Earlier this year, we held our first photo contest focused solely on images of birds in flight, the 2021 Birds in Flight contest, here on our website. We received over 825 entries – images of bald eagles, ospreys, blue jays, burrowing owls, hummingbirds, among others – from hundreds of photographers. Thank you to everyone who participated! The selection of images was exceptional, as all of our previous competitions have been. The judges had a difficult task! Today, we are proud to present the finalist photos, featured in the following slideshow.
Each caption tells the story behind the photo, from the photographers themselves, and lists the photo equipment they used. Enjoy!
Osprey by Mike Dowsett
The highlight of my summer photography is the long-awaited return of many Western Ospreys, who choose to return to nest and breed in the Scottish Highlands after a long warm winter spent on the African coast. I make the long journey every year filled with anticipation accompanied by my photographer friend, Gary Jones. Photographing the Ospreys actively fishing is the most thrilling wildlife photography I have experienced, feeling a real adrenaline rush capturing the birds doing the incredibly fast dive into the fish-rich waters and then exploding into frantic flight with a huge trout.
Over many years of technical improvements I have learned every year and see better images over time. Key areas of technique involve camera focus placement, exposure, and camouflage.
I’ve been working on perfecting my ability to pre-focus on an area of water where I predict the Osprey will hit to gain about ½ a second and help give the camera a bit more time to focus on the bird. It is crucial to “lock” the bird before pressing the shutter; otherwise, the entire burst of images will be blurry. The impact of the bird until leaving the water is very fast (maybe 2 or 3 seconds), so it is very important to be ready and to have practiced other birds like ducks and the herons before the main attraction. It is especially important to set the exposure correctly. The Osprey has a bright white body and underwing feathers, which makes it easy to overexpose and lose feather detail. Osprey won’t fish if they see a human presence nearby, so we usually get in place before sunrise and wait in the dark.
This particular picture had an added challenge on the day. Haze can be a real problem in this area, and on this day she was no exception. The first two Ospreys to dive were completely obscured by mist, preventing the camera from focusing.
Then around 5:30 a.m., as the mist cleared and early morning sunlight lit up the valley, we heard Osprey’s single call from above as we circled the area looking for an easy grip. That’s when my excitement peaks and the nerves begin. I pre-focused where I hoped the fish were shoaling and prepared for the dive by checking exposure and making sure the gimbal/camera rotation path was clear to follow the bird. Then I waited. There was a huge splash and blur that broke the silence. I got the camera into position and prayed the focus would lock quickly. I then pressed and held the shutter button for a full burst of RAW images, while following the Osprey as it struggled to get away with a 2-3 fish books and wet feathers. The silence as the bird flew away was followed by laughter as Gary and I realized the warm light was amazing and we both had several ‘guardians’ on our media cards. We returned to our accommodation around 6.30am after the local fishermen spooked the Osprey, to enjoy a hot breakfast to end our incredible morning spent with the most amazing raptor of all.
Equipment and settings: Canon EOS-1DX Mark1, Canon EF300mm f2.8 + Canon 1.4x converter = 420mm focal length. Gitzo carbon tripod with Wimberley Mk 1 gimbal. 1/3200sec: f/8: iso800: manual operation.
Many thanks to our panel of guest judges: author, radio host and editor Laura Erickson; our former photo editor Ernie Mastroianni; Outdoor photographer Editor Wes Pitts; and William Brawley, Imagery Resources Editor.
Update, November 2: We have now announced the three winners, who will also be featured in our January/February 2022 issue.
The second place
Don’t have enough? Here are the 16 honorable mention photos from the Birds in Flight contest!