Anatomy of a photo #52: Marsh hawk hunting the wetlands

Juvenile Northern Harrier (aka Marsh Hawk) hunting the Giacomini Wetlands, as high tide flushes mice and voles from their holes

This picture is a bit older, it’s from the early days of the Giacomini Wetlands, when they had only just recently breached the levies for the last time, returning the pastureland back to the tidal flats that it had once been. Rodents were still being flooded out of their homes by this refound inundation of the tides, and it was a hunting bonanza for many animals- coyotes, red tails, kites, and many others such as this Marsh Hawk that was coursing over the border between grasses and high tide, searching for refugees.

These wetlands are an area where the only viable access is by small, unmotorized boat (motors are illegal within the boundaries of this area of the Point Reyes National Seashore). Walking is legal, but very unfeasible. Mud so deep you sink halfway to your knees, if not nearly to mid thigh. Doable, but not very conducive to having clean camera equipment or the energy to use it. Just as I would not generally use a fisheye lens to photograph wildlife, nor would I enter the Giacomini Wetlands without a kayak (which incidentally is a remarkable tool for photography in the right location at the right time).

On this day I was kayaking an especially high tide through the wetlands, documenting the changes that were occurring to the landscape and vegetation, but also capturing the different birds and wildlife, that we could see how populations were changing as this area transitioned from pasture to bay. The rodents were having a decidedly hard time of it, but were creating a temporary increase in many types of predator. Marsh hawks for example still hunt the area  daily, but in very decreased numbers. Where it was common to see five to ten in the early days, when I return there now it is to one or two birds flying over more scattered patches of land.

When I took this picture I was trying not to center the marsh hawk (aka the subject) in the frame. I wanted it to one side, and higher up. Since the hawk was on facing to the left, I wanted it on the right side of the picture, so that it was facing across the entire image. This is something I try to do with most of my wildlife images, seeing which way they face and then placing them so that they are facing towards the far edge of the photograph. It creates much better flow in the image. If they are facing the near edge, the audiences attention is also directed to the near edge and much of the photos space is lost to poor image flow.

ISO 320; 420mm; 0 EV; f/8; 1/800th

About Galen Leeds Photography

Nature and wildlife photographer, exploring the world on his feet and from his kayak. Among other genres, he is one of the leading kayak photographers in Northern California. To learn more about him, visit him on his website-
This entry was posted in Anatomy of a photo, birds, How to, kayak photography, nature photography, photography, SLR, wildlife photography and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Anatomy of a photo #52: Marsh hawk hunting the wetlands

  1. Ken Sexton says:

    I have been following your feeds for a couple of months now. Thanks for sharing. I used to kayak a lot, before I got back into wildlife photography. Now, I am looking to get a kayak for photography in still and slow-moving waters of Oregon, on the coast and inland rivers and marshes. I have looked at several boats with an eye for stability, in particular the Ultimates from Native Watercraft. Last thing I want to do is to dunk my 300/2.8! Do you have recommendations on boats that you like for this purpose, as well as stowage and protection of gear? I have Pelicans and dry bags, but both seem awkward to use in kayaks, both from quick accessibility and waterproof aspects. I use Olympus, so both E-5 bodies and SHG lenses are water-resistant, but I still want to be careful. Obviously, everything gets leashed, but I am looking for tips on handling gear for safety and ease of use.

    • Hi Ken,
      I did a little research on the Native Ultimate. It looks like it would be a very stable craft for photography. The one concern I would have with it is that you would need to come up with a method of keeping your camera gear (which ever protection system you come up with) off of the floor of the kayak, and to make sure that you have a pump to remove any water that does enter the boat. A traditional sea kayak is sealed for the most part against water entering it, by hatch covers and a spray skirt (which I find cumbersome to use and still access the camera). The ultimate seems more open to water entering from the top if you are moving through small waves that can splash in.

      Sit on tops usually avoid this by being self bailing- that is they are designed with openings in which a small amount of water can enter at strategically located low points, but drain a much larger volume of water, so that it is easy to have dry areas for your gear bags or boxes. The Ultimate is kind of like a canoe though, in that whatever water enters the boat stays in it unless you manually evacuate it.

      I have two main kayaks that I use. One is the Native Watercraft Manta Ray 12. It is a decent boat and self draining. However I prefer my Hobie Quest for comfort, and it is a little faster. It is also a very stable kayak, although I would not stand up in it the way that people stand in the Native Ultimate. I have never had much in the may of stability issues with either one. I’ve never tipped either one, and I’ve used them in the ocean, bays, streams, and lakes.

      I generally use a large size dry bag, that is made with backpack straps. The two brands I have used most are Seattle Sports and SealLine (approximately 35 L capacity bags). Both are a more rubberized material rather than being just coated nylon, and seal very well. They can be somewhat awkward though, but one thing I like about them is that I can (if the water is calm) have my cameras just inside and very accessible, without rolling and sealing them. This way they are protected against incidental splashes from my paddle etc. Also the straps help for getting in and out of the kayak, as well as being a quick carry option if I want a short hike from the shore. Other options you could consider are underwater bodies, but I am not a very big fan of these for kayak photography, unless in very rough conditions.

      On my post about kayaking with your digital SLR, someone just recommended a DIY dry case with army ammo boxes that you could consider. There may be more size range than with brand name dry cases.

      There is no ideal solution that I have found to give 100% protection and 100% access with the controls and features that I would like, but I am continually experimenting, and if I find a system I like better, I will be sure to share it.


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