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The challenges and rewards of Osprey photography

Osprey photography
An Osprey glances down at a lake as it circles for prey. The charismatic birds of prey make wonderful subjects for bird photographers. Photo by William Jobes

Of all the raptor species pursued by photographers, the Osprey, also known for good reason as the “fish hawk,” is perhaps the most exhilarating to observe in flight. It’s also one of the more challenging to photograph when it’s on the wing. Hands down, some of the most spectacular photographs of raptors I’ve seen are of Ospreys in all stages of their choreographed aerial rituals as they hunt, dive, and catch fish for themselves and to carry to a nest for awaiting partners and fledglings.

After my own countless trial and error gaffes and missed keeper shots over the years, I’m able to share insights that I hope will make the journey to your own Osprey trophy photos a bit easier.

The initial hurdle to overcome is finding Ospreys. In some parts of North America, especially in the most southern coastal states, they are present most of the year and are readily accessible for observing and photographing. Where I live in the Mid-Atlantic region, Ospreys arrive in early March and leave by late September or so. Exceptions occur, and your local observations will enable you to adapt to their habits.

Each March, start looking at eBird species maps to see the Ospreys’ progress as they move northward from their tropical wintering grounds. As the month progresses, the red markers on the maps become more and more congested, as observers report sightings based on dates and exact locations. Experienced photographers may go directly to known nests and bodies of water to check if last year’s occupants have arrived, as some monogamous pairs are known to come back each year to the exact same nests. The exceptions are when a new bird or couple arrive early and claim the spot first. A brief sparring match may ensue, and that’s a drama in itself if you’re fortunate to see it.

Ospreys migrate to temperate regions that are warm in summer for nesting, breeding, and raising families. The youngsters grow in a few short weeks from hatchlings to large birds that rival their parents in size.

For the birder and avian photographer, the Osprey’s breeding cycle offers months of thrilling opportunities to observe, photograph, and appreciate from a safe distance. You may even form an emotional bond with your fish-eating “friends.” If you return to a nest site regularly, expect regular thrills and “wow” moments. To be sure, Ospreys are agents of awesome physical appearance and beauty, as well as of stunning and rarified aerial antics without peer in the avian world.

The birds will offer you varied and numerous photo ops. Exciting images are possible at several stages of their daily routine: soaring over water, diving at blistering speed to embed a fish in their talons, carrying fish aloft, and tending to their mates, nests, and chicks.

Tools of the trade

An Osprey dives with talons out, aiming for a fish below the surface of the water. The bird’s characteristic hunting style is a challenging and thrilling event to photograph. Photo by William Jobes

You’ll need two essential tools to take great Osprey photos: a mirrorless or DSLR camera with as high a frames-per-second count as possible and a prime or zoom telephoto lens. Both lens types have distinct advantages over the other, which I will explore below.

My favorite Osprey adventures are on days at a favorite shoreline that I know from experience Ospreys hunt. You can find your own sweet spot via the eBird species map to see bodies of water near you where the birds are reported. Head to those bays, lakes, streams, tidal rivers, or the ocean, and the odds are good that Ospreys will show up.

Lately, I’ve been carrying the Sony a1 with a Sony 200-600mm zoom telephoto lens. I’ve also had much success with the Nikon D500 and 500mm PF lens, as well as an OM System’s OM-D E-M1 Mark III with either the 40-150mm pro lens or the 150-400mm lens.

Whether to use a prime lens in the 400-800mm range rather than a super telephoto zoom is a matter of personal preference. While the prime will produce images of unparalleled quality, so, too, will the higher-quality zooms from all major brands. Manufacturers’ research and development have produced optical excellence in zoom lenses that just a few years ago were the exception, if available at all. In my experience, using the telephoto zoom gives me the advantage of tracking a bird more easily at shorter focal lengths, then zooming to a tight shot for the moments of peak action.

Once I arrive at my chosen destination, the routine takes on a familiar rhythm. If birds aren’t nearby, I scan the skies looking for a telltale black speck. Even at high altitudes, the Osprey’s wide, sweeping circular path makes it stand out. At this stage, the bird is scanning the waters for a fish, whose glint in the sunlight betrays its position. Even on cloudy days, the Ospreys’ vision can detect fish even a few feet below the surface.

As you watch an Osprey circling, remain alert with camera gear at the ready. Watch carefully as the bird tightens its circle in the sky. In a split second, it can swivel and begin a power dive to the water’s surface, where it will hit with a powerful, percussive report and usually disappear below the surface. Within moments, it will rise, often with a large fish still unseen and impaled by talons, as it gathers its wits and launches with bedazzling power out of the water.

From here, it begins a winding spiral flight around the water body, scanning for opportunistic Osprey (and even large gull) thieves that will try to steal the fish from the successful hunter. And it’s off to the nest to share the bounty with a waiting mate, or, late in the season, its partner and ravenous chicks.

While virtually any phase of the hunt, dive, and recovery sequence can produce fine photos, at specific points, the most iconic images are possible. They are:

  • When the bird is in full dive mode. About 40 or so feet above the water, it will begin to extend its legs and deploy its talons in a dramatic pose as it reaches for the kill. Once you have experience, resist the urge to start your shutter burst too early. The “money” images are those with talons fully deployed in the nanoseconds before impact.
  • When the bird is underwater. Try starting your photo burst before it surfaces. Those captures, as it breaks out in a dazzling blast of waves and droplets, are priceless.
  • When the bird has surfaced. At this point, it will linger a few seconds. Begin your next burst as it lifts off with prey in talons. The images while the water is still in view can be especially dramatic.
  • When the bird is airborne. A shot that is missed often, and frankly one that is my most challenging, is possible once the Osprey is back in flight with its catch. Frequently, the bird will slow down slightly and vigorously shake its entire body, producing a visually attractive spray.
Two Ospreys tend to their nest high on an artificial platform. Such platforms offer photogra- phers relatively easy access to shoot pictures of the big birds. Photo by William Jobes

Gear and settings for Osprey photography

Remember the technical resources required to succeed. The best odds are in your favor with at least 10 frames per second. Cameras that deliver 20 FPS or more are even better when you’re locked on a bird of prey propelled at up to 50 mph toward a water impact mere yards away. Thankfully, the old myth not to handhold a super telephoto rig is in the past, so I enthusiastically recommend using a zoom telephoto lens and camera body with a shoulder strap. The mobility and flexibility pay big dividends.

On my go-to rig, the Sony a1 with 200-600mm lens, I set the shutter speed at 1/3200, with the lens wide open and ISO on auto. I’ll dial in from one to two notches of positive exposure compensation to best reveal Osprey feather detail against the sky and bright waters. Be sure to experiment with exposure compensation to avoid blowing out the bright white feathers.

After photographing the birds as they hunt, turn your attention to their nests, which offer many opportunities to capture appealing interaction in a more controlled setting.

From the times one mate or the other returns to the nest with fish in tow to the days and weeks after eggs hatch and nestlings grow, it can be immensely rewarding to watch and photograph the cycle of their lives. What makes this time particularly appealing is the wide variety of nest types and locations, each offering its own photographic appeal. Ospreys nest in tall trees, and they’re equally at home on artificial nesting platforms erected near large water bodies.

It’s fun to watch the young birds mature. They’ll grip the nest hard while flexing their wings in flight motions to strengthen themselves in preparation for their first flight. In this phase, it’s simply a matter of locking the camera down on a tripod and waiting for the action to start.

Depending on where you live, late winter is the ideal time to start planning for a season of successful Osprey photography. Take time to scan online resources, identify productive hunting and nesting spots from seasons past, take stock of your gear, and make firm plans for coming Osprey adventures that will fuel future memories of your own.

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William Jobes

William Jobes

William Jobes is a print and broadcast journalist from Langhorne, Pennsylvania, whose experience includes news and sports photojournalism, as well as reporting and editing on staff at several major daily newspapers. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Star, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and USA Today, among others.  He is the recipient of numerous journalism and photography awards and honors, including several Emmys. He has written several articles for BirdWatching, including Hotspots Near You in Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

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