The Weasel Woodpecker Photo: the REAL Story of How the Photographer Got the Shot!

We’ve got the REAL story behind the incredible ‘weasel woodpecker’ photo that’s been a viral sensation on websites and across social media worldwide.
 
Our friends at the Canon magazine PhotoPlus interviewed the man behind the shot, amateur photographer Martin Le-May. You’ll never believe how he captured his amazing image of a weasel riding a woodpecker…
 
The weasel woodpecker photo: the REAL story behind how the photographer got the shot!
Martin’s ‘weasel woodpecker’ photo that went viral on the internet last month. Shot on a Canon EOS 70D with EF 300mm f/2.8L lens.
 
How old are you, where are you from?
I am 52 years old and live in Hornchurch, Essex
 
Were you surprised when the ‘weasel woodpecker’ photo went viral via social media and online media sites like ITV and BBC?
Absolutely astounded! A friend posted on twitter at about 8:30pm on the evening I took the picture. By 9:30pm it looked like there had been 5 or 6 thousand re-tweets, and Buzzfeed had asked if they could publish it. By 6:30am the following morning Buzzfeed had had over 900,000 hits.
 
Then it started to get quite surreal. It was on the top 2 or 3 viewed pages on the BBC website for 3 days. The BBC Facebook page had over 15,000,000 hits. Some missionary friends in Zimbabwe phoned home to say the had seen me on local TV, friends in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand Facebook messaged or tweeted to say it had been on local TV news. An old work colleague on holiday in Malaysia contacted to say he’d seen it locally. I had friend requests from Bulgaria, India, Sri Lanka… as I said I was absolutely astounded!
 
Tell us about how this incredible photo of a weasel riding a woodpecker came about…
It was a sunny afternoon, with the occasional cloud making the Hornchurch Country Park seem that grey dull winter colour even though it was the beginning of March. My wife, Ann and I had gone for a walk. I had hoped that she might see a green woodpecker as she has not really seen one, other than in her sister’s garden.
 
 
Martin's un-cropped 'weasel woodpecker' photo
Martin’s un-cropped ‘weasel woodpecker’ photo. Shot on a Canon EOS 70D with EF 300mm f/2.8L lens.

 
Who spotted the woodpecker?
As we walked we heard a distressed squawking and I saw that flash of green. So hurriedly I pointed out to Ann the bird and it settled into the grass behind a couple of small silver birch trees. Both of us trained our binoculars and it occurred to me that the woodpecker was unnaturally hopping about like it was treading on a hot surface.
 
Lots of wing flapping showed that gloriously yellow/white colour interspersed with the flash of red head feathers. Just after I switched from my binoculars to my camera, the bird flew across us and slightly in our direction; suddenly it was obvious it had a small mammal on its back and this was a struggle for life.
 
Which is when you took the shot that stunned the world…
Yes, I reached for my Canon EOS 70D with 300mm lens and fired away as the woodpecker flew by with the weasel on its back. We were maybe 25 metres away at this stage.
 
Did you pan and fire off a burst of shots?
I followed the bird in flight from the ground, picking up a couple of very blurred images, trying desperately to keep the bird somewhere near the middle of the viewfinder. Initially I did not realise the woodpecker was being attacked, until about the third or fourth shot when I saw the weasel on the birds back.
 
And did you fire a high-speed burst using your 70D’s fast fps?
I was so shocked that I only took a series of single shots. In total about 10 or so. Of the ones with the weasel on the woodpeckers back, this is the only one in focus!
 
Martin holds the Canon EOS 70D with which he shot his 'weasel woodpecker' photo
Martin holds the Canon EOS 70D with which he shot his ‘weasel woodpecker’ photo.

 
Your exposure was 1/640 sec at f/4.5 and ISO100 for the shot, what mode did you shot in?
Generally I use the auto setting, unless I am trying something more ‘artistic’. I do that for ease of convenience, especially when trying to capture birds in flight as you have so little time to consider anything!
 
What happened next?
The woodpecker (with the weasel still attached) landed in front of us and I feared the worst. But I guess our presence momentarily distracted the weasel, as the woodpecker seized the opportunity and flew up and away into some bushes and out of sight. The woodpecker left with its life, the weasel just disappeared into the long grass, hungry.
 
Amazing! Tell us, how did you get started in photography?
The seeds of photography were sown when I was a young teenager and my dad was shooting sports photography on film!
 
How long have you been into photography?
I first started doing photography about 15 years ago using a video camera with stills.
 
How long you’ve been using Canon DSLRs?
In 2000 I bought a Canon EOS 350D, and have had a couple of Canon’s since then.
 
What Canon EOS DSLR do you use now?
I upgraded to the EOS 70D last year, and it’s my third Canon body.
 
What subjects do you like to photograph?
I like to photograph birds, wildlife and flowers – although occasionally I will take pictures of my wife and daughters
 
You used an EF 300mm f/2.8 for the weasel-pecker shot, which I gather you bought secondhand… what other Canon lenses do you use?
Canon EF 100mm Macro f/2.8L, EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L, and EF-S 18-135MM.