Passion, Perseverance and a little Patience

A Journey into Bird Photography

By Cathy Cooper

Coots Taking Off – Yolo Basin Wildlife Area – 2012 Copyright Cathy Cooper

My passion for photographing fast moving subjects started 20+ years ago as I stood on the sidelines photographing my daughters as they ran up and down the soccer field.

Many of you probably remember in the early days of digital cameras there was a couple second delay from when you hit the shutter button until the photo was taken. This was very frustrating for many users but for me it provided a challenge that I wanted to conquer. After years of practice, I became really skilled at pressing the shutter button a few seconds before the action happened to be able capture photos at the peak of the action. Little did I know this skill would come in handy once I found myself in the medically retired chapter of life.

One warm fall afternoon in 2008, I noticed a large flock of black birds on the water while out fishing in a boat for largemouth bass in the Delta. My fishing friend was a wildlife biologist and informed me that they were American Coots (Fulica americana). As we would pull up anchor to go to our next fishing spot, we realized the birds took off each time we did this. Since we weren’t having much luck catching fish, we turned the need to move frequently to a new fishing spot into a team sport. I would get myself and my camera ready and as soon as I heard the sound of the engine, I would begin firing away as the flock of coots took off skimming across the water. Getting any bird in focus was quite challenging since the boat, birds and myself were all moving. Perseverance was something I had to develop if I was going to succeed in bird photography.

Coots Take Flight – Yolo Basin Wildlife Area – 2012 Copyright Cathy Cooper

My passion for bird photography did begin out on the water, but since I wasn’t able to get out in a boat very often, I had my daughter drive me around the marshlands near my home in Cordelia to look for birds to photograph. I soon discovered there were so many birds just minutes from my home. When I would see a hawk on a telephone pole she would quickly pull over so I could photograph it. I will never forget my first hawk photo out on Grizzly Island Rd and the look of fear on her face and the sound of panic in her voice as she let me know the red-tailed hawk was right above our heads on the telephone pole. I was filled with a mixture of nervousness and excitement as I tried to get off a shot or two before he flew away. I rolled down the window and hung out the car window with my long lens to capture my first raptor shot on a high voltage power line. Fortunately, this hawk nor any others have ever flown into my car.

Red-tailed Hawk – Grizzly Island Rd. – 2008 Copyright Cathy Cooper

It’s not too difficult to get a sharp photo of a bird that was perched on a pole after a few tries, but since I really like challenges,  I set out on a course to learn how to capture sharp birds in flight photos. I have learned a lot about specific bird behaviors and the best locations and times of year to find them. I also have researched and experimented with what the best settings in camera are for birds in flight photography.

Great Egret in Flight at Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area. 2012 Copyright Cathy Cooper

I had the passion and desire to persevere in capturing bird photos but there was one thing I wasn’t aware of needing to learn until after it had happened. First let me clarify a few things. I am not one of those bird photographers who gets up early, hides in a blind filled with wasps and waits for hours for a bird to arrive at a predicted location. I don’t dress in camouflaged gear nor do I use a tripod with an 800 mm long lens. I know I am breaking all the good bird photographer rules. I go mostly to places where I remain in my car and use it as a blind. They call them auto tour routes at the wildlife refuges. It works really nice for me since I have some mobility limitations and walking any distance isn’t something I can do without mobility equipment plus the birds would fly away the minute they saw me coming.

Snow Geese – Colusa National Wildlife Refuge – 2010 Copyright Cathy Cooper

I really never thought of bird photography as something that you have to be very patient with to succeed but looking back over my four year journey, I realize I have had to develop a little patience since I prefer capturing the bird in flight or doing some other behavior such as feeding a chick or doing a mating dance for their partner. For these type of action shots you do have to sometimes wait for the bird, but a lot of the times I just happen to be in the right place at the right time. Whether I waited for hours or just arrived, the action can happen in a split second, so getting my camera up and shooting as fast as I can is critical. Bird photography is not easy and requires lots of passion, perseverance, and of course you will have to learn to be a little bit patience with yourself and your subject to capture just the right photo.

Great Blue Heron taking Flight at Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area – 2012 Copyright Cathy Cooper

To get started, I recommend going to a local park or zoo where there are ducks, geese and other birds that are comfortable being around people before heading out into the wildlife refuges where birds are not as comfortable around people, and are more likely to fly off when they see you and your long lens ready to shoot them. Once you’re up to the challenge of shooting wild birds, check out some of my favorite locations at the end of this article. 

To begin bird photography, I highly recommend:

  • A Pro-consumer DSLR camera – Canon, Nikon, Olympus and Sony all make good cameras. The frames per second (FPS) rating on your camera is an important feature to look for when purchasing a new camera body for bird photography. My current model camera is a Canon 7D and it shoots 8 FPS. Most pro-consumer cameras shoot around 3-8 FPS. Sony has a new camera that does 12 FPS.
  • A 300-400mm professional quality lens. You can use a 200mm lens with a 1.4x or 2.0x teleconverter. As for lenses, buy the best glass and fasted lens (f/2.8-5.6) you can afford. Cheap lenses do not typically produce good bird photos unless they are really close up and the light is just right.
  • As for settings to use in camera. I usually shoot birds in Aperture Priority Mode, Auto Focus, AI-Servo, AF Point Expansion, Evaluative Metering, High Speed Continuous, Auto ISO, Auto White Balance with Image Stabilization On. I mostly hand hold my 100-400mm lens when shooting, but occasionally will use a monopod to minimize arm fatigue from the weight of the camera and lens.
Osprey with Fish – Grizzly Island – 2010 Copyright Cathy Cooper
Great Horned Owl on Grizzly Island – 2012 Copyright Cathy Cooper
Osprey fighting over nest on Mare Island – 2012 Copyright Cathy Cooper

There are so many great places to photograph birds. Here are a few of my favorite local places.

  • Grizzly Island Marsh – along Highway 680 between Benicia and Cordelia.
  • Grizzly Island Rd. – off Highway 12 in Suisun. The first 10 miles of the road is open year round. The next 7 miles is open from Feb-July and two weeks in Sept. A DFG landpass is required or a fishing or hunting license to drive the last 7 miles. This is where I find most of my birds on Grizzly Island.
  • Peyton Slough Marsh Complex – McNabney and Moorhen Marshes – Located off Highway 680 in Martinez. Check in at Mt. View Sanitary Districts administrative offices Monday- Friday.
  • Lake Berryessa and Mare Island are great locations to find nesting Osprey.

*  One of my favorite birds to photograph are the sandhill cranes. They can be found in between Galt and Lodi, CA. They fly in late summer to early fall and stay through the winter months.

The 16th Annual 2012 Sandhill Crane Festival is being held November 2-4 in Lodi,CA.

They have some great tours that I highly recommend. Tour Registration here.

Sandhill Cranes take Flight on Staten Island – 2012 Copyright Cathy Cooper

Sandhill Cranes feeding on Staten Island. 2012 Copyright Cathy Cooper
Sandhill Cranes in Flight at Woodbridge Crane Reserve – 2010 Copyright Cathy Cooper

 N4C September Competition Results

Five of our DVCC members placed in the N4C monthly competition with a total of eight winning images. Congratulations goes out to Lance Guelfo, Chris Nelson and Betty Prange, who each had two images place at N4C. Alan Moore and Mark Pemberton had winning images also.

To see a list of all the N4C winners visit the N4C website.  The results on the DVCC STANDINGS page have been updated to reflect these latest N4C results.

DVCC September Competition

At our September competition we had 65 images submitted. Our judge for the evening was Randy Bates. He was new to judging at our club and brought a refreshingly positive and upbeat approach to judging. He showed great enthusiasm when viewing our images and provided very descriptive comments for our club members images. He was able to make the photographer feel good about their image even if he didn’t care for it. You were left feeling that he valued the hard work you put into your photography and with very descriptive reasons why he liked your image and on ways you could improve the image.  Keep in mind that our judges comments are their own personal opinion and if your images don’t place in this months competition, you can always resubmit it into another months competition with a different judge.

To view all the winning entries please visit our competition website.

Projected Image of the Night

Congratulations goes out to Cathy Cooper for her image “Disneyland Park Fireworks Show” in the Pictorial Projected Images Masters category. 

 Print of the Night

Congratulations goes out to Chris Nelson for his “Welder Preparing for Burning Man” Journalism Advanced Print.

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