The Waterskiing Duck

Maybe it was some kind of omen. The fact that this all started on April Fool’s Day might have frightened off someone wiser. But then you could argue that wise people don’t believe in omens. You see, this is the kind of logic that ties me in knots and I haven’t even made it to the ducks yet.

I’ll add that I’m not a huge fan of feeding wild birds but understand that other people are. So I didn’t lure any of these birds by feeding them. Instead, I went to a pond where waterbirds hang out, and waited. In some cases, people turned up to feed the birds but I didn’t get any more shots than normal on those occasions.

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waterskiing duck

OCTOBER 3, 2008

Holy Grail shot 1 Holy Grail shot 2

Just when you start having your doubts about ducks they surprise you. They put on an awesome show this week and I had my camera ready.

First up was the talent shown skiing from the right side of the page to the left. This guy demonstrates the sort of form that got me into this pursuit in the first place. I salute this duck for its technique, length of ski run and blistering speed. If that duck dips a toe in at that pace you just know someone’s going to get hurt, but it pulled off the manoeuvre like an Olympic champion.

And then the planets aligned, the sun appeared through a gap in the clouds and lit up the pond with the prettiest light I’ve seen in months, just as a Pacific Black demonstrated incandescent form across a perfect glassy surface. This is approaching my holy-grail shot. Seen directly above this text is the photo I’m talking about. At full resolution (10 megapixels) the clarity is amazing, revealing the kind of detail that even ducks probably don’t know about. Shown below is a crop at 50% resolution (half size)

Holy Grail shot 2

SEPTEMBER 12, 2008

The worrying trend continues. I’m looking for a duck that can waterski the length of an Olympic pool and instead, all I’m seeing now are belly-landings.

It was only a year ago that ducks would majestically ski to a stop when they landed on water. Well, okay, not the length of above-mentioned pool, but at least a meter or two. Which is what led to this photographic pursuit. Now they all seem to want to land on their stomachs.

waterskiing duck

So I pointed the long lens at some more ducks to see what was going on. The light’s appalling — desaturated and harsh, but I’m at the pond and I have my camera. What I discovered kind of surprised me.

waterskiing duck

At first, I’m thinking I’m seeing some real style. A one-footed landing makes for a worthy duck and a one-foot ski over several meters sounds even better than my Holy-Grail shot. But how long can he maintain it? Here’s a close-up of the feet.

waterskiing duck

Less than a sixth of second later he’s already lowering himself into the water. I was hoping for some serious skiing action on this glassy pond. Instead I’m about to be disappointed by the mother of all belly flops.

waterskiing duck
waterskiing duck

So here in this next frame, the size and extent of the spray gives an idea of how fast this guy was moving. This could have been a lovely shot (although as I said earlier, the light’s too intense for the kind of photography I like doing).

waterskiing duck
waterskiing duck

In this last frame you’d almost believe the duck was fitted with an outboard motor, due to the enormous wave he’s making.

But it’s not waterskiiing is it? I don’t understand this and would like scientists to explain what’s happening. Forget about Large Hadron Colliders costing billions of euros. This is where the real science is.

SEPTEMBER 1, 2008

waterskiing duck

More shots today, and every one of them a belly landing. And I’m not happy. This shot had a lot going for it — okay light, good distance and focus, and this duck had a bit of speed too. But look at that appalling technique. You’ll see by the size of its bow wave that it’s using its chest against the water to slow itself down, when it could be skiing. It’s an outrage.

AUGUST 30, 2008

Okay, now I’m just plain confused. I’ve had plenty of trips to the pond lately and have seen an abundance of avian action, much of it in the form of water-landings. I’ve photographed quite a few. And not a single worthy display of skiing among them.

There seems to be a real shift in technique going on here. I’m thinking of two reasons. Neither of them would stand up in court but I’ll offer them anyway:

waterskiing duck

I submit this sequence of shots as evidence.

waterskiing duck

This paltry, or should I say, poultry effort hardly qualifies as skiing by even the most generous definition of the word. My camera fires off frames at the rate of about six per second. So that means this wimpy little fowl barely had the fortitude to stand up for even a sixth of a second.

waterskiing duck

No sooner has it touched the water and it settles down into a belly landing. Blagh. The birds are already slowing themselves down a lot in the air before they touch down and that’s a trend I don’t like at all.

waterskiing duck

I prefer a bird which hits the water at something approaching warp nine. But for the last month every bird I’ve seen at the pond has brought itself almost to almost a stop before getting its feet wet, meaning it wouldn’t be able to ski any sort of distance even if it wanted to. This does not bode well for my Holy-Grail ambition, or for this blog.

I’m hoping this is just some sort of avian aberration and look forward to nailing that perfect shot some time soon. Maybe the ducks will regain their form as we head into spring.

AUGUST 10, 2008

waterskiing swan

It’s been a while since my last update but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy. I was able to get this pic — part of a nice sequence of half a dozen shots of a swan showing impressive waterskiing form. Full marks to this bird for technique and length of ski run

Ducks, take notice.

JULY 11, 2008

waterskiing duck

First responses to the levitating duck photo (see July 10, below) suggest I faked it. Some argued that I stuck those angelic wings on in Photoshop. Needless to say, I’m outraged.

So I’ll show the full sequence of shots that included the levitating duck shot. This should settle any disputes once and for all.

waterskiing duck
waterskiing duck
waterskiing duck
waterskiing duck
waterskiing duck

This sequence illustrates a disturbing trend I’m seeing a lot of lately with these guys: an appalling lack of waterskiing endurance. No sooner do their feet touch the water before they’re settling down. Whatever happened to the spirit of the true standing-up waterskiing duck like the one I saw when this all started?

I’m not about to give up, but a bunch of photos of unimpressive avian waterskiing displays is filling up my hard drive and leaving me no closer to my Holy Grail. Now I’ve got my photographic technique sorted out the birds are refusing to do their part.

JULY 10, 2008

levitating duck

Sometimes the worst days are the best days. I was standing beside the pond in the worst light you could imagine. Well okay, I admit that night time would have been trickier, but for daytime it was the worst light you could imagine. The sky was grey. The water was grey. The grass, people and ducks were grey. Even if a duck did a 25-foot waterski right in front of me it would be no use because I’d never be able to get decent colour out of the shot. And then two things happened: the sun appeared in a gap in the clouds, and I managed to get a pic of something especially elusive — the levitating duck.

levitating duck

It wasn’t just me who was impressed by this. The ducks appeared impressed too. That duck on the left looks like he’s studying some technique. Checking out the shot at 100% resolution (at right) the levitating duck looks like he’s in some kind of trance, although to be honest all ducks’ expressions seem to look like that. But right now it suits my argument to say this looks like a trance.

waterskiing duck

In the few minutes that the sun was out I got a whole bunch of lucky shots. All of them nice and sharp. The sun coming from behind me is lighting up the ducks and the grey sky ahead of me is reflecting off the water, which kind of adds some nice contrast. Here’s a couple of shots showing a White-eyed Duck coming in for a landing and then doing a short ski run.

waterskiing duck

JULY 6, 2008

waterskiing duck

I was back at the pond this week but the ducks were keeping their distance. Maybe they’re aware of this blog. To make things worse the wind was gusting up to about 15 knots, meaning that the ducks were landing into a headwind. Which meant they didn’t have to waterski to slow down. In the really strong gusts the ducks were wobbling a bit in the air and then doing a sort of vertical landing, Harrier Jump Jet style. Fun to watch but not the best for realising my ambition. However I got one nice shot on the day. This female White-eyed Duck is about to touch down and her posture simply screams concentration. You’d almost think she’d never done this before.

JUNE 30, 2008

flying cormorant

I was at the pond again today, pointing the lens at a bunch of cormorants. They’re not ducks but they are still kind of cool. The sun was out, water calm, not much breeze. Perfect for waterskiing.

waterskiing cormorant

And I’m concentrating on those cormorants and then out of the corner of my eye I see not one, but two Pacific Blacks approaching in the last stages of a high-speed landing.

waterskiing duck

So I swing around and just manage to fire off a few shots taking in the end of the run. It was a good ski too — one of the best — at least 6 feet before it kneeled down, with nice technique and poise, but I was so late I only caught the aftermath.

waterskiing duck

I tell you, this was the perfect shot — the Holy Grail shot I’ve been waiting for. The light was perfect. Focus was tack-sharp. Ski length brilliant. Distance to the duck was perfect for framing the bird and a good length of trail.

It’s like they’re teasing me now. Waiting until I’m watching cormorants and then they shoot in from the side and rain down in pairs. I’m taking it pretty well. No, who am I kidding? I’m really peeved. I’m more determined than ever now. It’s me versus them and I have a hunch it’s going to get harder now because I think they’re onto me. Yeah, the more I think about it, the more logical that sounds. I bet this was the duck that flew in front of my swan shot on June 23.

Like I said earlier, now it’s personal.

JUNE 27, 2008

waterskiing duck

I love this shot of a duck looking like he’s about to wipe out. Is that fear we can see in his eyes? Hard to say — ducks’ eyes always seem to look the same.

waterskiing duck

His wings are all over the place, and if you look at his feet, they’re clearly not set for a clean landing. Here’s a closer view and I’m sure most would expect this scenario to end in tears. If this was the Olympics, it would score 1 out of ten, but it would also get the most reruns on telly.

waterskiing duck

This next frame taken one sixth of a second later shows how he somehow managed to save the day. Personally I would have written him off, perhaps awarded him a point for courage or maybe degree of difficulty. But these ducks should not be underestimated. They know what they are doing. They have been doing this for a very long time. And they are all around us.

JUNE 23, 2008

waterskiing duck

Sydney’s getting some decent light at last. The light is weak but at least the sun’s out and there was some serious duck action down at the pond. I had the camera set back up to 1000th second and got some of my best shots so far.

waterskiing duck

This shot (at right) is possibly the best one I’ve got so far for showing how these guys curl their toes up to avoid tripping over and landing face-down on the water.

waterskiing duck

Here’s a closer view of those toes. This duck knows what he’s doing.

waterskiing duck

At full resolution almost all of the images are pin-sharp so I’m very happy with them.

waterskiing duck
waterskiing swan

The ducks were coming down like rain and then a swan came down. I got a nice sequence that included the shot shown below. This pic is my favourite so far and at full resolution it’s nice and sharp too. I’ll include a 50% and a 100% resolution crop to give you an idea about how these pics look nice and big.

waterskiing swan
waterskiing swan
waterskiing swan

And now, to show you the kind of thing that happens in nature photography, here’s another shot from that sequence on the swan. This shot was just possibly the best one in the sequence, except some bird flew past the lens at that exact moment

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