ImageSpotlight: Red-shouldered Hawk

I love photographing birds of prey and right now, the red-shouldered hawks are wintering in the Rio Grande Valley. They are easily observable at the Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco, Texas but getting a great shot of one is slightly more difficult. Unlike photographing birds of prey on a private ranch, where the photographer can select the right perch with the right background and then bait them in with regular success, photographing one at a state park is quite challenging because setup photography is not a practice typically supported at state parks.

On this particular trip to Estero Llano Grande State Park, I had not set out to photograph hawks. I had returned in hopes of finding the Roseate Spoonbill that I had seen the week before. As luck would have it, I found the Roseate Spoonbill in the exact location and so I proceeded to get in position for those shots. Once satisfied I had the image I wanted, I slowly made my way along the boardwalk trying to photograph other ducks on the pond. Suddenly, a red-shouldered hawk caught my attention.

The red-shouldered hawk was perched on a metal post (not the most attractive perch) about 80 yards away. I didn’t think I would be able to get close but I slowly made my approach, snapping a few insurance shots along the way. Luckily, the hawk swooped off of that perch and landed on one of the signs identifying the name of the pond. While not a natural perch, it’s much nicer than a metal post and at eye-level, made for a nice scenic¬†shot.

Red-shouldered Hawk: Canon 1DsMkII, 500/4.5 with 1.4x converter, ISO 400, f7.1, 1/800. Click on image for larger view.

To get this shot, I needed a little luck on my side but I also had to know how to make my approach. A fast paced walk to close the distance would have surely sent the hawk flying. Too slow an approach and I may not have closed the distance enough for the hawk to occupy enough of the frame. So, I took several vertical and horizontal images at my present distance, then I’d slowly ease forward 3-4 paces and again I’d take both vertical and horizontal images. I kept repeating this process (eventually closing the distance by a little more than half), observing whether the hawk was displaying any nervous tendencies. I often started my forward pace when the hawk’s head was turned away from me. I hoped to get a really nice takeoff image but as it turned out, the hawk decided to fly away while I was pacing forward. Oh well, I had at least one great image of a hawk that I had never photographed before so I was happy. Besides, now I have a reason to keep after these hawks while they are still here.

Until next time, keep shooting. –KEVIN

ImageSpotlight: Moth Caterpillar

There are literally thousands of moth species and while I find them fascinating, I’ve never had a desire to try and learn them all. So, I’m not sure exactly what moth this caterpillar will eventually turn into but given that it is lacking the middle legs, I can broadly tell you this is what many commonly refer to as an inch-worm. It uses it’s front legs to clasp onto an object, then it pulls it’s back legs forward, grasping with it’s hind legs, then pushing the front part of it’s body forward, repeating that cycle over and over as it essentially “inches” along its life journey.

This was the first photograph I took during the 2008 Valley Land Fund contest. I recall how anxious I was to get to the ranch. The contest ran for 3 months; however, the first half of the contest had already passed by and I had not even been out to the ranch yet. I was getting edgy as I essentially had zero images in my contest portfolio and time was slipping by. As I drove around on the ranch this particular day, my antenna was hitting the overhanging branches of the trees, causing these caterpillar to rain down on the hood of my vehicle so I decided I’d spend an afternoon photographing them.

There was a slight breeze in the air and it was imperative that I time the shot when the mesquite leaf was still. I meticulously sought out this particular mesquite leaf, looking for one in which all the leaflet pairs were healthy, vibrant, and free of any damage due to wind or insects. I also wanted a leaf that had a natural bend in the stalk as I wanted the artistic element of curves to be provided by the leaf. Critical to this shot was getting each leaflet pair exactly perpendicular to the plane of focus from top to bottom. This required that I pinch the leaf at the bottom and try to hold it in position. I also wanted the caterpillar’s body to be completely stretched but first, I needed a caterpillar. No problem, to the truck I went and there on the hood of my vehicle was this nice looking specimen. I placed it on a small stick then carried it over to this mesquite leaf.

I tried taking the image using natural light but the background was either distracting or I couldn’t get a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the slight movement caused by the breeze. I had no choice but to use flash, which in this case was going to cause the background to be completely black due to light falloff. I tested a few images and decided I liked the look as it visually simplified the image by removing any distracting elements from view. I took lots of images and decided I had the shot I wanted. It was good to finally jump into the competition. Incidentally, there’s no way this image would have been possible without the use of a solid tripod. I needed one hand to hold the bottom tip of the mesquite leaf, keeping things as still as possible. The tripod allowed me to free my left hand for this very purpose.

Moth Caterpillar. Canon 1DMkII | 180L macro | f11 | ISO 400 | 550ex flash @ -1 | Flash diffuser

Oh and as for the contest, I ended up not submitting this image. Looking back, I think that was a mistake on my part as the image is stronger than I realized. I was just concerned that it could not compete with the winged counterparts. Either way, I ended up in a tie for Second place in 2008. I had hoped for a repeat victory after winning in 2006, but having missed the first half of the ’08 competition, I was thrilled with the placing.

ImageSpotlight: Crested Caracara

The crested caracara, which is often referred to as the Mexican Eagle, is actually in the falcon family. It can be found in Cuba, Northern parts of South America, Central America, Mexico, South Texas, parts of Florida, and Southern Arizona. The caracara has a 47 inch wingspan but frequently runs and walks on the ground. Although it will hunt its own food, the caracara is a scavenger and quite an adept thief, stealing food from other birds.

The caracara can easily be baited to a particular area so carefully select an attractive perch with a pleasing background and get ready for some fun photographic action. The following image was the result of one very productive morning at The Martin Refuge. You can read about that outing in my November 2011 archive.

Crested Caracara| Canon 1DsMkII | 500/4.5 | f7.1 | ISO400 | 1/3200

On a personal note, I normally do not prefer a solid blue background, preferring the greens/browns of the brush country instead or some clouds in the sky. However, the beautiful wingspan and fanned tail make this one a keeper for me.

Until next time, keep shooting. — Kevin