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Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo lagopusRough-legged Hawk

Anticipation and Knowing your Quarry

What could be better than roaming around the frigid open grasslands of central South Dakota in mid-winter?  You might think that from a birding perspective, such a location and time wouldn't be very productive for a bird photographer.  Aha!  You would be wrong!  There often is an incredible density of raptors on the grasslands in the winter.  Small mammals are part of the attraction for them, but there are also scads of Ring-necked Pheasants and Sharp-tailed Grouse.  It's not just the density of raptors that makes it a winter wonderland for a bird photographer, it's the variety of birds.  A single winter day on the grasslands WILL likely yield Bald Eagle, Golden Eagle, Rough-legged Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon, and Northern Harrier, and very likely will include some of the following: Short-eared Owl, Snowy Owl, Gyrfalcon, Merlin, and American Kestrel.

Overall though it's the Rough-legged Hawks that steal the show in terms of sheer number.  If you don't come across at least 50 in a day of driving around, you've had a bad day for them.  In general Rough-legged Hawks aren't always the most cooperative of birds, as they often do flush when you get close.  However, just because of the sheer number of birds that you find, you're very likely to run across a cooperative bird.

I have hundreds of Rough-legged Hawk photos from the grasslands, so when I see them now, I'm not content to get yet another photo of a Rough-legged Hawk sitting on a fence post or telephone pole.  Given the propensity of any bird to flush as you get close, one thing I like to do as I drive along is stop a proper distance away from a perched raptor, sit, and wait.  Eventually that bird is likely to fly from the perch, providing an opportunity for a great "in flight" photo with some of the unique poses you see as the birds flush.

Patience plays a big role, but so does anticipation of the action.  Patience, because as a bird photographer, you'll inevitably experience a lot of frustration as birds don't cooperate.  For every 30 Rough-legged Hawks you see, you may find one that's really cooperative for the camera.  Anticipation plays the biggest role though in determining the TYPE of photograph you eventually get.

The overall profile of a raptor such as a Rough-legged Hawk is drastically different between a perched bird and a flying bird.  Consider the bird in this photo.  If the bird were perched, his outline and size in the photo would be from the tip of his bill to the end of his tail, with wings folded against his sides.  In this photo composition, that bird wouldn't fill the frame and you'd have a lot of empty space around the bird itself.  However, once that bird takes flight and stretches its wings, that profile expands dramatically.  Thus, when you're trying to take a photo of the bird, you need to decide ahead of time what type of photo you're trying to achieve.  Are you trying to get a photo of a perched raptor?  Then you likely have to get closer to the bird before taking the shot, in an attempt to "fill-the-frame" with the bird and not have too much empty space.

However, if you're trying to take a photo of a bird as it takes flight, your game plan changes. You not only have to guesstimate the size of the bird with outstretched wings, you have to anticipate the direction the bird will travel.  For example, if you're taking photos of a perched bird and that bird is rather large in your image composition, once that bird takes off and stretches its wings, you'll likely be too close to capture the entire bird in the frame.  You WILL "cliip" off one wing or both, because you're simply not in the  proper position to get the flight shot. 

You also have to anticipate the behavior of the bird.  When is it going to leave the perch?  What direction will it go?  These questions CAN be answered, if you know your quarry. After you've seen your 289th or so Rough-legged Hawk, you'll realize that a perched bird will often, uh...create a lighter load before they take flight.  A great deal of the time when you see a Rough-legged Hawk perched on a post, they will raise the tail a bit and defecate, right before taking flight.  The initial movement of the bird is generally in whatever direction they're facing as they do their pre-flight defecation. 

So how do you get a shot like this?  When I saw this bird, I wanted a flight shot.  As I approached the bird, I thus hung back further than I would if I were trying to get a shot of the perched bird. It was then a matter of waiting.  Many times raptors like this will casually check out the new component in their vicinity, that doofus with a camera and his car.  They may sit there awhile longer, or they may leave rather quickly.  This bird behaved as many do.  He didn't seem too alarmed, continued to stay on the perch for perhaps 20 seconds after I stopped the car, then he casually raised his tail and defecated.  AH-HA!!  He's about to take flight!  I pressed the shutter halfway down to achieve focus lock, then moved the camera to be pointing in space a little above and away from the bird, in the direction he was facing.  In this case, he was facing towards the camera quite a bit.  Within a second or two after defecating, he took flight as anticipated, moving right through the space where I already had the pre-focused camera pointing.

Knowing your quarry, and anticipating its behavior will go a long ways towards becoming a successful bird photographer.


Camera Body:   Canon 50D
Camera Lens:   Canon 400mm 5.6L
ISO:   400
Aperture:   f/6.3
Shutter Speed:   1/4000th
Flash:   Fill-Flash, FEC -1
Support:   Hand-held
Date:   02/12/2011
Location:   Lyman County, South Dakota



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