My interest in nature photography developed from watching many documentaries as a kid, teenager and generally having always had more interest in what the natural world is all about than spending time in the pub or night clubbing (in those stupid younger years).
I have been seriously into photographing birds since March 2006, when I bought my first ever digtal single lens reflex camera (DSLR). The wonderful Canon EOS 30D began to refresh my enthusiasm for nature photography, open up new opportunities, and gave me instant feedback on my technique (which kind of sucked then) and started an obsession with bird photography. Now most bird photographers (including me) are keen bird observers. Many keen bird observers dabble in photography, take shots of birds they see and are happy with the results in general. They are not necessarily into the photography bit as much. I am more a photographer than a bird observer, but needless to say, without my burning passion of birds in general the photography part would be rather dismal. One needs to know about bird biology (to a degree anyway), understand behaviour, read habitat and know where a particular bird could be seen. One needs to trawl internet resources for sightings, or just be out and about as much as possible and pick up every clue. Learning as many calls of species also helps a ton. Being cluey about what’s where at what time of the year, being observant and developing a sixth sense and having an ounce of luck complete the picture. Pun intended. The photography part is a little like hunting. However, this is REAL hunting with a camera and big lens instead of a guide and big guns, which just about any fool can do. They (strangely) often refer to the big super telephoto lenses as big guns; an odd reference indeed.
My favourite birds to photograph are birds of prey, raptors, those that kill and eat other animals; mammals, birds, reptiles etc. Raptors are an amazing group with incredible adaptations, exceptional vision, hearing and flight skills. Many also possess absolutely gorgeous plumages and it is here I introduce a raptor I’ve long wanted to photograph and finally had the opportunity to do so this morning. It was September 11, 2012 in suburban Cranebrook, near Penrith about as far west in Sydney as it gets. The raptor was a Spotted Harrier; a bird of the drier inland regions, though interestingly more commonly observed in the west of Sydney in recent times. There have been many regular reports especially from Cornwallis and the Richmond Lowlands areas. Luckily, Cranebrook is the next suburb to our home in Cambridge Gardens, so only a stone’s throw away. I pass Cranebrook daily; whether I am taking our three gorgeous doggies for a walk and run, or whether I am en route to check on my wife’s horse. I know the areas like the back of my hands. If you are familiar with Birdline, you note that I regularly post sightings from Castlereagh 10’ Cell, which are observations I make around my home turf. My first ever sighting of a Spotted Harrier was at the Penrith Quarries, at my friend’s place, which is all private property. That was January 8, 2012 and all I managed was a mediocre, no terrible, ID shot from a couple of hundred meters away. Over the past eight months I dreamt, and dreamt and dreamt of capturing this beautiful raptor with my camera and the only times I would have had a good chance I didn’t bother taking my gear with me, for I was tired and just could not be bothered. Idiot! Yes, I was. Lesson learned, and those little – albeit costly – mistakes will never happen again.
This gorgeous morning I wanted to check on my beloved pair of Swamp Harriers near the baseball fields in Andrews Road, which back onto the Penrith Sewage Treatment plant and there is a large swamp, which holds a breeding pair of these Swamp Harriers. It was on this day over two consecutive years that I was able to observe the pair perform courtship flights over the swamp. How incredible a sight it was too! I chose to bypass this spot as I took our three mutts for their morning run to my friend’s place at the quarries instead. Boy, did I say luck also plays a part in bird photography? You bet! Had I not have gone to Castlereagh, had I not have been coming home at exactly the time the harrier crossed in front of me I would’ve still been dreaming.
On the way home, I was passing the spot where I saw a Spotted Harrier glide SW over two mornings in a row in early August; at the same time as well. This morning, I saw the Spotted Harrier coming in from the SW towards the NE and lucky I decided to pull over, do a quick U-turn and head east along Nepean Street (runs off Castlereagh Rd). The bird was quartering low over the little swamp and headed in the direction of Camelot Drive where it quartered low over some suburban gardens. It then disappeared. Now I also mentioned about knowing bird behaviour and I will refer to knowing about this twice now. The first thing to look for when chasing a raptor is annoyed birds. Local birds can be very defensive and now in spring when many species breed, it is even more prominent as the smaller birds are mad as cut snakes, protecting their home territories and nest sites. I stopped halfway up the hill in Camelot Drive and noted a bunch of crazy Noisy Miners and a Red Wattlebird. The harrier was given up by its enemies. It sat on a bare branch, beautifully surrounded by some foliage. The only problem was the direction of light. Not good!
I took some photos anyway just in case it’s the best chance I would have. Luckily it wasn’t as the light angle was poor (had to shoot straight into the sun) and today those backlit images have made it to the digital compost bin. So I was lucky to be able to drive a few houses up and into a back street, which again had a cul-de-sac that led me close to where the harrier was perched, preening. I had a very poor view, through sticks and foliage. I just waited until it had to fly. I knew that sooner or later it would. This is when understanding bird behaviour and being able to pick up on body language can help anticipate the moment. The moment came, and about 10 seconds before the bird flew, it defecated. Defecation is a sure way to tell when a bird is about to take off. For me it comes through every time. So the bird flew, I was ready as I had already taken the 1.4x converter off knowing that 700mm was going to be too much lens and I fired.
Once the bird left the area, I quickly reviewed the images on the LCD and knew that finally I was rewarded for months and months of chasing, observing, anticipating and hoping. It was the best bird photography moment of 2012 for sure. Even better than mating Powerful Owls! Well, on par then OK?
Stay safe and happy bird photography or observing to you!