osprey

Osprey Building a Nest on a Windy Day by Todd Henson

Osprey facing the camera on a windy day, with head feathers sticking straight up.

Osprey don’t have it easy. They build nests close to water with no protection from the elements. I’ve seen osprey nests blown over during strong storms. But these amazing birds just keep rebuilding and moving on.

Today’s photos are of an osprey in Colonial Beach, Virginia, building a nest atop some poles just offshore. It’s a very windy day, as you can see in the photo with the osprey facing the camera. The feathers on the back of its head stand straight up with the wind blowing towards me. This really gives the osprey a wild, aggressive look.

Osprey building a nest on a windy day.

I’ve created cropped versions of both photos giving you closer views of the osprey. Click on any of the images for larger views.

Closeup of osprey facing camera, head feathers upright.

Side view of osprey on its nest on a windy day.

Thinking Through the Shots

I wanted to focus as much as possible on the osprey, meaning I wanted the background to disappear in a blur. The distant shore was quite a distance away, which helped. I was shooting at 400mm focal length, which also helped. My maximum aperture was f/8 with the setup I was using. Given the focal length and the distance to the shore, it was enough.

Note, I usually shoot in Aperture Priority mode when background blur is important. This lets me choose the aperture most appropriate for the look I want and lets the shutter speed fall where it well. If I need a faster shutter speed I can then open the aperture further (unless it’s already open all the way) or boost the ISO.

It was a very windy day, so things like the osprey’s feathers were moving. And I wanted to be able to capture the osprey if it flew from the nest. This meant I needed a fast shutter speed. I was shooting with a wide open aperture, which would help give me a faster shutter speed. To increase the shutter speed further I boosted my ISO to 500 (200 is the base ISO for the camera I was using). This let me shoot at a shutter speed of 1/1250 sec.

To sum it all up, I shot at 1/1250 sec, f/8, at ISO 500.

Equipment

I didn’t have my longer lens with me for this shoot, but I did carry along my 70-200mm f/2.8 and a 2x teleconverter. This is how I reached 400mm. The 2x does slow things down, causing slower focusing, and giving me a maximum aperture of f/8 instead of the f/2.8 of the lens (2 stops slower). But this combo is smaller and lighter than a larger lens, and does give me some versatility, allowing both the 70-200mm and 140-400mm ranges. I was happy with the compromise for this trip.

Note, the 2x teleconverter only works with some lenses, so be sure it works with yours before you purchase it.



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What Can You Find in a Wetlands Park? by Todd Henson

Why would you ever want to go to a wetlands park? What could you possibly find there that would make it worth the trip?

Answer: Life!

Healthy wetlands parks are absolutely full of life. They are home to countless species of animals, birds, insects, plant life, and aquatic life. They are important locations for these species, both as places to find food and as places to find shelter, to nest, to raise the next generation. And they are important filters for the water system, cleaning water, filtering it through the plants and layers of soil. Visiting wetlands parks helps remind us of the importance of these crucial and beautiful locations.

Red-winged Blackbirds

Male Red-winged Blackbird perched on a stump

Singing male Red-winged Blackbird

I just recently visited a local wetlands park, and this trip is a perfect example of the rich diversity of life you can find. One of the more common species in this park are the Red-winged Blackbirds. Early spring is mating season and you can watch as groups of male blackbirds chase the females, flying almost too fast to follow, hoping to win them over. They will perch on a branch and sing, puffing up their throat, calling out over and over. It’s a very common sound throughout the park.

Muskrat

This park is home to several beaver lodges, but I don’t often see any beaver. I do, however, see the more common and less shy muskrat swimming through the wetlands, pulling up roots and eating. This time we even watched a muskrat gathering reeds and roots and pulling them into its own little lodge, much smaller than that of the beaver. It was less than 6 feet from the boardwalk. Look at the tail of the muskrat in the photos. It’s both long and large, though not nearly the size of a beaver’s tail.

Muskrat swimming right at me

Look at the length and size of the muskrat's tail

Muskrat entering the water

Canada Geese

A nesting Canada Goose was also very close to the boardwalk. She was curled up on her nest, resting, with one eye open watching her surroundings. She wasn’t at all worried about the people walking by on the boardwalk. There are enough people who wander through this park the geese know they are safe. For a brief period the goose lifted her head up and began moving sticks and reeds from the sides of the nest closer to her and just under her, providing more cushioning and buffer between her eggs and the environment.

Mother Canada Goose resting on her nest

Closer look at the mother Canada Goose on her nest

Canada Goose rearranging branches and reeds on her nest

Wood Ducks

This time of the year is also a perfect opportunity to watch Wood Ducks, as they nest in the trees and the boxes built throughout the park specifically for them. They are such a beautiful and colorful species. They didn’t get very close to the boardwalk this trip, but I still attempted photographing them, even at a distance. I could spend hours watching these ducks.

Mates pair of Wood Ducks on a downed tree

Female Wood Duck flapping wings as male swims in the background

Great Blue Heron

A very common species at this, and many, wetlands parks are Great Blue Herons. They live here throughout the year, though their numbers increase this time of year. I never tire of watching these amazing birds. And this time of year the males display their beautiful breeding plumage, with the long lighter-colored feathers surrounding their breast and back. Magnificent and graceful birds. I watched one perched on the branch of a downed tree preening itself, twisting its head around in the strangest contortions, under its wings, over its shoulders, twisting and turning. As with so many species, I love watching these birds and never tire of photographing them.

Great Blue Heron in breeding plumage moves through wetlands brush

Great Blue Heron flying away with Red-winged Blackbird in foreground

Great Blue Heron in breeding plumage preening

Great Blue Heron looking tired while perched on branch

American Coot

Another species to return to the wetlands in the spring are the American Coot, a species that resemble ducks but is its own species. Coot are almost completely black and dark grey with a white beak and deep red eyes. I watched this one diving completely beneath the surface of the water to find food. Their feathers repel the water, and you can see water beading up on their backs and necks after coming back out of the water. They are curious little birds, and as with all species, I love watching and photographing them. I don’t have nearly enough photos of these birds.

American Coot with reflection in still water

American Coot just diving beneath the surface

Osprey

If you’re fortunate you may see an Osprey hovering over the wetlands looking for fish in the water below. And if you’re really fortunate you’ll watch as it plunges down into the water, coming back up with a fish in its talons. It will shake its wings dry, as they don’t repel water as well as those of the coot, and then fly away to find a tree perch where it can eat the fish in peace. Or perhaps it will fly back to its nest and leave the fish with the female. When her eggs hatch the male will be especially busy gathering fish for the hungry young. I love watching young Osprey in the nest, though I’m not aware of any nest in this wetlands park.

Osprey flying away with fish in talons

Spotted Turtles

Spring also brings turtles of various species back out to sun themselves on logs and banks. This trip I photographed a small group of Spotted Turtles on a log. Eventually just about every log will be covered in turtles. And the larger snapping turtles will hide just under the surface looking for any creatures unfortunate enough to stray too close.

Four Spotted Turtles on a log in wetlands

Read-headed Woodpeckers

The trails leading out of the wetlands back to the visitor’s center and parking lot are also full of birds. It’s often more difficult to photograph them high in the trees, but still fun to try. One species that really stands out and spends time at the edge of the woods closest to the wetlands is the Red-headed Woodpecker. This species is aptly named, as its head is completely red, and a beautiful metallic red that just sparkles when the sun hits it. I didn’t manage many photos of red-headed woodpeckers this time around, but did capture one from a distance, high up in a tree just outside a perfectly circular hole, perhaps its nest.

Red-headed Woodpecker perched in front of hole in tree

Insects

Wetlands parks are also home to all manner of insects. I’ve been lucky in this park in that there aren’t usually many biting insects, not like several other parks I visit. But if you keep your eyes out you can find insects worthy of photographing. Eventually the dragonflies and damselflies will return, along with butterflies and katydids. I photographed the remains of an insect nest this trip, possibly an old bee’s nest, hanging from a branch in the woods not far from the wetlands. And we watched what appeared to be hornets nesting in a tree cavity, though we didn’t approach too close.

And Much, Much More

This was just a small sampling of the species you can find in wetlands parks. There are so many other species of birds to watch and photograph, and the list changes throughout the year. Other mammals include deer, mice, voles, beaver, fox, and possibly others. The snakes should be coming back out before long. In this park I’ve seen water snakes, garter snakes, and ribbon snakes. There are many other species of turtles, such as snapping, painted, mud, and box turtles. In the water are fish and crustaceans, though I don’t often see these except when caught by the other animals. There are a large number of amphibians that will soon appear, including several species of frog, toad, and salamander. And, of course, there are so many different species of plants, some flowering, some that live in water, or just near water, and those in the woods beyond the wetlands.

Do you have any local wetlands parks you enjoy visiting? If not look around your area and see if, perhaps, there are any. If so they are very much worth visiting.

Respect Wildlife: Don't Touch! by Todd Henson

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher building a nest. Keep a respectful distance when photographing or observing nesting behavior. Don't stay at the site very long. Don't disturb anything.

I love photography, and I love photographing wildlife in its own environment. But the photograph has to be secondary to the welfare of the animal. We can’t endanger or harasses an animal just to get a photograph. If we don’t respect and protect the wildlife we enjoy watching and photographing, we may lose the privilege, either because the parks we visit restrict access or because the wildlife moves off or dies off.

I've read several news reports over the last year about people mistreating wildlife, sometimes just to capture a selfie, but other times thinking they were helping. It's sad. I'm hopeful some of these people are just ignorant, they don't realize the damage they're doing. I’m hopeful over time they’ll learn and change their behavior. But I fear some people just callously don't care.

The most recent incident I’ve read about involved a mountain goat in Seward, Alaska. The goat entered a populated area, something that is apparently unusual. When it made its way to the harbor people were following it, trying to get pictures. They kept following it, giving it nowhere to go but towards the ocean. It jumped or fell into the ocean and drown. If people had not crowded it, if they weren’t so determined to get close and photograph it, perhaps it could have made it’s way back out of the populated area. And perhaps not, but at least it would have had a chance.

Earlier in the year a couple of tourists at Yellowstone National Park apparently saw a bison calf they felt looked cold, so they picked it up, put it in their truck, and drove it to the ranger station. The rangers brought the bison back and tried to reunite it with the herd, but the herd rejected it. They later euthanized the bison because, having been abandoned, it kept endangering itself and others by approaching tourists and cars. Though it does appear these tourists meant well, and it’s entirely possible the calf would have died anyway, they never should have approached the animal. If the mother had been nearby the tourists could have been attacked. And by interfering with the calf it is entirely possible they were responsible for the mother rejecting it. Wildlife doesn’t care whether we mean well.

There have been several reports of people picking up and taking home harbor seal pups along the U.S. northwest coastline, thinking they had been abandoned by their mothers, not realizing mothers often leave pups for long periods of time so they can hunt for food. Unfortunately, the pup sometimes dies as a result of what are often well-meaning, but ignorant people. 

Perhaps some of these reports have left out important details. Perhaps, in some cases, animals are already dead when people approach them. Either way, in most cases they should be left alone. If people feel the need to try to help they should leave the animals where they are and contact organizations better suited to helping injured or abandoned animals. Contact an animal rescue group. If it’s on park land contact the park authorities.

I recall one instance of the correct way to help wildlife. A large osprey nest in a park fell from a tree with a mother and a couple chicks in the nest. The nest landed near a trail. One of the regular visitors of the park saw the fallen nest and osprey. Instead of approaching too close he called the park’s wildlife biologist, then waited by the nest to keep watch and assure no one else approached until the biologist arrived. If he had approached too close he could have been injured, as osprey have very sharp talons and beaks. Or one of the birds could have become agitated by the approach and injured itself. When I happened to arrive at this part of the park the biologist was putting the injured osprey in her truck. She was taking them to a raptor rehabilitation facility. From what I heard later the mother and one of the chicks recovered enough to be released back into the wild.

If you’re new to watching and photographing wildlife, please learn from these examples. Don’t approach wildlife too closely. Don’t harass animals. Don’t feed them or attempt to touch them. Watch from a distance. Observe the behavior of the animal. You can tell if an animal is ok with you being there. If it becomes agitated, if it tries to move away from you, then you’re too close. Move away, perhaps leave and come back another day. You know you’re observing wildlife correctly when the animals seem to completely ignore you. I’ve been in situations where the wildlife I was observing lay down and went to sleep right in front of me. I love those moments!

Young sleeping fox. Don't get too close. Don't try to touch or pet wildlife, no matter how cute they appear.

By all means, go out into nature, observe and photograph wildlife. But realize it's a privilege to be this close to wildlife, a privilege than can be taken away or destroyed if we misuse it. Learn to respect the wildlife. Learn to care more about the wildlife than the photograph. Then when you view or capture a beautiful wildlife moment it will have even more meaning.