My tiny old miner’s cottage in the centre of suburban Ballarat has an outside toilet. When I stepped out into the bitterly cold, overcast gloom early one morning, there, right in front of me was this big female Collared Sparrowhawk, bold as brass.
She was sitting on a kill, just a rib-cage actually, with hardly any flesh left on the bones. From the size of it, I’d guess that she took a Red Wattlebird or perhaps a European Blackbird at first light and was just finishing off the last of it.
I’ve seen both goshawks and sparrowhawks here before, mostly sparrowhawks, as they are attracted by the Purple-crowned and Musk Lorrikeets that like the big old eucalypt in the yard next door, but always fleetingly. Typically, I see a little male sparrowhawk glide menacingly, fast, flat and silent, from deep cover to deep cover, usually when the lorikeets are here (which is mostly summer). But I have never before seen one sit for me, in plain view, only four feet above ground level.
After I’d eyeballed her for a few moments at quite close range, afraid to move a muscle, I began to wonder, rather stupidly perhaps, if a picture was entirely out of the question.
First up, I’d need a camera, and the night before I’d left everything at Belinda’s house 15 kilometres away, ready for a fast getaway to the box-ironbark country near Avoca. Except, by pure chance, one of my 40Ds and the 100-400. I’d forgotten to take that inside and it was, I remembered, still in the car. To get the camera, I’d have to go back inside and get the keys, walk past the sparrowhawk to the car, open the door and get the camera out, then walk back past the bird again to get into position for a shot.
In any case, the light was terrible. I’d need my best low-light gear: the 500/f4 lens (f/2.8 would have been better, if only I owned one), the 1D III for its wonderful high ISO performance, and/or the flashgun. I didn’t have any of them. Besides, who was I kidding if I though the bird would sit while I walked right past it and got the camera?
Well, no point in standing here (I thought), I might as well get started. A task clearly doomed to failure, but why not give it a try anyway?
So I walked back inside and got the key, walked past the bird to the car (surprised that it let me do that), and opened the door (the action that I felt was most likely of all to spook it).
Still she sat there.
I formatted the flash card, selected ISO 800 (that was never going to be enough) and drifted back to a shooting position. The bird just watched me. Metered. Ouch! I knew it was dark, but this dark? Went to ISO 1600 — way too much for reliable quality results on the 40D, if only I had the 1D III here! If only I had the f/4 lens! If only I had the 580EX! Even any one of the three would have been near enough.
Having no other choice, I proceeded to shoot at ISO 1600 and f/5.6, getting exposures mostly around the 100 to 200th mark — not nearly enough for reliable results hand-held at 400mm. (I did have the tripod in the car, but getting that out and setting it up at such close range would be certain to spook the bird, so I stayed hand-held.)