December 30, 2014

How To Find The Fastest Bird In The World

How fast is 242 mph?


Imagine driving at the 75 mph speed limit on a US freeway. Now think about driving 3 times faster.

242 mph is faster than the top speed of a Lamborghini Aventador.

We all heard of the F-16 fighter jet. Wonder what the “F” stands for?

F stands for Falcon.

And the fastest falcon of all? The peregrine falcon, with a top speed of 242 mph, is the fastest animal on earth.

So many times I have replayed the recorded episode of the Peregrine Falcon in Discovery Channel when I was a kid, sitting on a bench outside my dad's office, looking at the TV screen in awe.

I remembered clearly, it started from a distant scenic view of a cliff, probably somewhere at the edge of the world. The camera then zoomed closer and closer, to a close-up of this bird, showing the signature two dark stripes above and below his eyes, as the narrator said “The Peregrine Falcon”. The falcon then leaped and took off from a rock near the top of the cliff.

“WOW” I told myself some day I needed to go to the edge of the world to look for this magnificient looking bird.

Then life happens. School, work, ups and downs, and I completely forgot about this childhood dream.

It all changed when I picked up wildlife photography 4 years ago. One of the first things I wanted was to travel to those remote cliffs at the edge of the world to look for these Peregrine Falcons again.

You all have watched the “Last Lecture” by Professor Randy Pausch about achieving your childhood dreams.

Searching through the internet I found that some of these “remote” cliffs were actually located outside the busiest districts of California instead of somewhere in Timbuktu. I could find my childhood dream species just a few miles from where I have been living in the last 15 years.

I first heard of a breeding pair on Morro Rock in Morro Bay through some birder website. So I spent some weekends there. The falcons were hundreds of feet above the cliff. if you have seen my previous blog post, you would know they were too far away to be photographed.

Later I got some great info from Donald about a location in Pismo Beach and Will James Sooter about a location in San Diego. Yet I missed the right time to go see them when the fledglings were learning to fly.

Long story short, my quest for the Peregrine Falcon all came down to two decisions I had to make.


My good friend Pete told me that he saw a falcon twice among his over 20 visits to a beach. It's about a mile on the left of the Ventura Harbor parking lot. One sunny Sunday morning, I decided to drive there to try my luck.

After 10 mins of driving on 101 North, it got completely foggy, which means bad lighting for photography. I remember I was laughing while saying “I don't freaking believe it” to myself in the car.

Should I still go? I went anyways.

Turned out there was no miracle, it was indeed really foggy at the beach.

Just when I was going to walk towards the left of the parking lot, I saw a group of 20 people with binoculars and cameras. They walked to the right side instead.  Should I follow them? They looked like experts. They might know something I didn't know…

Very quickly I remembered my objective of the day: to find the peregrine falcon even though the chance was slim. I decided to be the captain of my life, and I turned left.

Visibility was less than 100 feet. After half a mile, the fog suddenly disappeared. About 20 yards away, I saw something sitting on the sand.

Holy cow… I saw her.

I quickly lay flat on my belly in the sand and slowly “low crawled” towards the falcon. I thought I had some back pain before, but I didn't feel anything while crawling with my heavy gear.

I felt that my keys was scratching my iPhone in my front pocket. but I couldn't afford to think too much.

How close could I get?

This was a question we wildlife photographer tried to answer our whole life. The thrill of finding the answer was exactly what made this interesting.

It's like playing with fire. Too far away you couldn't feel the warmth of the fire (the wild animal would be too far away for any decent photo even with lens of the longest focal length). Getting too close you will get burned (the wild animal would run away and you lose the opportunity for a picture). Then what's the closest one can get without getting burnt? The magical distance almost feels like zen to me. One has to use all their senses to feel and connect with the animal. They already knew you were here. As you get closer and closer, on your own you need to be stealth and quiet, e.g. low crawl to have a less threatening profile, zig zagging so the animal doesn't think you are going right after them, talk softly to yourself or pretend you are chewing or grazing at something so they think you are chill and are not looking at them as your food source, to name just a few. At the same time, you have to watch and hear and feel the animal. If you feel that they are uncomfortable, you got to stop immediately until they are relaxed again. It really is a test of human senses and abilities to the extreme.

Here's a quote from my photography idol Mr. Michio Hoshino in his writing “The Eternal Present” in which he encountered a bald eagle in Alaska:

As the current pulled the boat rapidly toward the tree, I could see the eagle staring down at me intently. I watched the eagle casually, wondering if it would fly off or allow me to pass right under it. There followed a moment of tension, in which I almost dared not breathe. For the bald eagle that stared down at me, there was neither past nor present, simply an encounter with each new second. I, too, focused on the immediate present, as I had in those distant days of childhood. This was a point in time that did not allow for any distinction between me and the eagle; it was an eternity in the present. I found myself drawn to its empty depths. The eagle remained motionless as my raft passed beneath the cottonwood.

All of us nature lovers and photographers have encountered such moments. It's these spiritual moments that we are all after, the moment of complete present, eye to eye with the wild animals. Those are the moments when we are fully alive.

I got closer and closer to the falcon. There, just 10 yards away, I stopped. I saw this elusive and beautiful Peregrine Falcon filling up the frame of my viewfinder.

That's my “RAPTORS ON GROUND” (ROG) ALERT. It always amazed me when I saw a raptor on the ground. It's like watching Thor coming to Earth from Asgard. These raptors were supposed to be soaring in the sky, yet they landed.

My hands were shaking as I rolled my finger onto the shutter button…She looked at me without any concern. I felt a special connection.

Peregrine Falcon on the ground. Ventura Harbor, CA. 500mmf/4, 1.4x III, ISO 800, f/7.1, 1/500s

Peregrine Falcon on the ground. Ventura Harbor, CA. 500mmf/4, 1.4x III, ISO 800, f/7.1, 1/500s

I spent a good 10 minutes with this beauty before she looked up and saw something and flew away.

Two minutes later, I saw the group of 20 people walked my way. But they probably had no idea what I just witnessed.

After the falcon on the ground encounter, I wanted to capture them in flight.

What I wanted to capture was a shot of a the top side of a Peregrine Falcon, with the pacific ocean as the background.

Why top side, you may ask?

But first, let me explain what BIF means to me:

In a nutshell, BIF is like a certificate to prove that you passed an “impossible” challenge. The challenge is to create a photograph that is:

  • Critically sharp
  • with a bird flying towards your direction or at least sideways
  • with a pleasing background, preferably not the sky (because it's too easy in a BIF photographer perspective)
  • good light angle
  • sweet light
  • good head angle
  • good wing pose, preferably at a banking pose
  • with the bird relatively large in the frame, i.e. you shouldn't crop more than 40% to get a decent composition
  • All in a sliver of time, which not only means you have to track a fast flying bird in the viewfinder instantly, but also have all the above ingredients in the photo.

Once you have a portfolio of successful BIF shots, it means you have graduated and can move onto any situations to capture sudden and fast action of any kinds.

“Top Side” is one of the 4 holy grails for BIF photography, according to the unpublished 9 Manifestos of Wildlife Photography written by Tin Man Lee.

The 4 Holy Grails of BIF:

1. TOP SIDE. BIF photographers are all obsessed with photographing the top side of a flying bird because it's the time when we can show off their mad skill. People would wonder how you could possibly photography a bird this way. How did you do that? They would ask. Were you flying as well? Were you flying above them? Then the BIF photographer had a wide grin on their face. The top side of a flying bird is visually stunning too, as we could show the beautiful feather patterns of the spreading wings of the bird. There are three methods to achieve this: (I) Wait for the bird to make a turn– that's called “BANKING”. Even when you are shooting the bird from below, you can capture their top side when they bank. (II) Shoot down from a cliff or anywhere above the bird. (III) Really flying vertically above them and photograph downwards. I haven't figured that out yet.

2. NON-SKY BACKGROUND. You may say come on, birds are flying in the sky, why we should get a non-sky background. Well just because it's usually more beautiful to have something other than the blue sky for flying birds. Plus it is more challenging. With varying background, autofocus is much more difficult. BIF photographers all love the challenge.

3. OPEN BILL. If you can capture a bird calling in mid air with their beak open, it is always a bonus.

4. EYE LEVEL. Other than the banking shot where you shoot from the “top”, it is always nice to get to the eye level of a flying bird. No one says it is easy.

Some other good things to have is that the bird should be flying towards you or at most sideway. We don't (at least for me) post pics of a bird flying away from us. A raptor with a catch is always super cool.

Again, BIF is a technique. It's like a RPG (Role Playing) video game where you have to collect enough points to get to the next level. By “collecting” enough banking shots, you know you are fast enough to capture any action in wildlife photography.


#2. WAIT OR GO. With the generous information provided by my buddy Hadi, I found myself at the top of a 300 feet cliff in Los Angeles. The falcons were about 50 feet below the top. To photograph them, I had to walk over the fence, stand at the very tip of the cliff which, with the morning marine layer and low temperature, the mud was wet and slippery. Facing the pacific ocean, the wind was strong. Looking vertically down, my legs were shaking. One mistake and I would be at the bottom.

“A friend dropped his lens hood down the cliff while he was shooting down recently. Surprisingly the hood survived the drop.” Hadi said.

I don't think I would survive if it was me.

Once I arrived, I was greeted by this.

Peregrine Falcon in morning light. 600mm, f/4, ISO 800, 1/1600s, f/5.6

Peregrine Falcon in morning light. 600mm, f/4, ISO 800, 1/1600s, f/5.6

Then I looked down from the cliff and saw the young ones.

Fledglings Peregrine Falcon

Fledglings Peregrine Falcon

The young one loved to test his wing.

Dangerous maneuver on the cliff.

Dangerous maneuver on the cliff.

The little guy took his first flight.


The male adult peregrine falcon was smaller in size but has whiter feather.

Male Adult Peregrine Falcon with a catch.

Male Adult Peregrine Falcon with a catch.

I really loved to have a “top side” flying shot of the falcon, so I waited for the mother falcon to take off from a rock for over two hours but she just wouldn't move a bit.

At times she did some preening to trick us. Story of the lives of most bird photographers I bet.

Suddenly someone called my name. I turned around and was really happy to see my good friend Salah Baazizi who just came. We chatted a little bit and I said I have to leave as I had another commitment. Salah somehow persuaded me to wait for another 5 mins.

I said ok, but what would an extra 5 minutes do really. We've been there for almost two hours. I was sure she's gonna take off right after I left. We both laughed.

Then of course just when we were laughing, the falcon mom took off suddenly, and with my rusty birds-in-flight skill, I managed to miss ALL the shots. I couldn't find the bird in my camera viewfinder at all. The two hours waiting was all wasted.

The falcon mom flew half a mile away, and did the famous mid-air food exchange with her chicks. We were amazed but were also a bit disappointed as that was too far for any photography. Well even though I didn't get any good in flight shots it's still very nice to see them, I said to Salah.

While I was saying these to comfort ourselves, Salah suddenly yelled “hey look, they are coming back”.

Not just coming back, it seemed that the Peregrine Falcon wanted to come back to the exact same rock…

“Woaa'hhh” I roared at myself, flexed my biceps, took a deep breath, with my “Chi” running from my Dantian through all my nadis or whatsoever, and held my 600mm lens up and aimed at the fastest bird in the world.

I told myself I ain't gonna miss the shot this time.

And the rest is history. Because of the five minutes and taking the good advice from my friends, I got some of my favorite Peregrine Falcon shots.

The Top Side view of a peregrine falcon. 1/3200s, 600mm, 1.4x, f/5.6, ISO 1600

The Top Side view of a peregrine falcon. 1/3200s, 600mm, 1.4x, f/5.6, ISO 1600, background was the ocean.


Coming closer. The opening bill is always a bonus.

Coming closer. The opening bill is always a bonus.


With a catch.

With a catch.

Peregrine falcon landing.

Peregrine falcon landing.





The father falcon also flew by.

Adult male peregrine falcon in flight.

Adult male peregrine falcon in flight.


Tin Man Lee

Tin Man Lee has a deep love for wildlife and photography. Most recently, he won the Grand Prize of Nature's Best Photography Windland Smith Rice International with the winning photo currently displaying at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC, while having a full time job in medical imaging. He is the judge for Nature's Best Photography Asia and Viewbug. Through this blog he hopes to share what worked for him and what didn't while learning the craft of wildlife photography.