Field day: Northern Harrier

Published: 01/31/2020

I've spent the large majority of my local New Jersey-based photography focusing on Northern Harriers. They are frustrating birds to photograph -- often staying just out of range and seemingly always flying away. Their erratic flight pattern doesn't make it easier either. But they are also beautiful birds and it's highly rewarding when you finally do nail a shot of them in flight.

My basic strategy for photographing harriers is to pick a light angle and background and just...wait and hope one flies within range. Given that these birds make a loop about every hour or so, this is pretty slow going. Factoring in getting close enough and compound in tall grasses in the way of the bird and operator error (me), it's a low success rate! But you only need one good pass from a bird to make an afternoon completely worth it. This is exactly what happened earlier this week for me.

I was set up with the sun directly behind me when I saw an adult female cruising low above the grasses inching closer and closer. I rattled off about 50 frames over 5 seconds or so and was pretty pleased to see everything lined up -- background, pose, light angle, and my tracking of the bird! Two frames in particular of this sequenced jumped out at to me as instant keepers. I really like this dead-on stare with this underside banking pose, especially the shadow of the beak. Click both images to see them bigger.

But 1 second later according to my EXIF info, the harrier doubled back and gave me probably my favorite harrier frame to date. Notice that the catchlight is perfectly in the middle of the eye here! 

Both images were taken in horizontal format at 700mm f/5.6 and ISO 1,250 at on a D500 giving a really nice and detailed file. They were processed in Nikon Capture NX-D and Adobe Photoshop. 

Other than these two images, the day would have been a total bust...but sometimes you just need a single pass!

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