Category Archives: Raptors

Photographing An American Kestrel -A Belly Shot

Photographing An American Kestrel

Some days, all I can manage on my photography adventures are shots of tail feathers and bellies.

We saw very few American Kestrels last year, though we visited all their usual open territory hangouts. Kestrels in the northern most range (like MI) migrate, so it’s always a joy to see them in the Spring. They usually perch on poles and utility lines near country roadways that give them a clear view of movement within the low lying vegetation. If I’m lucky and they are unconcerned with the camera, it’s a good opportunity to practice my birds-in-flight photography skills as they swoop down to pounce on insects and small rodents, then fly upward to their perch to feast.

NOTE: These little falcons are close to the size of Mourning Doves, a species that also likes to perch on utility lines. (I often have to look twice to ID them correctly.)

NOTE:  The nest box that we bought for Easter Screech Owls is also designated for cavity dwelling Kestrels. We knew when we erected the box that our wooded backyard would not be suitable for Falcons.

Kestrel at takeoff
American Kestrel
A Belly Shot.
ISO640; f/8; 1/2000 Second

Depending on Readiness and Luck

Being lucky is oh-so-important in bird photography, but it’s not enough. You’ve got to be prepared. I was ready to photograph this falcon during her hunting ritual. (Low sun at my back, background not cluttered, fast bursting shutter, al servo focus, plenty of focus point sensors engaged, Gimbal tripod head set to efficiently track). The Kestrel’s perch was high- so much so that I had to dramatically tilt the lens upward and dip my knees in order to keep my eye on her in the viewfinder. I hoped that I could track her as she swooped down to pounce on a ground spider and then flew up again to her perch. Not surprisingly she was too suspicious of my behavior to indulge me.

Best capture I could manage was a clean belly shot showing off her lean and muscular underparts. I caught her right when she leaped from the light post. Her angle allowed the camera to catch a good view of her face, her fanned tail feathers and her splayed toes. She then banked her strong, lithe body and flew away in the opposite direction. (NOTE: Rufous streaking upon white on her underside indicates that this is a female Kestrel – males are white with black spotting.)

My neck ached from looking up so much. Feeling that my luck for the day was spent, I packed my gear and went home.

Photographing An Eastern Screech Owl – Experimenting With Video – Part III

Photographing An Eastern Screech Owl

I have been photographing this little Eastern Screech Owl on and off for more than 4 weeks now and have been unable to capture him as he flies out of his box for his evening hunting excursions.

He exits his box at twilight, quickly, unpredictably, and without fanfare. I ready the camera and 500mm lens by connecting the shutter remote and locking focus. The flash is the main source of light, with some ambient light enhancement.

At the ready with the shutter half pressed, I’ve tried over and over to anticipate when he will make his speedy departure. No luck. I end up with images showing a whole body motion blur, streaking from the 3″ entrance/exit hole to the edge of the frame.

Eastern Screech Owl
Eastern Screech Owl, Looking Back
At Me In the Misty Rain.
Is That Blood on his Upper Beak?
Camera set to Program Autoexposure
Mode (P). Please Note Program
Mode’s Unaltered Exposure Settings
ISO400; f/4; 1/60th second

Experimenting With Video

In bright daylight, I can set the camera to burst (up to 14 frames per second) and easily capture flying birds with an ultra fast shutter speed. But owls are nocturnal creatures and my flash gun would never be able to keep up with the camera’s fast bursting. In addition, the flash gun is set at the max sync speed of 1/250 second and will not freeze the action with E-TTL II metering a combination of flash and ambient light.

What if I was to video the Screech Owl exiting his box and then slow down the video in post processing? From there, it might be possible to extract a single captured frame from within that video file.

The video functions on both of my DSLR cameras are unexplored territory for me. Time to learn something new.

Video and Program (P) Auto Exposure Mode

Rather than experimenting with the DSLR video function in Manual (M) mode, I set the camera to Program (P) autoexposure mode. In Program mode, the camera automatically makes all the exposure decisions, like it does in Auto (A) mode, but it doesn’t prevent the photographer from changing those settings. If the photographer alters one of the many settings originally set by Program mode, (ISO, picture style, white balance, aperture, etc) the camera will compensate on-the-fly, re-metering light levels and making the necessary exposure adjustments. Program mode does this by changing the variables that the photographer did not change, taking into account all resources available, including flash settings (not useful in video) and type/focal length of lens. (NOTE: You can even influence how the camera changes exposure parameters in P mode by  fiddling with AEC or changing the light metering mode.)

My First Videos

I started out my DSLR video training one evening by producing a couple 2-3 minute videos. (Seemed like an eternity when I was filming). Filming conditions: Cloud-covered twilight, steady rain, 40 degrees, a bit foggy, window open, portable heater going in the background. (NOTE: I do not own video or studio lights.)

As with most learning endeavors, the more I read the manual and the more I practice, the better I get. I found that one of the most useful controls for video was the Q button (Quick Control) on the back of Canon DSLR cameras. It gave me access (in real time) to all sorts of video related functions, including Auto Focus, Frame Rate/Image Size/Compression, Audio Input Control, Headphone Volume, White Balance, Picture Style, and Auto Lighting Optimization.

Watch the Owl Exit in Slo-Mo

The 34 second slow-motion video of the owl flying out of his owl house is below. I slowed down this video clip 50%. (NOTE: The original video was close to 3 minutes long, however, my web hosting server has file size limitations. I had to reduce the length, resolution and quality of this video and eliminate all sound in order to get the file size small enough to upload it to my website.)


Pre-video preparation included the following:

  • Load a fully charged battery.
  • Insert the fast, high capacity memory card.
  • Set the video mode. The camera manual advises that 120fps in 1080p mode is best for slow-mo playback, and it did do a good job, allowing me to see fairly sharp individual frames despite the low light. (NOTE: Be sure you understand the options available in your DSLR for max video size and max video time.)
  • Review web resources for DSLR video advice.

Live View

Once I put the camera in video mode, the viewfinder shut down. I had to control the settings via Live View from the LCD screen. Live View on the new Canon 1 DX Mark II camera is crystal clear and very agile. I can pin-point focus by using the touch screen (even at the edge of the frame), dial to loop through exposure settings, white balance, etc., and watch the LCD screen to see how my changes impact the picture quality in real time.

Post video production was done with I-Movie on my Mac Pro. Thus far, I have been unable to grab what I consider to be a high quality frame from the videos I shot. I will continue to try.

There is so much more to learn. Next time I will experiment with video with the camera in Manual (M) Mode.

Photographing An Eastern Screech Owl – Part II

Photographing an Eastern Screech Owl

He’s back!

Photographing this little Eastern Screech Owl intrigues me. He is keenly adapted to flying and hunting under the cover of darkness. Light and opportunity rarely allow for night time bird photography, so I was very excited to be able to capture sharp images of him.

For the photos in this post, our resident owl did not fly off into the darkness like he usually does, but instead perched on a nearby unobstructed, camera level tree branch. It was very dark, but a low beam flashlight illuminating the branch on which he perched allowed enough light for the camera to calculate exposure (with E-TTL II Flash) and the lens to auto focus. His head and body were facing away from the camera, but when he turned to look back at me with those remarkable eyes, I was lucky enough to get two full body shots. He flew off to parts unknown seconds later.

NOTES: This owl’s raised tufts of feathers where his ears should be look very distinctive, but do not function as ears or horns. The Horned Lark is another bird species with conspicuous ear tufts. The Snowy Owl that I photographed in the Allegan State Game Area did not have noticable ear tufts.

Eastern Screech Owl
Eastern Screech Owl
Out of His Owl Box.
FEC set to -1.
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

Night Time Photography Considerations:

  • Flash Failure!  My Canon 580 EX II, purchased in 2008, was no longer communicating efficiently with the camera. It operated erratically and seemed to burst without regard to the E-TTL II exposure calculations issued from the camera. (NOTE: This is probably the first time I have relied on this flash to provide more than fill to existing ambient light.) I can not be without an E-TTL II flash gun, especially when photographing nocturnal owls. I bought a new Canon 600 RT Flash Unit.
  • The camera was set to Manual Mode and the new flash to E-TTL II so that the camera would calculate the burst needed based on the exposure settings I chose. I toned down this burst by setting the flash exposure compensation (FEC) to -1. It turned out to be a good place to start.
  • The open window through which the camera points is not far from the furnace PVC exhaust vent pipe. On cold windy days, the discharge turns into a floating mist that obstructs my image making. Easy fix…bundle up and turn the furnace way down.
  • Fresnel flash extenders are intended to direct light more efficiently onto distant subjects. For this shoot, the tele flash extender was too close, causing the owl to be “spotlighted” or partially lit around the center of the frame, leaving extremities of his body and his nearby surroundings insufficiently illuminated. I removed the fresnel flash tele extender and set the flash to its 200mm max zoom. The flash beam was wider and more on target. The new extended zoom flash capability on the Canon 600 RT II doesn’t eliminate the need for a fresnel flash extender for bird photography, but you can get by without it when the subjects are in fairly close proximity to the flash. (NOTE: On my old flash -580 EX II -the max zoom setting was 105mm.)
Eastern Screech Owl
Eastern Screech Owl
Out of his box for the Night.
Flash Exposure Compensation -1
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

Next Challenge

As night approaches, the owl is clearly more visible and alert. He looks as though his feet are perched on the opening of his owl house giving his head maximum freedom to look around. I have been trying to capture a shot of him at take-off, right as he exits his box, but I have been unable to do so because he jets out of there in the blink of an eye. The minuscule lag time between when I see him exit the box and when I press the shutter is long enough to miss the shot, even when I pre-focus by pressing the shutter release half way.

I need strategies to get exit shots. NOTE: I’ve been considering setting up a few low lights, using my camera’s video function and then processing that video in slow motion. It might work on those days that he exits at twilight when there is still a touch of ambient light. This of course assumes that this little Eastern Screech Owl decides to stick around.  More to come……

Photographing a Sharp Shinned Hawk on a Snowy Morning

Photographing a Sharp Shinned Hawk

Baby it’s cold outside.

I’ve been inside the house with my camera, watching the year-round birds at the feeders and looking for behaviors that might indicate that a hawk was lurking nearby. These include eerie silence, no activity, and perhaps one or two Downy Woodpeckers clinging to a branch, still as death.

I spotted a Sharp Shinned Hawk obscured in the foliage of one of the tall arborvitaes (Northern White Cedar) on the property line. This perch was distant and too heavily obstructed for the lens to focus accurately. I only saw the concealed bird because another Sharpie rousted him from his hiding place. After a fast paced and aggressive chase, the dominant raptor finally managed to force the interloper out of her hunting territory .

Photo of Sharp Shinned Hawk
Sharp Shinned Hawk.
Look at that fierce face and towering demeanor!
Makes you glad you’re not a small mammal or songbird.
Notice the Seed Pod from a Red Bud
Tree Entangled in Her Splayed Tail Feathers.
ISO400; f/8; 1/250 Second

Prepping for a Possible Encounter

Once I spotted the hawks, I opened a couple windows in the library (despite the wind, snow and intense cold), and maneuvered my rig into place. The scene was heavily clouded, so I attached the flash, hoping the fill light would enhance the color and sharpness of the images. After 30 bone chilling minutes, the Sharpie did fly in and perch on a nearby branch.

A Little Too Close

The perch upon which the Sharpie alighted was slightly above camera level, but too close for the 500mm lens to include all of the bird and leave a pleasant frame. Notice that in both images, the bottom parts of the splayed tail feathers are cut off.

During camera setup (when I am not rushed), I always try to position the lens so as to optimally frame whatever bird I hope to photograph that day. The goal is to visually balance the setting to include some context for the viewer.

I missed the mark. This was a large Sharpie (female raptors tend to be approximately 25% larger than males) and she was just too close to the lens to include a pleasant border.

Possible Remedies

There are strategies that I could have used to remedy the situation.

  • Reorient the tripod collar to a vertical position. I did not do that because the tele flash on bracket and battery pack were attached (and necessary – ISO reading at 8000), so turning the tripod collar to a vertical position would have thrown off the trajectory of the light beam and possibly upset the weight balance of the gear.
  • Move the whole tripod setup farther back into the library. Re-situating a large, heavily laden tripod only takes a minute to do, but it does cause a distraction. Birds don’t wait around for you, so I attempt that move only after I get in the first few shots. I was glad I did not take the time to move the gear because the Sharpie perched less than a minute.

(NOTE: I love the quality and precision of prime lenses, but for situations like this I wish I had a quality zoom lens. Canon makes a 200-400 F/4L zoom lens with a built-in 1.4x extender, giving the lens a range of 280-560mm (f/5.6) on my full frame DSLR. This means optimal versatility when out in the field photographing birds, especially in situations where it is difficult or unwise to move the camera or attach or detach an extender. (NOTE: One day I plan to rent this lens. It is ridiculously expensive to purchase…$10,999!)

Photographing Birds in Falling Snow

Snow flakes can float down gently or fall fast and furious. To capture them, you need to decide what look you want and adjust the exposure settings appropriately. The slower the shutter and the faster the snowfall, the more fog-like blurring and streaking you will see.

Photo of Sharp Shinned Hawk
Sharp Shinned Hawk
Taken with tele flash
ISO400; f/8; 1/250 Second

During this shoot, the snow looked picturesque (big, soft, feathery ice crystals) and fell  fast. I kept the telephoto flash on bracket turned on because heavy cloud cover darkened the scene and I needed some fill light to reach my preferred aperture and ISO. The shutter speed was set to the camera’s flash maximum sync speed of 1/250 second. The flash did a good job of illuminating the scene but flash will not freeze motion if there significant ambient light on the scene. In addition, the notoriously shallow depth of field on the 500mm lens was blurring the snowflakes in front of and behind the Sharpie.

End result: The camera captured a few snow flakes that look like round unattractive blotches. The flash illuminated the large snow flakes in the foreground, causing those splotches to stand out the most.

On-The-Job Training and Hindsight

Take-away from this shoot: Lots to things prepare for when photographing birds in the snow. I’m hoping that all this on-the-job training and hindsight will eventually translate into better bird photography.

(NOTE: Flash has been an essential tool to photograph birds this winter. Per our local weatherman’s blog (Bill Steffen), “….between Dec 1-18, 2016, SW Michigan had only 2 hours and 41 minutes of sunshine, or 8.9 minutes per day…. Jan 15  was only the 4th day since Nov. 29th with more than 45% of possible sunshine. Twenty-six of the last forty-five days have had zero sunshine…not even a minute.”)

Photographing an Eastern Screech Owl –Nocturnal Birds

Photographing An Eastern Screech Owl

My camera, 500mm lens and tripod are now facing a vacant wooded backlot.  An Eastern Screech Owl moved in to our owl house around Christmas, 2016. We erected this house almost 3 years ago, so a resident has been a long time coming. Up until now, we had only squirrels and a mob of European Starlings (Yikes!) look it over.

Front Row Seat

The owl house is positioned approximately 15 ft high on an Oak tree in front of and at eye level with a bedroom window. There’s plenty of room to move the tripod around for both close-up shots, full body flight shots and everything in between. The window at which the camera waits is approximately 20 feet from the opening of the owl house.

Eastern Screech Owl
Eastern Screech Owl,
Poking Out His Head to Check on The Disturbance.
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 second

Pretty Exciting, Right?

I’ve been dreaming of photographing these majestic creatures for a long time. If I am to believe the looks in his large and striking eyes, he is weary and disinterested in my shenanigans and thinks that the camera and I are pretty boring.

Photographing Birds in Near Darkness

Eastern Screech Owls are little raptors, (6-10″ long; 4-9 ounces; wingspan 18-24″) short and stocky with an oversized head and no discernible neck. They do not screech as their namesake would imply, but instead sound more like the somewhat spooky whinny of a horse. Eastern Screech Owls are for the most part nocturnal and highly camouflaged, and therein lies my problem.

A lens can not focus in darkness. If it’s too dark, it won’t even go thru the motion to hunt back and forth. There is nothing upon which its technical eye can fix – no contrast, no color, no edges, nothing. The fresnel attached flash will try to emit a light beam (auto focus assist beam) so the lens can do its calculations for autofocus to work- but that assist beam only travels so far…. most certainly not 20 feet. So far, moonlight and starlight have not been bright enough to be helpful.

Use Manual Focus?

I could turn off autofocus on the lens and work with manual focus. This would require that I pre-set focus on one target when there is light and then guess when to press the shutter when my eyes detect motion in the near darkness. This is a desperate measure for me. I’m not yet at a place where I will forego the benefits of autofocus. (NOTE: Perhaps I should read up on motion sensors that automatically detect movement and trigger the camera.)

A Light Fix for the Lens

A light that casts a versatile, wide, even illumination for night vision is needed; perhaps LED video lights, a rechargeable lantern (180 degree or 360 degree coverage), or just an adjustable flashlight. All these devices emit light that: a) Is easy to prop and point, not directly on the owl, but perhaps on the branches below; b) Too weak to register on the digital image and screw up light balance; and c) Strong enough to give the lens a fix on focus. Most importantly, the beam intensity on these lights can be set to low power making the light too weak to disrupt the owl’s nightly routine or impair his remarkable dark adaptation vision.

Unexpected Daylight Commotion

One cold, cloudy afternoon, I opened the bedroom window, turned on the heater and positioned myself with a shutter remote. I hoped that my new neighbor would abandon the cover of darkness and take an impromptu daytime flight. During this surveillance, I noticed a few of my less tolerant wildlife neighbors fearlessly patrolling the owl box and expressing their dissatisfaction with a nocturnal predator trespassing within their boundaries. (NOTE: At the risk of anthropomorphizing here, perhaps they object to the Owl’s presence because he regularly and methodically strikes terror in the dead of night.) The rather loud rattles, chirps and thumps on and near the owl house could not help but interfere with the owl’s beauty sleep -so once in a while he stuck his head out of the box to see what all the commotion was about.

Eastern Screech Owl
Eastern Screech Owl with
a Red Squirrel atop His House.
ISO400; f/8; 1/250 Second

Photographing the Agitators

During these raucous times, I did manage to photograph the owl’s heavily feathered head while he sluggishly perched at the circular entrance of his box. I did use the tele flash for these shots, but for the most part, the ambient light dominated the scene. (NOTE: I assume that his feet are propped on the ledge of the entrance but it’s hard to tell what’s beneath that thick blanket of feathers.) I was also able to photograph a few of the owl’s protesters. (In one afternoon, I saw and photographed the following owl agitators: A black squirrel, a gray squirrel, a Tufted Titmouse, a Chickadee, and a White Breasted Nuthatch.)

Photo of Eastern Screech Owl Hiding from a Tufted Titmouse
Eastern Screech Owl Hiding from a
Complaining Tufted Titmouse.
(Titmice are usually timid and not aggressive.)
ISO400; f/8; 1/250 Second

I have not seen the owl for a few days but I am hoping he’ll be back. In the meantime, I’ll keep the camera rig in place and research less invasive methods for night time wildlife photography.

Wishing you all much joy in the coming New Year.

Photographing a Sharp Shinned Hawk – A Backlighting Mess

Photographing a Sharp Shinned Hawk

I am sitting in the library behind the camera, working on my computer. Suspiciously quiet outside. I soon see why. A Sharp Shinned Hawk alights on a high branch above the deck. I point the lens up to capture him. Focus was immediate and I get one shot in before he notices me and flies away. I know before I preview it on the camera’s LCD screen that this will be a very disappointing image.

An Underexposed Silhouette

The exposure settings taken right before I moved the lens were based on the ambient light coming in from an open deck area with a woodsy background. The second I tilted the lens upward toward the sun to capture the image of the hawk, I no longer had an evenly spread distribution of light…. in fact, the light was substantially unbalanced.

Photo of Sharp Shinned Hawk
Sharp Shinned Hawk
As shot….No Lightroom Enhancement
ISO1250; f/8; 1/250 Second.


  • Light meters work by measuring the reflective light that passes through the lens. The camera’s internal light meter was in Evaluative mode— meaning it was set to analyze the light intensity of the entire frame. (NOTE: Evaluative mode is considered to be the most intelligent in-camera light metering mode.)
  • The intense background light dominated the E-TTL II light meter readings.  E-TTL II -working with Evaluative mode-metered the ambient light on the entire scene and did the calculations to determine how much (if any) flash would be needed. (NOTE: It doesn’t look like it, but according to the meta data, the flash did fire.)
  • The ISO was manually set to ISO 1200 to reduce impact of flash and allow more ambient light to dominant what I thought was going to be a camera level, low lit scene.
  • Four auto focus points were activated for this shot, all clustered around the hawk’s body. No help there. E-TTL II light meter algorithms no long figure in autofocus point exposure bias when calculating exposure.

Light Meter Algorithms

Complex light meter algorithms are designed to do countless calculations… comparing, weighing, averaging, determining distance from lens, figuring out what to ignore, and measuring tonality and brightness of the scene. Ack! So many different variables often make for unpredictable results, especially when the camera is set to meter in broad based evaluative mode, with flash.

Exposure Fine Tuning

Bird photographers often don’t have the luxury of time to fine tune manual exposure settings and take the test shots needed to compensate for unsightly back lighting.

I find myself wishing that the camera’s metering mode had been set to partial or even spot metering. This may have provoked less of a silhouette effect because the light metering calculations would have been limited to a smaller, more specific area…more metering on the bird instead of the background.

I usually take my chances with Evaluative Mode… let it calculate its best guesses, and then adjust from there. Sadly, for this shoot, there was not time nor opportunity to make adjustments.

Well, that’s the way it goes in bird photography.

Photo of Sharp Shinned Hawk
Sharp Shinned Hawk.
Same image as above – after Lightroom Shadow Enhancement
was applied to help to minimize the
silhouette effect- Shadow slider also made the image
look more grainy
ISO1250; f/8; 1/250 Second

NOTE:  November 30th is the last day for firearm deer hunting season in Michigan. That means I’ll be spending more time in the woods with my camera. I’m looking forward to some new birding adventures.

Photographing a Northern Harrier and Trusting the Camera’s Autofocus

Trusting the Camera’s Autofocus

For a long time, I did not dare to venture into the confusing maze of menus that controls auto focusing on modern DSLR cameras. I was too comfortable with the Single Point AutoFocus, thus limiting the multi-point focusing functions of the camera and using only one, center based AF point. Keeping a moving bird’s head or body contained in just one focus point is not easy, especially if the bird is bouncing in and out of the frame and you are in the limited panning environment of a vehicle. I used single point autofocus so much because I felt I could trust my bird tracking and panning abilities more than the camera’s technology to react fast and lock focus on target. That’s a mistake in bird photography.

Northern Harrier
Extreme Enlargement of a Northern Harrier, 
on the Ground and Tightly Surrounded by Foliage.
ISO 800; f/9; 1/1600 Second

Auto Focus Compromised From the Start

For this shoot, autofocus was compromised from the start. The Northern Harrier was embraced within tightly packed brambles and grasses. His plumage blended well with the foreground and background – so much so that there was not a lot of contrasting color to separate the surroundings from the target and help the auto focusing mechanism lock focus. Worst of all, the bird was NOT anywhere near to filling the frame.

NOTE: The distance between the bird and the lens alone was enough for me to pass up the shot. However, this bird just happened to be a Northern Harrier, a handsome and unfamiliar raptor, so I had to go for it.

Photo of Northern Harrier
Northern Harrier at Liftoff,
Extreme Enlargement
ISO800; f/9; 1/1600 Second

Check AutoFocus Settings

For a long time, I assumed that if the images I took looked decidedly out of focus, it was because I somehow mishandled the camera. I also wondered if perhaps my expensive 500mm lens needed to be re-calibrated or sent to Canon Service to bring it back to factory specifications. Auto focus can go wrong for a lot of reasons, both camera/lens related and user error, but one of the first things photographers should check is the autofocus settings within the camera menu system.

Different Focusing Scenarios

Canon DSLR cameras offer 6 different auto focusing choices. You must choose one option from the six (6) “case scenarios” that you think best fits the focusing challenges you will be faced with in the field. You then customize that one chosen scenario by deciding how intensely you want the following three (3) focusing functions to respond:  a) Tracking Sensitivity,  b) Accelerating and De-accelerating tracking; and c) Auto-Focus Point Auto Switching.

My Auto Focus Settings

I have set and re-set these functions many times on both my cameras. I have erred on the side of restricting the cameras too much for most of the bird photography challenges I encounter.

I have had the most success when my cameras are set to the Case #2 scenario. The Canon manual defines Case #2 Auto Focusing as:  “The camera will try to continue focusing the subject even if an obstacle enters the AF points or if the subject strays from the AF points. Effective when there may be an obstacle blocking the subject or when you do not want to focus the background.”

Once you match a case scenario to the conditions in the field, the camera’s auto focus system will be able to evaluate the scene and automatically adjust focus so much faster than the photographer can do manually.

Within the Case #2 Focusing Scenario, I have adjusted the “behaviors” of Case #2 as follows:

Tracking Sensitivity

As I track the bird in this mode, the tracking sensitivity is programmed to stay with the original subject (set at -1). Intruding obstacles (like blowing grasses, other birds, tree trunks, irate DNR officers) do not distract focusing from the primary target. (NOTE: If you do want the camera to track focus on anything that intervenes with your target, set it to +1 or +2 .)

Accelerating and De-Accelerating Tracking

It’s almost impossible to predict where, when and how fast the bird will fly off. I set the accelerating and de-accelerating tracking to immediately respond to the movement of the bird. Mine is set to -1.

Auto Focus Point Auto Switching

Having multiple points to help keep track of your subject is very advantageous. What is even better in fast and unpredictable situations is when the camera is programmed to follow the action and immediately switch as needed to activate the best auto focus points within the range of the viewfinder. Mine is set to +1

Activate Auto Focus Points

Once you engage the lightning fast, predictive auto focusing system that best fits your birding environment, don’t constrain it by setting the camera to use only one focusing point within the auto focus area selection options. You can be cautious and use the more limited zone focusing or let loose and activate the entire focus point system. (On Canon’s more modern cameras, 61 autofocus points are available.)

Then, once your autofocus settings match your bird photography scenario, it’s just a matter of watching and waiting; and hoping that the bird will take off sooner rather than later because of your aching back and neck.

NOTE:  Canon 5 D Mark III cameras allow you to quickly switch between Zone AF and 61 point automatic selection AF.  See this link and for more information.

Getting Close Enough to Photograph the Rough Legged Hawk

Photographing the Rough Legged Hawk

It has been my experience that Rough Legged Hawks are fiercely elusive. It’s very difficult for a photographer to position herself close enough to these birds for a decent shot. I usually find myself looking up through the viewfinder of my full sensor DSLR camera and seeing only far off tail feathers. Having the extra reach afforded when using a DSLR camera with a cropped sensor combined with a long lens and a telephoto extender can be quite an advantage when photographing this raptor.

7D Mark II, 500mm lens and 1.4 Extender

After stalking a pair of Rough Legged Hawks in the Allegan State Game Area and photographing them with the 7D Mark II camera, 500mm lens and 1.4x III telephoto extender, I find myself very pleased with the reach and the image sharpness. The magnification was great enough that very little zooming was needed in post processing.

To better understand how much more focal length is attainable, let’s do the math:

  • Crop sensor on 7D Mark II with 500mm f/4L lens puts the camera’s magnification at 800 mm (1.6 x 500).
  • Add to that 500mm lens a Canon 1.4x III telephoto extender and the magnification is now 1120mm (800 x 1.4).

For the first photo, taken in January, 2015, I had the 7D Mark II, 500 mm lens and 1.4 telephoto extender propped on the door window ledge as I drove. The Roughie would perch, take a look at me, then fly away, each time going farther and higher into the distance. I was lucky to photograph him looking back at me – right before he launched.  (See photo below)

Photo of Rough Legged Hawk
Rough Legged Hawk.
ISO1250; f/9; 1/2000 Second

The photo below was also taken with the 7D Mark II, 500mm lens and 1.4 extender, but on a different day. The clarity is good and the focal length was perfect – not too close to crop the edges off those expansive wings while still including the Red Winged Blackbird pursuing the hawk.

Photo of Rough Legged Hawk
Rough Legged Hawk being pursued by a red winged Black Bird.
ISO1000; f/9.0; 1/3200 Second

 7D Mark II, 500mm lens and 2.0 Extender

The third photo (shown below) was taken mid March, 2015 with my 7D Mark II, 500mm lens and a 2.0x III telephoto extender.

  • Crop sensor on 7D Mark II with 500mm lens puts the camera’s magnification at 800 mm (1.6 x 500).
  • Add to that 500 mm lens a Canon 2.0x III telephoto extender and the magnification is now 1600mm (800 x 2.0).

A 1600mm focal length opens a lot of doors for bird photographers. For this shot, I was sitting in the front passenger side of my car, with the lens resting on the car door, pointing up. The Roughie was quite a distance away, perched at the top of a tree. It wasn’t a straight shot, and I worked to dodge excessive branch clutter between the bird’s perch and my camera lens. Eventually, I had no choice but to quickly and quietly open my car door, stand up (in the icy mud; yuck) and then rest the weight of the lens on the top of the door. I slid the lens back and forth on the door until I found a sightline where the branch clutter did not throw off my auto focus. He watched me for 3 minutes or so – then bolted.

Photo of Rough Legged Hawk
Rough Legged Hawk.
Focus is very soft with 2x III extender.
ISO 1000; f/9; 1/3200 Second

Impact of 2x Telephoto Extender

In the photo above, the focus seems rather soft compared with the first two photos, especially since the light was very good and he was close enough that very little post processing zooming was needed.  In addition, the shutter speed was set very high to offset lens movement. I loved having the extra reach afforded by the 2x telephoto extender on the 7D Mark II DSLR camera, but am not happy with the sharpness it delivers.

Disadvantages of Using Telephoto Extenders

High end telephoto extenders attached to quality lenses are reputed to have excellent optical quality; however:

  • Telephoto extenders do reduce the image sharpness of a any lens, the 2.x more so than the 1.4 x.
  • The auto focus on the lens will be noticeably slower when an extender is attached.
  • In exchange for higher magnification, you sacrifice light: 1 aperture stop for the 1.4x extender and 2 stops for the 2.x extender
  • Any movement is greatly magnified with long lenses- even more so with extenders attached. Image stabilization does help compensate, but not completely. Tripods are almost a necessity.

Impact of Camera Sensor Size

Theoretically, when comparing Canon’s modern, high quality DSLR camera sensors of different sizes, and using similar lighting and distance parameters and similar megapixel counts, the full frame sensor  (because it is twice the size of the cropped sensor and brings in more light) will likely deliver a broader dynamic range and better quality low light resolution (less noise) than the cropped sensor will.

I believe the difference in quality between Canon’s high end full sized sensor and cropped sensor to be pretty small when the subject is well within range of the telephoto lens.

Distance Matters

If the subject is too far away, to the point where you can not mostly fill the frame with the bird and its surroundings and you are forced to zoom in dramatically during post processing, image detail and quality will suffer. Digital images consists of pixels/dots. You enlarge the dots when you zoom in because you are zooming in to a relatively small component of the photo. The more you zoom, the more image degradation.  A larger sensor – more pixels and dots -will probably have less image degradation, but not enough to save the photo.

Tack Sharp Images

Experimenting with magnification was fun and a good reminder that, for tack sharp images, there’s no substitution for getting as close as possible to your subject – so close that you don’t need to attach a telephoto extender to your lens nor zoom in during post processing.


Visit this link for more information on the disadvantages of zooming in on a photo.

For more information about photographing Rough Legged Hawks in flight, visit this link.


Photo of Sharp Shinned Hawk

Photographing A Sharp-shinned Hawk

A Heartwarming Christmas Surprise

It’s been a dreary and snowless Christmas here in southwest Michigan, with very little bird activity. I was busy trying to compensate by decorating the house in cheerful adornment when I spotted a tiny hawk perched on our platform feeder. My tripod and camera were set up and ready to go in the library (rather optimistically, I might add, considering the miles and miles of heavy clouds over head). Hoping the hawk would not notice me, I gingerly ducked and tiptoed toward the camera.

He most certainly did notice me and flew from the platform to a tree branch close by. I positioned the lens, adjusted the shutter speed as low as I dared to offset the poor lighting, focused, and started photographing the hawk through the window glass.

Photo of Sharp Shinned Hawk
Adult Sharp Shinned Hawk, Watching and Waiting Patiently
Near the Feeder. Hawks Are Able to Rotate Their Heads 270 Degrees to Watch Their Backs.
ISO2500; f/4.0; 1/400 Second

Sharp-shinned Hawk

A Sharp-shinned Hawk was not a bird I had photographed before. He was tiny, as woodland hawks go, with a smallish head, dark gray back, copper breast, bright red eyes, wide shoulders, short wings and a very long tail. These hawks are easily confused with Cooper’s hawks, both Accipiters known for maneuvering fast in forested habitats and feeding at bird feeders. “Sharpies” winter and breed in Southwest Michigan.

Through the Window Photography

I was photographing this hawk through the window glass because I was operating under the assumption that no bird would tolerate the creaky noise of a non-compliant window opening, let alone a person standing so near.

But the clarity and color of the photographs would be so much better with that window out of the way, especially on such a gray day. I took a dozen or so more photos through the window glass and then slowly began the rather loud procedure of unlocking and cranking open the window.

Song Bird Reaction to Hawk

For some reason, I expected it to be deathly still outside when I opened the window.  Instead I heard a cacophony of complaining titmice, chickadees and juncos, warning other birds about the intruding hawk and miffed about the interruption in their feeding activity.

Photo of Adult Sharpie
Sharp Shinned Hawk, Watching
the Feeder Activity.
ISO 3200; f/4.5; 1/320 Second

Through the Open Window Photography

Amazingly, the Sharpie did not fly off, despite the racket I made opening the library window. He stayed perched on that branch with his back facing the camera for a good 40 minutes. He flinched every time the windblown metal squirrel guard banged against the post, but other than that, he acted unperturbed and vigilant.

Most of the song birds stayed hidden from this angel of death. Eventually a few dare devils did some quick feeder in-and-out maneuvers. The hawk just watched. No attacks.

Don’t Leave Before the Bird Does

I rarely leave a photo opportunity before the bird does. My furnace kicked on shortly after I opened the window, and it stayed on. I was shivering and stiff, but I was not prepared to walk away from my camera for fear I would miss some exciting behavior.

I watched and photographed him preening, stretching, and almost fully rotating his head in both directions. I was hoping that he would reposition himself on his perch so I could photograph a frontal view, but no luck. In the end, he flew off quickly, away from the camera and toward the woods.

Enjoy the Birds This Holiday Season

Photographing this Sharp-shinned Hawk was a very unexpected and heartwarming Christmas surprise. I hope you all were able to take some time and enjoy the birds this holiday season.

(See this Post about a Cooper’s Hawk hunting at the Feeder.)

(See this Post about “Through the Glass Photography”.)

Photo of Cooper's Hawk

Photographing Cooper Hawks Hunting at Feeders

Photographing A Cooper’s Hawk

When a Cooper’s Hawk conceals himself in the brush near the bird feeders, all but one or two of the birds are immediately aware of him and scatter for cover. Occasionally a downy woodpecker, still as a marble stature, hides behind a suet feeder. There’s an eerie, quiet sense of anticipation in the air.

Photo of Cooper's Hawk
Cooper’s Hawk Looking Pretty Relaxed, Despite the Humans Nearby. ISO 1000; f/8; 1/2000 Second

Cooper’s Hawk Looking For An Easy Meal

Last August, we were visiting relatives and fellow birders in Madison, Wisconsin. My tripod, gimbal head, and DSLR camera with 500mm lens were set up on their balcony.  I had my longest lens attached because I was hoping to photograph some warblers I had noticed the previous evening on the prairie grasses below.

An immature Cooper’s Hawk (greenish/yellow eyes and a brown cap; adults have red eyes.) surprised us by perching close on a balcony ledge. He came in, seemingly unafraid of the 3 humans on the balcony, to investigate the bird feeders and swallow nests under the deck roof.

The Coop landed a little too close for my long lens, but there was no time to swap out lenses. I swiveled the camera, focused and pressed down that shutter. With the viewfinder stuffed, I was able to get off 20 or so shots as the hawk moved about on the balcony ledge. The hawk flew off after a minute or two because a couple of swallows, in an effort to protect their nest, were mercilessly dive-bombing and smacking him on the head.

Photo of Cooper's Hawk
Cooper’s Hawk, Adjusting His Footing While Being Mobbed by Tree Swallows.
ISO 1600; f/8; 1/2000 Second

Hawks That Hunt At Feeders

This young Cooper’s Hawk just flew in  – no sneaking up, no attack plan, just landed. Perhaps he was checking out the vulnerability of the nests or just getting a better view of the feeder layout.

Cooper’s Hawks are regular visitors at the feeders. They are about the size of a large crow- females typically 35% larger. Quiet, nimble, stealthy and fast, Cooper’s Hawks are able to navigate through dense woodlands to ambush their prey. Near feeders, they usually swoop down from a hidden location toward the feeding song birds and take advantage of the confusion to capture their victim. Occasionally, during the ruckus, a fleeing bird will crash into a window and become momentarily stunned. Easy pickings for the hawk.

Photographing this Cooper’s Hawk had me wishing (again) that I owned a telephoto zoom lens. Sometimes a large bird is just too close to the camera and there’s no time to change lenses. See this post about photographing a too close bald eagle.