Shooting a Kingfisher!
Don't worry. I've not suddenly gone all villainous and traded in my cameras for a shotgun. Who could wish harm on one of the more beloved and elusive of our native birds!? No, this is the story of my quest to capture on 'film' this flighty and dazzling flash of iridescence that can be found - if you look hard enough - on rivers and streams, perched on reeds or twigs and scanning the water for prey.
I saw my first kingfisher back in the late 1970s as a teenager holidaying by the banks of the Whiteadder near Abbey St Bathans in the Scottish borders. There were quite a few ornithological firsts for me down there. First Golden Plover, first Buzzard, first Long-eared Owl (dead unfortunately), loads of things. But it was the fleeting glimpse of a kingfisher shimmering blue, green and orange as it took off from the river bank and darted downstream that stuck with me more than anything. It would be nearly 40 years until I encountered one again.
I'd moved around a bit during that time, from Skye to Perth and finally settling in Fife. Various non-creative jobs had occupied me through the years, but when I started taking photography a bit more seriously and devoting more time to it, I began to set myself little tasks in order to increase my knowledge and abilities. In 2016 I started seeing quite a few images of Kingfishers appearing on various Facebook group pages and noticed a number of them were taken from a hide at Morton Lochs nature reserve on the edge of Tentsmuir forest by Tayport. Lovely plump little kingfishers, perched on posts and going nowhere.
The mission, should I choose to accept it, photograph a kingfisher. A dawdle, I thought, not impossible at all. I'll just pop over to Morton Lochs, click, job done.
You get to thinking when you're sat in a hide for hours on end. You get to thinking about where else you could be and what else you could be doing. You get to thinking about how waterbirds could make so much noise but still be unseen. And you get to wonder about why the particular bird you'd come to photograph was neither visible nor audible, despite copious social media posts to the contrary.
Finally one day in a packed hide, with photographers three deep at the open window I was rewarded when the machine gun rattle of a dozen Canons heralded the arrival of a tiny little bird in a bush, by a loch, by a hide.
It was a surprisingly unfulfilling experience, prising my camera in-between other photographers and shooting without any consideration. Sure I had a picture of a kingfisher, but the spectacle of all those probing lenses and the racket of the shutters really didn't make it very enjoyable. Also, it was quite dull so the settings for the image of 1/1250s, f/4 at iso3200 made for a fairly grainy shot of a distant bird. So, I had no choice. I needed to try again - also, just for kicks, I wanted to get a shot of the bird in flight.
I returned the next day, still dull, so the settings were pretty much the same; same iso, same aperture and slightly slower shutter at 1/1000s. And unsurprisingly the results were much the same.
It was a slightly more enjoyable experience, mainly because it was less busy. I was sat down to take the shot and I got more shots off, so had more to choose from. It still all felt a bit 'meh' though, so I guessed I'd need to return - again...
The next day it was still grey and while sat in the Christie Hide, where I'd seen the kingfishers on the previous two visits, there was nothing, well, there was quite a lot but it was all quite far away.
I popped over to the Squirrel Hide that sits just behind the Christie Hide and took some more squirrel pics (I've got hundreds!!). Still trying to catch them doing something interesting, away from the feeders or a pile of nuts on a log. I'm guessing my heart really wasn't in it.
The next day was a good bit brighter, allowing for an 800iso at a decently fast shutter speed. I tried up at the Railway Hide which is where a lot of the images on social media had been taken. It wasn't long before there was a couple of kingfishers, flying about and putting on a fine display. Unfortunately this highlighted a short-coming in my choice of system when it comes to wildlife photography. Micro 4/3 sensors are less fast focussing and 'noisier' than larger sensors. And while the crop factor means that smaller lighter lenses have more reach than DSLR and Full-Frame counterparts, the image quality means cropping images down in post results in a less detailed grainy image. Now, not wishing to place too much blame on my chosen tool, this 'bad workman' is quite happy to admit I wasn't getting the best out of the camera!! Whatever the reasons, the kingfisher pics from this session were barely worth keeping.
A few days later and I was back again. The weather really wasn't helping - overcast, dull and swarms of flies over the water that made the images look noisier than they had any right to. I almost got a good shot in flight and any deficiencies in the resulting images were totally down to me. The camera was set on fast burst - about 9fps - so I did get a fun diving kingfisher composite when I stacked the images together.
September 20th 2016 was going to be the day! Of course I'd said that every day I'd pulled up to the car park at Morton lochs intent on getting that 'perfect' kingfisher shot - flying or not! I sat patiently as a number of other photographers came and left. Finally there were two of us, bemoaning the lack of photographic opportunities. We knew the bird was about, it had just never decided to come and fish in our particular corner of the loch. Finally I packed up as I needed to pick my wife up from work. I was just about to open the door to leave when my companion said "Here he comes!".
It's hard to drop everything quietly and get your camera out, switched on and at something approaching suitable settings, knowing that the thing you're wanting to photograph will likely fly away at the slightest noise but will only be there fleetingly anyway!
And there he was. About 6 metres away and beautifully lit. I had virtually no idea what my settings were, I just hoped that any of the resulting images would be OK.
Sure enough, almost before I'd settled into blasting away on fast burst, he was off, only to land on another branch about 4 metres away.
Change nothing and hope!! He obviously wasn't phased by the pair of us in the hide clicking away madly, so decided to come for a closer look
He was now just over a couple of metres away and the guy with fixed focal length full-frame sensored camera was struggling to focus that close where as I felt sure my wee Olympus would cope just fine so long as he didn't come into the hide beside us!
I felt quite happy with the progression over the week, but it sort of niggled at me that, although these were totally wild kingfishers, I was reliant on the (very comfortable) hides. And I still hadn't got that great 'in flight' shot.
Skip on two and a half years and last week I stumbled upon a kingfisher on the Eden. I had my camera with me and managed to grab a quick, albeit distant, shot of a kingfisher in the wild.
Although teeny in the frame, this image probably made me happier than capturing the incredibly detailed image from the hide. What's more, I went back the following two days and was again successful in catching a picture. Firstly a (very slightly) closer shot of it poised while fishing...
...and then finally, next day at the same spot, just about to strike.
Typical photographer, I'm never satisfied, I need a better shot! I might get there, though I'll need a longer lens or something camouflaged to wear so I can get a wee bit closer. Still I'm so happy to have got a flying shot, in the 'real' wild.
Please Be Aware
The kingfisher is a Schedule 1 protected bird species in the UK. This means it is an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb these birds or their young at or near an active nest.
Kingfishers are an 'amber' threatened species, with between 3,800 and 6,600 breeding pairs in the UK. So if you do find somewhere with active kingfishers, please be considerate - especially from late March through to late June or July when the birds may be tending to broods.