If you think Colorado is a mountain state, you're only about half right. Drive east from Denver, keeping the mountains in your rear-view mirror, and you'll come upon a vast, open plain of sprawling ranches, wild grasslands, and desolate country roads. Beautiful country. And the home turf of photographer Rob Palmer, whose dramatic shot of an American Kestrel made the cover of our October 2008 issue, on newsstands now.
When I asked Palmer how he took the picture, he recalled a cold February morning spent cruising those Colorado plains. "In the winter, there's large numbers of kestrels, and they hang around country roads all the time," he said. That day, about four inches of snow covered the ground. "That's a good time to look for them, because they're hungry."
Palmer says the birds like to perch on phone lines or dead trees. During his drive, he noticed one kestrel sitting in an old cottonwood tree, gazing downward. "I knew he was looking at something. I just backed up my car to where I thought the action would occur."
Staying in his vehicle, he aimed his camera where he thought the bird would fly. When the kestrel finally made a move, he managed to shoot only a few frames. The burst of action was too brief for more. One of those frames is on our cover.
Click on the image and take a close look. The kestrel's tail is spread wide. Its wings are flared. Its eyes are focused dead-ahead. This is a hungry bird in the wild, only a split second away from a meal. Palmer thinks the kestrel tried for a field mouse that dove under the snow. The bird came up empty.
He used a Canon digital camera and a 500mm f/4 lens with a 1.4x teleconverter to take the photo. That's a big, heavy setup. Keeping a quick bird in the viewfinder through such a powerful telephoto lens is very hard to do. But Palmer puts in a lot of practice. "Birds of prey are what I really like to photograph." He says patience is the trick, as is the ability to sit quietly. "That's the key. You can't force the issue. If you move or get out of the car, they always fly in the other direction."
Our cover is good evidence that his technique works. And it's not surpising to us that his photos have won many prestigious awards, including the grand prize in the 2006 National Wildlife Federation contest for a photo of pronghorn leaping over a ravine and first place in the 2007 contest for a shot of an American Kestrel in flight (a different bird than the one on our cover). Clearly, Palmer understands his home turf as well as he photographs it. --E.M.