Turkey Vultures Doing What Turkey Vultures Do

These recent images illustrate three favorite pastimes of Turkey Vultures.


The flight mode of Turkey Vultures is almost entirely gliding and soaring and they do it effortlessly for hours on end. Birds of North America Online reports their soaring abilities to be “vastly superior to those of Buteo hawks”. I often watch them through my lens as they use mountain updrafts for lift and circle endlessly on them with very little effort.

While I’m watching them in flight I don’t often click my shutter because their dark plumage is usually backlit but yesterday morning I caught this one in a near-vertical bank that put decent light on its ventral surfaces and I think the direct eye contact with the red head outlined in black helps to draw the viewer in.



Understandably I have mixed emotions about this photo, also from yesterday morning. The setting is an ugly road, the soiled vulture is far from aesthetically appealing and the roadkill is one of my very favorite critters – a Long-tailed Weasel. Vultures are often seen waiting at carcasses because they cannot open thick skin of larger mammals so usually they have to wait until the carcass is putrid or is opened by mammals. But I doubt they’d have trouble opening a carcass this small so I’m not sure why the vulture just stood there watching the weasel and made no attempt to eat while I was there. Perhaps my presence made it nervous.

I’m quite sure the weasel was very recently killed because I didn’t see it about a half-hour earlier when I slowly passed the other way on the road.



Another favorite pastime of vultures is to stymie my attempts at photographing them well at takeoff. This bird (photographed three days ago in the same area as the earlier images) was really too close to me for takeoff shots so when it launched in my direction I cut off wings in all but one of over a dozen photos in the burst. I like the curve of the wings, the fanned tail and the intimacy provided by the head-on approach at close range.

Another problem with photographing Turkey Vultures is the typically high contrast between their almost black plumage and the rocks, vegetation or soil that may be in the setting and that’s exactly what happened here. In this case to get the dark vulture exposed correctly the rocks in the foreground were significantly overexposed and highly distracting in their brightness. So during processing I selectively brought down the exposure of the rocks by using a “levels adjustment” in Photoshop – something I don’t often do.

Very sharp eyes may notice a small remnant of that adjustment that I wasn’t quite able to get rid of but seeing it with my old eyes requires serious pixel-peeping so it really doesn’t bother me. I much prefer that tiny flaw over the very bright rocks.





Black-headed Grosbeak (and one of my photographic mantras reinforced)

Plus a rant against setup bird photography…

Something a little different from me this morning. In all these years of daily blogging I believe I’ve only posted photos of this species once.


1/4000, f/7.1, ISO 800, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

But two days ago while I had my lens on a poorly lit Swainson’s Hawk in a fairly remote area of northern Utah this female Black-headed Grosbeak unexpectedly landed right in front of me on a perch I really enjoy.

This perch reminds me of the kind that some bird photographers (with different ethics than I have) often use as in their artificial setups. They typically pick an attractive natural-looking perch, cut it off from its living source and use a clamp stand or spare tripod to place it in good light with an attractive (often artificial) background. Then they use electronic bird calls and/or seed or other types of bait (hidden just out of view) to attract birds to the perch and then fire away using photo gear already set up on tripods at the perfect light angle and distance.

So, needless to say I rarely get a perch like this. I even like the single dead leaf left over from last year because for me it somehow adds character and provides a touch of authenticity. Setup photographers would have removed it but I prefer it in the image partly because it provides a clear distinction between my work and that of the “setup crowd”. If that attitude makes me an elitist, so be it.

It isn’t a perfect photo but it still brings me satisfaction.

  • For those who may be curious about the techniques of setup bird photography here’s a video clip that shows how one of the “experts” does it. These folks are absolutely ingenious in their methodologies designed to fool both birds and the human consumers of their photos (seldom do they ever disclose their devious methods). If you’re a bird photographer and that type of photo is your cup of tea, go for it I guess…  As for me I prefer my birds in settings that are truly natural and their behaviors unaltered.



1/2500, f/7.1, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

When the bird took off it launched in my direction which gave me a slightly unusual flight posture. The sidelight in both of these photos is a little strong but I thought they were interesting enough to post.

Just before this shot was taken I did something unusual for me and I wish I hadn’t. I inexplicably decreased my ISO which lowered my shutter speed from 1/4000 to 1/2500. As readers know I like to err on the side of too much shutter speed rather than too little, especially for potential flight shots. Little birds like this have buzz-saw wings that require very fast SS’s to prevent motion blur and as a result her wings are not sharp. Wing motion blur doesn’t bother some folks but I nearly always prefer them sharp and crisp so for me it was an error to change my ISO.

I’m mystified as to why I did it. It was very unlike me but it did reinforce one of my already entrenched preferences.



I’ve been out shooting all morning so I haven’t been able to respond in a timely manner to some of the comments on this post. And now I have an appointment to keep in just a little while so I’ll attempt to address some of the concerns expressed in the comments below in this addendum.

I should have been more clear about what my position is regarding setup bird photography. I have no problem with back yard bird photography or feeder photography. Occasionally I do both of them myself and I’ve posted some of those images here on Feathered Photography.

My issue is with  those who “essentially set up a “studio shoot” that just happens to be outside” (Marty’s words in a comment below) and then deliberately withhold their methods from the consumers of their photos (whether it be on social media, personal websites or any other public forum where those images are actually or potentially for sale or open to critique or comments of admiration). These photographers know that a significant portion of their potential customers wouldn’t buy their images or comment positively if they knew how they were taken so the don’t “disclose” their methods. Some of them go to great lengths to hide those methods.

Alan Murphy (the photographer featured in the video link in my text) is a case in point. Both Alan and I used to post images to Nature Photographers Network (NPN) for critique. NPN guidelines required that images that were setups be disclosed. But time and time again Alan would not disclose obviously setup shots. When called on it by others who critiqued his image (including me) he would either ignore the comment (his usual tactic) or apologize and say he “just forgot” to disclose. But he “forgot” many, many times. No matter how good the photos are (and Alan’s setups are usually very good) setup shots seldom get as positive a critique as non-setup shots so he and a few others just kept conveniently “forgetting” to disclose, ad infinitim… 

Opinions vary on this controversial subject and I was (and am) expressing mine. Others obviously feel differently and that’s just fine. But IMO a photographer should ALWAYS be honest with his or her viewers/consumers so I think any methods involving baiting, feeding, calling birds in electronically or using elaborate setups that aren’t natural and alter the behavior of birds (and potentially discourage sales or even positive comments) should be disclosed whenever those images are displayed publicly.

I can respect and even admire a setup shot that has been disclosed. If it hasn’t I cannot.