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 Nature Photography :: Tutorials :: #02


Just before taking the photo in Figure 1 I was photographing some wildflowers and heard a commotion on the nearby dam.

I walked up to the lake, arriving to see what at first appeared to be a tranquil scene.

Fig 1: Swans minding their own business, or so it seemed. But the swan in the background is approaching fast, and is looking for trouble.  
Then I realised that the swan in the back of this photo was the one that had been causing trouble earlier in the day (we'll call him swan "A" or Agro), and he was making a beeline for the swan in the foreground (who I'll dub swan "B" or Bilbo).

Until this point I'd been using my 300mm f2.8 with a 1.4 converter. This is a good combination resulting in a 420mm f4 lens.

With the light levels at the time I was shooting at 1/125th wide open at f4. This shutter speed is stretching the friendship for handheld photography with such a long lens, but with good technique, and a static subject, it can be done.

However it was all too clear that Agro had mischief on his mind, and that things would soon be hotting up.

For this reason I removed the converter, and thus returned the lens to its standard configuration as a 300/2.8. This was a calculated act, with three benefits,

  1. 'A one-stop faster lens, meaning that my shutter speed went up to 1/250th.
  2. 'A shorter focal length, easier to handle if there's any action, but also more appropriate for hand holding on the move. The new shutter speed/focal length combination of 1/250th and 300mm will produce sharper results.
  3. 'Wider field of view, meaning that it would be easier to follow the action, I can always crop an image later if it's a little too wide, I can't add to it.

Now armed with a more appropriate lens, and checking that I had plenty of frames left on the film, I felt ready.

As Agro got closer, Bilbo spied him and started to run.

Fig 2: Bilbo has seen Agro coming up behind, and is making a run for it.  
I followed, trying to take photos at the same time. Eventually Agro got into range and flew into action. 
Fig 3: Agro launches his first attack.  
He chased Bilbo around in circles, constantly biting him on the back.
Fig 4: Agro plunges his beak into Bilbo's back, sending the water flying.  
Bilbo tried to escape by exiting the lake and running up the dam wall, but Agro persisted, chasing his unfortunate victim right across the embankment and into the long grass. 
Fig 5: Poor Bilbo tries to escape, but Agro has latched onto some feathers.

A few seconds later Agro reappears with feathers hanging from his beak. He looks back into the grass as if to say "And don't come back fella", then waddles off back to the water.
Fig 6: Agro, with evidence clearly hanging from his beak, looks back at Bilbo in the long grass.  
After checking that all seems clear Bilbo also reappears from the grass, and stands as if saying "Waddi do? Waddi do?".
Fig 7: A bemused Bilbo, no doubt wondering what he'd done.  

At this point I think it's all over and I'm sitting on the ground to get a steadier hold on the camera, assuming that I'm now in for just a portrait or two of Bilbo.

As I look through the viewfinder though I see Bilbo start to walk towards me. Thinking that Agro has returned to the lake, I figure that Bilbo has decided to walk along the dam wall rather than take his chances in the water.

Within seconds though it's apparent that there's more afoot. Bilbo starts running straight towards me at full throttle.

I managed to fire off three shots before he's too close for me to follow focus, the third photo (Fig 8) illustrating the reason Bilbo was bolting, Agro had climbed back onto the wall and had resumed the chase.

Fig 8: Bilbo nearly knocks me over in his panic to get away from Agro, seen here in the background, bearing down on the both of us.
Image #11740

Considering I use old manual equipment, with no auto focus, I was very pleased with the results, of the three shots taken as Bilbo rushed towards me, the first and third are sharp.

Check out the body language on Agro at the rear. Although he's well out of focus, there's no misunderstanding his evil intentions.

Bilbo veers at the last second and dives back onto the lake, with Agro in hot pursuit.

Fig 9: Bilbo hits the water on the run.  
Then the chase continues, ending shortly after the next photo.
Fig 10: Agro has one last go at pecking Bilbo, then gives up the chase.  

What this was all about I have no idea, was this the swan way of letting immature birds know it's time to leave home?, was this courtship, swan style, in which case Agro is really Romeo.

Whatever was happening it made a good sequence of photos.

NOTE: I've since received an explanation about this behaviour. See below.

There's no doubt that the use of modern auto-focus equipment would have improved the sharpness of most of these photos, but I think this sequence illustrates that it's still possible to get good action shots with older gear.

At the time of writing the modern equivalent of my 300/2.8 costs over $10,000, which places it firmly in my dreams, and not my camera bag.

All photos taken with a Canon FD 300mm f2.8 lens mounted on a Canon F1N with a Speed Finder and FN Motor drive.

'Explanation of this behaviour'
While "Bilbo" was clearly behaving in a submissive way (notice his lowered curly feathers while he is swimming away from "Agro"), he is a fully adult bird. Immatures retain dark spots on their white primaries, which "Bilbo" doesn't have. The behaviour is also not courtship - that is a LOT more subtle!

Black Swans do not hold permanent territories like Mute Swans, but dominant birds will regularly chase others away from where they are feeding. If the intruder doesn't leave quickly enough they may throw in some extra persuasion of the kind you observed.

However, the kind of prolonged aggression you photographed is usually only observed during the breeding season. So, my guess is that "Agro" either had a brood of cygnets nearby, or was establishing himself as the 'lord of the lake' by chasing off all other males.

Ken Kraaijeveld
The Galton Laboratory
Department of Biology
University College London

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