Two and a half weeks ago, I decided that the time had come: I'd been wanting a lens for birding ever since last spring when I became enamored with photographing the locals as they raised their babies and this winter's glut of dog-sitting made it financially possible to purchase a telephoto zoom lens. My requirements were that the lens be light enough to carry around, to have image stabilization to compensate for my hand tremor, and to function well even in the perpetual Pacific Northwest gloom. My choice was between a 100-400mm lens and a more expensive 70-200mm lens. I bought one and rented the other to do a side-by-side comparison. The birds that had been ubiquitous around the backyard in days prior suddenly vanished when I brought the lenses home (they may be nesting now), so I turned to a more reliable avian photography source: ducks.
|A female mallard rinses her bill during a preening session.|
I spent a long weekend during this time looking after my collie friend, Mr. Gorgeous, who just so happens to have a couple of little ponds on his property with some regular duck visitors. I took some pictures and having established ducks as good test subjects, I hauled both lenses (nearly five pounds apiece!) down to a local lakefront park that is always swarming with not just the usual mallards but a variety of domesticated ducks and hybrid ducks. There, I alternated between lenses and snapped 700 photos of the local waterfowl. Here are some of my favorites. Remember, you can always click on the photos to enlarge them!
|A brilliantly-colored male mallard.|
|A Swedish blue duck.|
|A domesticated male mallard.|
|This duck superficially resembles a female mallard, but has lighter plumage, no colored wing bar, and a dark bill. I'll leave duck ID's to the experts!|
Ducks spend a considerable amount of time preening. Water doesn't roll off a duck's back unless the feathers are kept well-oiled and in good working order. I enjoyed watching the ducks contort themselves to make sure every last feather was attended to.
|This female mallard combs through her wing feathers to make sure the barbs are properly lined up and hooked together, essential for flight.|
|Scratching an itch.|
|Tending to your feathers means that sometimes you have to bend all the way forward, like this duck.|
|Or this one.|
|Other times, only an extravagant backbend will do!|
|The end result is an oily, watertight covering. Droplets form and roll off the well-groomed head of this mallard who has just been feeding underwater. (Click to enlarge.)|
While there seem to be some bachelor mallards that frequent the ponds at Mr. Gorgeous', I regularly saw this couple in the upper pond. One day, I walked up and patiently won their trust so that they felt safe to go about with their routines while I sat on a nearby rock. Much to my surprise and delight, this including mating!
|Mr. and Mrs. Mallard. They grew comfortable with me, but less so with the dog!|
Mating goes a little something like this:
|The female, on this occasion, initiated the mating process by noisily diving under the water (picking up a coating of pond scum) and staying low in the water with her neck out as the male approached.|
|During mating, the male duck holds on to the back of the female's neck as he mounts her.|
|After some scrambling about and dunking the female under, the actual mating takes place with her tail up and his tail down.|
|The female emerges looking slightly frazzled and in need of a prolonged preening session. You can see the marks in the feathers on her neck where the male grasped her!|
Various aspects of being a duck are hard work, like swimming, flying, socializing, feeding, mating, and all that preening. That means sometimes you've just got to...
|...and settle down for a nap in the sun.|
|Napping with a buddy is even better! These ducks are so used to living in a busy park that they snoozed happily on the lawn as dogs and toddlers and strollers and people passed by.|
When evaluating the lenses, what I was especially looking for was the ability to cleanly capture details, like the texture of feet and feathers.
|This beautifully patterned duck waddles along on a pair of inward-turning orange webs.|
|A great shot of the underside of a foot!|
|More feather (and water droplet) details.|
Mallards have never been of overwhelming interest to me because, like robins, they are so common. But spending this time observing them and photographing them, I became more fond of them. It's hard to resist the iridescent heads and bright yellow bills of the males.
|"I'm not smiling, my bill just looks that way!"|
So once the ducks had been thoroughly photographed and I'd tested the lenses in a variety of light conditions, I settled on the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II USM. That means there will be many more bird photos to come this spring and summer, including, no doubt, more ducks.