On a recent safari to Morongo Valley this past April my group had an amazing experience. Like everywhere else in California spring had come a couple of weeks early – even to these desert Vermilion Flycatchers. As we moved through Covington Park, next to Big Morongo State Park, I was looking for the Vermilion’s nest I had photographed successfully for many years, usually located in the lower branches of one of the cottonwood trees. After a few minutes with no success we walked out through some of the bordering trees and brush and within seconds spotted both the adult Vermilion’s feeding their fledglings on low, open branches. And while it doesn’t happen often enough – we had the morning sun directly behind us and a fair amount of wind whipping through trees.
The blowing wind created an elegant ballet that the flycatchers had to negotiate as they hunted, caught, and fed their fledglings. The tree limbs dipped and rose as the fledglings balanced on different branches, forcing the adults to perform acrobatic maneuvers to bring them food. It also allowed the flycatchers to hover for seconds at a time – allowing me to lock focus on them and fire off as many shots as I could. It was definitely a fast and furious shoot-out.
The adult Vermilions would land on the top of small shrubs, and sometimes perch on the lowest tree branches, picking off small insects with ease – both flying and crawling. The female Vermilion would land next to the fledglings to feed them, but not the male. He would return to the fledglings with a beak loaded with food and literally ram it down their throats without landing – kind of a fly-by feeding. I was amazed at what I was seeing and recognized how rare an opportunity this was. While the other photographers wandered away photographing the other birds, Chris Gardner and I spent at least two hours jockeying for position as the birds positions moved.
Once the male Vermilion made his first aerial pass feeding his fledglings we knew what to look for in the moments leading up to the passing of the food. These flycatchers are incredibly fast and can vanish from sight in a few brief seconds, but the fledglings from their higher perch could see them coming at greater distances. As the parents would approach, the fledglings would open their mouths wide – begging to be feed. All I had to do was lock focus on the fledgling and wait for the adult to flash into the scene. I typically got about 8 shots off from the adult’s first appearance through their exit. After that first hour the male began to land next to the fledglings after feeding them – no doubt to rest for a few seconds before heading off again.
Even though I had great light and could have shot at a relatively low ISO (like 200) I chose to guarantee high shutter-speeds (ss) for these incredibly quick feeding passes. From past experience I knew I needed a minimum ss of 1/1500 second – preferably around 1/4000 second to 1/6000 second. This was my first safari with my new dx-sensored Nikon D7200 and I changed settings often looking for the correct balance of depth-of-field (dof) and movement-stopping ss. I shot most of these images at ISO 800 and depending on the fledglings position (so I knew if the adult would approach parallel or fly past me) I chose to shoot from f4.8 to f8 with my Nikon 500mm lens. Some images, like the one above, were shot at f8 to maximize dof. Dof is always narrow when shooting a large telephoto lens. We were shooting at about 25 feet, which meant less than an inch of dof at f4, and about three inches of dof at f8.
Again, and again, the adults made feeding passes for the fledglings giving us many opportunities to photograph these amazing moments. I shot about 1200 images in those approximately two hours of shooting the Vermilions – of which 206 made the final cut into my stock library. I couldn’t have been more thrilled with the images.
This was one of those wildlife photography experiences where everything worked as advertised. The D7200 had an improved focusing system (over the D7100) in continuous focus mode … which worked perfectly. Panning with the tripod made focusing that much smoother and quicker. In crop mode the motordrive shoots a bit faster – at 7 fps. When I got out of the truck that morning I almost put my pro body fx-sensored D3s on the big lens, but the light was great and I didn’t think I would need to be shooting at any high ISO’s or even high fps rates – so I figured this would be a great time to run the 24mp D7200 through its paces. Everything worked to perfection, including these little flycatchers. Thanks for some great moments! BRP