by Gregg Thomas
As I began to learn photography and spend more time outdoors, I started to pay real attention to what types of birds were in the area. I started to be able to identify them, and most importantly, I concentrated on their “keep out” zones and what made them nervous, and when they were comfortable. This made it easier to know when to stop approaching them for a shot.
One of the birds that migrates to our area here on the Emerald Coast is the Pied-billed Grebe. Being small, and in constant motion trying to feed, with a dark body, they’re somewhat hard to photograph. In other words, if you expose for the Grebe’s dark feathers to try and let more light into the camera for more detail, it’s very easy to overexpose the rest of the photo so that other colors are much too bright. Grebes are typically very active, diving and hunting for food. They’re also not that spectacular to look at compared to other birds, but I have found that they’re extremely interesting if you just pay attention.
I started out taking pictures of Grebes just to get the colors correct, to concentrate on focus to get a sharp picture, and to play with light and reflections. I found that if I generally set my camera to an f5.6 and a film speed of 1/2000th, and an ISO of 200, then I’d get a good shot with good color. Being absolutely still was a key to getting the focus, which is difficult for a large zoom lens. Still, there is a factor of luck in photography, and you can either make your luck by being patient and watching, or you can just be plain lucky. I’ve had a lot of the latter happen to me many times over!
My first amazing picture I got of a Grebe was when I was walking down a path in our local refuge, and I saw a grebe trying to swallow a crawfish. A really, really big crawfish, as compared to his mouth.
As it turned out, I was only fifteen feet away from the Grebe when I first saw him, so I froze. And then I slowly got my camera turned around and trained on him. As with a lot of birds, the food was more important, and I was not being a threat, so the bird tolerated me being that close as he started his battle swallowing his breakfast. It took him about seven minutes or so, but he managed to get the crawfish down the hatch.
On another day, I saw a Grebe come up with something in his mouth, but I couldn’t quite make it out for what it was. Once I saw the picture and zoomed in, I could clearly see that it was a frog. I can’t imagine the Grebe being fast enough to catch a frog, and yet I could see the evidence in the pictures.
And then the Grebes completely dispelled all notions of not being fast enough to catch whatever they want. A friend and I were watching a pond, trying to get pictures of dragonflies in flight, which is a challenge unto itself. We both heard a large commotion of splashing water and noise and glanced up to see two Grebes rushing across the pond. I mentally dismissed this as a fight between the two birds. My friend however, noticed that the lead Grebe had something in its mouth.
The Grebes were chasing and catching dragonflies on the wing. Dragonflies are so quick and fast during flight, able to turn on a dime and speed away, that if you had bet money on a Grebe being able to catch one, I’d have given you tremendous odds. And yet, here I was, seeing the birds chase and routinely catch dragonflies right in front of me, successful about half the time.
Grebes. Their algorithm for catching food is just like the Great Blue Heron’s. If it moves, catch it and eat it. Grebes continue to reinforce that the more I’m outdoors taking my time to enjoy our Emerald Coast, the more amazing things I’ll see.