A radar? In my head? Yup… AND, so have you! Cool, huh? Well it’s not a radar as such, but then again, it kind of is…
In our brains we have something called a Reticular Activating System, (RAS), that mainly controls our ability to sleep and wake, and be aroused. From an arousal perspective, it controls our ability to move almost instantaneously from a mental state (whatever that might be) to one of high alertness. And this cognitive mechanism “tracks” for things we are interested in. That could be anything. A new car perhaps. Member of the opposite sex, maybe. Anything that takes our fancy and is somewhat ‘top of mind’, in fact.
A few weeks ago I was driving along, “singing a song” merrily with the iPhone belting out a chosen playlist, and my RAS decided to ‘stop the music’. The music didn’t stop, of course, but to my mind it actually did.
I had seen in my peripheral vision something white flying some distance away from me.
And then another, plus another.
I thought “they’re terns” and promised myself that at a later time, I’d go and investigate. Later that week I parked nearby the Kallang River in Singapore, and walked. With tripod, camera body and lens balanced carefully on my shoulder, and with the sun slipping towards a path that will light a different hemisphere, I started along the river’s footpath. I walked. After that, I walked some more. This was followed by more walking. I was beginning to regret not having brought my passport with me at one point. I began to wonder whether this was a bad idea. Maybe it was not my Tern to photograph that day?
Then a flash of white around 400 metres away. And another. Plus erupting water.
YES! My quarry had come into view :).
I hurried along the footpath as best I could and placed my tripod down in a fashion that seemed less than gentle and organised. The camera was ON… settings selected already, in anticipation… Shutter Priority Tv mode, 1/2500 shutter speed, servo Autofocusing, focusing restricted to the back button of the camera with exposure isolated on the shutter button. High Speed Continuous shooting mode. Spot metering. I was primed!
Saw the bird dive and tried to follow it. Hmm. Struggled. This guy (or gal) is kind of quick. Got some shots away, and reviewed in the LCD screen. Nothing. As in ZIP! No images? Huh? Oops… no memory card. I let out a series of profanities and if my memory is right, it had something to do with ducks. Or something that sounded like ducks… I can’t recall 🙂 .
I was rifling through my camera gadget pouch on my belt. PLEEEEEase let their be a memory card there. Please. I usually have spares but my mind was full of doubts. Couldn’t find any. Maybe my RAS was scanning for negatives? But then my eyes GLEAMED. My velcro card pouch was hiding behind the spare camera battery. SAVED! In went two 32Gb Compact Flash cards and we were ready to shoot. And the birds, are… Gone. AAARRGGHH! What an idiot! I hadn’t noticed, peripherally, anything fly by me, so I thought I’d better keep walking. The birds are either a head, or merely a memory in my head.
After around 500 metres or so, I espied the birds again. Diving. And heading for me!
Happy Days :).
So with gear at the ready, I began to follow the flight of one bird, whilst another would dive. I’d dumbly try and focus on the bird that had dived then, but by the time I had gotten the lens trained anywhere near where the calm surface had been disturbed by the bird, it was airborne and en route elsewhere. I noticed these birds are fast. I have tried researching how fast but cannot find any empirical data. But what I do know is what I was observing, and that from a height of around 8 metres, they hover, select prey, and then plummet to the water to catch their prey. From hovering to breaking the surface is MAXIMUM one half second… probably less. But even then at one half second, the bird’s diving speed can now be estimated. So… one half second to travel 8 metres is equivalent to around 58KM per hour. NO WONDER I was struggling to photograph them!
I needed a strategy. SO I decided to loosely follow the flight path of just ONE bird (of the three) and ignore the others. Then when THAT one bird decided to hover, it was preparing to dive. And directly underneath where it was hovering, is where the water entry point is going to be. Hmm. Well, my camera’s 12 frames per second shooting speed was tested. I got shots of all manner of things. Water. Ripples. More ripples. Bird-less splashes. Out of focus white shapes. Concrete river sides. I couldn’t pan and track the bird in the right place and at the right speed.
But eventually, I started to capture the bird diving and exiting the water. I could predict the speed and location of the plunge a little better.
It took a while and thankfully these birds did not always emerge triumphantly from the river, having caught fish. So my opportunities to shoot them were exponentially increased. PHEW!
By focusing the camera on the water’s surface nearby where I thought the bird would dive, this helped speed focusing when it DID dive. The lens ‘travel’ was thus somewhat minimised.
I didn’t have time to look in the LCD screen of the camera to see if I was getting this action clearly – the action was frenetic. Just a quick glance at the end of a series of shots, where the LCD screen was depicting the last shot taken. I hoped above all hopes that some of these shots would be in focus. I had absolutely no time to check as the birds were diving so regularly and I knew they would not be around for long. So I decided to “Press on” … quite literally, from my shutter button’s perspective.
I was trusting that my camera settings were pretty much ‘on the money’. I gambled that this was the case and despite the temptation to stop and check images I had taken already, I kept shooting.
When home I looked at the images and thankfully I managed to have a few that made me smile :).
I had so many images where either the bird was totally out of focus or the autofocus had majestically gotten water splashes that were pin sharp (but no bird)… LOL.
But I got some “keepers” as I’d call them. Decent ‘record shots’. I’m not going to win any photographic awards from the Smithsonian with these shots, but nonetheless I’m happy.
I was shooting these birds at reasonable distance, probably about 20 metres away in the main, and often further than that. For some reason they hung around, merrily diving and scouring the waterway for prey for around 15 minutes, I’d estimate.
I wasn’t going to complain and was happy to witness them diving so often. Whilst focusing on one bird in the group, at times another would dive within 5 metres of where I was standing. They seemed totally unperturbed by my presence.
Eventually the birds were catching fish with more regularity. I felt it wouldn’t be long before they were satisfied, fully expecting them to fly to new places. I wasn’t wrong.
All of them left without ceremony, no final foray, no announcement I could detect; it was merely a case that they all flew off together. I have no idea how they knew to do this. There was no cry or call. No sound save for the previous splashes as one after another of these gorgeous Little Terns caused pockets of water to reach skyward, in protest at the birds’ disturbance.
It was as if the birds just knew. It was time to leave. Had some kind of 6th sense. An internal radar of sorts. An RAS maybe?
I’ve seen them since on several occasions flying along this waterway. But not diving and fishing. I imagine when I shot them doing that, they had good reason to catch fish with abundance and vigour. Chicks needed feeding maybe? I’ll never know. My radar can’t tell me that. But I’m glad my radar caused me to locate these birds in the first place. Which it did. Maybe I’m not going “Ga-Ga” after all.
Happy Days 🙂