Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Get to know your subject and repeat visits to a location

I first started photographing these Red-Shouldered Hawks in 2005. They're wild birds that live at the US National Zoo.

My earliest encounters were the hawks hunting and working on their nest gathering sticks and branches.

Gathering Nesting Material
Red Shouldered Hawk @ DC Zoo (Free)

In Their Nest
2 Red Shouldered Hawks - In their nest

Red Shouldered Hawks Mating
Hawk Sex @ DC Zoo

By going to the zoo often, I got to know some of their habits, where they liked to hunt and hang out. One reason I think I was able to spot them regularly and not spook them off is how they've become used to the zoo's visitors and don't just fly off when a human is present.

That's not to say that you could just walk up to them and they wouldn't care, but that relative to other birds that might see a few people a day or none, these two birds saw hundreds if not thousands of people a day. These birds help to teach me about how to approach and how to not disturb wildlife. It worked out well for me because of how new I was to wildlife photography, and they were very tolerant.

For comparison, I've seen some Red-Tailed Hawks and American Kestrals at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, and these birds won't let you get very close at all. They see much fewer people on a daily basis, their range is probably much larger, and they have to work harder to get food. The hawks at the zoo sometimes steal food from the zoo's exhibits, where these ones have to work hard for every meal.

Since my earliest encounters with these Red-Shouldered Hawks a few years ago, I've probably seen them over 30 or 40 times. I've learned their call, and can hear them from nearly a half mile away. Sometimes finding them was easy, because for example I learned a spot they liked to roost in, like this particular tree behind the outdoor bird aviary.

Red-Shouldered Hawks *outside* Aviary

This year (2008) I got some of my favorite photos of them, and they were mating. The day I got the below images I went looking for the hawks because I knew early in the morning they might be working on their nest. When I got to the area I didn't see any hawks, so I took a few minutes to make sure my camera was setup right, and adjusted for the light, etc. Then a bit later I spotted on of the of hawks, and then shortly after that the second hawk flew by with something for the nest.

I knew it could happen, that they'd mate, and I waited. Moments later the male flew to the female and they mated for a minute or so.

Makin' Babies - Red-Shouldered Hawks

Nikon D300, 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D VR - @400mm, ISO400, f/7, 1/400th, 0EV.

There were many days I went looking for these 2 birds and didn't see them. Other days I'd find them, but either they were too far off, or the light was drab, or nothing special happened. But by giving myself the chances, and learning some about their behavior I was able to be in the right place at the right time on multiple occasions.

I wouldn't recommend finding a bird's nest and just waiting there for the action. Nesting birds, or wildlife with babies should be respected and given some distance. That said, every animal is different and is used to different things and can cope in their own way. These hawks were so used to people, and possibly and even me in particular that I don't think I bothered or disturbed them. You'll have to use your own judgment, and try to do what you think is ok. Over time you'll gain a better base of experience to make more informed decisions from.

Get To Know Your Subjects and Repeat Visits to a Location



Tom O'B said...

Excellent essay, and great photos. It shows that to get thr ight shots you need more than just skill with the camera, though of course you need that too.

Rondeau Ric said...

Good blog, I didn't know you had one. I'll visit more in the future.

flickrfotografer said...

Wonderful series of hawk shots.

Excellent advice!!! I've been an avid bird watcher for nearly 20 years. In that time I've learned a great deal about the behavior and habitats of many species. One of these days I hope to acquire the photographic talent (and equipment) to put that knowledge to use as you have discussed in your essay. ;-)