Great Blue Heron

Don't Forget to Look UP When Photographing Birds by Todd Henson

Great Blue Heron flying away from the scene of the crime.

WARNING: This topic, though light-hearted, may not appeal to all viewers. But it does teach an important lesson if you photograph birds in the wild.

I love photographing birds, especially when I’m able to document birds in flight. But there is at least one potential downside to this activity, something that could ruin your day if you’re not careful to avoid it.

A Great Blue Heron. Such a beautiful bird. And yet... see the photo further below.

What am I talking about? Why is the title of this post, “Don’t Forget to Look UP When Photographing Birds?” Well, birds often defecate while in flight, or just before taking flight. And it’s not fun to be on the receiving end of this.

I feel sorry for any poor paddler in the river below this Great Blue Heron! Click on the image for a larger view. Go ahead, I dare you!

Thankfully, I’ve never been on the receiving end of a Great Blue Heron or Bald Eagle. As you can see in these photographs they can make quite a mess. But I have been hit by a Canada Goose flying overhead. It was so low I almost felt the air from its wings. Geese mostly eat plant matter so what I was hit with was fairly solid and didn’t make much of a mess. But birds that eat fish, animals or insects aren’t as easy to clean up from. I have been hit by a smaller song bird. Not fun.

So what’s my advice?

Don't stand too close when looking up at Bald Eagles! Not sure what you're seeing? Click on the image to see a larger version.

  • Always be aware of your surroundings. Try to determine the birds typical flight path, or places they commonly perch. You can’t plan everything, there’s always a chance one will fly over you, but being aware of where they may fly or perch at least gives you a chance of avoiding any bad encounters. If you see one heading your way just be aware of what might happen and be ready to move. The odds should be fairly low, but it does happen.
  • Learn the behavior of the birds you’re observing. Many birds, such as Bald Eagles and Osprey, will often defecate before taking flight. So be careful if you are observing a perched bird from down below, especially if it begins to left its tail feathers. They have more range than you might think!
  • Always wear a hat! Your clothes may still be a mess but at least it will help protect your head. When the goose let loose it hit my hat and backpack and mostly bounced off. No real harm done. When I was hit by the song bird I wasn’t wearing a hat. I had to clean off my hair, the side of my face, and my sunglasses. And all this in the middle of a busy city. Not my best day, but hey, “it” happens!
  • Always carry a towel or cloth of some kind with you, just in case you might need it. It’s not fun cleaning up this kind of mess without a cloth, trust me!
  • Bring some of that portable hand wash with you. Wiping it off is one thing, but getting yourself clean is nice, too.

Well, that’s it for today. I apologize for the somewhat unappealing topic, but it does happen and it’s best to plan ahead in case it ever happens to you. And worst case, if it does happen, you’ll have quite the story you never want to tell your friends about! 😀

Have fun out there. Enjoy photographing nature. And always remember: Look UP when photographing birds!!!

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Great Blue Heron Strutting Its Stuff In The Wetlands by Todd Henson

Great Blue Heron strutting its stuff, reflected in the wetlands.

Great Blue Herons are beautiful birds that feed and live around water. On this particular day the wetlands were full of Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets, all keeping close watch below the surface for their next meal, but also watching one another. These birds can be somewhat territorial and will try to chase off any that approach too close, though that didn’t occur in this case.

This heron had just caught and swallowed a fish and was now lifting its head and looking around, letting gravity help with the fish. I like the look of its plumage at the base of its long neck, the feathers spreading out towards the water. Some of these feathers can also be seen on its back, though not quite as striking in this photograph.

I’d been watching and photographing this heron for about 15 minutes before creating this image. I also captured images of it catching and eating the fish. But the heron was facing away from the camera at that time and the images just didn’t come out as well as this one, when it was almost parallel to the camera, or actually leaning just slightly towards the camera. The sun was behind my back, which helped light up the heron in this position.

In the end, I spent 3 hours at the park this day, which is not at all unusual. The light is softer first thing in the morning, and the animals are usually more active early. But there is often still activity to watch and photograph throughout the morning. There have been days when I spent 6 to 7 hours at the park. It’s so easy to lose track of time when watching these fantastic birds.

Great Blue Heron in a Tree by Todd Henson

A Great Blue Heron landed in a tree right along the trail.

Great Blue Heron are common enough in this area that I’ve photographed them many times. But I never tire of them, and I’m always on the look out for new opportunities. Sometimes I don’t have to look far.

My first image of the heron shows how the eyes are able to see below. It very likely knew we were there; it just wasn't bothered by us.

We were hiking in a nearby wildlife refuge, one I’ve spent a lot of time exploring. Just as we walked under a lone tree between two wetland areas we heard a squawk and a rustle of wings as a Great Blue Heron flew over and landed atop the tree we were walking under.

We froze. Most herons I encounter here are skittish and will fly away when you get too close. As you can see from the photo shot through tree branches, we were almost directly below the heron. We slowly moved to get a better view and the heron stayed where it was, seemingly ignoring us.

I walked back the way we’d come to position myself on the sunlit side of the tree, still moving slowly to avoid spooking the heron. It proved very patient, letting me position myself and create a series of photographs. As I shot I noticed it making quiet guttural sounds, and could see its throat moving to the sounds. It was an interesting behavior, one the photographs didn’t really capture.

Closeup of the Great Blue Heron's head as it watches the nearby wetlands.

Eventually, we moved on, leaving the heron in peace. As luck would have it the heron flew off not long after we’d moved on. I turned around to watch when I heard it fly off, but wasn’t able to capture any images of it. Maybe next time.

Great Blue Heron in a tree, with its head tilted slightly in my direction.

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