The Galapagos Islands are known around the world for their diversity of wildlife and unique animals. One of the more unique birds in the area is the blue-footed booby. They are known for their bright blue webbed feet and funny mating dance where they sway from side to side, lifting their feet high into the air. Even though the blue-footed booby has a range extending from the Gulf of California down through Peru, the Galapagos Islands and Ecuador have capitalized on their presence and made the bird species famous.
Watching a booby hunt is great fun because the entire process is very dramatic. Their hunting method is called plunge diving, which means the birds fly in circles above their fishing grounds, then suddenly turn and aggressively dive towards the water. Immediately before hitting the water, they fold their wings back and plunge into the sea with a loud thunk! They hit the water at speeds up to about 60 mph and can go to depths as far as 80 feet under the surface while chasing their prey of sardines, mackerel, flying fish and anchovies. They often eat their prey under water, then pop to the surface to continue hunting.
Photographing the sequence of a hunting blue footed booby is quite challenging. Since you never really know when they are going to turn and dive, you end up panning left to right with their movement for quite some time. Then, somewhat suddenly, they stop their forward flight and arc over to dive directly into the water below. Their flight pattern transitions from normal forward flight at 15 mph, to almost a full stop, then to rapid acceleration in a vertical dive at speeds of 60 mph. For the shots below, I configured my camera’s autofocus system in continuous servo, then work very hard to keep the main autofocus point directly on the flying bird. Obviously, it is extremely difficult to keep the AF sensor on the bird throughout the dive, so I like to use Dynamic AF (21 point) or Group AF for additional help from the camera’s intelligent AF sensors.
Because the bird moves so fast, I like to frame the images slightly loose in the camera, then crop them later in post processing. In the case of this sequence (below), I shot these with my Nikon D800, Nikon 200-400mm f/4 and Nikon 1.4x TC. I handheld the camera so I could respond quicker to the bird’s movements. I also used a fast shutter speed of 1/3200 second in order to freeze the motion for the sharpest picture possible.