To Flash or Not to Flash, That is the Question

American Goldfinch at the Edith L. Moore Sanctuary, Houston.
American Goldfinch at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston. American Goldfinches seem to largely ignore flashes–especially if there is significant ambient light. Photo taken with high-speed synchronized flash: Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4 TC)/600EX RT flash.

It took me quite a while to try flash nature photography, and I am still a bit uneasy about my decision to do so. The decision: to use flash on a very limited basis, only when no other technical solution is possible, and when I am sure that the animals are not too upset by it. Some bird photographers consider flash absolutely necessary, and others vehemently reject it. I come down somewhere in the middle, but tending toward rejection in many cases.

To be clear, I know of no evidence that flash photography harms birds–if I did, I wouldn’t use flash. Period. We have all had our pictures taken with flash, and I know that I have not been injured by it. The question of whether or not birds (and other wildlife) are upset (i.e., stressed) by flash is a different matter, and I know that some species are clearly annoyed by it. Of course, many species of animals are stressed simply by humans being in the wild. In many cases, birds react no more strongly to the flash than they do when I move an arm or click the shutter. This is probably because I use the high-speed synchronized flash setting with a fast shutter speed (1/800-1/1250). This “fill flash” approach means that the flash output is much lower than it would be if the flash were used as the primary light source. In general, it seems that birds notice the flash less when there is a significant amount of ambient light–which makes sense.

Pine Warbler at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary
Pine Warbler at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston. This beautiful little bird found the flash interesting and actually came closer to investigate.

I began using a ring flash for botanicals and macro. I shot a variety of herps with the flash on the high-speed synchronized setting and saw no reaction whatsoever . . . until I tried shooting an Ornate Box Turtle (Terrepene ornata). This fellow startled every time the flash went off: no more flash photos of ornate box turtles. Indeed, no more flash photography of any terrestrial chelonians (turtles and tortoises). Aquatic turtles apparently ignore flash.

When flash can be used ethically, it provides an incredible expansion of possibilities for bird photography. For example, It allows photography throughout the day, especially in dark or contrasty heavily-wooded areas–where many of the most exciting and challenging species are to be found. I no longer feel confined to the optimal shooting times in the early morning and late afternoon (the “golden hours”). On the down side, it is very easy to blow out whites or to make the bird appear as though it was suspended in a cave, surrounded by a severely underexposed background. Despite numerous technical challenges, I look forward to exploring the possibilities in the world of avian flash photography.

Red-bellied Woodpecker at Edith L. Moore Sanctuary, Houston, Texas
Red-bellied Woodpecker at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston, Texas. Image taken with high-speed synchronized flash. This bird reacted negatively (startled/flinched) to the flash, although not as strongly as Red-headed Woodpeckers. I don’t plan on using flash with these two species again.

 © 2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Looking for Loons in All the Right Places

Common Loons are reported to be common along the Texas Gulf Coast during winter and spring, and we do see them from time to time. Often, however, they keep their distance from humans. At a few spots in the Galveston Bay area, loons are reported to come in fairly close to shore. We plan on visiting a few of these places before spring ends and the birds return north. This morning we went looking for loons along the Texas City Dike. From a photographic perspective, this is a location that is going to require some further study, as is usually the case when one first tries to shoot somewhere new.

We were thrilled to see about two dozen Common Loons, mostly along the South side of the dike–as one would expect after reading the literature. The problem is that the sun is in the southern sky at this time of year, and so most of the time the birds are back-lit. A few birds were present on the north side of the dike, but they stayed much further off shore. The reason is possibly that the water is too shallow for them close to the dike on the north side. Loons prefer clear deep water for fishing, and we observed numerous fish being taken by these submarine hunters.

On this trip, we tried our usual tripod techniques as well as using our car as a blind while driving down the dike (a method often recommended for this site), trying to anticipate where the birds would surface next. I did notice distinct patterns of loon behavior relative to differences in water surface texture, no doubt reflecting water depth and currents. The loons were also fairly consistent in the amount of time submerged/distance travelled underwater. In the future, I hope I can become better at connecting water texture and loon behavior so as to predict more precisely where these fascinating creatures will next surface after diving. Can’t wait to get out there looking for loons again: Offatts Bayou is next on the itinerary!

Common Loon at Texas City Dike
Living in the Wake of a Loon: Common Loon along the south side of the Texas City Dike. This beauty allowed me to practice my swimming bird tracking technique. Common Loons are common, but they often won’t let you get anywhere near them.

© 2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Appreciating Galveston

Eastern Meadowlark at Galveston Island State Park, Texas
Eastern(?) Meadowlark at the Prairie Trail, Galveston Island State Park, Texas.

In keeping with new year’s resolutions, we struck out this three-day weekend for Galveston in search of new areas to explore for birds. We scouted the northern edge of San Luis Pass, Lafitte’s Cove, and several trails we had not visited before at Galveston Island State Park, especially the Prairie and Freshwater Ponds Trails. We were lucky to see a group of about twelve Red-breasted Mergansers in a tidal channel at San Luis Pass. The Freshwater Ponds and Prairie Trails produced White-tailed Kites, Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, a Barn Owl, Eastern(?) Meadowlarks, Savannah Sparrows, a Palm Warbler, Marsh and Sedge Wrens, Orange-Crowned Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, American White Pelicans, and Buffleheads, among others.

On this trip the conditions were just what the doctor ordered: clear and dry, upper thirties in the early mornings and warming into the low sixties by afternoon. Over the past several weeks unusually nasty weather had keep us indoors, and our photographic skills atrophied. On this trip I got to practice my in-flight, hand-held technique with the 300mm f/4L IS and tripod work with the 500mm f/4L, including tracking swimming birds with IS Mode 2.

American White Pelican at Freshwater Ponds Trail, Galveston Island State Park
American White Pelican at the Freshwater Ponds Trail, Galveston Island State Park. These majestic creatures allowed me to practice my swimming bird tracking technique.

We were excited to discover a man-made  “water feature” in a wooded area at Lafitte’s Cove, specifically designed for bird watchers and photographers. This feature is very similar to the one maintained by the Texas Ornithological Society at Sabine Woods Sanctuary. Although I have never experienced anything but the utmost in civility at Sabine Woods, apparently photographers and binocular users can’t get along with each other at Lafitte’s Cove. Like at the Smith Oaks Rookery (where squabbles and hard feelings are common) there are posted time limits for spots and separately designated areas for binocular users and tripod photographers/spotting scope users. We’ll find out during spring migration if both groups can respect posted rules, avoid hogging the best viewing/shooting spots, and refrain from snarky comments . . . although a “night of the tiny fists” type encounter as described by the late Gore Vidal might be amusing to witness.

On the way home we visited the Skillern Tract of Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, where we were treated to a pair of Greater White-fronted Geese in one of the eastern fields near the tract entrance. During most of this trip to Galveston and environs I had the feeling that the birds were warier than usual. The frequent crack of gunfire in the background–not to mention yahoos in ATVs crashing through the marshes, music blaring–may hold the key. During the drive back along the White-knuckle Express (I-10), where I was treated to many interactions with maniacs and nincompoops, I had time to reflect upon the wonderful effects humans have had on the biosphere.

Greater White-fronted Geese at Skillern Tract, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge
Greater White-fronted Geese at the Skillern Tract, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. These geese were extremely wary of humans. I wonder why.

© 2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Additions to Collections: Texas Ducks and Some 2012 Favorites

The jet stream being directly over Texas for the past several weeks has meant appalling weather and much time spent on the computer. As a result, some new images have been added to Texas Ducks and Some 2012 Favorites. Please take a look!

Snowshoe Hare in Summer Colors, Kalaloch, Olympic Peninsula, Washington
Snowshoe Hare in Summer Colors at Kalaloch, Olympic Peninsula, Washington. For MP: Critters don’t get much cuter than this!

© 2013 Christopher R. Cunningham or Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

My Photographic New Year’s Resolutions

Osprey at Indian Point Park, Corpus Christi, Texas
Osprey with Fish at Indian Point Park, Corpus Christi, Texas. Osprey don’t frequent places I normally shoot, but they are fairly common in some nearby areas in winter. Expanding into adjacent areas will certainly expand the diversity of species encountered and photographed.

Over Christmas break and into the new year I have been reviewing my collection of images and deleting clunkers. In addition to freeing valuable hard drive space, this process has been educational. It has also made it possible to set new goals and standards for my photographic work.  Addressing defects in the collection has lead to these new resolutions:

1) I will work harder at having the right lens at hand more often. Many of the clunkers need not have been so. The biggest clunker-maker is trying to use a telephoto in place of a macro. Yes, it is technically possible to take a close-up with a 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L that resembles a macro shot taken with a 100mm macro f/2.8L. The former, however, is a poor substitute that will invariably wind up being deleted.

2) I won’t  take pictures that I know won’t turn out. The laws of physics dictate that if a bird is too far away or if the light is wrong it is pointless to take the shot, not matter how rare the species or how interesting the behavior.

3) I will weed images immediately after the shoot. Digital photography makes taking photos easy. Without diligent and serious-minded weeding, astronomical numbers build up on the computer.

4) I will endeavor to be more adventurous in choice of shooting location. It’s tempting to return to Brazos Bend State Park and Galveston’s East Beach again and again because I know that I will get some good shots. I have enough shots of Blue-winged Teal, Sanderlings, and American Coots, though!

Digitalis at Olympic National Park, Washington
Digitalis purpurea (Common Foxglove) at Olympic National Park, Washington: a very pretty garden escapee (i.e., alien invasive weed). Sometimes you need a macro lens. Hand-held, 100mm macro f/2.8L IS USM.

© 2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.


Tracking Swimming Birds: Slow-motion In-flight Technique

Male Green-winged Teal at Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Park, Corpus Christi, Texas
Floating Peacefully: Male Green-winged Teal in the freshwater channel, Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Park, Corpus Christi, Texas. Ring-shaped ripples behind indicate that the bird was not swimming.

We recently spent three days birding with friends along the Coastal Bend, a great place to practice the art of tracking swimming/paddling birds. Some of the less timid species of ducks and other waterbirds will sit calmly on the surface of the water as a photographer approaches. Most species, though, will slowly begin to paddle away as humans approach. Some, like Buffleheads, will make a bee-line to the opposite shore! It’s easy to tell photos of paddling birds from those of stationary ones: a v-shaped wake spreads out behind the paddlers, whereas stationary floating birds are generally surrounded by a smooth surface or ring-shaped ripples. There is no question about it–the latter is much easier to capture.

Male Greater Scaup at Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Park, Corpus Christi, Texas
Gliding Past: Male Lesser Scaup in the freshwater channel, Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Park, Corpus Christi, Texas.

For paddling birds, I utilize a technique similar to the one I use to capture birds in flight. With tripod set as low as practicable given vegetation along the shore, and IS set to Mode 2, I pan as smoothly as possible snapping images along the way. A moving target means changing optical conditions–which means that frequent chimping (checking images) and tinkering with exposure compensation are often necessary. While not as technically challenging as capturing birds in flight, there is considerable satisfaction in getting great shots of swimming birds, even though probably not one viewer in hundreds looks closely enough to perceive the
difference . . . But I know it took a bit of extra effort to get the shot!

Female Bufflehead at Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Park, Corpus Christi, Texas.
Steaming Past! This female Bufflehead wanted no part of humans! No wonder. Note the crescent-shaped mound of water in front of the bird–she was paddling hard! Photo taken at the freshwater channel, Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Park, Corpus Christi, Texas.

 © 2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Some of our 2012 Favorites: New Collection

2012 was a great year in the field, and a great year at home. We’re excited to share some of our 2012 favorites. We continued to photograph the birds and other wildlife of Texas, from the Rio Grande Valley to Central Texas to deep East Texas. We also got a chance to spend a week on the Olympic Peninsula and surrounding areas in Washington State, including Puget Sound. We worked hard to improve our photographic technique in both long telephoto and macro work and tried to keep up with developments in digital photography: we are all about getting better. We worked at continuing to expand our ornithological knowledge and know many more birds by sight and sound than we did when we started the year. We also took the plunge and decided to set up our own website and share our explorations with a wider audience. We are excited about the future and are currently planning excursions to places we have never been to see birds we have never seen before. . . .


American Robin on moss, Hoh Rain Forest, Olympic National Park, Washington
American Robin Fledgling on Moss, Hoh Rain Forest, Olympic National Park, Washington. The temperate rain forests of the Olympic Peninsula are some of the most beautiful and exotic habitats in North America.

 © 2012 Christopher R. Cunningham and Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.


Vermilion Flycatchers are some of our most anticipated fall visitors along the Texas Gulf Coast. Visiting populations migrate east, not south, for the winter bringing the colors of the West with them (their U.S. breeding range includes CA, NV, AZ, NM, and western and central TX). This flycatcher’s scientific name says it all – Pyrocephalus rubinus (a reference to the spectacular coloration of the male). As if the generic name, Pyrocephalus, or “fire head,” wasn’t enough, the specific name, rubinus, emphasizes the redness of the bird.  One of a few types of so-called “firebirds,” the Vermilion Flycatcher is not only eye-catching, but is energetic and exciting to watch, just like other flycatcher species. Three vermilions – a male, female, and juvenile male –  thoroughly captivated us last weekend at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) headquarters.

This view of the male highlights why this bird is nicknamed “firebird.” Notice the subtle orange-red color variation and the crown feathers–like licking flames. I did not alter the image other than cropping.

The female provided the best viewing opportunity as she perched within 12-15 feet of me. I had the luxury of settling in and studying her behavior for almost an hour. Between bouts of preening, she tracked insects as they flew by – sometimes it appeared as if she were watching a tennis match. Why wasn’t she going after them? Then, all of a sudden, she took off and grabbed one out of the air. What was it about that last fly by? Was it the insects’ speed, trajectory, size, or proximity  that finally made the difference? Or some combination? And then again: track, track, track, go!  It reminded me of playing duck, duck, goose as a child. As I went around the circle, patting the heads of my classmates, I was calculating . . . who could I outrun?

Was the flycatcher calculating? The literature seems to suggest that the Vermilion Flycatcher always gets his/her prey. If the initial attack is unsuccessful, the prey “may be pursued in an erratic acrobatic chase until capture” (Wolf and Jones 2000, 5). Though the research sample is small, it does makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Individuals most efficient (or dogged if necessary) at capturing prey (we could call it flight/eye coordination), will most likely live the longest and leave the greatest numbers of offspring edging the overall average toward a more and more efficiently predatory population.

When watching flycatchers, one can be excused for anthropomorphizing. They often cock their heads with apparent curiosity, and just about ooze charm. Flycatchers seem to delight in taking a particularly big or juicy bug–male Vermilion Flycatchers have been seen presenting potential mates with large, showy gifts–like butterflies. That would be an awesome image indeed — the handoff of a nuptial gift of an insect gem from a male Vermilion Flycatcher to his lady. Stay tuned! I will be watching for it next season in their breeding territory.

Female Vermillion Flycatcher at Anahuac NWR, Texas
This female Vermilion Flycatcher was hunting in open grassy areas on the edge of a dense thicket at Anahuac NWR. Notice the faint wash of red on her crown–not all female Vermilion Flycatchers show this extra blush of color.


Wolf, B.O., and S.L. Jones. 2000. Vermilion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus). In The Birds of North America, No. 484 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, P.A.


© 2012 Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved.
No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.


Birding the Spectacular Thickets of the Texas Gulf Coast in Fall

Thicket at Anahuac NWR
A thicket at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), Texas Gulf Coast. This densely vegetated area was hopping with Yellow-rumped Warblers, Eastern Phoebes, and Swamp Sparrows.

Fall is an incredible time to bird the Texas Gulf Coast: migrants are returning or passing through, the plants are changing colors, mornings are cool, and the bugs are on the way out–but not all the way out, lest our beloved insect-eaters keep moving! Some of the most exciting environments to bird at this time of year are the densely-tangled thickets near the numerous waterways of the region. We especially love to bird Brazos Bend State Park, Sabine Woods, and Anahuac NWR (both the Skillern and Main tracts) at this time of year. Thickets in these areas are challenging for photography most of the year, but in fall are literally hopping in places with insectivorous birds.

Fall shedding of leaves leads to an opening up of possibilities for photography: the dense (often frustrating) greenery of summer, sometimes making it impossible to photograph shy, secretive thicket species is slowly breaking up. Splashes of color now punctuate images, and the amber and reddish glow of autumnal mornings and evenings tint backgrounds.

Common Yellowthroat at Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Young Common Yellowthroat in Fall Morning Light. Photo taken at Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park.

The explosion of insect-eaters during the fall migration is a reminder that the mass migrations of birds are all about the flow of solar energy. As the supply of warm-weather prey dwindles in the northern latitudes the bug-eaters must move south in search of their (mostly) ectothermic prey. The Texas Gulf Coast stays warm enough throughout the winter to keep a supply of insects large enough to support a large population of flycatchers, especially Eastern Phoebes, that can be seen perched on branches over water or open grassy areas. They flit down, grab an insect and then return to their perch to dine. A spectacular sight  to behold is a Phoebe grabbing a butterfly on the wing. Surprisingly, they ingest the whole insect, wings and all. One wonders how much nutritional value a butterfly wing has, though. Vermilion Flycatchers exhibit similar behavior in these thicket environments, but a discussion of these beautiful little birds must await Elisa’s next post!

Myrtle Warbler at Anahuac NWR, Texas
 Audubon’s Warbler Against Fall Colors at Anahuac NWR.  This locality is in East Texas, a place where one doesn’t normally see Audubon’s Warblers. Perhaps this bird is a Myrtle-Audubon’s hybrid? Shot hand-held Canon 7D EOS with 300mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC).

© 2012 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Why Birders Should Care About the Global Amphibian Crisis

Little Blue Heron with tadpole at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Little Blue Heron with Tadpole at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas Gulf Coast.

Over the past several decades the diversity and abundance of Amphibia have declined precipitously: estimates for the amphibian extinction rate range from tens to tens of thousands of times the typical background rate of species loss. Despite conservation efforts (Amphibian Ark) and some publicity, most people I speak to are completely unaware of this catastrophic decline. Over the past decade or so, it has become clear that there are several major causes. The most important appears to be habitat loss. As freshwater swamps and marshes are drained to build the endless suburban sprawl of tract housing, and forests are bulldozed into the chippers, amphibian habitats are dwindling. Acidification of lakes and ponds, other forms of pollution, and an infectious fungal disease (chytridiomycosis), are also implicated.

American Bullfrog at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
American Bullfrog (Rana catesbiana) at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. American Bullfrogs are an abundant food source for waders along the Texas Gulf Coast. Luckily, bullfrogs appear to have resistance to chytridiomycosis.

Many think that the reason amphibians have been among the hardest hit groups in the current anthropogenic mass extinction event (the Holocene mass extinction) is because these animals have aquatic larval stages and a terrestrial or amphibious adult stage, and can be negatively impacted by changes in both the aquatic and terrestrial environments. The process of metamorphosis, which typically occurs in an aquatic environment (or at least an aqueous one–think about the bromeliad treefrog!), is biochemically sensitive. For these reasons, some refer to amphibians as the “canaries in the coal mine” of ecosystems.

Olympic Peninsula, Washington
Northern Red-legged Frog (Rana aurora) at Olympic National Park, Washington. In some places, the ground-cover vegetation of the temperate rain forests of the Pacific Northwest is alive with amphibians.

As a photographer, one of my favorite subjects is hunting waders: please see Stalking the Hunters. Along with fish, crawfish, and aquatic insects, amphibians (primarily frogs and tadpoles, and to a lesser extent salamanders) form a staple of the wader diet. Other predatory birds, Loggerhead Shrikes, for example, also eat amphibians. Shrikes are fascinating birds known to kill their prey by impaling it on sharp objects, usually thorns. On one, and only one, occasion we heard what we thought was a frog call coming from above. We looked up to notice a Loggerhead Shrike on wire over a frog-filled bayou. Was this a simple case of mimicry? Or deception—trying to get a frog to divulge its location? Research turned up no mention of Loggerheads making frog calls. Shrikes are known to deceive each other away from kills with frightening false alarm calls–so they’re not above trickery. The Asian Rufous-backed Shrike is an accomplished mimic, and, of course, the Northern Mockingbird is known to mimic frog calls, but a Loggerhead Shrike? We will continue to keep our eyes and ears peeled for this phenomenon.  If we heard what what we think we heard, we hope the time a Shike’s frog-call goes unanswered never comes.

Shrike-impaled Green Tree Frog on rose thorn, Sabine Woods, Texas
Green Tree Frog (Hyla cinerea) on Rose Thorn. Elisa captured this macabre image of a Loggerhead Shrike-impaled tree frog at Sabine Woods, Texas Gulf Coast. The shrike had just killed this frog and a mouse, whose decapitated body was impaled on some more rose thorns and whose head was impaled on some nearby barbed wire. As soon as Elisa finished the shoot and walked away, the shrike returned and reclaimed the mouse’s head.

 © 2012 Christopher R. Cunningham and Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Photographing Birds in Flight: A Challenge

I once read a criticism of bird photographers that went something like this: most of the bird photos out there are of birds sitting on branches or on the ground. Since birds spend most of their time flying, why aren’t there more photos of birds in flight? My first reaction was: here is a person who knows neither birds nor photography. The exact percentage of time many species of birds spend in the air is not known. However, with the exceptions of some pelagic birds (e.g., frigate birds), Common Swifts (famously), and some other birds during migration, many birds do not spend most of the time in the air. Hummingbirds, for example, have been estimated to spend about 75-80% of their time perched. Furthermore, getting a shot of a bird in the air is a major technical challenge–not something the average person with a point-and-shoot is going to be able to do.

Even slow-moving birds are extremely fast by human standards, and their movements can seem erratic. Lucky shots excepted, the best hope for getting birds in flight (BIF) is to find a spot where birds frequently fly past and try to anticipate their motion along a glide path. Shorebirds, for example, often congregate in large groups along the strand line–and may remain there for hours unless disturbed. Individuals will come and go for their own reasons, but the photographer at least knows the starting or ending point of the bird’s motion.

Brown Pelican in flight over Galveston Bay
Brown Pelican in Flight over Galveston Bay. Pelicans are enjoyable to photograph in flight. They often soar close to the surface of the water. Sometimes they will climb to height and plunge vertically after fish in spectacular fashion. I suspect that pterodactyloid pterosaurs, like Pteranodonmust have looked rather pelican-like as they soared over the Western Interior Seaway of North America during the Cretaceous Period. For this shot, I anticipated the bird’s flight path as best I could and started shooting when it entered the frame. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4 IS USM (+1.4x TC): f/7.1, ISO 500, 1/2500, exposure bias -0.33, aperture priority; spot metering

Although I am still perfecting my technique, I have noticed a few things. It seems that there are really only two techniques that work consistently for capturing a BIF, given that a birdy spot has been identified and the photographer has a good sense of how the subjects will, in general, be moving. It seems that the shooter could either track the BIF by panning as it moves in from a distance or point the camera along the anticipated flight path and start shooting when the bird enters the frame. Of course, both of these approaches have built-in technical challenges. The problem with waiting for a bird to enter the frame and then shoot is reaction time–and as I age, this problem isn’t getting better! Sometimes I get a beautiful picture of an empty sky! Panning, on the other hand, means the camera is moving relative to the ground, so vibration and deviations in smooth linear motion are major concerns.

Many sports and action photographers will simply point and swing their cameras along the direction of subject motion and fire off a burst of frames (without looking through the viewfinder) and hope for the best. But birds are too small in the frame for this approach to work, so the focus point must be on the bird, and the camera must be panning steadily and smoothly.

The last two generations of Canon lenses have image stabilization (IS) in two modes, one for panning (mode 2) and one for stationary shooting (mode 1). Mode 1 is primarily for shooting hand-held at relatively slow shutter speeds. Camera shake is often a problem when shooting at shutter speeds slower than 1/(focal length), and IS addresses this. When my 500 mm f/4 IS is on the tripod (99.9% of the time) the IS is generally switched off (exceptions include very windy days or being on a boat). I have read that most tripod photographers also generally leave IS off when the lens is on the tripod–although Canon literature says it should be left on because the IS system senses the tripod and responds accordingly. In my experience, however, the IS slows focusing and sometimes produces a slight, but annoying torque on the lens. When panning, however, I will leave the IS on. I have not noticed the slowing or torquing while panning–perhaps the whole operation of capturing a BIF is so seat-of-the pants, the IS the least of my worries!

In any case, I can’t wait to get out again and keep shooting those birds in flight–with my perennial goal of continuous improvement in knowledge and technique.

Royal Tern in flight, Galveston, Texas
Young Royal Tern in Fall, Galveston, Texas. I tracked this bird in flight to obtain the shot. Royal Terns have been known to steal fish from the gullets of pelicans. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4 IS USM (+1.4x TC): f/7.1, ISO 500, 1/8000, exposure bias -0.33, aperture priority; spot metering.

© 2012 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.


A Quest for Rare Birds?

As we’ve grown older, Elisa and I, like many people, have agreed to slowly divest ourselves of many of the material things that clutter our lives. I, for example, have decided that if I buy a new book, then I must discard two old books. If I acquire a trinket, I must discard two, and so on. As part of this process, we have decided to collect experiences and images rather than material objects. Birding is very much a part of this process. Becoming serious about birding has forced us to think about visiting places and acquiring experiences that we would have never considered before–for there is no reason to visit some of these places other than the birds. Many birders have life lists of species that they have observed. But as a near-novice birder, I have purposely avoided this approach because I fear that this would turn birding primarily into a quest for rare birds. Perhaps as I gain experience in birding I will switch to a “life list” philosophy, but for now I find as much interest and joy in a common sparrow as I do in the rarest of birds.

Whooping Crane at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas Gulf Coast
Whooping Crane at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas Gulf Coast. With only about 600 individuals surviving in the wild and in captivity, Whooping Cranes are among the rarest birds in the world. These majestic birds, the tallest in North America, summer in the Canadian Arctic and winter along the southern Texas Gulf Coast. Photo taken from a boat.
Swamp Sparrow at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Swamp Sparrow at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Swamp Sparrows are common but delightful winter residents along the Texas Gulf Coast. Photo taken near Pilant Lake.


© 2012 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.