Bad light and good birds

tree stump on still morning on Jordan Lake
Some weeks back, Buggato and I did a sunrise session down at Jordan Lake, which was an undeniably mixed bag. While we haven’t had rain in forever (seriously, like one five-minute shower since Dorian blew through uneventfully,) the morning was still too cloudy to see the sun at all until well after sunrise, so no rich colors and frameable prints on that end. But before the breezes of the day had begun, I took the opportunity to frame an old stump against the inordinately still waters – a stump that I’m almost certain I’d photographed 14 years earlier. Compare those horizon lines and tell me what you think.

The waterfowl, however, were more than adequately present, if difficult to photograph in the weak light, and we spent some time stalking them as they flitted back and forth between ideal spots along the lakeshore.

great egret Ardea alba on shore of Jordan Lake
Several great egrets (Ardea alba) were milling about, and allowed us to get within a useful shooting distance, for a long lens at least. They seem reasonably used to people in this particular area, so all we had to do was remain quiet and move slowly. By the way, this occurred within about a half-kilometer or so of this photo (and this,) so I’m not complaining one bit.

We even got a few flying by which, again, wasn’t helped at all by the lack of sunlight, but I snagged a couple of useful frames nonetheless. Notice that now there was enough of a breeze to stir the lake surface.

great egret Ardea alba flying past over Jordan Lake
This one I happened to like because of the way the head lined up with the wing. Sometimes, you get a cool frame simply because you’re taking the opportunity to fire off a bunch as your subject is being cooperative. I usually recommend the opposite, which is thinking about the shot and planning for it as much as possible instead of relying on chance, but there’s no way I could have timed such an alignment of head and wing, or even seen it clearly enough in the viewfinder.

We were hoping to spot some bald eagles, and I thought I might have seen one alight in a tree around the point, so we made our cautious way over there, eyeing the trees carefully. As we got almost directly underneath the spot where I’d seen it land, we’d found absolutely nothing, and I figured I’d either misjudged its location or it had slipped off around the bend while out of sight. And then, right smack in front of us in the shallows, an osprey (Pandion haliaetus) slammed into the water in pursuit of a fish; I had been right about the location, but not the species (I told you it was dim,) and the osprey wasn’t at all concerned with our proximity. I’d missed the initial action but brought the camera to bear as quickly as I could, and was rewarded with the takeoff at least.

osprey Pandion haliaetus breaking from water with captured fish
And then, to set a pattern that was to hold for the rest of the session, the autofocus failed to track worth a shit, and I have several close frames of an incredibly blurry bird, before it finally found its mark again and locked back on. I might credit this to bad centering on my part, but the camera is usually set for wide-field, multi-point focus in such situations and my subject tracking isn’t that bad. This isn’t the first time either; something’s going on, and I’m hoping to find out what eventually.

osprey Pandion haliaetus shaking off water from recent capture
Note the water droplets – at least the occasional frame comes out right. Osprey, and indeed many other diving birds, often climb out for a few seconds and get a bit of altitude before doing a full-body shimmy to rid themselves of excess water, which someday I’m going to capture on video. Judging from the flatness of the feathers, that isn’t what’s happening here; it’s just residual drippiness.

The sun did eventually struggle free from the clouds, panting and exhausted, but it was a while before the light was strong, and while this was happening, none of the birds around us were inclined to cross either the limited colors of the clouds nor the brief appearances of the glitter trails on the water. I watch for that kind of thing, but nooooo….

morning sun barely peeking through clouds
Eventually, after finding too little to sustain us in that region of the lake (except for some fartsy shots,) we headed a short distance off to another promising spot, the same where a great egret had landed in the trees right over my head (that’s linked a couple of paragraphs above – you never bothered to click, did you?) Knowing that a particular cove often played host to herons, egrets, and osprey, we carefully scoped out the area as much as possible from a distance, then slowly made our way deeper into the cove. We’d spotted nothing, and I eventually started out into the shallow water to get a view into the treetops overhead, to see if anything was hanging out there. I wasn’t seeing much, but glanced to the side and abruptly froze, hissing at Mr Bugg for caution and silence, since an osprey was perched in plain sight right at the edge of the cove.

osprey Pandion haliaetus perched in hunting position
This shot is full frame at 600mm, with the osprey being 20-25 meters off; there was no question that it could see us, because we couldn’t have been any more obvious out in the open water. It just wasn’t concerned about our presence at all, at least at this minimal distance. Communicating in very quiet whispers and moving with due caution, we started creeping closer at times, firing off a ridiculous number of frames. The following are all cropped a bit for better detail.

osprey Pandion haliaetus searching for fish
You might think that it’d be keeping a wary eye on us and our suspicious behavior, but it was more intent on finding breakfast. I’m used to osprey wheeling around overhead and spotting their food while on the wing, but this takes less energy, I admit. And they might prefer to do this when the wind is stronger and thermals can hold them aloft with little effort, which may not have developed by this point in the morning.

osprey Pandion haliaetus watching photographer for a moment
Out of dozens of frames, this is the only one where the bird is definitely looking right at us; other times it might have been in our general direction, but it’s clear from the head and eye angle that it’s paying more attention to the water below. Though in one instance, as a turkey vulture wheeled overhead (which puts the lie to the speculation that the thermals were insufficient, so this appears to be just a lazy bird,) the osprey eyed the sky for a few moments, obviously more concerned about the vulture than about us.

osprey Pandion haliaetus watching turkey vulture overhead
Several times, its attention seemed to indicate a potential launch for food, and we sat at the ready, arms aching from holding the big lenses up to our eyes, while the osprey faked us out. But eventually it took off and circled overhead casually, with my autofocus locking on less often than it should’ve. At length, the osprey dropped into the water and came out with a fish, and then circled the area several times; I finally figured out that it wanted to return to its perch, but didn’t feel safe with us present (despite having sat there for a measured ten minutes while we danced in the water,) so I motioned us back under the tree canopy a bit. But during that time, we were tracking its movements and firing off frames, and I managed to get one that was okay, but not ideal, while it held the fish in its talons.

osprey Pandion haliaetus passing overhead with captured fish
Knowing that it would be out of commission for a little while as it consumed the fish, we wandered off to another area to see if anything else could be found, as we were near the end of the session time. Finding nothing, we did one more quick peek at the cove, and discovered that an osprey was back to wheeling over the water; I couldn’t say for sure if it was the same one or not. We ended up running over time as we tried for more frames, hoping to get the moment of capture. I got so frustrated with the autofocus wandering at inopportune times that I switched to manual, because the tiny tweaks needed were far less than the tracking motor was taking the focus, even though I cannot honestly recommend trying to manually focus on a circling bird, unless you like apoplexy.

This next one is again full-frame, so you get the idea of how close the osprey passed overhead, and I don’t feel bad about focus and tracking on this one because, this close, that’s a lot of movement to stay on top of.

osprey Pandion haliaetus passing close overhead with fish
Even after I unloaded the card and was looking at these on the large monitor, I was wondering if the damn bird had somehow dropped the fish we’d seen it carrying, but then I realized it was a trick of the light on an unimpressive catch; the fish is there, if you look. But to assist, here’s a full-resolution inset of the same frame.

inset of frame showing osprey Pandion haliaetus talons and fish
Knowing the size of ospreys (I’ve handled a couple during my rehab days,) I don’t think that fish tops out more than 8cm in length, so barely a snack. But those talons are impressive, aren’t they? If you go swimming in these waters, it’s undoubtedly a bad idea to do so in trunks decorated with little fishies.

Overall, the session was productive enough, I have to admit, despite the lack of sunrise, and this post catches me up a little on the backlog of photos and stories that I’m working through. Thankfully I’m not trying to do this on any schedule, because I’d be constantly wrecking it, but they’re still coming, in due time.

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