I really enjoy raptor photography, definitely much more than any other type of bird photography. Birds of prey are powerful, aggressive, fast, agile, precise and even at times ravenous, having no mercy on their targets. They are also tough to photograph and get close to, since most of them (especially adults) do not like people and their presence. I have been studying raptor behavior and habitat during the last 3 years and have traveled to various locations both in Colorado and in other states to see and photograph these beautiful creatures. In this article, I will show you some of the latest pictures and videos of predators I took during the last month and will give you a few tips on photographing raptors.
I have already written a detailed guide on how to photograph birds, so if you have not seen it yet, I highly recommend to check it out. I cover pretty much everything when it comes to bird photography and I provide plenty of information on what gear to get, what camera settings to use, how to locate and approach birds and how to photograph them. The tips I provide are also generally valid for raptors, but I wanted to add a few more to the list:
- Find the YAS (Young and Stupid) – adult birds of prey, especially several years old, are extremely hard to approach. They always see you first and they know quite well when you cross their comfort zone. The situation with the youngsters (fledglings and older), however, is quite different. Young predators that have just learned how to fly are always very curious and they can often let people get extremely close to them. You can get some great shots, especially if they are ready to show off. If they are still in the nest and have not yet fledged, please keep away from them and do not disturb, since you will agitate their parents who might never return.
- Use a blind – hunting blinds are never fun to set up and camp in, unless you are close to a breeding area or a spot where the birds of prey hang out. Your best blind is your car – most of the predators, especially the adults are very used to vehicles and they typically do not mind approaching vehicles. Obviously, this limits you to photographing predators perched on trees and electric poles close to the roads, but do not get discouraged – I have taken many great shots of predators from my car, especially when they take off.
- Approach slowly from a distance – especially if you are driving in a vehicle. If you are going fast and then making a sudden stop, you will most likely scare the bird. Try going slowly from a distance and get the bird used to your presence. Open your window long before you get to the bird.
- Slow down if the bird raises its tail – when predators raise their tail, it means that they are getting agitated and will be ready to take off anytime soon. If you see a bird doing that, go even slower, which should calm the bird down a little.
- Stop if the bird poops – predators almost always defecate before flying away when they are bothered by humans. If you see such behavior, it means that the bird is agitated with your presence and thus it is giving you a visual “warning”. Here is a visual example from a Red-tailed Hawk:
And another one from an Osprey:
So, if you see something like the above, stop and wait until the bird gets comfortable with you again (which might not happen no matter what you try). Note the different color of excrement – hawks eat mice and voles, which is why the color of their excrement is dark, while ospreys consume fish. I apologize for providing such gross details, but it is all in the name of science, LOL :)
- Arrive early and stay late – don’t try to hunt for diurnal predators during afternoon hours when it is too hot outside, but rather arrive early right at sunrise, when the birds are hungry and hunting. No predator would want to miss a good breakfast and you might get some good action photographing the food consumption process. The same is true for sunset – predators always try to get something for the dinner before they go to sleep and might hunt for a while even after sunset. Here is an example of an osprey eating fish in the morning:
I even managed to record a video of the same osprey:
Nocturnal predators are extremely tough to find and photograph, since they only start appearing 30-45 minutes after sunset and disappear before sunrise. For challenging light conditions, it is always a good idea to have a tripod with you. While not very practical, a tripod would help you keep your camera stable while allowing you to decrease ISO.
Other recent photographs of predators:
On the side note, I have recently received the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II lens and I’m waiting for the new Nikon 2x TC to do some serious testing. I am really enjoying this lens, so stay tuned for more predator photos!