Watching Tern Tail Feathers

Many bird photographers enjoy photographing terns. These quick, small birds can be a challenge to photograph, especially if one focuses on them fishing. Terns can also be quite aerobatic in their flight patterns. This can also yield some interesting images. Watching tern tail feathers can signal potential aerobatic flight moves or fishing behaviour.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

First, let’s have a look at a pretty common photograph that we may capture of a tern in flight’

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 208 mm, efov 561.6 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-220

As you look at this image, notice how the tern’s tail feathers are tucked in together. This is a clear signal that the tern is doing some aerial surveillance, and that nothing of interest has caught its eye.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 224 mm, efov 604.8 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-160

In the image above, the tern has spread its tail feathers as it is slowing down its air speed. Often times these spread tail feathers will be quickly tucked back in if the tern changes its mind.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 224 mm, efov 604.8 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-250

If nothing else, the spread tail feathers make for a more interesting photograph.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 241 mm, efov 650.7 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-160

Tail feathers that are spread also give the tern additional in-flight maneuverability. This can signal turns, upcoming fishing dives, or mid-air hovering. All of these flight moves can create interesting photographs.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 250 mm, efov 675 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-200

When tracking terns in-flight, I typically wait until I see a bird spread its tail feathers before I fire off any kind of AF-C run. Most times it is a very short burst of just a few images. If I am fortunate enough to capture a tern hovering, diving or doing a sharp turn, I’ll hold my AF-C run longer.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 250 mm, efov 675 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-250

I find capturing photographs of terns in-flight with unusual wing positions to be every bit as dramatic as those of terns diving and fishing.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 250 mm, efov 675 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-250

Whether you like to focus your tern photography on them diving, fishing or flying… watching tern tail feathers can help improve your results. It can also help yield more usable images in a shorter length of time. All of the photographs in this article were captured yesterday morning within a 5 minute time frame.

Technical Note:
All photographs in this article were captured hand-held using camera gear noted in the EXIF data. All images were produced from RAW files using my standard process of DxO PhotoLab, CS6 and the Nik Collection.

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4 thoughts on “Watching Tern Tail Feathers”

  1. Hi Tom,

    Beautiful sequence! I used to do AF-C runs with my Nikon before and it can be bewildering especially when the terns are feeding in groups 😀 Especially love the last two in the post. Exquisite details in the unfurled feathers.

    Oggie
    http://www.lagalog.com

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