Monday, September 16, 2013

The Bird That Got Away: Technically Bad But Interesting Bird Images

Capturing a great nature shot--especially when the subject can fly, scurry, or run--is a combination of skill, determination, equipment, and plain old luck or timing. Photographers often sift through lots of bad images before they share their work with others. Thank goodness for digital images that can be captured and deleted at practically no cost in comparison to film.  I've heard some great photographers say they shoot from tens to hundreds of images to get the one they think is worth sharing.

I love capturing and sharing images of birds and other creatures. I typically share only my favorites unless the image is meant purely for functional purposes such as providing proof of a rare bird. However, this post will be the exception to my rule. In other words, these are images that would have been really awesome had I been better prepared, had better equipment, lighting, timing, etc. I'll probably kill any chance I had for being published in National Geographic once this post gets out. What follows are images that could have been.

I was wandering around Silver Lake near Utah's Brighton Ski Resort one wintry morning when a Steller's Jay gave I call. I turned around just in time to fire off my shutter and capture the jay flying over head. It looks more like an x-ray than a bird in flight. The sky was gray so lighting, camera settings, and my preparedness were off for this one. However, it is a unique photo.

Steller's Jay at Brighton Ski Resort Near Salt Lake City, UT

I can't complain about the lighting for these images of a Red-shafted Northern Flicker that was coming in for a landing one sunny morning as I was strolling along American Fork Boat Harbor. I saw the bird coming and I'd always wanted to capture an image showing the really cool salmon-colored feathers. Unfortunately, I didn't get a tight focus until right before it landed and the branches obscured what I was targeting.

Northern Flicker (slightly out of focus) American Fork, UT
Northern Flicker (missed opportunity) American Fork, UT
An Osprey also gave me lots of notice once, but I couldn't get the auto focus to work properly for any of the ten or so images I captured as it flew toward me. All of those images could have been awesome raptor shots. If I crop it any more than this you'll quickly see that the eyes were out of focus. When the subject's eyes are out of focus it just doesn't make the cut--unless your point is to show what can go wrong in nature photography. Which, I have to remind myself, is the point of this post.

Osprey in American Fork, UT
Several years ago my company moved me into a nice corner office on the top floor of our building which was right next to excellent habitat for birds, foxes, deer, marmots, and more. I had seen some Peregrine Falcons around the area so I kept my camera in my office in case the perfect opportunity arose. On the day the opportunity presented itself I had left my camera in my truck. I saw a Peregrine enjoying lunch on the balcony ledge outside my office. I ran to the elevator, dropped six floors, retrieved the camera  from the truck, returned to the sixth floor near my office, and then slightly opened the door to the balcony while on my knees to get a direct line to the bird. I snapped what would have been very nice images if there weren't two metal wires running horizontally between me and the bird. Consequently, the falcon's chest and the lunch (a dove) were blurred.

Peregrine Falcon with Dove South Jordan, UT
I was quite "surprised" as I was driving through Surprise, Arizona on my way back to Utah one day. I saw a Greater Roadrunner, running rather greatly along the road. I suddenly veered to the shoulder of the road. I'm not sure if it was a legal manuver where I was driving, but my excitement about seeing a roadrunner up close for the first time overruled my concern for everything else going on around me. I scrambled to get the camera bag and turn on the camera. The excitement was so great I was fumbling with every move. The bird suddenly plucked a Round-tailed Ground Squirrel from beneath the sand and proceeded to thrash it against the ground. Man, I wish I would have been on a higher shutter speed to get a clearer image. It was definitely a moment I'll always remember.

Greater Roadrunner With Round-tailed Squirrel Surprise, AZ
Speaking of roadrunners, I got some really nice images of two roadrunners near Lytle Ranch in southwestern Utah this spring. However, one image had a missed opportunity because I wasn't anticipating that the bird would leap from one branch of a Joshua tree to another. I guess you could use this image to study its feet. The tail doesn't look like much, but wait til you see the next image.

Jumping Greater Roadrunner Washington County, UT
I had an adult Sharp-shinned Hawk do a quick fly-by right next to me as it was pursuing its breakfast one morning in Tonaquint Nature Center in St George, Utah. I got some nice images of the bird perched, but this time, unlike the jumping roadrunner, the hawk decided to dive down from a perch. That is a pretty squared tail, wouldn't you say?

Tail of Adult Sharp-shinned Hawk St George, UT
Townsend's Solitaires are often viewed as rather bland, gray birds. I've always wanted to get an image of a Townsend's Solitaire with it flashing its yellow wing patches. The bird below was actually perched and suddenly took flight. Unfortunately, the unexpected wing patch shot turned out to be more of the bird playing a mean joke on me. Not a bad shot of a branch however.

Townsend's Solitaire in Pleasant Grove, UT (it was perched when the image was framed)
Another unexpected jumping bird turned out to look like a Photoshop effort gone bad. I don't use Photoshop so this is probably just as good as if I did Photoshop the image all by myself. Trust me on this one.  It would have been a nice image if the bird would have sat still on the branch below it.

Jumping Townsend's Solitaire at Tibble Fork Reservoir Utah County, UT
How do you like this awesome Barn Owl shot? It was actually perched on a power line as I was driving to the grocery store. It started to fly when I pulled over for a photo. Apparently this owl doesn't know how to frame itself well for a photo. If you look closely you can see the little black spots on its underside. By the way, that's a beautiful snow-covered mountain in the background. Be honest now, doesn't it make you want to ski in Utah?

Missed Barn Owl Shot Pleasant Grove, UT
I was driving home from work a few years ago and saw not only my first Swainson's Hawk ever, but I saw several within minutes. They must have just gotten off the last flight from Argentina. That's where they come from you know. It was April and I think that is when flights from Argentina to Utah are heavily booked by Swainson's Hawks. I was also new to photography at the time and I think I had everything on my camera set to auto. Someone told me that was all I needed to do to get good photos. Must have been a poor job on the hawks part. I'm sure if it knew it was going to go viral on the Internet it would have focused itself and kept all of its body parts in the frame.

Swainson's Hawk Springville, UT
I don't know. Is this a bad image of a Killdeer? Nice colors I guess, but what did I do to scare it off in such a hurry?

Killdeer Spanish Fork, UT
When I saw this Pygmy Owl's eyes go wide and it mouth start to gape I knew a pellet was about to be ejected in some sort of projectile fashion. I pressed the shutter release and fired away in continuous shooting mode. It took longer for the bird to clear its throat than expected. Between the capacity of the camera's sensor and the memory card the frames per second choked and stalled right as the pellet came forth.

Northern Pygmy Owl Aspen Grove Lodge Utah County, UT
The best I could do was take a picture of the pellet after my friend traipsed through hip-deep snow to retrieve the pellet and place it on the road. The point of showing this image is to see if you can identify the species of bird or mammal inside.

Freshly Expelled Northern Pygmy Owl Pellet Aspen Grove Lodge Utah County, UT
Please don't give up on my work. I have desire and better equipment now. I'm getting better all the time. I promise I'll do better next time.


  1. Jeff, your bad photos are putting mine to shame. I won't give up on you if you don't give up on me. Seriously - I enjoyed looking at your photos - awesome opportunities and experiences for you and this, my friend, is priceless.

  2. These are almost more fun than great photos, especially with your humorous writing. I liked the jumping bird photos the best.

  3. You must of taken some lessons from me Jeff! ;-) Got to love them!

  4. Thanks fro the comments. I am sure we can all relate to these experiences. I'd enjoy hearing more about some of these types of experiences from others. Is there an page or forum for sharing the botched photo ops?

  5. I thought you might like to hear the following (an excerpt from my blog post):

    "I wonder what Starr would say about my (sometimes) apprehension to take images of birds. I read somewhere that once when she was leading a bird walk, a young woman (reportedly named Catherine) was upset that a bird had flown off before she'd got a chance to take a picture, and that Starr had told her that perhaps she wasn't supposed to take a photo. According to a link within a memorandum to Ms. Saphir, Starr's encounter with the aforementioned young woman went like this "Saphir seems to be even more aware of the fact that in some ways, humans are honestly just visiting the birds' delicate environment. 'I'd like to see it her friend Catherine says of a specimen she's trying in vain to spy with her binoculars.' (To which Starr replied), 'I know,' Saphir tells her sympathetically. 'I'm not sure it would like to be seen though.'"


    Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  6. Don't say bad photos--I don't have anything that good. I enjoyed reading the stories about what the birds were doing.

  7. The Northern Pygmy Owl looks very shocked to see you :P

  8. Your standards for good photos are much higher than mine. When photographing herps, especially frogs, I've often taken highly focused images of patches of ground occupied seconds beforehand by the animal. Here's one:

    1. Great shot, Andrew! The south end of a north-bound frog, so to speak? If I knew frogs better I'd try to ID it.

  9. Great post Jeff. More often than not I end up with more bad pictures than good ones!

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. Jeff, some of these shots would put my photography to shame! I think you have nothing to complain about! I love the flicker shot as well as the pygmy owl! What a fun and funny post! We have all had those near misses with wildlife! Besides, photography is not just about the great shot, it is also about telling a story and some of these shots are "worth a thousand words!"