If You Want To Photograph Raptors In Flight Learn To Anticipate Their Takeoff

  • Readers know that occasionally I rerun an older blog post because many current readers have never seen it. I originally published on this subject over four years ago (9/26/13) but for this version I’ve added four images, rewritten much of the text, added new information and cleaned up the formatting. For many of us winter is “raptor season” so I thought this would be an appropriate time for an update. For readers who have seen some of this before, a “review” just might be helpful.

I’ve said before that one of the skills that can be of immense value to the bird photographer (and of interest to birders of every persuasion) is the ability to predict when your subject is about to take off. Flight shots are often easiest to get immediately after take-off but even then they’re still a huge challenge. It’s much easier to keep the bird in the frame and in focus during flight if you can anticipate when it’s about to take off. Camera settings can also be changed at the last second so they are more appropriate for a bird in flight than when it’s perched.

If one of your goals is to photograph raptors in flight remember this if you remember nothing else from this post:

  • Once you’ve locked focus on a perched bird it’s much easier to maintain focus as it’s taking off and in flight than it is to acquire focus after they’re already airborne.

 

Many raptors give hints when they’re about to launch. Here’s a few signs I’ve learned to watch for:

  • defecation
  • turning on the perch to face into the breeze
  • a raptor at ease will often stand on one foot. When they put that foot down and suddenly look more alert takeoff may be imminent
  • crouching down. This posture allows them to more effectively push-off with their legs
  • rousing – when a bird lifts its feathers and then shakes them back into place
  • stretching

Stretching is one of the easiest to miss, not because we don’t see it but because the behavior makes them look so relaxed that imminent take-off generally doesn’t come to mind. But a raptor that has been perched for a while often needs to stretch its wings in preparation for the strenuous and athletic act of take-off, just as a human athlete stretches before an event. In my experience a perched raptor that has recently flown is unlikely to stretch just before take-off because it doesn’t need to “limber up”.

Following are several examples where stretching immediately preceded lift-off to illustrate my point.

 

swainsons hawk 4084 ron dudley

1/1600, f/7.1. ISO 500, not baited, set up or called in

I photographed this Swainson’s Hawk perched on a fence post for 16 minutes and during that time it regurgitated two pellets which may have been part of the reason that it was so “sticky” for so long. I believe it knew it was about to cast a pellet so it was reluctant to take off before it did so.

 

 

swainsons hawk 4097 ron dudley

1/1600, f/7.1. ISO 500, not baited, set up or called in

Soon after it spewed the pellets it turned into the breeze on its perch and did a wing-stretch which indicated to me that take-off could be imminent (falconers call this kind of double wing stretch over the back a “warble”).

 

 

swainson's hawk 4112 ron dudley

1/2000, f/7.1. ISO 500, not baited, set up or called in

Very soon after the stretch it took off but the bird turned slightly away from me and the head is partially shaded.

 

 

red-tailed hawk 6485 ron dudley

1/2500, f/5.6. ISO 640, not baited, set up or called in

I found this adult Red-tailed Hawk and its mate perched in their favorite tree and photographed them for seven minutes before this one stretched its wings and then…

 

 

red-tailed hawk 6496 ron dudley

1/2500, f/5.6. ISO 640, not baited, set up or called in

abruptly took off.

 

 

northern harrier 9084 ron dudley

1/1250, f/7.1. ISO 640, 1.4 tc, not baited, set up or called in

I approached this Northern Harrier as it warmed in the sun on a cold winter morning. When it began to stretch its right wing and foot (falconers call this kind of single wing stretch while balancing on one leg and stretching the other a “mantle”) I suspected it was about to take off but I was faced with a dilemma. The hawk was perched on the ground at the base of a tall bank of vegetation that allows take-off only in my direction. The problem was that I had my tc (teleconverter) on which meant that I would likely be too close to avoid clipping or cutting off the extended wings as it got closer to me in flight.

I just knew that if I took the time to remove the tc I’d miss the take-off so I took a chance and left it on.

 

 

northern harrier 9091 ron dudley

1/1250, f/7.1. ISO 640, 1.4 tc, not baited, set up or called in

I got lucky and didn’t clip anything but the bird is too tight in the frame for good composition and with that background I can’t realistically add canvas (which I prefer not to do anyway).

 

 

1/2500, f/7.1, ISO 400, not baited, set up or called in

Another behavior that often signals imminent takeoff is rousing. When I see a raptor rouse on its perch I always prepare for takeoff because it can occur immediately after. In fact rousing is so intertwined with takeoff that a few times the two behaviors have occurred simultaneously.

This juvenile Red-tailed Hawk didn’t stretch its wings before takeoff…

 

 

1/2500, f/7.1, ISO 400, not baited, set up or called in

but it did start to rouse and then actually took off…

 

 

1/2500, f/7.1, ISO 400, not baited, set up or called in

while it was still rousing.

 

 

1/2500, f/7.1, ISO 400, not baited, set up or called in

And it continued to rouse in flight…

 

 

1/2500, f/7.1, ISO 400, not baited, set up or called in

for at least three frames.

Sometimes we don’t have much time, if any at all, between rousing and takeoff.

 

I don’t want to leave the impression that the behaviors mentioned at the beginning of this post always precede immediate take-off – they don’t. Each of them can occur when the bird has no intention to launch but there’s a very large correlation between those behaviors and imminent take-off so this knowledge can be very useful to bird photographers (or anyone else interested in bird behaviors).

Ron

 

PS: I’m curious about something.

 

american avocet 6382 ron dudley

1/1000, f/8. ISO 500, not baited, set up or called in

I’ve noticed that when some non-raptors like this American Avocet stretch their wings vertically they very often fully extend them, with the “wrists” straightened. I’m fairly sure I’ve ever seen this in a raptor – if I have I don’t recall it. In my experience when a raptor performs a vertical wing stretch it leaves the wrists flexed so the wing is not fully extended vertically, as in the Red-tail and Swainson’s examples above (though when they stretch their wings horizontally or downward the wing is often fully extended).

I know that’s not because raptors are incapable of fully extended vertical wing positions due to some quirk in their wing anatomy because their wings are often in a fully extended vertical position during takeoff.

I wonder why there’s such a difference in stretching “styles”. Any thoughts?

 

 

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