Well, it’s been a while since I had any time to be outside with a camera lately, compounded by the fact that there hasn’t been any light to work with the past few weeks. I’m sure that as the winter progresses, and West Michigan is under nearly constant lake effect clouds, that you’ll all tire of hearing me whine about it. So far though, we’ve been lucky with only trace amounts of snow, it’s been mostly mist or rain coming from the clouds.
So, on Monday, the 13th, I was overjoyed to have a few hours of time to run over to the Muskegon County wastewater facility to shoot a few photos when it wasn’t raining for a change. The big news is that the snowy owls have arrived from up north already, I saw at least two, possibly three different ones, here’s the second one.
There were four of us parked near the owl shooting photos of it from time to time, including an older woman using a Nikon 600 mm lens on a tripod. The owl didn’t seem to mind at all, as it just sat there paying little attention to us. There were even a few breaks in the clouds from time to time, but that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
While snowy owls are active during the day, the brighter the sunlight is, the more that they squint, hiding their beautiful yellow eyes as you can see. However, the sunlight does help to bring out the details in their faces, even if they do squint.
By the way, snowy owls spend most of their time above the Arctic Circle, the land of the midnight sun, so they have to be active during the day if they are going to survive in an area where the sun doesn’t set for several months.
Shortly after the second photo was shot, another couple joined the group, and they thought that they’d get a little closer to the owl than the rest of us were. That was more than the owl could take, so it flew off to find a safer place to perch.
That isn’t very good, but it’s the best that I could do with the flight path that the owl took.
That reminds me, the snowy owls come from an area where there are no trees, so they typically perch on the ground, which isn’t the best as far as backgrounds for photos. So, I felt very lucky when I saw the first snowy of the day, and it was perched on a rock above the vegetation.
I sat there shooting a good many shots of that owl, my biggest problem was the large number of northern shoveler ducks swimming behind the owl at times. It took me a while to get that image, one without a shoveler behind the owl to distract the eye from the owl itself.
You can see blood stains on the owl’s feathers around its neck, it must have recently made a kill and eaten it, and the owl was content to perch there and digest its meal. That image is almost full frame, I didn’t have to crop it very much at all, unlike the first two photos from this post, which were shot from farther away from that owl, and therefore cropped a good deal more.
The first owl kept one eye closed most of the time, which made getting the shot that I wanted even harder, but I did catch it once as it opened the eye that it had closed most of the time slightly.
This is what the owl looked like most of the time.
That’s something to keep in mind if you ever see a snowy owl, many of them have a tendency to use only one eye when resting, leaving the other one closed most of the time. In sunlight, they squint through eyelids that are almost closed. I’ve whistled at them, yelled, and even honked my car horn, but none of those things has worked as far as getting a snowy to open their eyes when they don’t want to. And, I’ve seen several with blood stained feathers after they have eaten, so it’s easy to think that a snowy seen with one eye always closed and bloodstains near its face has suffered an injury, but in most cases, it hasn’t, it has just eaten and is snoozing, and will ignore you until you get too close for their comfort.
Or, if you begin to behave as the late arriving couple did as they tried to approach the snowy, they crouched down and tried to stalk the owl when the owl was fully aware of their presence. You can’t behave like a predator when trying to get close to wildlife that already knows you are there, it will make the wildlife flee even sooner than they would have otherwise. In fact, the couple stalking the snowy didn’t make it as close to the owl as some one else in the group was already parked, they made it as far as in between my vehicle and the one of the person that was shooting the owl when I spotted it.
By the way, I parked 100 yards or so away from where the other person had parked, until I saw them motion me forward. I gave him time to get the best photos that he could, a little common courtesy goes a long way in the birding world especially bird photographers. It helped that I had already shot a snowy from even closer, and with a better background, but there’s no excuse for spooking wildlife that some one else saw first, and are trying to photograph. When the other photographer motioned me to join him, I still parked 20 to 30 feet behind him as to not crowd the owl too much.
The couple in question weren’t equipped properly as far as camera gear, which is why they tried getting closer. The female was using Canon gear, and had what looked to be a 70-200 mm lens on her camera, not a long enough lens for serious bird photography in most cases. The male was using a Lumix DSLR with what appeared to be a similar length lens as the female was using. I’ll cut them some slack, they were young and probably hadn’t learned not to attempt trying to be stealthy when the subject is aware of your presence.
Since there had been four of us there, standing and chatting between the first photographer’s vehicle and mine, it had to be the late arriving couple’s actions that spooked the owl, since they didn’t get more than a few feet closer to the owl than the group was to begin with. Like I said earlier, snowy owls are birds of the Arctic tundra, and both of the owls that I photographed probably hatched this spring and were this year’s young, you can tell by the dark barring that they show. The adult snowy owls are almost entirely white. We may have well been the first humans that these owls had ever seen up close in their short lives so far. They may not have any fear of humans, other than a natural fear of creatures larger than themselves, but all wildlife learns the ways of predators at an early age, like a predator trying to remain hidden as it approaches possible prey.
Because of the hours that I’ve been working, I haven’t had much time outside, but I have had time to think about things and equipment that will improve my photographs in the future. The 100-400 mm lens with a 1.4 X tele-converter behind it gives me a good deal of reach, as the photos of the snowy owls show. However, the auto-focusing of that set-up is very slow, often too slow to catch smaller birds as they flit about. So, I thought back to when I was using the Sigma 150-500 mm lens, otherwise known as the Beast, as I remember quite well how quickly it can auto-focus on small birds trying to hide.
I was thinking of purchasing the newer Sigma 150-600 mm lens for times when I was chasing smaller birds such as warblers and sparrows. Using Lightroom, I went back through all the photos that I shot while using the Beast on the 7D Mk II camera that I have now, and took a good hard look at the quality of the images. Those simply can not compare to the image quality that I’m getting now with my current Canon L series lenses. I can’t see the same level of detail in even the best images shot with the Beast that I see in my current photos, even when those older photos were shot in very good light. As the level of light falls off, the Canon L series lenses out perform the Beast by even a wider margin. As bad as these are, if I had been using the Beast, I probably wouldn’t have been able to salvage them in Lightroom.
Not great, so I moved in even closer.
The second one was shot at ISO 5000, which is higher than I can get a very good image at using the crop sensor 7D Mk II. Still, it’s far better than I could have ever hoped for if I’d been using the Beast to get the same image. Because of the high ISO setting, there isn’t the resolution in those images that I’d love to get, or that I do get when shooting in better light with the equipment that I have now. In the past when I was using the Beast, I had the camera set to limit the ISO to 3200 or less, it’s only been since I’ve been using the Canon L series lenses that I’ve set the camera to use higher ISO settings. You simply can’t beat good glass, no matter what camera you’re using.
So, I have given up the idea of purchasing a replacement for the Beast, no matter how slow the auto-focusing of what I’m using now is. I’ll just have to work harder when I’m shooting smaller birds, and live with the slow auto-focus. There may be times in the future when I dig the Beast out again when I’m on a trip dedicated to photographing smaller birds, and live with the lower quality of images that it produces. That’s what I did two years ago when I was on my last real vacation, I carried the Beast when I was chasing small birds, and used the Canon lens while I was in areas where larger birds were the likely subjects of my photos.
I knew this was going to happen. We had a summer and early fall with above average amounts of sunshine here in West Michigan this year, and as a result, I was able to shoot my best images ever of many species of birds. Now that the clouds have set in for the winter, I feel the need for a full frame camera body again. The reason being is that you get less noise and better resolution at the same ISO setting with a full frame camera as you do with a crop sensor camera at the same settings. Lenses aren’t going to change that, although better lenses do result in better images.
And, there’s been another factor to consider as well, weight. I had convinced myself that I could get by with the 7D and then add another lens or two to my arsenal, and manage to carry them all. However, between the low-light situations I’ve had for the past month or more, and the thought of carrying more lenses with me all the time, I’ve decided that the best course of action is to splurge for a good full frame camera and just one more wide-angle lens for it to complete my kit once and for all.
With a full frame body, I can get by with the 16-35 mm lens that I recently purchased, the 24-105 mm lens to go with it, along with the 100-400 mm lens that I have now. If I stick with the 7D body, I’d need to carry two or three more lenses to cover everything as far as focal lengths because of the crop factor of the 7D. I like the idea of getting by with just two camera bodies and two lenses 70% of the time while hiking.
That’s because with the crop sensor 7D, the 16-35 mm lens is about the same as the 24-105 mm lens on a full frame camera at the short end of the focal lengths of those lenses as far as their angle of view, which translates into how much of the landscape they will allow you to see while using them.
At 16 mm on the 7D, the 16-35 mm lens is the equivalent of a 24 mm lens on a full frame body. I can get most landscape images that I’d like to get, but there would be times that I’d want to go even wider, meaning adding another lens to my kit. Going the other way, there’s too much of a gap between 35 mm and 100 mm to get by with most of the time when shooting landscapes and even some other subjects, so I still need a lens to fill that gap. Enough of that, back to the weather and the birds.
And like I said, for the past month or more, it’s been raining most of the times that I’ve had a chance to get outside, meaning I’ve been shooting in low-light situations for the past month. This photo is from my previous trip to Muskegon, in the rain, when I only shot two species of birds due to the weather.
That image hasn’t been cropped at all, I got that close to the gull. For the second image of the peregrine falcon from earlier in this post, I had to turn the camera to the portrait orientation to keep the entire falcon in the frame. For some reason, wildlife allows you to approach closer in low-light situations than they normally do on nice days. It was the same with this northern shoveler, the second species from the earlier trip to Muskegon.
I can’t recall a time when I’ve ever been closer to a northern shoveler, and it was on a rainy day with no light to work with. That was a let down, as you can almost see the details in the shoveler’s bill. Their bill has about 110 fine projections (called lamellae) along the edges, for straining food from water. So, along with the muted colors, I also missed getting a shot of a part of a duck’s anatomy that I’d like to be able to show people who aren’t familiar with that species.
But, getting back on track, I have to face the reality that wildlife photography means working in low-light situations often enough to warrant the expense of a full frame camera. There’s no getting around that fact in any way that I know of, and it’s about the only way that I’ll be able to improve the technical aspects of my images. I’ve reached the financial limits of my ability to purchase a longer lens, which wouldn’t help as far as working in low-light anyway.
I’m not saying that the images that I shoot in good light are perfect yet, but they are still improving, which is a good thing. As much as I complain about the low-light performance of the 7D Mk II, it’s the images that I shoot at high ISO settings that are showing the most improvement. Those, and birds in flight, this was the year that I got the 7D dialed in and learned to use the 400 mm L series lens to good effect to get my sharpest and best images of birds in flight.
That takes me back to the first snowy owl that I saw, the one perched nicely on a rock above the vegetation. It didn’t take off because I got too close to it, it took off because a pair of crows began to harass it. I missed the first part of the action because I wasn’t expecting it, but the owl only flew a short distance away, then landed again. I shot a short burst as the snowy landed, but it was really too far away for me to post any of the photos. But, even though these aren’t great, I post these of the crows following the owl to land near it to continue their harassment of the owl.
Not wanting to scare either the owl or the crows away, I moved a little closer to watch what was happening and let them calm down a little. As I sat in my new location, I spent some time shooting northern shovelers that were getting nervous because of the owls presence.
Every once in a while, one of the crows would attempt to drive the owl away. This series was shot from too far away also, but they do show what was going on.
From time to time, the owl would bark at the crow as it approached…
…and the owl tried to keep both crows in sight all the time…
…but when that wasn’t possible, it would turn its head back and forth quickly to make sure that the second crow wasn’t planning a sneak attack while the owl was distracted by the flying crow.
With the three of them preoccupied with each other, I finally moved closer for these.
Funny thing, when I tried to get even closer for a good shot, it was the crows that I spooked first, and they took off, followed by the owl. Of course I fired off a burst of the three of them flying away from me, but the images of three birds flying away from me aren’t that interesting.
I also shot poor images of two other species of ducks, this gadwall,
and this hooded merganser.
I’ve posted very few images of either of those species recently, as they are both much more skittish than other species of waterfowl.
Anyway, I’m going to finish this post with an image from last summer, when there was good light.
One last word about the weather here. Since the drought broke back in the middle of October, we’ve been getting almost two inches of rain per week on average, and are closing in on having gotten a foot of rain since then. It’s hard to shoot good photos when it’s raining all the time.
That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!