I Think Kestrels And Flickers Share A “Mean Gene”

And that gene is expressed in the presence of bird photographers. Specifically this bird photographer (as you may have already surmised this post is more about the frustrations of bird photography than it is about great images).

For most of the year American Kestrels give me huge headaches. Except for about two months in the dead of winter (when temps are truly frigid they’re much “stickier”) their primary purpose in life is to screw up my attempts to get quality photos of them. They do it largely by fleeing before I’m within shouting distance and/or choosing terribly unattractive perches with an abundance of obstructions in poor light.

Northern Flickers share the same nasty attitude toward me (I swear it must be genetic, though they’re not closely related). Flickers tease by loudly and regularly announcing their presence but when I try to approach them they fly off before we’re in the same county. I often see photographers (mostly in other parts of the country) posting flicker photos where the bird is frame-fillingly close but flickers around here have it in for me.

I know of a tree where a male kestrel and a male flicker make regular and punctual appearances so I’ve been visiting that tree almost every day for the last several weeks. One or both of them usually shows up at about the same time in the late afternoon so I’ve been trying very, very hard to get some quality photos. My experience over the last two days should give you some idea of how I’ve fared. And why I’m so damn frustrated.

 

 

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

Three days ago the male flew in very close but I’m convinced he deliberately chose this spot on the tree limb so there would be as many distracting branches in the photo as possible and a truly annoying shadow across his chest. I actually had to back up my pickup to get even this clear of a view of him. After this shot he took off and I didn’t know where he went so I just waited to see what would happen. I didn’t know it but this bird wasn’t through with me yet.

Three minutes later he came out of nowhere and landed within 7′ of my left rear tire (I carefully estimated the distance visually) and snagged a dragonfly that I hadn’t even known was there. I quickly grabbed my smaller lens so I could photograph him that close but just as I began to aim it at him he took off…

 

 

1/2000, 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

and landed in the same nightmare tree that’s so thick with distracting branches I never get clear shots. He paused only long enough to allow me a few photos with part of his face and the dragonfly in shade before taking off again. I suspect he landed there only to taunt me.

The next afternoon things didn’t go much better with the male flicker.

 

 

1/1600, f/6.3, 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

He came in quite close (yup, in that same cursed tree) and taking a lesson from the kestrel he chose a cluttered perch and deliberately put a shadow across his face and upper body. After he’d had his fun with me he flew off and I thought he was probably gone for the evening so I relaxed a little.

 

 

1/1250, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM, not baited, set up or called in

But literally one minute later (he had to beat the kestrel’s record of three minutes) he landed within a foot or two of where the kestrel had landed the day before, very close to my left rear tire. This time instead of grabbing my smaller lens I quickly took the teleconverter off of my 500mm but I still couldn’t fit all of him into the frame so the result was this head shot (at least we get a great look at that red malar stripe).

To get this photo I had to “stand up” in my pickup seat in order to aim down that low and get the flicker in the frame. After about ten seconds he took off and I still don’t know why he landed where he did (except possibly to rub my nose in the dirt) .

I’m not making this stuff up folks and I’m not even exaggerating. These birds have it in for me and I don’t know why. 🙂

But I’m sure I’ll be at the same nightmare tree next time we have good afternoon light and trying again. I don’t know when to throw in the towel and that’s probably a character flaw…

Ron

 

Oh, I almost forgot. My frustrations two days ago didn’t end with the flicker. One species I’ve never photographed (I don’t even remember ever seeing one) in ten years of photographing birds is the Steller’s Jay. With their stunning blue/black colors, impressive crest and (here in the interior west) white eye stripe and forehead marks they’ve always been high on my list of desired subjects.

 

Eleven minutes before the flicker landed next to my pickup this Steller’s Jay flew into a tree about 150 yards away. Of course it wasn’t close and was obscured by branches. It stayed there for about 15 seconds and then it was gone. They’re typically mountain birds so I was surprised to see this one at such a low elevation.

I can’t help but wonder if these close calls and frustrations at this location will ever end…

Note: This post is written a little tongue in cheek. But only a little.

 

 

 

42 comments to I Think Kestrels And Flickers Share A “Mean Gene”

  • Kathy H.

    Ha! That was hilarious. I feel your pain, although here in Seattle we’re practically tripping over Flickers and Steller’s Jays. 😉 I really enjoy your posts, Ron! Such beautiful work and interesting observations.

  • Nicole

    FABULOUS photos!!

  • I learned watching birds on the feeder that ‘pecking order’ isn’t just a turn of phrase. Some birds don’t have a skeleton but are held up by solifified nastiness.
    I do feel for you, while smiling. Perhaps my nastiness is starting to set hard too.
    And yes, of course I loved this set, frustrations and all.

  • April Olson

    You photos despite you critical eye are lovely. Thank you for the engaging story. It helped with the dull-drums I have been feeling. With UEA upon us I plan to get out and hopefully capture some beautiful wildlife (despite hunting season) but at least I will enjoy the out of doors.

    I did notice some bloomers, is the shot for EC?

    • I suspect EC will notice those bloomers too, April. She nearly always does!

      When I was teaching, like you I really looked forward to the UEA break. But these days it just means more folks in the field that I have to deal with. Even the number of hunters at Farmington this morning was noticeably higher than it usually is on a week day.

  • Mary Lou Hall

    Thanks for keep humor in our birding excursions. I laughed as well as appreciated the fine details in the birds. We birders do have fun, don’t we?

  • Diana

    Ron. The photo with him and the dragonfly is wonderful—catch light and expression and talons. You should see the unpleasant kestrel I feed where I volunteer. That’s why this post gave me a laugh.

    • Laura Culley

      Yep Diana, I’ve been THERE! LOL! The rehab Kestrels are particularly snotty 😉 And don’t forget, Kestrels are FAR larger than they look. LOL!

    • Diana, I bird-sat an unreleasable kestrel for about a week quite a few years ago. That bird, his name was Willie, had the run of the house and he could turn from fairly docile to incredibly nasty in a nanosecond.

  • Joanne OBrien

    Thanks for the tongue-in-cheek post, Ron. Frustrations aside, the photos are well worth looking at. The close up of Flicker is especially nice! I enjoyed seeing the picture of the Steller’s Jay and I would get a kick out of seeing one in person some day. They are awesome looking birds! I have to say that I believe Blue Jays to be extremely beautiful birds as well – we just take their beauty for granted because they are so common.

  • Porcupine

    It’s not your imagination or just you! I once spent over an hour up in the Arctic trying to photograph Semi-palmated Plovers on the gravel bar where several had their nests. It finally dawned on me that it could not possibly be a coincidence that every time I tried to aim the camera I found myself looking directly into the low angle midnight sun. Since then I have noticed that many smaller bird use the direction of the sun to protect themselves from photographers. I have a folder titled “Birds behind Sticks & Shadows”
    Good to know it happens to others!

    • Porcupine, I have a theory that I’ve talked about for years – that certain species (harriers being at the absolute top of that list) deliberately put themselves between any perceived threat (like a vehicle or person) and the sun while in flight. I strongly believe it’s true.

      • Laura Culley

        I KNOW that to be true! Mariah and Jack frequently put the sun at their backs, or at maximum angle to make me go blind! Just sayin’!

  • Marty K

    I think they’re ticked because of the license plate. After all, Kestrel and Flicker also each have seven letters. 😉

    Even with the frustrations and imperfections, these are still pretty cool shots. Love the Kestrel’s expression in the first one (“Who you lookin’ at?”) and the closeup of the Flicker. Even with the distance and clutter, that jay is pretty darn cool too!

    • Thanks, Marty. Maybe that license plate is more trouble than it’s worth. 🙂 In addition that plate makes my presence at a location so obvious that in certain cases I’d rather remain more anonymous.

  • Fun story and photos Ron. Northern Flickers and Belted Kingfishers have decided to frustrate me. Kestrels not so much, other than to take over just about every Barn Owl box we have.

    Tree branches, especially the smaller ones, add so much to the difficulty scale. I actually prefer them in many photos. Your photos here are very nice and I do like the shadows across parts of the bird — puts things in context I guess. One bird photographer I know says ” a bird flying in the blue sky makes for a boring photo…”. I guess I agree somewhat now on that.

    I got a kick out of your description of being in the truck, with the long lenses, having the birds come up close to the vehicle. Now that for sure is intentional teasing on their part :-). Yesterday after I finished my morning hike with the pups, we were all in the truck, a Greater Roadrunner decides to come up super close to the vehicle. It was right below the window, within 6 feet of me. Meanwhile three bird dogs are pointing at it while I am quietly trying to tell them to chill out, and I am trying to aim the 100-400 mm from above onto the roadrunner…finally I just laughed and realized this was one of those “memory moments” instead of photograph moment.

    You must have many of these “memory moments” from all your photography excursions! Funny how they seem to stick in my mind more than times when I did end up getting a photo.

    • Ed, most of the time I love shooting from my pickup but at this location it’s a pain in the butt for a variety of reasons located to sun angle, best angle on the tree and the restrictions I have shooting slightly behind me from the truck. I can’t shoot from my tripod there because being on foot would keep the birds from coming in close. So far I’ve found no solutions to the problem.

      Generally and with exceptions I agree with your presumed friend about blue sky backgrounds.

  • Patty Chadwick

    I’m wondering if those birds have it in for you because you’re a Cool Cat and birds don’t like cats….can’t think of any other explanation…..

  • Susan Stone

    I know I shouldn’t laugh at your frustrating situation, but when I saw the Flicker with shadows similar to those on the Kestrel, I just had to laugh. Their behavior is enough to make one paranoid… (tongue in cheek here, too, kinda sorta). I think those birds must have a common language that enables them to do this kind of thing to/for you. I would love to even catch a glimpse of a Stellar’s Jay. They are much prettier than the eastern ones.

  • Laura Culley

    I can’t speak for flickers other than I know they don’t stay in one place for long, but I KNOW your frustration with Kestrels. Skye (AKA The Evil Princess) is determined to challenge my intelligence at every encounter! And she’s really good at it. I’m generally two or three steps behind this little evil beast (I’m going to do Karma time for using that L word! She is NOT little). Granted, I’m only human (AKA Stupid Dullard Human), so there’s really no sport in it, but my repeatedly failed attempts at this falconry thing with her seem to amuse her. DARGH! She particularly enjoys taking chunks of meat from me as I untangle her jesses (about once a month), proving without any doubt that I am edible. It might take a few days, but she regularly informs me that she CAN and WILL take me down and eat me if I give her the opportunity. And that despite that she weighs just less than a stick of butter! It’s a humbling experience. Redtails and Harris’ hawks are far more cooperative! With them, I can look like I know what I’m doing.
    Steller’s jays are beyond beautiful and they’re part of the corvid family, too. I love corvids. Granted, this isn’t the best image of a Steller’s, but what a joy it is to see it this morning! Sadly, they don’t live here. Harrumph!
    The flicker head shot is wonderful! I love the detail.
    Just focus on that degree-of-difficulty thing and all will be well–maybe. It’s the pursuit of excellence that provides the joy. Don’t forget that aspect. And yes, Kestrels are EVIL 😉 All those factors in play, one individual will one day make a mistake and allow you the absolutely exquisite image(s) (perfection) you seek. And they will HATE that 😉

    • I thought of you while I was composing this post, Laura – knowing you could add some choice words about dealing with uncooperative kestrels. (seems to me that “uncooperative kestrels” is a redundant phrase…)

      • Laura Culley

        The “uncooperative” (Evil) Kestrel has her first two kills under her belt! Granted, they’re trapped mice, and she had to think about “catching” the first while I held it by the tail, but the second (tonight) she “caught” before I put it down. She jumped right up onto my fist and grabbed it without any hesitation! Maybe there’s hope for her yet!! I hope so!

  • Dick Harlow

    I think some birds have a preponderance for humor disguised as a meanous to humans! I would add to this Snowy Owls, who are always out in the open, but at such a distance it is always tough to get a good shot even cropped. Or, they will sit on top of a telephone pole, watch you pull up, lower your window, insert your camera out the window and than say Ha Ha and fly with their back to you. Now if that isn’t a mean gene, I don’t know what is!
    Wonderful shots Ron, as usual.

  • The “hidden hand” of the universe has noticed just HOW MUCH SUCCESS you’ve had in producing gorgeous work in the past, and has decided to keep you humble–the Flicker and the Kestrel are
    acting as agents to whip you onward to even greater accomplishment– so GO Ron, GO !

  • Jim Greer

    Ron, they say not so good things come in threes. I’m guessing tomorrow’s photos are free of branch shadows and awesome.
    Jim

    • I sure hope you’re right, Jim. We have sun but the wind’s supposed to pick up later so I’m not sure if I’ll be visiting that damn tree today or not. I have no desire to deal with wind too.

  • Judy Gusick

    GEEZ! Tho I’m sure that ISN’T the term you used for all of this! 🙂 We have a lot of Northern Flickers here, some most of the year, BUT they aren’t real good at picking attractive perches for any length of time for sure……….. Nice shot of the red malar stripe tho. The one of the Kestrel with the dragon fly would have been perfect – IF! I haven’t seen a Steller’s Jay – we’re lucky to have a few Blue Jays show up now and then…… I know the frustration and it does seem, at times, they are just messin with you!

  • Charlotte Norton

    Wonderful series Ron! We all share your frustration. The Jay is really amazing! I’ve never seen one.

    Charlotte

    • Charlotte, that jay was so far away I almost didn’t even raise my lens to it because I assumed it was a grackle. Even at this distance I’m glad I chose to scope it out.