I’ve started to watch and take photos of a male Belted Kingfisher. He’s laid claim to the farm pond I visit and is there now every time I show. The Osprey family that took up residence nearby has moved on and headed south, but the kingfisher is going nowhere—at least for the time being. And though I’d like to think we’ve developed a relationship of some sort, it wouldn’t surprise me if he doesn’t see things quite the same way.
I’ve always been interested in kingfishers. I love their top-heavy appearance, their crests, their oversized beaks, their rattles, even their skittishness. I remember reading years ago that they fly as if they were changing gears. I think of that every time I see one in flight. The bird’s flight pattern is certainly an irregular one. I compare it to a Mallard’s, let’s say, and there’s no comparison. Even so, the kingfisher is an accomplished flier with strong wing bones that can withstand its many plunge dives. And though some overwinter here in the states, many others migrate as far south as South America (like many Ospreys).
Photographing Belted Kingfishers
For most people, Belted Kingfishers are hard to capture. It doesn’t matter if they’re perched or in flight. Some refer to them as a “nemesis bird.” Here’s author and speaker Laura Erickson‘s take: “I love getting to spend time with kingfishers in Texas and Florida in mid-winter when they are most abundant. Unfortunately, even then they’re camera shy—I’ve taken bazillions of photos of them at a distance but have a miserable time getting close enough for really great photos.” And here’s blogger Jo Quinn‘s take: “One of the hardest bird subjects that I have found to photograph, especially in flight, is the Belted Kingfisher. They fly fast and erratically change directions or speed in a split second. By the time you spot one, aim your camera, and focus…all you are left with is a dozen backside shots!” A photographer on FM Forums summed up the challenge perfectly: “It is difficult to get them sitting down. Flying is almost impossible.”
Developing a Plan
Before I’d taken an interest in the kingfisher, I’d focused on the Ospreys and the Green Heron. But lately it was just the heron because the Ospreys had gone.
I’d also taken an interest in the bullfrogs along the pond edge.
But every time I visited the farm pond, I kept an eye on the kingfisher. And it didn’t take long to realize I might have a chance to capture him in flight if I played my cards right. Back in August, I’d gotten some good photos, like this one, of a young female. I’d taken it from behind a small tree, which served as a blind. From my experience, younger birds are easier to approach and shoot, and she was a perfect example.
But what I wanted and knew was now possible were kingfisher flight shots. Why was I hopeful? For one, I was in the right place. This was great habitat, (which explained why the bird had settled in). The pond was secluded and sheltered, the water was shallow and clear, the trees around the pond had bare branches that overhung the water, and there were overhead power lines nearby.
Bird Photography Rules
Not only was I in the right place, but I discovered the right time to be there. Look through any guide to bird photography and rule #1 is doing the research and finding the bird. Rule #2 is going out at the right time when the bird is most active. Kingfishers are most active in the morning, and this one was no exception. That suited me fine because morning light is ideal. Speaking of light, “photography’s most important commodity,” the farm pond was small and square, and the sun rose to its east. I could potentially capture all the action with the morning sun behind me.
Rule #3 is take note of the bird’s behavior. Tata Rossi, author of “19 Wildlife Photography Tips and Techniques,” put it like this: “The success of the shooting largely depends on their behavior and how well you can interpret it. So if you don’t want to miss captivating pictures, you should study animals.”
I studied the kingfisher. I noted that the bird’s 2 favorite perches or primary perches were on the western side, which was perfect. He would often fly back and forth between the two. I could settle in as inconspicuously as possible on the eastern side and wait. But one morning early on and as I was beginning to get my bearings, the bird fooled me and flew from one of those perches to a different one on the eastern side. We’ll call that one a secondary perch. I just managed to catch it as it flew, and here’s the result.
I would have liked a softer/more defocused background, but I’ll take the shot anyway. It was a good one, it showed the bird well, and I had a sense there were many more to come.
And This Just In
The photo of the young female kingfisher is my favorite. I shared her story in “Two Days in August.” I like the pose and soft background, but I also like that it reveals another interesting kingfisher feature: its tiny feet. It also highlights a beak that’s tailor-made for catching and holding fish until they’re carried back to a perch and swallowed.
Quip, Question, Quote(s)
“By knowing my subjects, I can find my subjects.” Mia McPherson
“The gear certainly helps, especially the new bird eye-detection, but it still comes down to many other factors, like simply getting out there, knowing the species, and an eye for composition.” Colin Franks
Please stay tuned for the rest of the kingfisher story. I have more to say about the bird, our “connection,” how I photographed him, my technical approach, etc. I also have many more flight shots to share.
10 thoughts on “The Kingfisher and I”
Excellent photos and helpful tips! I fully agree that kingfishers are a great challenge. If possible, please address the issue of getting the eye to show (not the eyespot!) in the next installment.
I appreciate that. I’ve made a note re: your comment and will try to address it in the next piece. I generally won’t shoot if I can’t get a clear look at the bird’s eye. I also won’t shoot (usually) if the bird is flying away from me.
Awesome, can’t wait for part two
Thanks, Clark, and thanks for taking the time to comment.
Haha, Dave I love the lines which suggests that Kingfishers fly ‘as though they are changing gears'”
I’ve never forgotten those words, Jady. Probably read them in the 70’s or 80’s. Good seeing you.
Good to see you, too, Dave. The bird feeder is up and in active use already. The titmice never hesitate to check out a new food source!
Good luck with your move.
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Thanks, Lee. The last one?