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2021 Birds in Flight contest third place: Osprey

Osprey © Mike Dowsett/2021 BirdWatching Birds in Flight Photo Contest

Mike Dowsett won third place in our 2021 Birds in Flight contest with this extraordinary image of an Osprey carrying a fish. Dowsett is originally from England and now lives in southern Michigan.

He took the photo in August 2018 at Cairngorms National Park in the Scottish Highlands while on a photography trip with a close friend.

“Photographing the Ospreys actively fishing is the most exciting wildlife photography I have experienced, feeling a real rush of adrenalin capturing the birds making the incredibly fast dive into the fish-rich waters, then exploding out into frantic flight with a huge trout,” Dowsett says. “Over many years of technique improvements, I have learned each year and see better images over time. The key areas of technique involve camera focus placement, exposure, and camouflage.

“I have strived to perfect my ability to pre-focus on an area of water where I predict the Osprey will hit to save ½ second or so and help give the camera a little more time to focus on the bird. It is crucial to ‘lock on’ to the bird before pressing the shutter; otherwise, the whole burst of images will be out of focus. The bird’s impact through to departure from the water is all over very quickly (maybe 2 or 3 seconds), so it is very important to be ready and to have practiced on other birds like ducks and herons before the main attraction. Especially important is to set the exposure correctly. The Osprey has a bright white body and under-wing feathers, making it easy to over-expose and lose the feather detail. Osprey will not fish if they see human presence nearby, so we typically get into place before sunrise and wait in the dark.

“This particular image had an additional challenge on the day. Mist can be a real problem in this area, and on this day, it was no exception. The first two Ospreys to dive were completely masked by mist, preventing the camera focusing.

“Then at around 5:30 a.m., as the mist cleared and early morning sunlight illuminated the valley, we heard the unique Osprey call from up above as one circled the area looking for an easy catch. This is when my excitement peaks and the nerves start. I pre-focused where I hoped the fish were shoaling and got ready for the dive by double checking the exposure and ensuring the gimbal/camera swing path was clear to track the bird. Then I waited. There was an enormous splash and blur that broke the silence. I swung the camera into position and prayed that the focus locked-on quickly. I then pressed and held the shutter button down for a full burst of RAW images, while tracking the Osprey as it fought to get airborne with a 2-3lb fish and wet feathers. The silence as the bird flew away was then followed by laughter as Gary and I both realized that the warm light was amazing, and we both had several ‘keepers’ on our media cards. We returned to our lodging around 6:30 a.m. after the local fishermen scared off the Osprey, to enjoy a hot breakfast to finish our incredible morning spent with the most amazing raptor of all.”

“This photo captures not only flight, but the reason for the flight,” says Ernie Mastroianni, a former Birder’s World photo editor and one of our judges. “The timing is perfect. The fish is well placed and is intact. Look at how well this shows the power of the Osprey’s wings. The picture tells a perfect story of the bird, how it flies, and the dynamics and reason of the flight. The splash is a bonus. I’ve seen many Osprey/fish photos, but this one defines that genre better than any others I’ve seen.”

Dowsett used a Canon EOS-1DX Mark1, with a Canon EF300mm f2.8 lens and a 1.4x converter on a Gitzo carbon tripod with a Wimberley Mk 1 Gimbal. Settings: 1/3200 sec., f/8, ISO 800, manual operation.

You can see more of Dowsett’s photos on his website

Many thanks to our panel of guest judges: author, radio host, and Contributing Editor Laura Erickson; our former photo editor Ernie Mastroianni; Outdoor Photographer Editor Wes Pitts; and Imaging Resource Managing Editor William Brawley. 

View the first-place winner: Sandhill Crane

View the second-place winner: Eastern Kingbird and Great Egret

View the finalists

View the honorable mentions

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