Written By onci on Thursday, May 20, 2010 | 8:21 AM
Samish Flats Peregrine Falcons by Tim Kuhn
This winter yielded a treat for the wildlife photographers of north western Washington State, easy access to feeding Peregrine Falcons! The falcons have been somewhat common on the Samish Flats for some time now; both Peregrine and the occasional Prairie Falcon would be spotted and reported on the local birding lists. This year we were treated to something special. A wintering flock of Dunlins would come inland at high tide and feed in a farmer’s field right by the side of the highway and the local Peregrine Falcon couple and semi adult offspring would take full advantage of the situation feeding on the Dunlins.
I was fortunate enough to spend a beautiful sunny weekend photographing this glorious spectacle. The day started out with pre-sunrise drive heading north out of Seattle. Arriving on the scene I find a few other photographers getting set up in hopes of capturing some of the action. The air is crisp and cool, just above freezing but with the clear skies and the sun just about to crest the Cascade Mountain range, it felt great. About 10 minutes before the actual sunrise the Dunlins start to fly in and gather in the small pond of water that has formed in tilled soil in front of us.
At first there are just a few Dunlins but more and more continue to fly in and before you know it there are thousands of them. They wander about poking the mud with their long beaks feeding. The sun finally tops the mountains and baths the scene in a wonderful soft light. Perched on top of telephone poles a male and a female Peregrine Falcon observe the goings on. They are about 200 yards away, one to the east and one to the west. Suddenly the female takes flight, first flying farther away and then she turns and with visibly strong wing beats accelerates into the scene. The dunlins see this and take to the air en mass. The sound coming off of their wings breaks the morning silence. During all of this excitement the male has lit from his perch and is making a dash towards the cloud of Dunlins.
Shutters are rat-a-tat-tatting as the photographers try to capture the bullet like falcons make their passes. The Falcons power through the Dunlins as they scatter, twist and turn confusing their attackers. After coming up empty the Falcons swoop upwards, roll over and dive back down into melee. All the while the photo gallery is clicking away madly. A Bald Eagle flies over the scene only to be harassed and chased away by the female Falcon, these birds are fearless and aggressive.
One more pass and a dull thud is heard as a hapless Dunlin in knocked out of the air, skipping off of the water coming to a rest in the mud. On the next pass a Falcon speeds by and picks up the prey, flying away to enjoy the meal in peace on the top of a pole. A large male Harrier now makes a low pass to see if the Falcons have left anything behind, his quick look yields him nothing and he flies off into the fields. The Dunlins settle back down to earth and go about the business of finding prey of their own in the mud. This incredible scene repeats itself throughout the morning and only comes to an end when the Dunlins fly back to the tide flats once the tide has gone out again.
That is a lot of high speed action with seemingly everything going on at once. To photograph the goings on presents itself as quite the challenge. Luckily the light was at our backs bathing the scene in the soft light of February in the Pacific Northwest. So how does one go about attempting to capture this mad scene? I’ll do my best to describe the technique I used. These birds come in at such a high rate of speed there is little time to make adjustments with one’s equipment. It is best to constantly be checking exposures against the background while waiting for the attacks to commence. Once the pass is made there are a few seconds for a quick chimp to get a rough idea how the exposures are looking. Most of the time one needs to keep an eye glued to the view finder so as not to lose the subjects as they swoop off in the distance.
They fly into the scene with such speed it is best to not have to search the sky at 500 mm and try to find them, better not to have ever lost them. I was using a Canon 500 f4L IS attached to a 1D MK4, preferring to hand hold rather than using a tripod. Some there were using tripods but the speed of the Falcons presents some added difficulty for those using them. I was paying strict attention to shutter speeds, if they weren’t high enough I would bump the ISO.
My technique for in flight shooting is the tried and true bump technique that has been written about often on the internet. Basically I would acquire focus on the subject and let up on the shutter release only hitting it now and again when needed to focus for either the shot or to help me track the subject. Smooth, steady and fast panning techniques are mandatory. One trick I use with in flight shots is to have both eyes open and use both.
I use the non-focusing eye to keep up with what may be happening outside the confines of the narrow field of view offered by 500 mm of focal length. It is somewhat tricky at first but becomes second nature.
It was an amazing morning of speed, action, beautiful scenery and the raw spectacle of Mother Nature’s fastest predator. If you ever have the chance to witness Falcons feeding take full advantage, it is an experience of a lifetime.
Posted by onci at 8:21 AM