Category Archives: Bird in Flight

Snow Geese Takeoff

I visited Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico again in December of 2014.  The refuge is home to tens of thousands of snow geese and sandhill cranes each winter.  This is a place so dear in my heart that I have visited many times in the past.  I have never left empty handed.

After I arrived at the refuge, I photographed at various locations the first day and figured out where birds were overnight.  The behavior of birds was different each time I visited.  This trip was not different either.  So purpose of my first day was largely for scouting out the area.  There were not many birds in the refuge this year.  However, on the way back to my hotel in the evening, I saw hundreds of sandhill cranes stayed on a pond at road side.  Therefore I decided to come back here to photograph them in the morning.

I arrived at the scene an hour before sunrise next morning.  I could see lots of cranes over the pond but no snow geese.  I setup my gear on a Jobu Heavy Duty Gimbal and patiently waited in the dark.  Jobu DMG-HD4 Heavy Duty Gimbal is a Gimbal head our friend at Jobu Design asked me to evaluate.  It was the first time I used it in the field.

Just before sunrise, I heard loud noise from the east.  I saw the sky was blanketed with snow geese.  There must be thousands of them.  They circled around the pond and started to land on it in a very orderly fashion.  I immediately started photographing them.  The light at predawn hour was very dim.  Instead of increasing iso and shutter speed to freeze the action, I deliberately slowed down the shutter speed to about 1/15 second to capture the motion effect of the wings.  It is a technique I used often.  Many of my published works were done with this technique.

Dream Landing

The landing process took about 15 minutes.  Almost at the instant when the last snow goose landed, all of them took off at the same time without any warning.  I took me by total surprise.  Fortunately, I was constantly capturing the landing action.  All I had to do was continue to shoot.  It was such a breath taken moment.  The birds were so densely packed in the air that one could not see much of the sky.  I always wonder why they don’t collide with each other.  The takeoff lasted a few seconds, then all of them were gone.  Apparently, this pond was used by snow geese as some sort of station ground to wait for all geese to arrive.

Group Action

It was such a memorable experience that I decided to come back again next morning.  I decided to do something different the second day.  I brought a second camera with a wide angle lens mounted.  I wanted to capture the environment when the snow geese took off.

It was a predictable event this time around when thousands geese arrived and started landing.  I photographed landing scene as usual with my telephoto lens.  But this time the birds did not take off immediately.  They waited for another half an hour.  When they finally took off, they did not take off all together.  Instead, they took off in large groups.  I photographed with my wide angle lens as each group of birds flying over my head.

I always capture images in RAW format to acquire as much information as possible in the field, even when I photograph wildlife.  Memory cards are so cheap these days that I carried several 64GB cards with me so that I never have to worry about running out of storage.  Back at home, I open them up Adobe Lightroom to make some global adjustment with exposure and color temperature before I send them to Adobe Photoshop for detailed adjustment.  Here I would adjust contrast, saturation, sharpness, etc.  During post processing, I converted “Dream Landing” into a monochrome image to enhance the dreamy effect.

Take Off

I have photographed snow geese at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge a few times before and I have witnessed the massive snow geese take off.  But this was the first time I photographed them up close.  It provided me a good opportunity to try something more creative.  I often pre-visualize when I photograph landscape, but wildlife photography is largely a spontaneous sport.  This was one of the rare moments I pre-visualized in wildlife photography.  I had this idea, and I knew it was going to be a special shot.  It was photographed with composition and technique just like landscape photography.  Is it a wildlife photo or landscape photo?  It does not matter.  When I saw my picture on the back of my camera, I knew I nailed it.

On a side note,  Jobu DMG-HD4 Heavy Duty Gimbal (Jobu Design) performed admirably.  It levels well.  Pan and tilt operations are amazingly smooth.  It is definitely a keeper.

Photographing Ding Darling

Florida is not just popular for “snow birds”, it is popular for all kinds of birds.  One of the hottest attractions for bird photographers is J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island near Ft. Meyers.  The refuge is part of the United States Wildlife Refuge System. It is famous for its migratory bird population.  Most photographers will find plenty to shot along the four miles of Wildlife Drive that takes you through mangrove tree forests and tidal flats.  What makes a photographer’s life even more interesting is that Sanibel Island is a tourist attraction by itself, with nice beaches and good restaurants, although most choose to go straight to the beaches.  It is a relaxing place to be while I don’t take pictures, and certainly makes it easy to convince my family to come along.

The hours of operation is my principle complaint.  The refuge opens at 7 a.m. and closes at sunset.  It also closes every Friday.  I anxiously waited outside of the gate every morning, watched the sun rising behind me, missed the best light of day, and the best bird action of the morning when most of birds take off together from the tidal flats they spent the night at.  Well, U.S. government is not known to be photographer friendly.

Nevertheless, Ding Darling is a bird photographer’s paradise.  What is remaining after 7:00am is still enough to give any wildlife photographer a real treat.  There are plenty wake up calls after 7:00am.

Wake up Call

And plenty of action even the light is not the best.

Just Caught a Crab

The most intriguing bird at Ding Darling is probably the Spoonbill.  God must have thought the feathers are too pretty.  He gave her an ugly head to be fair to the entire bird species.  Nevertheless, I love her just for her feather.

Pink Panther

Bald Eagles on Mississippi

The bald eagle is American national bird because of its association with authority and statehood.  Its majestic beauty and great strength attract thousands of bird watchers and photographers to the Mississippi River bank, where bald eagles feed on the fishes near the dams during winter months.

I always come to Loc & Dam 14 on Mississippi each winter.  Like anything else in nature, it has been hit or miss.  Sometimes, I can only see a couple of eagles flying far and away for a whole afternoon.  Two weeks ago, I hit the jackpot.   It had been a harsh week that temperature stayed in single digit for the entire week.  A heavy snow covered field that eagles had nowhere else to find food supply but to come to the unfrozen open water under the dam.  The light was great and the action was none stop from the time we arrived around 11:00am to sunset.

Here Comes the Fish

I have photographed bald eagles catching fish over Mississippi hundreds of times.  But at the moment it races down to the water surface to grab the fish, it has never failed to electrify my brain and keep my heart singing.  This is the moment that is worth photographing for a lifetime as it my heart praises the creator of this magnificent creature.

Good Catch

The Great Escape

The Great Escape

I was at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico in January 2012 to photograph snow geese. The refuge is home to tens of thousands of snow geese each winter. Also, there must be tens of thousands of Red Winged Blackbirds there.

When I was photographing snow geese one afternoon, I noticed a group of blackbirds at distance. They travel in a huge group. The way these blackbirds move is like a rolling dust ball. While the birds at front of the group land, the birds in the back of group take off, fly over the group and then land at front. The process continues on so that the whole group moves like a huge ball rolling around the farmland.

I was photographing a group of snow geese in front of me. When I saw these blackbirds at distance, I knew these blackbirds might scare off the white geese when they roll over them. I waited about half an hour for this event to happen while patiently kept the spot focus on the snow geese on the ground.  When it happened, I fired away some 10 shots over one second.  Among them, this was the only one where the snow goose was unobstructed.  I waited for another 45 minutes or so.  It happened again.  This time I caught a pair of snow geese.  I waited there until sunset, but the blackbirds never returned.

The Great Escape

I often pre-visualize when I photograph landscape, but wildlife photography is largely a spontaneous sport.  This was one of the rare moments I pre-visualized in wildlife photography.  I wanted to place the snow geese among a contrasting background of numerous blackbirds before I took this picture.   So my focus was always on the snow geese while I was waiting for arrival of the army of blackbirds.  I had this idea, and I knew it was going to be a special shot.  Fortunately, I did not have to wait too long for it.  When I saw my picture on the back of my camera, I knew I nailed it.

The difficulty of taking this shot was to capture the right moment and to keep the focus on the snow geese.  The large amount of blackbirds can easily confuse the focus system of a camera.  It happened so quickly that it is almost impossible to take this shot spontaneously.  I kept my spot focus on the snow geese who were standing on the ground, and patiently waited.  When the moment came, my concentration was on this single snow goose, completely ignored the blackbirds and fired away in high speed.

I titled the pictures as “Escape” because I want to convey a feeling that innocent snow geese escaping an overwhelming dark force.

Flying Dreams

Flying Dreams

Flying Dreams

Crane is a graceful creature that captures my imagination.  Each winter, I take several trips to Jasper Pulaski Wild Life Refuge in Indiana where tens of thousands of cranes congregate in the area during winter migration.  They take off at dawn and return at dusk.  One can hear them from a couple of miles away.  The sight of thousands of cranes taking off at the same time always keep my heart pounding.

The first attempt of photographing bird in flight is to freeze the motion with high shutter speed of at least 1/500 second.  But I want a different effect to reveal a sense of motion.  My answer is to photograph the bird with a slower shutter speed.   How slow?  It depends on how fast the bird moves.  After many attempts, I found that a shutter speed somewhere close to 1/20 second is ideal for a large bird like a crane.  At this shutter speed, the wings will be blurry to the extent that shows movement, but not too slow that becomes a featureless smear.  Photographing bird in flight with slow shutter speed is harder than it seems.  The challenge is to keep the other parts of body, especially the head, relatively clear.  Otherwise, the whole image will look like an out of focus waste.  This requires a steady camera support, good panning technique, a lot of practice, and even more luck.

I have my camera supported with a Wimberly Sidekick, which allows me to pan smoothly.  The camera is set to continuous focus, and I start to lock on the object, preferably the head, a  couple of seconds before I pull the trigger.  After a sequence of high speed burst is over, I still follow through with a continuing panning motion.  Even so, 90% of the images are total waste that will be deleted immediately after I transfer them to the computer.  But when I am lucky, there will be one that captures my imagination.

Family Spirit

Family Spirit

Fire Birds

Jasper Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in northwest Indiana is where Sandhill cranes make their stops on their way south during fall migration.  Thousands of cranes congregate at Jasper Pulaski marsh in any November day.

Shooting Sandhill cranes has being on my must do list for a number of years.  This year, however, I picked a wrong day to go there.  On top of being a cold, windy and cloudy, there were a lot of people partying there, so the cranes were flying far away from the crowd.  After sun set to the west, the light became too dim to photograph these birds.  I packed up my gears in disappointment, knowing there was probably nothing in the camera  worth keeping.  When I reached parking lot, I returned my head and looked back.  Oh , my God!  The sky out west was on fire!  I had less than 5 minutes to set up tripod in the parking lot and take a couple of shots before the light disappeared.  Fortunately, there were still a few cranes returning late to complement the fiery cloud.  The picture here still looks a little “unrealistically” red, even after I reduced red color saturation by 25% in Lightroom.

Every kind of weather has its blessing.  This turned out to be one of the most spectacular sunset I have experienced.  So, lesson for the day is: don’t leave the scene until you can’t see your fingers.

Fire Birds