Australia has two species of harriers (Family Accipitridae, Genus Circus). The Spotted Harrier and the Swamp Harrier.
Swamp Harriers. The sheer shy nature of these birds makes them incredibly tough subjects to photograph. These raptors prefer to live in the vicinity of healthy wetlands where they nest in the reeds and hunt low over the marshes and surrounding fields. I have seen many a harrier in my nearly ten years of bird photography. In fact, there has been a pair living and nesting near my house in a small swamp near the town of Penrith, NSW.
However, they are extremely difficult to work with using conventional disguise techniques such as shooting from a motor vehicle. In the past, my best opportunity to photograph one hunting was at Pitt Town Lagoon sometime in 2007. I was still learning lots and totally screwed up the shots. Totally. The bird was soft and the wings blurred due to the low shutter speed used. At that time I have not woken up to the best method of flying bird photography; shooting in full manual mode. When you set the shutter speed and aperture based on your subject, it does not matter what kind of background it flies against (white sky, dark mud) you will still maintain the same exposure on the bird.
Recently I became acquainted with a property owner in the Hawkesbury who has a substantial amount of good harrier habitat. The first time we met, we were road side chatting and watched as three Swamp Harriers (male, female and immature) all hunted over the expansive fields of his. It was pure magic. He was gracious enough to give me access to the property so off I went.
The first morning I was “blessed” with thick fog. It was so thick I could not see 30 meters in front. The perfect morning sunrise came – somewhere else, not where I was of course – and the fog persevered. As it broke in areas I was lucky to note a Swamp Harrier land in a dead tree. Wearing my camouflage outfit, I started to make my way towards it. I got to about 45 meters from it really slowly through cold water and mud when it flew. No Swamp Harrier worth his weight will tolerate human presence within at least 100 meters usually. Often this comfort zone is far greater. Once the fog lifted, I walked around to some more likely areas and was greeted with an overall sighting of five (5) Swamp Harriers and two (2) Spotted Harriers. It was just awesome, especially that I was able to take some grab shots of a Swampie that surprised me from the left as I was photographing a bunch of spoonbills in a shallow pool. It is at times like this when years of flight photography experience comes in handy as I aimed and fired in about one second as I locked onto the raptor in flight in some nice light!
This morning, I headed back out at dawn in my full ghillie sniper suit. No harrier will see me as long as I stay still. On the way, I found a road killed hare so I took that along for bait.
I walked out to the same spot I caught the harrier last week and placed the hare in a likely location approximately 20 meters from where I plonked myself under a tree. There was again, one problem. It was raining ever so slightly. I sat in drizzling rain waiting. Having barely sat for five minutes when two Swamp Harriers shot up from the reed beds some 400 meters away and slowly made their way towards me. I was excited, but not excited knowing the light was poor and I was still on ISO6400. That is not necessarily the best for image quality, but good enough to record the action. As they approached they emitted these beautiful hawk-like whistles that I have never heard in my life. One perched on a wooden fence post about 20 meters from me, the other circled and checked out the hare. My shutter was on silent mode, which is pretty quiet, but can only fire off one frame at a time. When I changed the camera to fast frame rate, the sound must’ve sounded like gun fire to this bird and it slowly turned and headed off. Then its mate launched and circled a couple of times, giving me awesome opportunities to photograph it from 25 meters away. There was the problem of light though. Wish there was no cloud, as I would have had the most PERFECT morning light for the shots. Instead, I got some crap light and 1/400th of a second shutter speed at ISO6400. Hardly ideal for flight, but I could just manage.
As the second bird disappeared, a third emerged some half an hour later and gave me good views. Slowly, the light began to improve and I could dial the ISO down to 3200. Still not great, but better.
A male Swamp Harrier appeared and gave me an awesome flight in front filling the frame at 700mm as I was talking to my wife on the phone. Believe it or not!
When my luck ran out and I was sick of the rain, I made my way back to the car and managed to get some flight shots of a gorgeous Spotted Harrier too. It was another awesome morning at Richmond, but again, poor atmospheric conditions made for tough shooting.
My luck will strike hopefully the third time around. The photos were taken over two mornings.
Stay safe, and happy shooting!