Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Photographing Tree Swallows in Flight

Have you ever tried to do something that you knew was next to impossible and yet you could not stop yourself from trying anyway?

On my recent sojourn to east-central Florida's Space Coast region, I noticed large flocks of tree swallows foraging on the wing in several different birding spots. I was both bird watching and taking bird photographs, two activities which, in order to be done well, should be mutually exclusive. You can't enjoy birding if you keep dropping the binocs to grab your camera. And if you're trying to take the best possible photographs, you'll only get frustrated by all the shots you miss when you drop the camera for the binocs. This is one of the immutable laws of the universe.


As I was driving around Black Point Wildlife Drive at Merritt Island NWR on fine day, I found that the sun had climbed to its highpoint and the bird activity was beginning to slow. The daylight was getting a bit harsh for photographing water birds, so I moseyed along to a point where a tree swallow flock was slicing the air into a million pieces. The birds seemed to be taking advantage of some large hatch of tiny insects.

I stood and watched for a few minutes, mesmerized by the swooping of swallow wings (wasn't that a Joni Mitchell album?) and noticed that some of the birds were following a somewhat repetitive flight pattern. Oh it was camera time, baby! This would be my chance to totally nail a great shot of a flying tree swallow!

To dream the impossible dream.....

Over the next half hour I took approximately 650 shots. Most of these contained only grass or sky, digital frames completely innocent of the slightest hint of swallow. Some contained a tiny sip of swallow—a tail tip or wing edge.

A very few captured entire birds and were close enough to being in focus that you could even tell what kind of bird it was. These I will share with you here and now.










Photographing birds in flight is a thrilling challenge. Large birds are easier, obviously (see yesterday's post). Small, supremely gifted and speedy fliers like tree swallows are almost impossible to photograph well, unless you are patient, lucky, and in the right place at the right time with the right camera settings and light conditions. And you are not holding your binoculars. And your camera's lens cap is not still on.

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