it magnifies any mistakes in your technique. Like breathing. So, a higher shutter speed when hand-holding is often required for tack sharp images.

Tricolored Heron fly by
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/4E VR with Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 1600

The first trip out was definitely better for in flight shots. This Tricolored Heron is fully an adult with fantastic feathers. He was flying just at the top of the dead reeds. I love the golden background on this one. I did manage to get the Heavy 500 up and track his almost eye-level path. But the ones before and after this one have clipped wings; it is hard y’all to hold that big lens up.

Bill, standing next to me with the new 500 f/5.6, was easily getting the entire sequence. Including when he soared around and landed on the railing.

Bird in flight…
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2500 sec f/6.3 ISO 800

Go ahead, click to embiggen and pixel peep. These are not taken under identical conditions, but pretty danged close for field work. Old Heavy 500 takes sharp, detailed images and you can’t beat it for tripod work. But this new lightweight guy… for speed and maneuverability it can really hold its own and is perfect for birds in flight.

Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/1000 sec f/6.3 ISO 1250; hand-held

And to finish off the second trip, we found this Red-shouldered Hawk chillin’ out next to the 40-acre trail just before the hill. It COULD be one of the ones we saw up front earlier as the distance is very short. We wondered where their nest is located; we did see two Red-shouldered Hawks perching and then flying together way across Pliant Lake.

So that is the story so far. With or without the teleconverter the image quality is excellent and I think on par with the Heavy 500. I am loving the new lens when I can wrestle it away from HIM. Maybe his will be in the next batch that Houston Camera Exchange gets or B&H will finally come through. I would hate to have to fight him for it at High Island this Spring!

What do you think? New equipment in your future? Spring Migration is coming up soon. We are seeing more birds with hints of breeding colors and we saw a Great Blue Heron nest way across Pliant Lake just today. Are you ready? And should I write something up on Exposure? Let me know in the comments below.

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OMG... The Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR lens is AWESOME

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