Pre-Flight Crouch

This article features a woodpecker doing a pre-flight crouch. A few readers who are starting to pursue bird photography have sent me emails and asked how a bird signals it is about to take flight. I thought these woodpecker images could help illustrate the pre-flight crouch that is commonly used by small birds.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 and M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 104 mm, efov 208 mm, f/6.3, 1/2000, ISO-800, Pro Capture H Mode, subject distance 3.7 metres

It is sometimes difficult to discern when a small bird is doing a pre-flight crouch since many of them have fairly short legs. As a small bird, like the woodpecker above, is preparing to take flight it will press its body downward. With some birds its legs will be barely visible.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 and M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 104 mm, efov 208 mm, f/6.3, 1/2000, ISO-800, Pro Capture H Mode, subject distance 3.7 metres

When we look at a small bird’s physiology we sometimes make a mistake by thinking that its knee joint bends in the opposite direction of a human’s.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 and M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 104 mm, efov 208 mm, f/6.3, 1/2000, ISO-800, Pro Capture H Mode, subject distance 3.7 metres

We often do this because we assume that its ankle joint is located down further on its leg close to the point from where its digits extend out. Actually, its ankle joint is much further up its leg compared to a human. This link has a good diagram showing the skeleton of a bird.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 and M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 104 mm, efov 208 mm, f/6.3, 1/2000, ISO-800, Pro Capture H Mode, subject distance 3.7 metres

In small birds the bones in its legs are similar in length which creates a very powerful scissor-like shape. As you can see in the first three photographs above, as a small bird takes flight from a crouching position, the structure of its leg allows it to almost explode forward.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 and M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 104 mm, efov 208 mm, f/6.3, 1/2000, ISO-800, Pro Capture H Mode, subject distance 3.7 metres

When propelling itself forward from its pre-flight crouch a small bird almost immediately becomes airborne and begins very rapid wing beats. This adds to the difficulty in capturing small birds taking flight as they often do a series of short duration crouches before actually launching into the air. A photographer can quickly fill up the buffer in their camera by not timing their shutter release properly.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 and M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 104 mm, efov 208 mm, f/6.3, 1/2000, ISO-800, Pro Capture H Mode, subject distance 3.7 metres

The six photographs in this article were all captured in a total of 1/10 of a second.  This illustrates how critical shutter release timing is to capture this type of bird behaviour. The Olympus Pro Capture H mode takes the guesswork out of this type of image capture. By waiting for the bird to actually take flight when using Pro Capture H, a photographer can be assured of capturing the action.

When photographing small birds taking flight I use Pro Capture H set to 60 frames per second, 15 Pre-Shutter Frames and a Total Frame Limiter of 15. Pro Capture H settings are found under the Gear icon, HSettings, Pro Cap on your Olympus camera.

I position a single AF point on the subject bird and frame it on the side of my composition. This allows it to fly through my frame, allowing me a better opportunity to capture the action sequence. Since the first frame of a Pro Capture H run sets the auto-focus for the balance of the frames, it is important to photograph the subject bird at a 90-degree angle to the focal plane of your camera.

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. Photographs are displayed as 100% captures without any cropping.

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8 thoughts on “Pre-Flight Crouch”

  1. Hi Thomas,

    I don’t understand what you mean 90 degree of focal plane of your camera. Is the bird fly toward/away the camera ?

  2. we have a variety of hawks that lurk near our feeders and their notification of departure is a rather dramatic expulsion of poo

    last spring I watched cormorants and egrets do the same

    the commonality in this behavior was they were “perched” on elevated positions…fences, trees or deadfalls… prior to flying away

    1. Hi Craig,

      Thanks for adding to the discussion with your observations! As you noted many larger birds signal their imminent departure by defecating. This is also very common for various species of heron. This wasn’t something that I was planning on photographing for an article. 🙂

      Tom

      1. odd though…
        a few of us had captures and shared them
        viewers of the post were mostly amused…I think

        once I learned how common the practice was I began to look for it while scouting places to photograph
        then I could set up or stalk in
        fewer shots of fleeing birds

  3. Hello Thomas,
    I have a question:
    You write that you use ProCapture H. But with this mode you can only choose AFS and not AFC. Am I wrong???

    Best regards and many thanks for your answer
    sylvaine from Switzerland

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