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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At 7:49 PM, Blogger KatDoc said...

That's one of the great things about you, Bill. You aren't afraid to tackle the impossible, and to make it possible. Nice shots!


At 9:28 PM, Blogger Mary said...

I don't even try to photograph swallows in flight! But you have talent. They're wonderful photos.

At 6:12 AM, Blogger cyberthrush said...

650 shots!! You're a VERY determined (..or compulsive?) individual, Bill. Glad at least a few of those guys relented to posing for you in mid-air. ;-)

At 7:42 AM, Blogger Colleen said... the lens cap part.

At 9:57 AM, Blogger dguzman said...

I applaud your success! I've had up to 20 or more swallows all around me at times, and I've NEVER been able to get even one decent photo. So frustrating! Finally I just give up and watch in awe.

Nice work!

At 11:00 AM, Blogger Rondeau Ric said...

Only 650 shots? Rookie. Tell me when you hit 1,000 on the immpossible quest.

Don Quixote

At 1:08 PM, Anonymous Stones and Bones said...

I work at the Gov facility that takes up the the south half of the MIWR and love my drive to work every day because of the critters I get to see. Love your tree swallow pics. I saw a small flock of them on Monday dipping down to brush the water surface to drink on the wing. Beautiful!

At 1:51 PM, Blogger OpposableChums said...

For a recent film of mine, I spent two full and frustrating days at The Meadows in Cape May attempting to get a decent shot of a Tree Swallow in flight. If you think it's tough trying to get your lens on the bird for the split second it takes to snap a still shot, imagine staying on that streamlined, turbo-charged, turn-on-a-dime divebomber for several consecutive seconds. WELL FRAMED!

In the end, I got one decent shot, a bit distant and uninteresting but steady, and I petulantly included it in the final film, determined that my grim two-day vigil would not have been for naught.


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