My First Leg Band … Sort of

Juvenile Red-Tailed Hawk CropWe had our first really nice day today in Chicago – what timing! I packed up all the camera equipment (new lenses!!) and headed for the museum about an hour early. I decided to take the bus when I realized that my pack was quite heavy. I think I’ll have to sort of recondition my body to be able to carry all this stuff around this year – let me tell you, that won’t be a bad thing.

I got off the #146 at the museum stop and hurried towards the northern face of the building with hopes that I’d see our museum pair. Before I could even round the corner, I noted a commotion. Our local crow gang perched in the top of one tree making all sorts of noise. I scanned up first – looking for a peregrine, of course – saw nothing and then scanned down. An absolutely immense raptor perched on a low branch in the crow’s tree. I blinked and watched as it took off, heading around the corner to the northern face with a murder of crows in hot pursuit.

Juvenile Red-Tailed Hawk and SquirrelI sprinted around the corner just in time to see it land in a small tree on the northern side of the museum. It dwarfed the tree. The crows zoomed around over its head for a few minutes and then took off. I switched into super-stealth mode and tip-toed quickly across the grass, attempting to come as close to the thing as I possibly could. When I got close enough that it turned its head and eyed me, I stopped and crouched in the swampy grass. I took a long look at my subject, who turned out to be a very large (probably female) juvenile Red-tailed Hawk!

I quietly unzipped the camera bag. After a bit of a struggle, I got the 70-200mm on and eased it up to snap my first couple of pictures. I took a quick look at them and found they were not so hot-so. Hmmm. I struggled to pack my gear up and began to sneak closer.

The hawk turned it’s head and glared at me, so I stopped and crouched again, having made up maybe 5 feet. I snapped some more pictures. Hmm, still not so hot. Somehow, I couldn’t manage to get the focus right and didn’t trust myself to manual focus /and/ hold the heavy camera.

Juvenile Red-Tailed Hawk flying away in disgustFinally, the hawk stopped looking at me and started alternately watching the gang of crows behind her and the squirrel in front of her. So I crept forward slightly until she turned my way again.

I tried to remember the lessons on free-wheeling through the 9 focal dots with a specific combination of manuvers, but realized that I’d forgotten everything. I began to panic as I imagined this gorgeous hawk flying away while I knelt in the mud fiddling with my camera, so I just started wildly snapping while whirring through the creative zones like an idiot.

The hawk continued to pose, but I could sense her patience thinning. She glared over at me and shook her head. I am pretty sure I heard her mumble, “What an idiot. Why don’t you go back to point and shoot? If you can’t use the camera, you probably shouldn’t have it.” I can’t be entirely sure that’s what she said. She might have used a little naughtier word than “idiot”.

Finally, the hawk completely lost patience with me and took off. A crow instantly swooped down behind her and the two of them started flying directly for me. The sun crested over the Shedd Aquarium, bathing them in light. I madly punched every button on the camera, snapping shot in between.

As they got within five feet of me, flying DIRECTLY at me, time froze and I saw a picture that would grace the cover of National Geographic had the camera been in more deft hands. When they passed less than 5 inches over my head, close enough that my hair ruffled up, I realized I’d missed the shot.

Missed the shot but still saw one HELL of a beautiful pair of birds. So, it’s all a win.

First HopI got to my desk with about 2 minutes to spare and worked diligently on bat flies for the next few hours. Around 1pm, Mary called me and asked if I’d like to take a break and wander outside with her. I grabbed the camera bag and hustled over to her office.

The day couldn’t have been prettier and we saw the museum pair as soon as we walked out the north doors. Mary got her excellent pair of Zeiss binocs out and I went off to take photos. I got about ten, slightly better than the morning’s set, before the pair took off to the east.

American KestrelAfter work, I went out to the north side to check for the peregrines before rushing home to meet our friend John, who was coming over for the evening. Again, both the museum birds were on the north niche. I took about 30 photos before they flew off and hoped desperately that one or two would come out. Rushing towards the bus, I happened to see the museum’s kestrel pair and took their pictures as well. Just as I put the camera back in the bag, they started vocalizing to each other and then copulated. Well, at least we’ll have kestrel babies this year!

I got home a bit late and got to our front door just in time for John to walk up. We met Sean upstairs as he busily unpacked the rest of our camera equipment that had just been delivered. For the next hour, the three of us played with the new tripods – sturdy as all get out! I didn’t realize how unsturdy our old tripod was until I put my scope atop the new one.

We took a look through the scope and caught site of (probably) Herc and (probably) Max just as (p) Max landed right on top of her. Wow, copulationpalooza. Spring is here, I guess.

The boys had to talk computers for awhile, so I settled in to take a look at my pictures. As I had suspected, most of the hawk pictures were grainy. I loaded a few of them onto Flickr, just for posterity, and checked out the EXIF data. Laughable, as I had suspected. I was ALL over the place as far as settings went. The afternoon pictures were slightly better, though and the evening pictures slightly better yet. Not great, but I could see some improvement.

I was DELIGHTED to note that I managed to get three clear pictures of the museum male’s legs all of which clearly showed that he’s unbanded. Last year, the museum male was also unbanded so, while we can never ever know for absolute certain this is the same guy, it probably is. My first leg band of the season! Well, sort of. My first non-leg band?

Anyway, I will learn how to use this camera, but it is going to take me some time. For now, I am reading, I am experimenting and I am – as you can see – failing. However, I know that at some point, this camera will become like an extension of my arm, just like the others have. I can’t wait. It is VERY nice to know that the picture quality is all the fault of the photographer and not in the least the fault of the equipment.

For now, I just have to keep on keeping on. Oh, and start muscling up my arm, because this is one hell of a heavy extension.

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~ by Steph on April 2, 2008.