Photography & Filming

The Laughing Kookaburra: Decisive Moments in Wildlife Photography

The term “decisive moments” is usually associated with the famous photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. His domain was photographing the everyday life of the French streets with his Leica and 50mm lens. An all-manual film camera is not exactly suited to action photography. To capture the decisive moment required anticipation, practice, and a bit of luck.

Laughing kookaburra_portrait
NIKON D500 + 105mm f/2.8 @ 105mm, ISO 4000, 1/800, f/4.5

Today, we can practically shoot a whole roll of film (36 exposures) in a single 1-second burst, depending on the camera. Capturing every brief moment has never been easier. But if you take such a high-volume burst, how do you pick the decisive photo of the bunch?

I was led to this short article by some photographs I took of a Laughing Kookaburra. I photographed this remarkable member of the kingfisher family during a trip to Australia a few years ago. While going through my archives recently, I came across a long sequence of seemingly identical photographs in my Dacelo novaeguineae folder. When I opened the thumbnails, I understood why I hadn’t deleted most of them.

There are actually two encounters in question, both of which I’ll explain below. Ten frames per second reveal their behavior at a level imperceptible to the naked eye. In both cases, choosing a single image was probably harder than taking it in the field!

Laughing Kookaburra Versus Mouse

The Kookabura is a truly enormous kingfisher. Its size is more like a smaller duck than the colorful gem you may know from a stream in your neighborhood. But what is most remarkable about this bird is not its appearance, but its voice. That’s how it earned the “laugh” its name (although it’s really a territorial call).

In its native Australia, it is not a rare bird. It can often be seen in city parks, where it is most often found sitting on a perch or even on the ground searching for prey. This is mostly small arthropods such as spiders, beetles, and grasshoppers. Occasionally, however, it also catches larger prey, such as various snakes and lizards. A relatively rare component of its diet, about 1%, is also rodents.

It was early in the morning when, at the Cairns Botanic Gardens in north-eastern Australia, I came across a Kookaburra perched on a thick branch about five meters off the ground. I set up my heavy Nikon D500 and 400mm f/2.8 G kit on a monopod, took a few static shots and waited for some action.

It came fairly soon. The keen eye of the predator didn’t miss the slight movement on another nearby tree, no matter how subtle. Almost like a hawk, the Kookaburra flew over my head and in the next instant had a mouse in its beak. A brief warning if you’re squeamish that you should skip the following GIF.

In the first photo I took, the mouse still looks alive. True, somewhat surprised, but that’s to be expected. But then the Kookaburra gripped the mouse tightly in its beak and smashed it with all its strength against the branch. The whole action took about half a second. I present the whole process in the following GIF animation.

Laughing kookaburra_GIF

You can see how Kookabura hits the mouse against a branch with a motion reminiscent of a medieval slingshot. I believe the mouse was dead after the first strike. But there followed several more. After a few minutes, the typical laughter came from the other side of the nearby lake. The individual in the viewfinder straightened up, and even with the mouse in its beak, answered the distant call. In this context, it sounded almost triumphal.

By the way, the mouse is not native to Australia. People introduced it there. Both Australia and New Zealand have had very sad experiences with unwanted species from other parts of the world. In this case, then, the “home team” scored at the expense of the “visitors”. Most of the time, unfortunately, it is exactly the opposite.

In the end, my favorite photo of the scene isn’t one of the sequence, because I couldn’t find a single decisive moment. They need to be shown together. Instead, I choose this photo, once the battle is already over.

dacelo novaeguineae
NIKON D500 + 400mm f/2.8 @ 400mm, ISO 1400, 1/1000, f/5.0

Laughing Kookaburra Versus Willie Wagtail

Same branch, same Kookabura, but a different situation.  These shots won’t be as drastic, so if you’ve been reading with your eyes closed up until now, you can open them. The next drama is about the courage and perseverance of a small songbird who, regardless of the inequality of forces, attacks a far more powerful intruder.

Here, too, I probably would have missed the decisive moment if I hadn’t had a camera with fast continuous shooting. The situation here is that the Willie Wagtail is trying to defend what it considers its territory. The Wagtail has no issue attacking birds much larger than itself, even pulling at their feathers with its beak.

Little David can sometimes win over Goliath by perseverance. Although, from the photos, I had the feeling that Kookaburra didn’t mind the attacks! The Kookaburra protected the only really vulnerable part of itself, the eyes, by closing its nictitating membrane. Eventually, however, he cleared the battlefield.

I won’t provide a GIF animation in this case. In fact, Wagtail’s attacks were so fast that only one photo of the entire sequence was really usable. I can’t imagine having 35mm film in my camera and waiting for the decisive moment. I would almost certainly have missed it.

dacelo novaeguineae
NIKON D500 + 400mm f/2.8 @ 400mm, ISO 1000, 1/1250, f/5.0

In today’s high-speed era, some portions of the decisive moment can be off-shored to your computer and culling process. But it’s still crucial to find subjects that are about to do something interesting, and then frame the photo to capture that moment the best. That will even be true when every camera has pre-release burst options or shoots 50 FPS. The key is always the creative side, even though the technological improvements give us more room for error.

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