Salah Baazizi was walking on a California beach when he saw a great blue heron maniacally stabbing a stingray. Transfixed, he whipped out his camera and photographed the gruesome fight for nearly an hour before the bird swallowed the mutilated, bloody fish whole. “I felt sorry for how the prey was treated and was shocked to see that this could even happen,” the Algerian photographer says. “But somehow I was glad I documented [it].”

Baazizi has taken roughly half a million bird photographs in the five years since then, many of them showing birds attacking prey. However grisly, the spectacle always fascinates him. “It is the struggle between the fish doing everything to free itself from the bird’s beak,” he says, “and the bird doing its best to hold onto its prey while positioning it in order to be swallowed head first.”

Getting close enough to capture the birds with such detail requires patience and a soft touch. Baazizi approaches the birds eeeeever so slowly, taking one step at a time so as not to frighten his subjects. He sets his shutter speed at 1/2500 of a second or higher and starts shooting from a distance of 15 to 30 feet. Each frame reveals a surprise. In one image, a fish takes one last, wide-eyed look at the world before disappearing down the throat of a ravenous egret. Another shows a cormorant tossing a fish into its mouth.

Baazizi favors photographing during the afternoon at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve near Huntington Beach, California, a place he likens to “the Discovery Channel in open air.” Here, black skimmers cruise just above the water, catching small fish in their lower bills. Raptors like the American kestrel watch for rodents and reptiles from high stoops, then give chase at speeds of up to 40 mph. Pelicans dive for anchovies and turtles and swallow them whole, and herons chase lizards and snakes with such speed they must use their wings for balance. Baazizi’s favorite is the elegant tern, a graceful bird that arrives for spring breeding and likes to toss into the air like a pizza maker throwing dough.

Birds have to eat and their feeding habits—however gruesome—are only natural. But Baazizi can’t help feeling sorry for the fish and sometimes wishing he could intervene. “The intimidation, the harassment, the attack, the stabbing and the eating process is just horrifying,” he says. “I would never want to be eaten by a bird.”

Excerpt from: 

The Surprisingly Brutal Moments When Birds Snag Their Prey