Bird Photography Isn’t Easy But It Does Have Its Rewards

/, Birds, Centennial Valley, Montana, Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, Swainson's Hawks/Bird Photography Isn’t Easy But It Does Have Its Rewards

Juvenile Swainsons' Hawk ground foragingJuvenile Swainsons’ Hawk ground foraging – Nikon D810, f7.1, 1/1250, ISO 400, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited

It is true, bird photography isn’t easy but it does often have its rewards. Earlier this month I watched a light morph juvenile Swainson’s Hawk ground foraging in the Centennial Valley of southwestern Montana and the light was quite lovely. Swainson’s Hawks eat grasshoppers and in my experience it isn’t unusual to see individuals or large flocks of them running and walking on the ground after their prey.

Juvenile Swainson's Hawk running on the ground after preyJuvenile Swainson’s Hawk running on the ground after prey – Nikon D810, f7.1, 1/1250, ISO 400, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited

This juvenile Swainson’s Hawk was actively searching for prey on the ground at a distance and it was interesting to see it walk, stop and then walk some more while hunting grasshoppers.

Juvenile Swainson's Hawk in the grasses in lovely lightJuvenile Swainson’s Hawk in the grasses in lovely light – Nikon D810, f7.1, 1/1250, ISO 400, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited

I was hoping to get the young hawk lifting off from the ground in flight in the golden evening light, so I waited. I had the flight shots pictured in my mind, the golden light, the soft butterscotch and mocha tones of the bird against the tans and browns of the dried grasses. I could almost see the images on my computer screen at home.

Juvenile Swainson's Hawk taking flight in poor lightSwainson’s Hawk taking flight in poor light – Nikon D810, f7.1, 1/400, ISO 400, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited

And just before the young Swainson’s Hawk lifted off from the ground… a large cloud blocked out that great light. This isn’t the way I imagined or hoped the lift off images would look. At all. My shutter speed dropped like a rock from 1/1250 to 1/400, too slow to get everything frozen without motion blur. The light went from golden to flat.

I won’t say it broke my heart that the light went flat but I sure wasn’t happy that it did.

Portrait of a Swainson's Hawk light morph juvenilePortrait of a Swainson’s Hawk light morph juvenile – Nikon D810, f9, 1/800, ISO 640, Nikkor 500mm, natural light, not baited

But being a bird photographer has its rewards beyond the most obvious which for me is being out in nature or better yet being a part of it. It means with patience and plenty of time in the field I do get it right. The light does stay great with some opportunities where everything falls into place. Subject… check. Great light… check.

Life is good.



  1. Devin Griffiths September 24, 2014 at 10:38 am

    Great photos, Mia, and I really like the story behind them. I’ve been in your position (or at least a similar one) many times, where the light isn’t quite right, or the light’s perfect but there’s an obstruction, or the subject moved to a less-than-ideal location… the list goes on. However, when the stars align and everything’s perfect, the effect is magical. That being said, your flight photo is still gorgeous, as you’ve really managed to capture the essence of the bird. Sometimes, we have to take what we can get, and you still got a great one.

  2. Stewart m September 23, 2014 at 6:46 am

    Wonderful pictures – and as you say, hard, but rewarding.

    It would be great if you could link this (and future) posts to Wild Bird Wednesday that runs on my photo-blog.

    Cheers – Stewart M – Melbourne

  3. Kathleen September 23, 2014 at 5:16 am

    Love the images in the grass!

  4. Bill Richmond September 23, 2014 at 4:28 am

    There is a great reality check here, Mia!! But it is so good when we get it right!!!A great set of images!!

  5. Patty Chadwick September 22, 2014 at 8:23 pm

    To paraphrase Mary McAvoy…more than a photographer, and a naturalist, you have heart and soul…..

  6. Mary McAvoy September 22, 2014 at 7:47 pm

    More than the eye of a photographer, you have the heart and soul of a photographer.

  7. Glen Fox September 22, 2014 at 2:32 pm

    This is where using auto ISO would be useful ..allowing to keep that shutter speed and aperture where you want it, and let the camera adjust ISO (within your selected bounds) to keep things stable. I’m sure that is an option with the newer Nikons, it certainly is on the new Canon bodies. It was more risky when you couldn’t set your own upper and lower limits, but now that you can it seems like a good safety net when lighting changes suddenly.

  8. Elephant's Child September 22, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    Rather a lot of rewards. For you, and for us. Thank you.

  9. Jolanta September 22, 2014 at 2:04 pm

    It is very difficult to take pictures of birds… beautiful photos as always 🙂

  10. Utahbooklover September 22, 2014 at 11:39 am

    Thanks for the demonstration via these beautiful shots — wow, the difference in the light is dramatic! And nice to know those grasshoppers are good for something.

  11. Bev Danis September 22, 2014 at 11:37 am

    Thank you! Interesting read and wonderful photos!

  12. Nicky Haller-Wilson September 22, 2014 at 10:48 am

    The technicalities and fun aside, you are a steward for these beautiful creatures who so often have no say in what happens to their environment. Through your photos you educate us and expose us to the dangers these gorgeous guys face every day. You are a wildlife conservationist with a talent for showing why these birds are so important to our planet , and why we need to fight hard for those who have no say.

  13. Dave Sparks September 22, 2014 at 8:24 am

    Wonderful portrait! About the poor light when the cloud blocked the sun – an Auto ISO setting would have preserved your shutter speed and with the D810, image quality would probably not be seriously degraded. Just a thought. Not sure of the adverse side effects of this strategy.

  14. Patty Chadwick September 22, 2014 at 7:45 am

    I find those juveniles are especially beautiful birds…I think it’s the light coloring and their contrasting marlking…interesting information on their prey and hunting technique….I love these blogs, yours and Ron’s…thanks…

  15. Montanagirl September 22, 2014 at 7:21 am

    Splendid shots, Mia!

  16. Michael Garcia September 22, 2014 at 6:30 am

    Just waned to say amazing pictures…..hope to get this good one day! Thank you for sharing!

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