My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

The beauty of flight

Since before mankind began keeping records, we have been fascinated by birds in flight. I’m no different, I’m fascinated by the flight of birds as well, and this post will be mostly photos of birds in flight.

First, I’ll begin by saying that I have no idea why the number of some species of birds fluctuate the way that they do. Great blue herons are common here in Michigan, but over the last two previous years, I didn’t see many of them, and even had a hard time finding them. That isn’t the case this summer, they’re everywhere! I see mostly juveniles…

Juvenile great blue heron

…so the adults that remained from the past few years must have had a very successful breeding season this spring. That was one of the three head shots of three different herons that I shot in less than ten minutes time a couple of weeks ago. It’s rare for me to get that close to one, let alone three of them so quickly. It helped that they were chasing each other around which I supposed was part of their way of establishing the pecking order among themselves.  I have no idea if they were from the same nest or not though.

But, this post is about birds in flight, so I’m going to begin with this series that I shot at the local park where I walk when I have the chance.

American robin in flight


American robin in flight


American robin in flight

It’s much easier to shoot larger birds in flight, like this sandhill crane.

Sandhill crane in flight

I have no idea why the crane took off as far away from me as it did, normally they allow humans to get reasonably close to them. The result was the typical butt shots of a bird flying away from me, and not very good ones at that.

Sandhill crane in flight

Just a few minutes later, I was driving over a bridge across one of the drainage creeks when I saw a great blue heron flying along the creek. I was able to get set for the heron, and I fired these off as it turned away from me.

Great blue heron in flight


Great blue heron in flight


Great blue heron in flight

The heron continued on, and so did I, but I didn’t shoot any more photos of it because it was flying away from me, and out of range of a good photo. It was going to perch in one of the aeration cells at the Muskegon wastewater facility that is under going major repairs. However, there was already an adult in that cell, and it didn’t take to the juvenile joining it in the same cell, even though each cell is several acres in size. The adult chased the juvenile off, and then I lucked out, it came flying straight towards me. I was able to get a good focus lock on it, and as it got as close to me as it came, I fired off this burst.

Great blue heron in flight


Great blue heron in flight


Great blue heron in flight


Great blue heron in flight

If only there had been a better background than the aeration cell in those photos! Those aren’t cropped at all, I was able to keep the heron in the frame as it made its turn away from me. Every time that I get to shoot a series like that, I get a little better at it.

When it comes to small birds, you’d think that it would be easier to shoot a flock of them in flight…

Swallows in flight

…but then, they’re so close together that it’s hard to pick out just one.

I think that those are all juvenile tree swallows, as I saw a few adults in the flock at the time I shot those. However, I’m not positive about that, because of an event that you’ll see later in this post.

By the way, those were shot a couple of weeks ago. On the same day as I shot the great blue herons in flight, I stopped for a while at the man-made lake south of the wastewater facility proper. I was hoping to catch green herons in flight, but this was the best that I came up with.

Green heron in flight

There are a pair of adults and their young…

Juvenile green heron

…hanging out at the man-made lake most of the time, but they’re good at staying out of camera range the majority of the time.

There was also a flock of barn swallows hunting insects over the lake, and occasionally dipping down to drink from the lake as they flew. I couldn’t resist the challenge.

Barn swallow in flight

It suddenly slammed on the air-brakes…

Barn swallow in flight

…and I think that it caught a flying insect…

Barn swallow in flight

…but you can’t see the insect in these images.

Barn swallow in flight

The swallow then went on its way.

Barn swallow in flight

I tried to get a shot of them drinking from the lake as they flew…

Barn swallow in flight

…but I missed it every time.

Barn swallow in flight

I did get a good reflection shot or two…

Barn swallow in flight

…before the swallows would gain altitude again.

Barn swallow in flight


Barn swallow in flight


Barn swallow in flight


Barn swallow in flight

The best part of those is that you can see how they use their tails for both drag to slow down, and for turning as sharply as they do.

Now then, back to flocks of swallows. I noticed a flock of tree swallows in a dead tree, they were coming and going as they paused to rest and digest the insects that they had caught. It seemed like a good place to hang out and try for a better image of a swallow in flight, so I did. However, the first swallow I shot wasn’t a tree swallow, it was a barn swallow…

Barn swallow in flight

…and as it approached the tree swallows…

Barn swallow in flight

…they exchanged a few words before the barn swallow perched in the same tree.

Barn swallow in flight passing a perched tree swallow

It was then that I noticed that there were a few other barn swallows mixed in with the flock of predominantly tree swallows. They were all chattering away, I wonder if the tree swallows and barn swallows understand each other’s chattering? I also wonder if in the chattering within one species if they are telling each other where the best insects are to be found, or if it’s part of social bonding, or part of establishing the pecking order within the flock? Occasionally, an adult would chase one of the juveniles off from the perch the juvenile had been on, but it happened behind tree branches whenever I attempted to photograph that behavior.

Since most of the photos have been of birds in flight, I suppose that it’s fitting that the latest species that I can cross off from the list for the My Photo Life List project is a least bittern in flight.

Least bittern in flight

They’re not great, but at least you can identify the species, which is all that matters. I got these by standing in one spot on the boardwalk at the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve for several hours. The bittern made the mistake of flying about the same path each time it came and went from where I believe that it has its nest.

Least bittern in flight

Smaller but chunkier than their cousins the green herons, they fly surprisingly fast for a member of the heron family. This one at least stayed just above the vegetation most of the time, making it even harder to spot and photograph.

I’m going to finish this post with three images of a bird not flying. It’s a juvenile grasshopper sparrow limbering up its wings…

Juvenile grasshopper sparrow

…it had made a rough landing on the dead stump it was perched on…

Juvenile grasshopper sparrow

…and I believe that it was doing some stationary practice before its next attempt at flight.

Juvenile grasshopper sparrow

Well, that wraps up this post, sorry for so many photos of the swallows, but I love the challenge of trying to photograph birds as quick as they are.

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!


21 responses

  1. Fantastic pictures, I liked the ones of the sandhill crane best.

    July 24, 2017 at 2:55 am

    • Thank you very much Susan! The sandhill cranes are also one of my favorites, they’re a real success story in conservation here in the States. They were in danger of going extinct just a few decades ago, and now they’re becoming quite common, thankfully.

      July 24, 2017 at 7:49 am

  2. SunFreeStar

    Really amazing! So beautiful to see the deatails of the feathers when the wings are wide open. Thank you!💕

    July 24, 2017 at 5:28 am

    • Thank you very much! It’s taken me a while to get images where you can see the feather details in birds in flight, but it was worth the effort.

      July 24, 2017 at 7:47 am

  3. These photographs are inspirational!

    July 24, 2017 at 2:08 pm

    • Thank you very much Simon!

      July 24, 2017 at 11:11 pm

  4. I love barn swallows.

    July 24, 2017 at 4:04 pm

    • Thank you, Cornell, I do too.

      July 24, 2017 at 11:11 pm

  5. I love these action shots and being able to see all those beautiful feathers spread out. My favourites are the lovely barn swallows and especially their reflections.

    July 24, 2017 at 5:13 pm

    • Thank you very much Marianne! I love seeing images of birds in flight when the action is stopped and you can see all the feathers and at times, the light passing through the feathers.

      July 24, 2017 at 11:13 pm

  6. What a great post, Jerry! I like the shots of the least bittern – what an interesting looking bird.

    July 24, 2017 at 5:30 pm

    • Thank you very much Clare! The least bittern is the smallest member of the heron family here in the US, I need better photos to show their purple feathers better. They are striking birds when seen in good light.

      July 24, 2017 at 11:14 pm

      • It was those purple feathers I noticed!

        July 25, 2017 at 4:16 pm

  7. The swallow pictures are very good. Those birds are exceedingly nippy so getting one picture would be a triumph. Getting as many as you did is wonderful.

    July 24, 2017 at 5:36 pm

    • Thank you very much Tom! It isn’t easy to photograph swallows on the wing, but I love a challenge. Also, other birds seem like a piece of cake after shooting swallows for a while.

      July 24, 2017 at 11:15 pm

  8. I haven’t tried birds on the wing but I’ve tried butterflies and dragonflies and I can’t even keep up with them, so I don’t know how you do it!
    I’ve never seen a robin look so determined as that one does. It must have been on a mission.
    I’ve never had a great blue heron fly directly at me either. It isn’t their best side.
    The least bittern is an interesting sounding bird that I don’t think I’ve ever seen. I saw a small heron moving through cattails one day but I think it was a green heron.
    Nice shots of the grasshopper sparrow! I’ve never even heard of that one!

    July 25, 2017 at 5:07 pm

    • Thank you very much Allen! Birds on the wing are much easier than insects. I occasionally catch a dragonfly in flight, but I’ve never been able to get a butterfly, they never hover or fly straight.

      The robin was gathering food for its young, hence the determined look.

      You’re right, great blue herons don’t look good from the front, but when they make that turn with their wings and tail spread out, that makes a good photo.

      Least bitterns are known for being common but seldom seen. They appear more purple in good light, whereas a green heron always looks green. I zeroed in on the one I got by hearing it call at first, then hanging around until it flew.

      July 25, 2017 at 9:24 pm

  9. Love the theme of this post! There are so many unusual angles – sure, maybe they weren’t the most photogenic, but I was fascinated. Never would have recognized the robin or the blue heron flying straight at me. So accustomed to seeing them from a side view.

    Anyway, this post was lots of fun to study. Hope you didn’t this again.

    July 25, 2017 at 9:45 pm

    • Thank you very much Judy! Short of super slow motion, shooting stills of birds in flight from different angles is the best way to study the miracle of how birds fly. For instance, how does a bird as scrawny as a great blue heron have the muscle power to control the huge wings that they have? It’s easier to see how a more muscular looking bird like the robin is able to fly, but seeing how their wings and feathers work to produce lift for flight is still something to see.

      July 25, 2017 at 10:13 pm

  10. Absolutely perfect and beautiful 😀 😉

    July 27, 2017 at 9:16 am

    • Thank you very much!

      July 27, 2017 at 7:56 pm