Photographing Osprey In Flight

The annual spring alewife spawning in Maine is an ideal opportunity for photographing osprey in-flight and fishing

Springtime brings millions of alewives to the state of Maine on their annual spawning run from the Atlantic Ocean. Using both large rivers and small streams, they make their way inland to lakes and backwaters of streams, where they deposit and fertilize their eggs. It’s a perfect opportunity for photographing osprey fishing and in-flight.

Photographing osprey in flight and fishing

With water droplets exploding, the osprey emerges from the stream with a nice catch. Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM and Canon Extender EF 1.4x III. Exposure: 1/3200 sec., ƒ/8, ISO 10000.

The Alewife is a species of herring that is 10 to 14 inches in length and weighs up to 1 pound. While not as well-known as the salmon runs of the Northwest Pacific coasts of the United States and Canada, the alewife migration is one of nature’s great happenings. Like salmon, alewives are an anadromous species that migrate into freshwater from the sea to spawn. However, unlike salmon, they do not usually die but instead return to the sea—providing they can successfully run the gauntlet and avoid being caught by human or wildlife predators.

Several species utilize the annual alewife run as a source of food to aid in raising their young, including the osprey, bald eagle, cormorant, gulls, mink and raccoon. Smoked alewife is considered a New England delicacy.

Conservation efforts have been critical to maintaining and expanding the alewife fishery. Native Americans fished for alewives for millennia, and European settlers also exploited this resource. In more recent times, overfishing, dam construction and pollution have decimated the alewife population. Nineteenth-century logging and dam building for industrialization along the rivers destroyed the environment for many wildlife species. As a result, many New England Rivers have no alewives today.

Fortunately, ongoing conservation efforts to restore the environment have led to a resurgence of the alewife population in some streams. Pollution cleanup, restoration and building of fish ladders and removal of dams have provided an environment conducive to the health of the alewife fishery.

Photographing Osprey Fishing The Alewife Migration

As a photographer, my primary interest is photographing osprey, which I deem to be the stars of the alewife migration with their dramatic dives to catch the alewives. Watching an osprey hit the water at over 60 miles per hour and then emerge with a fish is one of nature’s spectacular events. The 6-foot wingspan of the osprey enables it to begin flight with powerful strokes as it emerges from the water after being totally submerged. Sometimes they will emerge with two or even three fish clamped in their sharp talons, though the struggles of the fish, coupled with their weight, will usually result in the osprey flying off with only a single fish for all of its efforts.

The osprey performs a “wet dog” shake to shed water to ensure smooth and efficient flight. Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x at 560mm. Exposure: 1/2500, ƒ/6.3, ISO 6400.

From a photographer’s perspective, the osprey exiting the stream amid a spray of water droplets with its catch is a wonderful action shot to be had. As it begins its climb, several shot opportunities are present, and one of my favorites is the “wet dog” shake when the osprey twists vigorously to rid itself of water from its feathers for smoother flight.

Ospreys are successful on most of their dives based on my experience. However, they are not home free once they capture their prey, as they have two thieving competitors: gulls and bald eagles.

A herring gull is similar in size to an osprey and is very aggressive. While it can catch fish itself, it will attack an osprey when it is still in the water and vulnerable to rob it of its catch. The bald eagle has a different strategy. It waits until the osprey has gained some altitude before it attacks. The eagle will fly up under the osprey, forcing it higher and higher until the osprey tires and drops the fish, which the eagle will then snag in mid-air. Sometimes another eagle will join the fun and attempt stealing the fish from the eagle that just stole it.

The osprey leaves without its fish after being attacked by a herring gull. Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM. Exposure: 1/2500 sec., ƒ5.6, ISO 640.

Tips For Capturing The Scene

Here are some tips for photographing osprey to capture shots like those shown in this article.

Timing

The fish are typically most numerous with the incoming tide; check the tide table for the stream that you are near. You may be several miles inland, so plan for the additional time it takes for the tide to move upstream.

Finding Your Spot

Seek out a position on the river with good over-the-shoulder lighting. Also, being at the water’s edge or nearby to get a low shooting angle is beneficial. Be aware of the background to avoid distracting elements like bridges, buildings, houses and especially other photographers.

Patience & Persistence

As with any wildlife shoot, be patient since unpredictability is part of the challenge. Sometimes there are osprey but no fish running, or no osprey but fish are running, or neither osprey nor fish present. Then there is that time when everything comes together, like the day I counted 17 osprey in the air hovering and circling as they scanned the water for fish. It was an excess of riches because for a successful shot you need to watch one osprey and focus on it as it begins it dive and then follow it to the water. With so many ospreys present, it was inevitable that some great shot opportunities would be missed.

An osprey shows off its nice catch as it flies overhead on its departure from the river. Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM. Exposure: 1/3200 sec., ƒ/5.6, ISO 320.

Bring A Fast Camera—Or Three

I used to be amused when I would see a professional photographer carrying multiple cameras. Well, I am no longer laughing, as the right tools are needed for the job. I prefer high-frame-rate (10 fps or more) cameras that will yield more wing positions in a sequence. This gives you a better chance to obtain the ideal shot, as some wing positions are more pleasing to the eye.

I can be found in the field photographing ospreys fishing with a big telephoto lens on a tripod, a telephoto zoom lens on a diagonal strap and wide-angle zoom around my neck. Thus, I can cover range of 24mm to 1120mm. I never know what circumstances may occur with the intended subjects or if an unexpected animal may make an appearance. While I may be looking for wildlife, a great landscape shot might present itself, too.

I use three camera bodies, as I have learned to avoid changing lenses in the field. The time involved to change a lens could result in a missed shot. This approach also helps avoid the possibility of getting dust or moisture on the camera’s focal plane sensor.

Dial In Your Exposure First

When setting up, I take test shots and check the histogram to make sure there is no clipping of the lights or darks. To ensure that the bird’s head is not overexposed, I zoom in on my camera’s LCD to check for head detail. In changing light conditions, judgment is often necessary to make on-the-fly adjustment of settings. Depending on conditions, I have employed exposure compensation values from minus 2 to plus 2 stops. While some “fixing” can be possible later with processing, don’t count on it. Get it right in the camera.

This osprey is off with a “twofer” after striking a dense group of alewives on their spawning run. Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x at 560mm. Exposure: 1/2500, ƒ/5.6, ISO 10000.

Composition & Camera Settings

When choosing the lens length, be sure to leave space around “bird in flight” situations as it is better to crop some later than clip the bird’s wing. My rule of thumb is that the sitting bird should only take up one-third to one-quarter of the frame height in the viewfinder. This may seem like too much room, and perhaps it is if you desire only a sitting portrait, but I have found an osprey launching for prey can fill up the empty area pretty quickly.

The osprey might be diving 100 yards distant or as close as only 20 yards away. Their dives will be from the sky or a tree perch along the river. I listen for their chirping to locate them as they will often vocalize before they dive. Given that their diving speed is up to 60 mph and the background along the river is cluttered with trees, I find it helpful to use back button focus to lock on to the bird before it dives. I typically shoot in shutter priority with a shutter speed of at least 1/2500 sec. to “stop” the action. Also, I use Auto ISO to compensate for the changing light conditions from the sky. Depending on the scene’s brightness, a negative exposure compensation of -1 stop is typically warranted to avoid over-exposing the osprey’s white head and feathers.

While I have invested in top-of-the-line camera equipment, I have seen excellent shots taken with a range of cameras and lenses from 100mm to 400mm. A 150-600mm telephoto zoom is a popular lens that I often see in the field. So, don’t think that only the “pros” or those with super-telephoto primes can be successful photographing ospreys fishing.

A close-up view as the osprey flies by with the alewife, which is always oriented head-first. Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM. Exposure: 1/3200 sec., ƒ/5.6, ISO 2000.

Planning Your Trip To Maine

If you would like to try your hand at photographing osprey, some planning is required. The alewife run is in the May and June timeframe, but the exact timing varies from year to year. A web search will yield status reports to aid your planning.

One of my favorite places to visit is the Damariscotta Mills Fish Ladder. Two other popular shooting places are on the Saint George River in Warren, Maine, at Payson Park; and downtown, east of the bridge on Main Street. Also, I have had good luck just driving around and looking for ospreys in the air. I have found them on small streams and narrow inlets in addition to the major rivers. It’s a great adventure, and I wish you good shooting if you decide to go. 


See more of Howard Arndt’s work at howardarndtphoto.com.