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.
This post has been long overdue, but as I recovered from shoulder surgery over the summer, whilst I couldn't lift a camera I could tap on a keyboard, so I finally got round to finishing the report!
I took the trip to Barnegat back in March 2016, and with winter upon us now seemed like a good time to publish. Arguably going mid-week, and late in the season is ideal, as the birds are likely to be less skittish compared to when they first arrive in early winter, but I imagine once your target birds have arrived and are settled (check ebird for latest sightings at this "hotspot") any time from late November to early March is likely to be productive.
Barnegat Lighthouse is one of those fabled winter bird photography destinations on the New Jersey shore. A rocky jetty runs SE into the Atlantic Ocean for just under 1 mile, with a sandy shore to one side, and the Barnegat Inlet/Atlantic Ocean to the other. This location affords close views of various sea duck that overwinter in the area, perhaps most highly sought after being Harlequin.
But equally beautiful are the drake Long-tailed Ducks, also known as Oldsquaw.
Other species frequently seen on the seaward side are Loons, Scoters and Mergansers. In the tidal pools that form on the inshore side of the jetty you can find the odd wader (shorebird), including Purple Sandpiper, Turnstone and Grey/Black-bellied Plover, and on the beach you may stumble across the Ipswich Sparrow, a pale, sandy coloured race of Savannah Sparrow.
Getting a good sun angle is generally fine, although it may require some careful manoeuvring over the rocks. WARNING - the jetty is SLIPPERY, at times VERY slippery, and without due care and attention you can land yourself in trouble. The jetty is not to be trifled with, and so tread carefully at all times, ensuring you have a firm and safe footing.
Find a "comfy" (!) spot to sit on the jetty and let the birds come to you - your patience will be rewarded with plenty of BIF opportunities. Long-tailed Ducks, in particular, will float by with the current, then fly back past you, to once again float by. If you get lucky, they might even have an inquisitive look as they fly by!
Loons/Divers too are good candidates for the "waiting game", this one in transition from winter to summer plumage.
I had tremendous success with shorebirds foraging along the edge of tidal pools, as well as small groups roosting among the jetty boulders - Grey/Black-bellied Plover, Purple Sandpiper and Dunlin.
One of my favourite birds of the day was Ipswich Sparrow. Back in the day this was recognized as a distinct species, but since 1973 the AOU has considered it a subspecies of Savannah (Passerculus sandwichensis princeps), although morphologically they're pretty distinctive with their pale, sandy plumage and narrower breast stripes that have a pinkish cast.
To get a sense of the place, here's a couple of snaps taken with my iPhone. The first shot is taken looking back towards the lighthouse/car park, with the jetty on the right of the frame - essentially a wall of large boulders! You can also see one of the (larger) tidal pools.
And this second shot shows the very end of the jetty. On this day the waves were routinely crashing over the end - I did not venture anywhere near there - too wet, too slippery and just too dam dangerous!!
Snow day in DC means I have time to edit yet more Bald Eagle photos (and experiment with some new software too)!!!
I'm a big fan of LR/PS/MacPhun, but have been trialing PixelGenius Photokit as an alternative for sharpening. I discovered this Photoshop Plugin during a most educational online photo editing/critique session with Michael Milicia (if you want to understand what are your best photos and why, and how to make them look as good as they can, then contact Mike for a one-on-one web-based session).
The capture and output sharpener from PixelGenius I believe is the same engine as LR (under licence?), but I find it easier to apply in PS, with the benefit of being able to use a layer mask. You also have a particularly useful addition in the form of "creative sharpening", which is the main new tool I've been trying, applying it to select areas.
Added to experimenting with the new software, I was having one last look through too many Wilde Lake photos (what else does one do on a snow day?). Good job too, as I stumbled on what may well be my favourite!! In fact, so much so it has become my new Facebook banner photo - check out the fb page. Sometimes it's worth a second (or third, or fourth...) look through all those photos you fired off!!!
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