Close up Photo of Rough Legged Hawk

Photographing Rough Legged Hawks in Flight

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Limited Success on Bird Photography Expeditions

I’ve been in a rut lately. During my birding expeditions this winter, I haven’t got out of my car once. I’ve missed some good shots too due to the restrictive nature of my small car. You can only stretch a head, body and camera so much. Had I just grabbed my camera and got out of the car to position the camera for the shot, it would have been easier and I might have missed fewer shots. Instead I stayed in the car and contorted my head, arms and camera to reach my target from the open window – giving myself very little maneuverability and even less dignity.

For some reason, I was clinging to the notion that all birds would be less likely to bolt if I hid quietly with my camera inside my 3000 lb car. After all, getting out of the car can cause quite a commotion… powering down the car, grabbing the camera, door opening, door closing and then propping the camera up to shoot. And what if I get cold?

Photo of Young Rough Legged Hawk
I LOVE Being Able to Count the Feathers!! Young Rough Legged Hawk Passing Over me Multiple Times -No Doubt Checking out the Camera and Long Lens Pointing at Him. ISO 640; f/9.0;1/2500 Second

Get Out of Your Comfort Zone to Photograph Birds

Well, it took me awhile, but last week I concluded that photographing from within the car was not the best strategy to capture photos of the rough legged hawk. There were way too many missed shots, and those I did manage to get were all tail feathers. I had to try something different.

Often, photographers must give limited chase when photographing birds – and chasing a soaring bird can not be done on foot. They fly too far, too fast. To locate birds and keep up with them, you need a vehicle. My strategy on this early March morning was to use my car to look for these elusive hawks in the usual places. Once I spotted one within fairly close proximity, I would quickly park and get out of the car with my camera.

After driving up and down the country roads where I had missed so many shots, I spotted two “roughies”….. and they spotted me. Both raptors watched me get of my car with my camera and slowly walk toward them. It is true that these hawks were not about to let me come too close to their perching spot, by car or on foot. But, when they did lift off, they didn’t fly away from me. They doubled back and flew toward the camera. Showing no fear, both glided over me at a close range, and then circled back again to get another look. Their airborne confidence gave me the time and maneuverability I needed to lift that camera toward the sky and start shooting. (NOTE: I relied heavily on my len’s image stabilizer to steady the shot. See this post for more information on the importance of IS technology.) I could have never taken these in-flight shots of these beautiful raptors from within my car.

Photo of Rough Legged Hawk
Rough Legged Hawks are Arctic Hawks that Generally Leave their Wintering Grounds in April and head North to the Arctic Tundra. ISO 500; f/9.0; 1/2500 Second

Rough Legged Hawks Wintering in Michigan

Rough Legged Hawks (named because of their feathered legs- a cold climate adaptation) are arctic raptors that generally leave the Canadian tundra in late Fall and fly south to northern parts of the United States. For the most part, these rugged raptors are not to be found in the lower 48 states during the summer months.

Here’s a link to the eBird Tracking map showing the Rough Legged Hawk’s Migratory Pattern. From this map, it looks like they head south sometime in November, mostly to the northwestern parts of the United States, and then return back to their northern Canadian breeding grounds around April.

Photo of Male RoughLegged Hawk
Adult Male Rough Legged Hawk in Flight- Looking Back at Me as He Flies Away. The Detail in this Photo is Compromised Due to Distance, but I Still Like the Way He Looked at Me.
ISO 320; f/9.0; 1/3200 Second

Walking With My Camera

Spring is here. In Michigan, that means it’s still likely to be cold and frosty in the mornings, at least until June. Despite the cold weather, I plan to bundle up and spend much of my time walking with my camera and monopod on my shoulder, looking for a large variety of curious birds willing to venture within shooting distance of my camera. After all, it’s Spring. I’m hoping that the birds will be focused on other pursuits besides fleeing from me.


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