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Birds In The Hand

Captive birds can captivate your heart and your lens.

October 19, 2021 :: Birds

Since before my first days in nature photography, there's been a debate about photographing captive wildlife. Some photographers are dead set against it. Some say it's acceptable as long as the viewer of the image is told about it. And some say it helps prevent the stalking and stressing of wild subjects.

Whichever ethical camp you've pitched your tent in, you may find an acceptable scenario at a wildlife rehabilitation center.

Eastern screech-owl (Megascops asio) -- a captive, gray-phase male.

Around the country, dedicated people have established wildlife rescue facilities. Their goals are to save injured native birds and animals, then release them back into the wild. Those that are healthy, but can't return to their natural habitats often live safe, quiet lives as educational wildlife ambassadors.

The rescued creatures that grow habituated to handling and are comfortable with crowds can help visitors and school children learn more about our wild neighbors. Sometimes photographers get the opportunity to appreciate them through the lens. That's how Mary and I spent a Sunday afternoon recently.

The Howell Nature Center near Howell, Michigan organized a fund-raising event for their animal rehabilitation facility. Participants got to photograph about a dozen North American raptors. The birds perched on branches that were set up for them in a woodland opening. The perspectives and backgrounds were controlled for the best photographic results.

A trained handler attended each bird. Every bird was waiting on its own branch and we moved from bird to bird as we liked. While we made photographs, a handler told us about their raptor's natural history and shared the story of that particular bird.

The male Eastern screech-owl (Megascops asio) above is called a "gray morph." Their plumage colors range from gray to brown to rusty-red. In the wild, they can be found in the Eastern deciduous forests of North America, though they're comfortable in farmlands, suburban neighborhoods and city parks.

A screech-owl is about the size of a robin, but looks huskier. Its diet includes small mammals like mice and voles, small birds like sparrows, large insects like moths and beetles, and even earthworms. Like most owls, it hunts at night. It nests in tree cavities and in backyard nest boxes. And It might be seen perched in a old tree's knot hole or in a nest-box opening during the day.

After we photographed the screech-owl, we spent time with a bald eagle, a great horned owl, a barn owl, an American kestrel, a red-tailed hawk, a red-shouldered hawk and a turkey vulture.

We were captivated by these calm, alert birds. If at anytime a bird showed it was done tolerating its perch, the staff was prepared to return it to its enclosure. But none did, so we had plenty of time to photograph and appreciate these remarkable birds in the hand.


SUBJECT: Eastern screech-owl (Megascops asio), male, gray morph, captive.

LOCATION: Howell Nature Center, Howell, Michigan

CONDITIONS: Calm, mostly cloudy; mid-50s F

EQUIPMENT and SETTINGS: Nikon D850, Nikon 500mm f/4, Gitzo tripod, Wimberley Gimbal Head WH-200 Version II; Matrix metering, Aperture-priority exposure, Back-button Auto-focus, Continuous shutter mode.

EXPOSURE: 1/1,000 sec. @ f/11, ISO 1600

My set up for photographing the screech-owl and the other raptors was more specialized than my daily kit. I mounted the Wimberley Gimbal head to the tripod in place of my everyday ball head. I attached the 500mm lens to the Wimberley and then added the Nikon D850 body to the lens.

I balanced the body and lens, so that they would not swing or tilt when I let go of them. This is the important step that makes using a gimbal practical. It becomes clear when you see it done right. Go to these videos to find out more about this specialized head and its set up at: Wimberley videos and info and Steve Perry at Backcountry Gallery

I was ready to approach the captive birds at the nature center as if they were wild. I brought the same gear I would choose for wild ones. I brought the same mentality, too.

In the wild, I know the senses of birds and mammals far exceed mine. The chances of me creeping up on them unnoticed are slim. So I chose to go slow, stay quiet and I tried not to act like a stalking predator.

Since the screech-owl and all the other birds were accompanied by handlers, perched out in the open and watching about 50 photographers wandering around them, I knew I wouldn't startle the little owl, if I was respectful.

I chose an eye-level position where the bird was mostly front lit which showed off its plumage. From here, the background was a reasonable distance away, so I could keep it soft and out-of-focus. When the bird was settling into its perch, it turned away from me. But it was curious about several of us gathered near it, so the owl turned its face back toward me.

Now I was drawn into the its world. There's nothing like eye contact to make me feel that way. I was entranced by the bird, by its composure, by the feeling that it was revealing it had a soul. Eyes can do that to me.

So its eyes became my focus point. I kept a sharp focus on one eye or the other by using the Auto-focus back button. When the sharpness was right, I'd click a burst of frames.

I used the same approach with each bird I photographed that day. Once you get used to good habits, it's easier to get consistent results. When that happens, I spend less time on the mechanics of making the photographs and more time on the artistry. That's when I'm as calm as the little screech-owl.


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