Shooting Captive Raptors
by Dr. Leonard Lee Rue III
With its 14,000 acres of manicured lawns, artistic gardens and spectacular shrubbery, Callaway Gardens, located just sixty minutes south of Atlanta, Georgia, on Georgia Highway 18, is a mecca for anyone interested in flower and scenic photography. It has the world's largest collection of azaleas, over 5,000 different types, and has many varieties found nowhere else in the world. The gardens are ablaze with color from late March through to September when the fall foliage adds its own impressive show. They also have a 7 ½ acre vegetable and herb garden.
There is something at Callaway Gardens for everyone to enjoy. There are beaches, hiking trails, bicycle paths and miles of roadways winding through spectacular beauty. There are tennis courts, PGA golf courses and shooting ranges as well as fabulous fishing in the lakes. Instructors are available for those interested in becoming more proficient in those sports.
There are seven restaurants and sleeping accommodations that range from rustic cabins to sumptuous villas.
The gardens have one of the largest butterfly houses that allow for great photographic opportunities of tropical butterflies. Just recently, they have added a number of hummingbirds flying with the butterflies.
The latest expansion is the Virginia Hand Callaway Discovery Center that provides a wealth of information about the gardens, nature and wildlife on the grounds. Films and shows take place in the auditorium. While it's true that "only God can make a tree" - or a flower; Trailer McQuilkin is a true disciple. His replicas of the wild flowers of the southeastern region of the United States done in copper are mirror images of the wildflowers in all their glory. They are truly breathtaking.
I had been invited to stop at Callaway Gardens by my good friend, Steve Hoddy, who, with his partner, Robby Sinkler, own and operate EarthQuest Environmental Foundation, a foundation they instituted to promote interest in and knowledge of the environment.
EarthQuest runs the raptor program at the gardens and, with school groups touring the gardens every day, they are getting the children interested in these beautiful birds of prey. If we are to provide the protection these birds deserve, and which is now mandated by law, we must involve the children, for they will be the taxpayers and voting public of the future.
The advantage of the raptor program to photographers is that the natural stage upon which the program takes place is laid out with photography in mind (Steve is also a photographer). The area faces south so that the sun will be behind or quartering all day. I found the light angle to be a little better in the morning, but then I'm a morning person anyway.
The mews, or cages, holding the birds are mounted high off the ground on either side of the "stage". They blend into the woods that surround them so well that they are hardly noticeable. As each bird is called, in its turn, it flies from the mews to the perches or natural rocks near the lecturers. The birds will alight in the nearby trees, fly out over and across the lakes and zoom in right over the heads of the audience. They fly to the lecturer's gloved hand when signaled. When each bird is finished performing its part of the show, the lecturer's assistant opens the mew's door and the bird flies back in where it is rewarded with food. These birds are, without a doubt, the best trained raptors I have ever seen.
Currently, they are flying a peregrine falcon, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks and barn, barred and great-horned owls in the show. They hope to be flying a bald eagle and Cooper's hawk in the very near future. By law, several of the birds must have a federal band on one leg but, as almost all peregrine falcons in the wild have also been banded, that's no real drawback. Of tremendous advantage to all photographers all of the birds are flown without jesses, the long leather leg bands that almost all captive raptors wear so they can be controlled by the falconer.
By speaking to members of the staff before the show, the lecturers will allow you to stand, with your tripod, off to one side of the stage. It's an ideal location in which to get photographs of the birds in flight. It is here that the high speed focusing of the latest cameras really pays off. Although you should be able to get excellent photos of the large hawks and owls in flight, it is frustrating to try for the peregrines. The peregrine falcon, or duck hawk as it used to be called, is the fastest flying bird in the world. They have been clocked at speeds in excess of 200 mph. It won't be a question of whether your auto-focus is fast enough to focus on the flying bird, it is a question of whether or not you can even find the bird with your viewfinder. Fortunately, the lecturer will cause the peregrine to land on a huge boulder, a perfectly natural setting and background.
All of the birds land in the nearby trees, on the stage perches or on the lecturer's glove. When perched in the trees, you can get excellent full frame photos of the entire bird and its natural habitat. When they land on their perches, or the lecturer's glove, you can get great close-up photos of the birds' heads, beaks and eyes, something you just will never get under natural conditions in the out-of-doors.
Most captive raptors have the feathers worn off their cere, the area around the nostrils right over and behind the beak. This occurs when the birds run their beaks through the wire of the pens or cages in which they are kept. Steve and Robby line the inside of their birds' pens with a fine nylon mesh, thus preventing the birds from doing this. No bird in the wild ever looked better than the ones you can photograph at Callaway.
Many of the raptor photographs that grace our books and magazines are taken of birds that have been shot or had other accidents. Every state has licensed rehabilitators who care for these injured birds in the hopes of returning them back to the out-of-doors, and many of them do recover enough to be released. You will not be able to photograph these birds because the rehabilitators do not handle those birds any more than is absolutely necessary because they want the birds to continue to be wary of humans. The birds that you actually get to photograph are those that have injuries to their wings that can't be repaired. Such birds are good for portrait head shots if their ceres have not been denuded. You can seldom get full body shots because the wings will be seen drooping in the photograph. If the bird has lost a wing, it still will not make a good photograph because the tip of the wing will be seen missing where it crosses the tail or the wrist will be seen to be missing below the shoulder. The birds at Callaway are beautiful, full-feathered, flying raptors.
Raptors are among the most difficult of all birds to photograph because they are not feeder birds. You can't lure them into your backyard by putting out seeds, although occasionally I am able to photograph the Cooper's hawks that come into my backyard to try to capture the small birds that come in to feed on the seeds I put out on a year-round basis. The hawks are seldom successful because of the dense shrubbery I have planted all around the house that provides protection and shelter to the small birds from the hawks' forays.
So make sure you stop at Callaway Gardens to play a round or two of golf on their professional greens, as many folks do. Photograph the spectacular floral displays, which is the main reason most folks go. But, I suggest you concentrate on photographing the raptors. It is an unequaled opportunity.
For more information on Callaway Gardens