Common Tern at Malheur

Just as stopping to watch the Black Terns led me to see the Wilson’s Phalarope, stopping to watch the Common Nighthawks hunting along the creek led me to see this Common Term. In fact, my first shot of it was completely accidental; I thought I was shooting the Common Nighthawk as it skimmed the creek. As you can probably see it was a lot easier to focus on the Tern than it was to focus on the Common Nighthawks because, unlike the Nighthawk, the tern contrasted with the background (and seemed to fly a little slower),

Common Tern

but shooting the tern posed its own problems; these are definitely not the best shots I’ve ever gotten of a tern. The dark background of the creek caused most of the shots to be overexposed, resulting in a loss of details in the whites. Whenever you have a black and white bird you have problems maintaining the feather details in both the black and white areas, especially with less than ideal lighting.

Common Tern

Shooting in RAW and underexposing helps slightly to save details in the whites, but underexposing may result in losing details in the darkest areas of the shot (and, personally, I always want to see the birds’ eyes).

The best shot of the tern came when it started to fly out of the creek and got exposed to the afternoon sunlight,

Common Tern

but even in this shot the whites were overexposed and the blacks were underexposed because the light was coming from behind the tern. In shooting a fast-moving bird like this lighting becomes critical.

For instance, compare these with a shot I took several years ago at Theler wetlands (click to expand) several years ago with the same lens but a considerably cheaper camera.


Despite the limitations of the camera, this shot is considerably better than any of these (and it doesn’t hurt that this Tern actually caught a fish). The right equipment obviously makes a huge difference in how your shots turn out, but luck also plays a major part. It takes an awful lot of planning to make sure that the light will be just right for your shots (which probably explains why I’m not a professional photographer).

Despite getting lost in technical discussions like this, I go to Malheur to experience the refuge in a particular moment not just to take photos, and even during hailstorms and cold spells I’ve only had one bad day there (the day I blew a tire and had to cut the day short.) I still think taking a camera helps me to be more aware of what is there.

Hopefully the photos I share convey that sense of joy in a particular place at a particular moment in time. That’s still what matters most to me.