Travel

The Raptors of Magic Point

by Paul Huntley | September 9, 2008

© Paul HuntleyI like fast things and maybe you do too. Speed in itself is exciting and has been a fascination for the public for many a decade, enjoying a golden era in the early 1900s, demonstrated by the huge crowds which regularly gathered to watch record breaking trains, planes, automobiles and ocean liners. And I’m sure it has something to do with my fondness for the Peregrine Falcon—the Bugatti Veyron of the skies, as it were, worth searching for but seldom seen and experienced in real time.

I first fell for the Peregrine Falcon while traveling in Alaska and seeing the fine imagery of photographer Johnny Johnson in the early ’90s. One day I wanted to make magnificent pictures of peregrines of my own.

To be serious about creating the highest quality, close, intimate portraits takes a lot of effort both personally and financially. So where does one begin? There is no yellow pages ad for peregrine sites, so I joined a local birding association, Birding New South Wales, and soon learned of a location at Malabar Headland, Sydney, Australia that often goes by its more romantic stage name of Magic Point.

Magic Point © Paul Huntley

Magic Point

That was it then; I was off to do battle with the peregrines of Magic Point at dawn.

And a battle it was. Just getting there required careful planning to avoid trespassing Commonwealth Lands surrounded by high fences. I searched and searched without luck. Then while resting on a sandstone cliff 100 feet above the ocean, a raptor flew by. Was it my mysterious peregrine? No, but it was a falcon no less, an Australian Kestrel as I now know, after consulting my Slater Field Guide. What a magnificent animal I had discovered. Its fine markings, yellow feet, piercing eyes and friendly nature were more than enough to add my name to its fan club.

I spent many early mornings with a breeding pair for the duration of one winter. The kestrels, while being easier to find on a more regular basis in their home among the sandstone cliffs, presented their own challenges.

Australian kestrels © Paul Huntley

Pair of Australian Kestrels on sandstone cliff

They are Australia’s smallest raptor at around 12 inches long, so to create a big image it takes a big, heavy lens, which needs to be placed flat on the ground within 8 yards of the kestrel. Reaching this distance from an initial 35 yards away lying prone on the hard rocky surface isn’t for everyone, but the Band-Aids and chiropractor bills are all forgotten when one places an eye to the viewfinder and literally sees into the dark brown layers of the kestrel’s eye. It’s something I’ll never forget.

Australian kestrel portrait © Paul Huntley

Closeup of Australian Kestrel

From my failed peregrine expectations had come an alternative, which has rewarded me many times over. I developed a real fascination for the kestrels of Magic Point and eagerly anticipated the pre-dawn drive and challenging access to this special place on the coast.

Then, while out photographing the breeding pair of kestrels in the Malabar cliffs early one winter morning, I almost slipped into the ocean below when a Peregrine Falcon cruised by just below my line-of-sight. I never actually expect to see peregrines when I go exploring out there; I need too much luck on my side. Anyway, I was almost level with the raptor eye-to-eye as it flew along the cliff line. By the look in its eye I reckon it was as surprised as I was. We both looked at each other somewhat taken-aback as it flew by.

It was all over in a matter of seconds but I thought it was worth pursuing so I packed up and set off after it. The other reason I thought my speedy friend might stop on a cliff ledge a little further along was that it was carrying prey in its tightly clenched claws.

It’s not easy rushing off after a peregrine over rocky sea-cliffs while trying to maintain a low profile carrying a big Gitzo 1548 carbon fibre tripod with an EF600/4 IS lens and EOS-1DsMkII camera weighing the best part of 25lbs. Stopping every 50 yards to check the cliffs and ledges, I lucked out, or so I thought. After searching for a few more minutes I stopped dead in my tracks. There it was about 100 yards ahead standing perfectly to attention on an overarching ledge.

Peregrine falcon © Paul Huntley

Peregrine Falcon

It hadn’t seen me at this point and I wondered whether I should try to remain hidden or not, as I attempted to reduce the distance from 100 yards down to the 30 yards or less that I needed to have any hope of filling the frame with falco peregrinus.

Would the peregrine stay or fly? I had no idea whether our earlier meeting was enough to strike up a friendship but I thought it best to remain hidden. Remaining hidden worked fine and as I closed the gap to about 40 yards I soon realized that if I can see the peregrine it, too, can see me. I had no choice but to risk being spotted if I were to photograph it. I set my gear up quietly behind the heath, gently feeding the lens foot into the ArcaSwiss monoball head and silently clamping it down. And now I slowly raised my eye to the viewfinder to acquire focus.

What a magnificent sight! It was looking directly at me, of course, and probably had been for quite some time, but it seemed comfortable enough with my presence. I think it was a male and clearly in excellent condition. It seemed to be standing to attention, shoulders pulled back and chest puffed out like a proud soldier guarding its territory.

I felt very fortunate to be experiencing this wild creature and I dared not attempt to get closer. I sensed the moment wouldn’t last long and concentrated hard to make the most of every second, trying not to let the tension in my hands transfer to the camera. Finally, the shutter is released and I’m elated!

Australian kestrel preening © Paul Huntley

Australian Kestrel preening

If this experience is predictive of the future, I’ll be sure to keep my eyes and ears open for that Bugatti after all.

About the Author

Paul Huntley sold his first pictures to newspapers when only sixteen. His clients now range from Canon Australia to the Natural History Museum, London. With awards from ANZANG and Nature's Best, he enjoys writing about the natural world as rarely experienced by others. Email huntley@westnet.com.au.

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