This weekend was a new challenge. Photographing Brahminy Kites as they pluck fish from the water. Let me tell you. It’s easier said than done!
I don’t know how many times we’ve drooled over brilliant shots of fish eagles plucking fish from the water and wondered how lucky you have to be to be set up in the right place at the right time for shots like this. It’s the shot we all dream of, but it’s a dream. The reality is that more or less you have no chance of ever pulling those off, unless of course, you put your mind to it.
With Stuart back in town for a short holiday it seemed the perfect quest. He likes these seemingly impossible tasks. Besides with two cameras in action there’s twice the chance of success. The only problem was where to go to watch raptors fishing. The only place known for this sort of thing is Langkawi. But that’s a bit too far and a bit too expensive for a few photos. Kuala Selangor was an option, but its been a while since we were there and I was not sure of the situation with Brahminy’s there this time of the year. In the end we settled for Kuala Gula where the sky’s are always full of big birds circling. Plus, I figured this time of the year there would likely be migrants on their way back north in the air as well. So I called the best local Kuala Gula bird guide (Tan Eng Chong Tel + 6016 5400028) and booked a boat.
To cut a long story short. We spent three hours slowly baking into dried biltong in the middle of the mangroves. Between the two of us we fired off more than 1500 frames to get one sort of OK shot, and two sort of OK misses. Total splashes (no bird, no foot, no anything) about 50. Total blank’s with just water about 300! Now when I tell you that at one stage we had about twenty birds circling above us with at least five or six swooping down into the water in quick succession, and all to get three sort of OK shots, which I might add all came from Stuart’s camera, you start to imagine how difficult it is. The top shot is the best of the action. The ones below the next best.
Having the boat well positioned with the light at the right angle, within range but not too close to the action is critical. This is easier said than done as the boatman has to constantly start the engine to adjust the drift, which inevitably often coincides with a birds arrival. We also found it almost impossible to track the birds using a big lens on a tripod. The only option with a big lens is to aim in the general direction of where the action is and then quickly aim and shoot. Given I didn’t come away with anything worthwhile shows how useless I am at this technique.
Stuart opted for a hand-held smaller lens and tracked and shot the birds as they came in, which was a slightly more successful approach. Using the center focus spot instead of a general focus setup also seemed to be the best, especially when there is background vegetation. But its hard to get this set on the bird with only few seconds between the approach down towards the water and lift off afterwards. The action is so fast it’s basically a three frame event. One frame the approach, one frame the hit (if you are lucky) and one frame the lift off. To summarize, I doubt there’s a single foolproof technique that can be applied. Even with the best equipment, if you can get a frame it’s pot shot luck!
Based on the results I would say the day was a dismal failure. But we came away with a lot more ideas how to improve the chances of success if we ever try this again. Next time we will be better prepared and have more luck. Hopefully!!!
Of course it was not all a waste and we came away with a few good shots of the Brahminys perched and circling overhead.
Even though our quest for the perfect Brahminy fishing shot was a waste of time, the day itself was not a washout. We saw and came away with a lot, ranging from Macaques foraging for crabs far out in the mud flats, Silvered Langurs, an Otter, Kingfishers, and a host of small waterbirds, herons and egrets. Like I said many times in the past. If you like nature Kuala Gula is a great spot. Just call Tan Eng Chong. Oh and make sure you bring a lot of water. You will need it!!