The Challenges and Rewards of Osprey Photography

Osprey photography

Of all the raptor species pursued by photographers, the osprey, also aptly known as the “fish hawk,” is perhaps the most exhilarating to observe in flight. It is also one of the most difficult to photograph when in flight. By far some of the most spectacular photographs of raptors I have seen are of Ospreys at all stages of their choreographed aerial rituals as they hunt, dive and catch fish for themselves and to transport them into a nest for waiting mates and fledglings.

After my countless trial-and-error blunders and missed goalie shots over the years, I’m able to share insights that I hope will make the journey to your own Osprey Trophy photos a little easier.

The first hurdle to overcome is finding Ospreys. In parts of North America, especially the southernmost coastal states, they are present most of the year and are easily accessible for viewing and photography. Where I live in the mid-Atlantic region, ospreys arrive in early March and leave around the end of September. Exceptions do happen, and your local observations will allow you to adapt to their habits.

Every March, start looking at eBird’s species maps to see the progress of ospreys as they move north from their tropical wintering grounds. As the month progresses, the red markers on the maps become increasingly crowded, as observers report sightings based on exact dates and locations. Experienced photographers can go directly to known nests and water bodies to check if last year’s occupants have arrived, as some monogamous pairs have been known to return to the same nests every year. Exceptions are when a new bird or pair arrives early and claims the spot first. A brief practice match may ensue, and that’s a drama in itself if you’re lucky enough to see it.

Ospreys migrate to temperate regions that are hot in summer to nest, breed and raise families. The young grow within weeks, growing from hatchlings to large birds that rival their parents in size.

For the bird watcher and avian photographer, the osprey’s breeding cycle offers months of exciting opportunities to observe, photograph and enjoy from a safe distance. You may even form an emotional bond with your fish-eating “friends.” If you regularly return to a nesting site, expect thrills and regular “wow” moments. Certainly, ospreys are agents of impressive physical appearance and beauty, as well as breathtaking and rarefied aerial antics unrivaled in the avian world.

The birds will offer you varied and numerous photo sessions. Exciting images are possible at several stages of their daily routine: hovering above the water, diving at lightning speed to ram a fish into their talons, carrying fish in the air and caring for their companions, nests and chicks.

Tools of the trade

An osprey dives with the talons, aiming for a fish below the surface of the water. The bird’s characteristic hunting style is a challenging and exciting event to photograph. Photo by William Jobes

You’ll need two essential tools to take great pictures of Osprey: a mirrorless or DSLR camera with as high a frame rate as possible, and a prime telephoto or zoom lens. Both lens types have distinct advantages over the other, which I’ll explore below.

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My favorite Osprey adventures are days at a favorite shoreline that I know from experience hunting Ospreys. You can find your own sweet spot via the eBird species map to see water bodies near you where birds are reported. Head to those bays, lakes, streams, tidal rivers, or ocean, and chances are Ospreys will show up.

Lately I’ve been wearing the Sony a1 with a Sony 200-600mm zoom telephoto lens. I have also had great success with the Nikon D500 and the PF 500mm lens, as well as the OM-D E-M1 Mark III from an OM system with the 40-150mm pro lens or the 150-400mm lens.

Using a prime lens in the 400-800mm range rather than a super telephoto zoom is a matter of personal preference. While the former produces images of unparalleled quality, so do premium zooms from all the major brands. Manufacturers’ research and development has produced optical excellence in zoom lenses that only a few years ago were the exception, if at all available. In my experience, using the telephoto zoom gives me the advantage of tracking a bird more easily at shorter focal lengths and then zooming in on a tight shot for moments of maximum action.

Once you arrive at your destination, the routine takes on a familiar rhythm. If there are no birds nearby, I scan the sky for a telltale black spot. Even at high altitude, the Osprey’s wide circular trajectory makes it stand out. At this point, the bird scans the waters for a fish whose reflection in the sunlight betrays its position. Even on cloudy days, Ospreys’ vision can detect fish even a few meters below the surface.

As you watch a fishing osprey circling, stay alert with camera gear at the ready. Watch carefully as the bird tightens its circle in the sky. In a fraction of a second, it can pivot and begin a power dive towards the surface of the water, where it will strike with a powerful, hard-hitting ratio and usually disappear below the surface. In moments he will be on his feet, often with a large fish still unseen and impaled by talons, as he gathers his wits and launches himself with dazzling power out of the water.

From there, it begins a meandering spiral flight around the body of water, looking for opportunistic Osprey thieves (and even large gulls) who will attempt to steal the fish from the successful hunter. And it’s off to the nest to share the bounty with a waiting mate, or, at the end of the season, its partner and its hungry chicks.

While virtually any phase of the hunt, dive, and retrieve sequence can produce beautiful shots, at specific points the most iconic images are possible. They are:

  • When the bird is in full dive mode. At around 40 feet above the water, it will begin to extend its legs and unfurl its talons in a dramatic pose as it reaches out to kill. Once you get some experience, resist the urge to start your shutter burst too soon. The “silver” images are those with talons fully extended within nanoseconds before impact.
  • When the bird is underwater. Try to start your burst shot before it surfaces. These captures, as they erupt in a dazzling explosion of waves and droplets, are priceless.
  • When the bird surfaced. At this point, it will linger for a few seconds. Begin your next burst as it takes off with prey in the talons. Images while water is still in view can be particularly dramatic.
  • When the bird is in flight. A shot that is often missed, and frankly the one that is my most difficult, is possible once the Osprey is back in the air with its grip. Frequently, the bird will slow down slightly and shake its whole body vigorously, producing a visually appealing spray.
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Two ospreys tend to their nest high on an artificial platform. Such platforms provide photographers with relatively easy access to take pictures of large birds. Photo by William Jobes

Equipment and settings for Osprey photography

Remember the technical resources needed to be successful. The best odds are in your favor with at least 10 frames per second. Cameras that deliver 20 FPS or more are even better when you’re locked on a bird of prey rocketing up to 50 mph towards a water impact a few feet away. Thankfully, the old myth of not holding a super telephoto lens is over, so I enthusiastically recommend using a zoom telephoto lens and a camera body with a shoulder strap. Mobility and flexibility pay off big.

On my camera of choice, the Sony a1 with 200-600mm lens, I set the shutter speed to 1/3200, with the lens wide open and the ISO on auto. I’ll dial in between one and two stops of positive exposure compensation to best reveal the detail of Osprey’s feathers against the sky and flowing water. Be sure to experiment with exposure compensation to avoid blowing out the bright white feathers.

After photographing the birds as they hunt, turn your attention to their nests, which provide ample opportunity to capture engaging interaction in a more controlled setting.

From the time one mate or the other returns to the nest with fish in tow to the days and weeks after eggs hatch and fledglings grow, it can be immensely rewarding to watch and photograph the cycle of their life. What makes this period particularly appealing is the wide variety of nest types and locations, each offering its own photographic appeal. Ospreys nest in tall trees, and they are also comfortable on artificial nesting platforms erected near large bodies of water.

It’s fun to watch the young birds mature. They grip the nest firmly while flexing their wings in flight movements to strengthen themselves in preparation for their first flight. In this phase, it is simply a matter of locking the camera on a tripod and waiting for the action to begin.

Depending on where you live, late winter is the perfect time to start planning for a successful Osprey photography season. Take the time to browse online resources, identify productive hunting and nesting sites from past seasons, take stock of your gear, and make firm plans for upcoming Osprey adventures that will fuel your future ones. memories.