Anatomy of a Photo Series

The Idea

The whole thing actually started totally harmless: It bothered me that for years, you saw only two pictures of a Kingfisher, " Kingfisher approaching his nest" and " Kingfisher with a fish in feeding position on a tree limb". The first shot of course was taken at the nest entrance, the second close by, because the bird did´nt have the fish horizontally, but vertically in his beak which shows that the bird was getting ready to feed.

My basic idea was, to take a picture of a kingfisher with the fish horizontally in his beak, to show that he had just caught it. This picture would be a whole lot more interesting in my opinion, if the bird held the fish horizontally in his beak.

The basic requirements

Since 1972 you were not supposed to photograph kingfisher at or close to their breeding grounds (the members of GDT - German Society of Nature Photographer, were even obligated not to do so) so first of all you had to find the places were you could see them and where they habitually returned to in order to build an observation point.

So luckily a friend who is a hunter owned a small pond in his preserve where kingfisher often came to fish, and this pond was also very quiet and secluded in order to shoot good photographs.

The beginning

To bring this photographic idea "Kingfisher with a fish horizontally in his beak" to life, it was necessary to catch the Kingfisher at a moment where he came back up from the water after having caught a fish and is on his way to a tree limb. Under normal circumstances this was practically impossible. Then I remembered that ornithologists and bird sanctuaries sometimes helped Kingfisher through the winter by placing small live fish into feeding pens that are anchored in the creeks and rivers with the top side open.

This I could possibly use in order to catch the Kingfisher at a certain point in front of the camouflage tent, if the Kingfisher accepted the feeding pen in summer as well as in winter.

So a first test was started. The Kingfisher were there as observed, ten small fish were placed in a 1 m by 1 m wooden crate (with the top side open) and were gone by the time we checked the next day.

Theoretical conclusion: the system worked, the Kingfisher had picked up the fish and observation from the camouflage tent showed that the next ten fish we placed into this feeding pen were picked up by the Kingfisher as well. The Kingfisher came, landed on the tree limb above the basin, picked out two or three fish in turn from the feeding pen, landed with them – the fish as expected, beautifully placed horizontally in his beak – on the tree limb again, beat them to death and swallowed them.

The implementation

That actually did it. The rest would be routine, as I had imagined it years ago: find a sunny spot at the lake with a pretty background, a feeding pen with fish into the water, put up the camouflage tent, wait two hours, shoot the pictures and finished. Never would I have imagined, that this would turn out to be an eight-summer photo study. Everything actually went as planned (it was September of 1973), the Kingfisher came frequently as he should and there were no photographic problems of any kind. It just occurred to me while watching the activities of the Kingfisher from my camouflage tent, that there actually could be a much better picture than the one I was attempting to take at that moment, meaning: to photograph a Kingfisher while emerging from the water, that would be t h e picture of a Kingfisher. I soon realized that this goal was set a lot higher. First of all you had to catch the exact fraction of a second, when the bird arose from the surface of the water and you had to adjust the sharpness in advance (more or less - 5 cm) on the spot where the kingfisher emerged from the water.

Tests with a trip light barrier failed, which meant: I had to resort to the trial and error method, every time I thought that I had the right moment I triggered the camera - among approximately 10 pictures there was one usable and among 100 there was one good one. You can’t imagine what all can be wrong with a picture: the take was too early or too late, the bird was in front of the sharpness focus or behind it, the head was cut off, you couldn’t see the fish, when the pose was perfect he hadn’t caught a fish, and when he did have a fish the Kingfisher turned his head away. When everything happened to be perfect, the flash did´nt detonate correctly or at all for that matter, and so on and so on and so........ .

So when you spend every weekend every summer for more than six or eight years in a camouflage tent, watching Kingfisher, you certainly see much of the behavior of these beautiful birds, which is there for photographic documentation. It could be the choking up of indigestible remains, the cleaning of their feather dress, the fighting among fledglings, the many different poses and expressions in different situations, like the way they make themselves "skinny" when the Buzzard passes by, the raising of the small white feathers on their neck during phases of excitement before they dive into the water, or the threatening poses toward other Kingfisher. The idea of taking a picture where there was a whole troupe of Kingfisher appealed to me more and more. Another idea, that took an entire summer to carry out.

The books on behavioral notes grew more and more extensive over the years. The changes of actions of the older birds, measured by whether or not they were alone in their territory during April – May or if the first and/or second brood was flying with them, took up numerous pages. Then there was the difference in the actions of the first and second brood, who according their flights found mostly already occupied territories.

In this bird photography report, the subject in itself should not be singularly about behavior but it seems that the actions and behavior of a second brood towards or against the first brood and their problems therein, after having taken flight from the nest, have never really been studied by ornithologists. There is nothing to be found in the manual, the bible for ornithologists, on this subject.

Here in example a few excerpts from my daily journals dated in 1976, in which the frequency of being at the feeding basis is recorded:

June 12th, 1976

6.35h 1 adult bird and 1 young bird

8.05h 1 adult bird and 1 young bird

9.45h 1 adult bird

10.00h 1 young bird

10.20h 1 adult bird

10.25h 1 adult bird and 2 young birds

11.30h 1 adult bird and 2 young birds

June 13th, 1976

8.42h 1 adult bird and 1 young bird

8.45h 1 adult bird

10.25h 1 adult bird and 2 young birds

12.05h 1 adult bird and 5 young birds

12.45h 1 adult bird and 2 young birds

14.25h adult bird

15.01h adult bird

15.03h adult bird

15.30h adult bird and 1 young bird

15.33h adult bird

15.36h adult bird

15.40h adult bird

15.42h adult bird

15.45h adult bird

15.47h adult bird

15.50h adult bird

15.55h adult bird and 1 young bird

16.05h adult bird

16.10h adult bird

16.30h adult bird and 2 young birds

16.40h adult bird

16.45h adult bird

17.00h adult bird


Left: three young Kingfisher (Münsterland 1978), 2,8/135mm, Ektachrome 23 ISO.
Right: Adult bird with fish (1977). Ektachrome 23 ISO, Multblitz IIIb, 1/8000 sec.

The results

Eight summers with the Kingfisher resulted in bundles of pictures at the end – pretty pictures, dramatic pictures and extensive behavioral documentation.

The photographic booty was absolutely satisfactory and the utilization of the pictures resulted in more than was ever expected: in Great Britain 1978 the title of "Wildlife Photographer of the Year", the prize a 2- week trip to the Seychelles Islands, in 1977 at the annual GDT contest the medal for best animal photographic achievement of the year. In 1978 the trophy for the best series of the year, and the pictures were printed in countless books and magazines. Even today (1999) they are still printed in publications on a national and international level.

This black & white picture to the left above, won the title of "Wildlife Photographer
of the Year " in England in
1978. (2,8/135mm, Agfapan-400).


Parent bird feeds fledgling (1978).