Hawfinch is never an easy bird to see, being particularly wary, but this year has seen unusual numbers of this elusive finch across parts of Europe. In the UK The British Trust for Ornithology saw a 12% increase in observations submitted to their online system BirdTrack. They were popping up everywhere, and in good numbers. Even the media found this a worthy story to cover, with articles appearing up in tabloids, broadsheets and local papers.
And that story has certainly being repeated here in Switzerland. I see them periodically in the local woods, but this past few months they've been popping up all over the place -- I've seen them while walking to the shops and even while waiting for the train. But best of all has been a couple of birds that have become regular visitors to the garden giving cracking views and photo opportunities! My wife is ever amused by my habit off disappearing into the garden and hiding under my portable camo-hide (Lenscoat LensHide), but you certainly need it for a bird like this. Silent mode on the shutter release also a must if you don't want to spook the bird.
Sporting a predominantly rusty-brown/buff plumage with accents of black and grey, massive bill and large head, this is one smart bird. Canon 1DX Mkii with 600mm f/4 ISII + 1.4x. 1/320 @ f/5.6, ISO 2500. Nice head turn - take a read of my article Head Games on how a good head turn can really make a shot - but shame the feet are just hidden from view.
And WHAT a beak - this bird truly is the avian "nutcracker"! Canon 1DX Mkii with 600mm f/4 ISII + 1.4x. 1/500 @ f/5.6, ISO 2000.
WOW!!! DOUBLE WOW!!!! If you want an experience like no other then take a tandem paragliding flight. And yes, it's a break from wildlife photography, but maybe next time we'll get to fly with some birds (on occasion an eagle does drift by!!).
The entire flight was AMAZING. The video (GoPro on a selfie stick) is just a glimpse of how amazing the flight was, but it doesn't even get close to what the experience feels like. Words simply don't do the experience justice, but that hasn't stopped me from talking about it for days!!!
I can't recommend Wing over Chamonix enough. Everything was highly professional, smoothly executed, and just damn fun. Put this on your "must do" list and take a flight with Olivier - it will take your breath taken away! Oh, and stump up the extra for an XXL flight (45 minutes - 1 hour, weather depending) - worth every penny/cent!
For further information, contact Olivier Laugero at Wing over Chamonix.
Where: Chamonix (1 hour drive from Geneva airport)
Launch: Plan de L'Aiguille (first stop on the Aiguille du Midi cable car).
Parking: there's a large car park just before you enter Chamonix, which is only a 5 minute walk from the start of the cable car.
There are a number of birds that can be found in the Swiss Alps that are quite simply "blow your socks off cool". Lammergeier, also known as Bearded Vulture or even Bone Crusher, is one of those! This is a big bird (not yellow!!), with a wingspan of somewhere over 2.5 metres (which dwarfs something like a Golden Eagle). It is truly magnificent and in adult/sub-adult plumage, true to its name, it sports a little goatie beard!!
Classified by BirdLife International as Near Threatened, a successful reintroduction programme, started back in 1986, with the first wild hatched birds occurring in 1997, has established a healthy population in the Alps. Current population estimate is 200+ individuals in the Alps, while globally no more than 6,700 mature individuals (BirdLife Data Zone species fact sheet).
With a little luck, only a couple of hours drive from Geneva, you can get jaw-dropping views of this stunning bird while surrounded by the splendour of the Alps. Now you of course need heaps of patience - during a stint of 7-8 hours on a mountain pass you may only get one or two viewings. And then it's a bit of a lottery as to whether or not the bird flies close enough, on the right trajectory and in the right light. But when they do appear, and they "behave", then wow!! Bearded Vulture, Valais, Switzerland
I've been living in Switzerland now for 7 months, and Bearded Vulture is definitely becoming one of my favourite alpine birds to photograph. I have a 1Dx Mkii mounted on a tripod and attached to the 600mm + 1.4 extender, and a 7DMkii with the 100-400mm II slung over the shoulder. The latter provides a really potent combination for when the birds are close - the two images above are both full frame and taken with the 7D Mkii and 100-400mm II combo. Bearded Vulture (4th year), Valais, Switzerland
Above is a 4th year/sub adult - not quite as majestic as a full adult but still an imposing bird as it flies by.
For those interested in AF settings, for birds in flight I find tracking sensitivity especially important. This controls whether the active AF point will stay "locked on" the subject or quickly switch focus if the focus point moves off the subject, such as to something in the foreground or background, as may happen if I fail to keep the AF points on the subject at all times. I set this to -2. i.e. stay "locked on" and don't switch focus to the background/foreground too quickly, together with AF Area Selection set to AF Point Expansion, either 4 or 8 point. My tracking skills are something I'm forever striving to improve and I have to remind myself to pan "through" the bird to avoid it getting ahead in the viewfinder. The telltale sign that I'm panning too slowly is that in a sequence of shots the subject increasingly gets closer to the leading edge of the image. Bearded Vulture, Valais, Switzerland
And whilst the frame-filling fly-bys (is that Maverick and Goose!!??) with clear blue skies give you great bang for your buck, I'm a big fan of "habitat" shots, giving a sense of place. Bearded Vulture, Valais, Switzerland
Hanging out at the mountain pass is a wonderful way to spend a day. And if the vultures are not putting on a show, then you will be entertained by the ever present Alpine Choughs, and with luck another two bird specialties of the Alps: Alpine Accentor and White-winged Snowfinch. Alpine Accentor, Valais, Switzerland White-winged Snowfinch, Valais, Switzerland And while waiting for your target bird, the "office" view isn't so bad (pano with iPhone 6s)!
If you're interested in a custom workshop photographing these avian wonders and polishing your bird in flight skills, then send me a message.
One of many tips and skills that I learnt from attending a workshop with the very talented Michael Milicia is that it's the little details that often contribute to an image's success. Head angle is one of those important details, where a slight turn towards the camera can elevate a technically well executed image to one that's far more engaging for the viewer. And often, once you're aware of these little nuances (which in hindsight may seem obvious), you'll find that you develop a more discerning eye when selecting your best shots, looking out for these little touches that separate the winning shot from otherwise very similar photos.
Have a look at this sequence of 3 shots of a female Serin foraging below the feeders in the garden. This is a single burst, with the images shown in the order they were taken.
Which do you prefer and why?
If you're not sure of the subtle differences, here's an animated sequence (if the animation has stopped simply refresh the page and it will loop a few times, or click here to show full screen).
Ignore the distracting bright white daisies and focus on the head angle changes. Here's what we have:
As a final comment, worth noting that all three images benefit from a nice distinctive catch light.
Wing flaps are one of those really cool looking shots, turning a standard picture of a duck bobbing about on the water’s surface into something more dynamic. But how do you go about catching them? Is it all a game of chance and luck? Well, there’s certainly need for patience, but there are a number of things you can do that can really increase you chance of success:
Anticipation: Seeing a bird flapping may be your cue to quickly take aim and fire off a sequence of shots – you may get lucky, but in my experience this is not really the best approach. Instead, anticipation is the key. Before a wing flap, a bird will often go through what can be a quite prolonged period of bathing, dunking itself under the water repeatedly, and generally having a good ol’ splash around! This is your sign to focus on this bird. And stick with this bird, unless it assumes the all too familiar “head-tucked” in pose and promptly goes to sleep on you!
Framing: A bird does two things when it flaps its wings: it gets tall on the water, and then spreads its wings, thereby getting much larger in the frame. If you want to avoid clipping the wing tips, then you need to be prepared for this, and ensure your focal length (if using a zoom, then zoom out a little) and/or distance to subject are appropriate such that a bird standing tall with fully extended wings will fit in the frame.
Pochard wing-flap (wings forward, "conducting") Exposure: Ducks as subjects often present an exposure challenge, featuring bright white plumage through to darks (think of species such as Eider, Harlequin, Long-tailed Duck – all these cover the entire dynamic range that your sensor can likely record). And then the light reflecting off the water tends to fool evaluative metering, which is likely to under expose the shot as it drags the whites back to mid-grey. I therefore tend to work in manual mode, with an eye on ensuring bright whites are exposed correctly. Now you may say, but the duck is somewhat mid-tone in colouration (think Canvasback or Redhead, or since I’m in Europe, Pochard). But, even if the bird is somewhat mid-tone in overall plumage, when it flaps its wings all of a sudden there will be an explosion of white – the under-wing is typical close to white, there may be a white wing-bar, and then the belly is also white. If you’ve not exposed correctly for bright whites, all these will light up the blinkies on the image preview like a Christmas tree.
Pochard wing-flap (wings back/angel pose) Speed: You want a FAST shutter speed. This means, in particular, pushing your ISO. The shots in this article are taken between ISO 2000 and ISO 3200, allowing for a shutter speed in the region of 1/3200th.
By way of some final considerations, you ideally want a bird that’s somewhat isolated, thereby avoiding any distracting out-of-focus individuals in the background, and good sun angle, to ensure even illumination of the head. Think too about light quality – here, a little cloud cover can be ideal, as clouds are the best diffusers ever, softening the light wonderfully.
Once a bird has finished, do not be too quick to see what you got and take a look at the back of the screen. A bathed duck with its feathers all nicely in order is a happy duck, and a happy duck likes to quack about it!
This article can now be downloaded in PDF format from the Articles menu, or by clicking here.
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