Anticipating Flight Direction

When photographing birds, anticipating flight direction involves a number of factors. These include body and head position, environmental factors, and habitual behaviours. This article discusses these issues and illustrates how they can be used when anticipating flight direction.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Our first example is of a blue jay taking flight to avoid an advancing squirrel.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 and M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 194 mm, efov 388 mm, f/6.3, 1/2000, ISO-1600, Pro Capture H, subject distance 6.8 metres

As we examine the photograph above we can see some key factors that help us anticipate the most likely flight direction of the bird. On the blue jay’s right, its flight path is obstructed by a bench railing as well as some branches from some trees. This makes an exit flying to the blue jay’s right unlikely.

If you read the original article in which this image first appeared, you would know that a squirrel was advancing directly at the blue jay. This would make an upward or backward flight launch also unlikely as the blue jay would still be directly in front of the squirrel. Birds typically take the most direct flight path to avoid danger.

The quickest and safest exit for the blue jay would be to take flight to the blue jay’s left. As we can see in the following three Pro Capture H images, that is exactly what happened.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 and M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 194 mm, efov 388 mm, f/6.3, 1/2000, ISO-1600, Pro Capture H, subject distance 6.8 metres
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 and M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 194 mm, efov 388 mm, f/6.3, 1/2000, ISO-1600, Pro Capture H, subject distance 6.8 metres
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 and M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 194 mm, efov 388 mm, f/6.3, 1/2000, ISO-1600, Pro Capture H, subject distance 6.8 metres

The body and head position of a bird can give us good information when anticipating flight direction. Let’s look at a photograph of a robin preparing to take flight.

Olympus OM-E E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-1600, Pro Capture H, subject distance 11.2 metres

The robin is perched on the top of a gate gable in my neighbour’s backyard. It is in a pre-flight crouch with its head pointed sharply upward. This gives us a very strong indication that the robin will be flying in an upward direction. In the local environment the only target landing spot for the robin would be the roof of my two storey house. The next 5 photographs in this Pro Capture H run show us what the robin did.

Olympus OM-E E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-1600, Pro Capture H, subject distance 11.2 metres
Olympus OM-E E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-1600, Pro Capture H, subject distance 11.2 metres
Olympus OM-E E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-1600, Pro Capture H, subject distance 11.2 metres
Olympus OM-E E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-1600, Pro Capture H, subject distance 11.2 metres
Olympus OM-E E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-1600, Pro Capture H, subject distance 11.2 metres

Let’s compare the body and head position of another bird that was featured in a recent article of a robin taking flight.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, subject distance 8 metres

The body and head position of the robin in the above photograph is very different than in the image run that immediately preceded this one. The robin in the photograph above is preparing to launch with no obstructions near it, and with no immediate threats. Its body and head are aligned and pointed straight forward. So, when anticipating flight direction for this bird we would assume a straight forward path. As the following photographs demonstrate, this is the direction taken by the robin.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, subject distance 8 metres
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, subject distance 8 metres
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, subject distance 8 metres
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, subject distance 8 metres

Unless a bird is watching a perceived threat, both its body and head are usually aligned and pointed in its intended flight direction. The angle of the bird’s head will give us a good idea of its flight angle. Prior to taking flight some birds may defecate. Some sort of crouch or leg flexing will precede a bird taking flight.

When anticipating flight direction two other factors need to be considered, the environment and habitual bird behaviour. Like many animals, birds are creatures of habit. They will often have favourite perching sites and flight paths between various elements in their local environment.

For example, if you have bird feeders in your yard the birds that frequent them will typically fly in from roughly the same angles, and from the same positions on fences, pergolas and other structures in your yard.

Let’s take a look at some images of a mourning dove. If you have this species in your yard, you’ll know that it doesn’t land on bird feeders. It prefers to eat the seeds on the ground that other birds have dropped from feeders.

Olympus OM-E E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 270 mm, efov 540 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, subject distance 10.3 metres

As I composed this Pro Capture H image run, I anticipated that the mourning dove was going to fly towards the ground to feed. I tried to leave sufficient room for the upstroke and downstroke of the dove’s wings as it took flight. Let’s have a look at the next 8 images in the Pro Capture H run.

Olympus OM-E E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 270 mm, efov 540 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, subject distance 10.3 metres
Olympus OM-E E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 270 mm, efov 540 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, subject distance 10.3 metres
Olympus OM-E E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 270 mm, efov 540 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, subject distance 10.3 metres
Olympus OM-E E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 270 mm, efov 540 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, subject distance 10.3 metres
Olympus OM-E E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 270 mm, efov 540 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, subject distance 10.3 metres
Olympus OM-E E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 270 mm, efov 540 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, subject distance 10.3 metres
Olympus OM-E E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 270 mm, efov 540 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, subject distance 10.3 metres
Olympus OM-E E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 270 mm, efov 540 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, subject distance 10.3 metres

Prior to taking flight some birds may look a bit agitated or anxious. Others may raise their head up to scan immediately around them. This is fairly common with birds like ducks that often take flight from a water surface.

By keeping these simple pointers in mind, anticipating flight direction may be easier, and will hopefully result in more appealing images of birds-in-flight.

Technical Note:
Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. All images were produced from RAW files using my standard process.

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2 thoughts on “Anticipating Flight Direction”

  1. Tom,

    How right you are.
    One of the joys of birding/birdwatching/bird photography is the way it mixes learning about nature with the practice of the skill and creativity of the photographer. I believe the Oly you wield is a great tool for capturing shots that used to be missed before but I would also want to give credit where credit is due — your skills and birdwatching knowledge in anticipating bird behavior. Granted, nature can be very unpredictable (as evidenced in how that blue jay made his exit; nature/animals can be courageous, daring, foolish even but always has the capacity to amaze) but it helps to observe and learn before even pressing the shutter button.

    Oggie
    http://www.lagalog.com

    1. Thanks for your comment Oggie!

      When it comes to bird watching and attempting to anticipate behaviour there is always more to observe and more to learn. I think bird photography is appealing to many photographers because it combines the beauty of nature with high levels of photographic challenge. We get the added bonuses of some fresh air and exercise.

      Technology like Olympus Pro Capture H helps us observe birds in more detail and capture their movements with our photographs. In a way Pro Capture H transforms the everyday, common action of a bird taking flight into something miraculous.

      Tom

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