Columbian Ground Squirrels aren’t the only early visitors that show up to mark the start of Spring. While the American Robin normally doesn’t go away in the winter, they just become harder to see roosting in the trees, come the beginning of Spring they tend to be everywhere. The Robin has become the quintessential harbinger of Spring in most places. They can brood up to three clutches throughout the year and considered a favorite among local birds of prey.
If there are one species in the Rockies that let you know when Spring has come it’s the Columbian Ground Squirrel. While a native species to Canada and the northwest United States, they are considered vermin in most agriculture and ranching areas due to their ability to multiply quickly and the number of burrows they create. Still, for those that don’t worry about those things they are like most members of the ground squirrel family fun to observe.
Spring time means kid time as my Dad so elegantly pointed out recently. One of the cutest kids around in the Rocky Mountains is the Mountain Goat. These little white balls of fur are pretty irresistible especially when you see them bouncing around the rocks and cliffs. They learn quickly from their parents how to navigate these escarpments. Their lives depend on it. As you can see they have the same suction cup like inner pads and the claw like toes that spread to help give them traction on the uneven rocky surfaces that they live on. Just like the parents they live off of the minerals in the rocks and can be frequently found on the salt licks. If you happen to find one near an overpass be sure to look down as they enjoy the salt that comes from deicing the roads in winter.
We all need to keep practicing our skills otherwise we get dull. When it comes to birding it doesn’t take much to get sloppy. Two species that are quite common in the US and make for good practice are the Yellow Headed and Red Winged Blackbird. They may not be that sought after but that means you can work them with no one else around. Black subjects are also harder to work with because they really challenge your skill when it comes to lighting. You have to really watch the perches the birds keep landing on and where the best light is to bring out that detail. Interestingly enough some of the best days to work with a dark subject, like above, is on an overcast day where you won’t get those harsh shadows. I say interesting because we tend to avoid those days. So head to your local waterways to find these guys.
This is probably one of the hardest areas for me personally when it comes to wildlife photography. Waterfowl can be really frustrating subjects as they have the tendency to move a lot. When there is activity on the shoreline they will instantly b line away from said activity to somewhere safer. This is often why photographers go out in blinds or setup somewhere and wait a really long time. One piece of advice when it comes to waterfowl is to not chase the birds. Trying to outmaneuver any duck will just end up with you scaring the bird off completely. If you don’t have or want to use a blind then arrive early and wait patiently. It might seem like common sense and that’s because it is. Those lessons tend to work well with photography.
Now I know from personal experience that chasing the subject doesn’t work as this Harlequin Duck is a perfect example. It’s a little early for them to be nesting in the area but they serve my purpose. These guys brave the rapids of the fast moving rivers and often nest in Yellowstone. Trying to keep up with them is a challenge and not exactly safe. But spending time watching them and seeing where they go will keep you and them safe.
Weather affects a lot more then just what type of background we have to work with in our photographs. Specifically it’s the temperature that can really make a difference when it comes to the photographs. All walks of life are affected by the temperatures and when it comes to birds their reproductive time table can either be set back or sped up. With the exceptionally cold and long winter we had this year in the rockies, everything seems to be delayed by two weeks. Now this is just coming from my own observations I’ve made over the last 10 years of watching migratory species, nesting birds and spring chicks. This one spot on the Madison is a good example. Having literally gone to the same spot over the last two years on the same weekend I can say the number of birds are less this year.
So what is the whole point of this?
Quite simply, since the time table is never 100% accurate you have to just keep your feet in the mud and look for the activity. Once you find a spot go back to it several times to watch the changes happen. This is also a great way to document life in your area over the course of multiple years.
Images Captured with Nikon D5, 24-70 AF-S on Lexar UDMA Digital Film
Well as I said earlier this month Spring birding is around the corner. Now that we are in the final week of March most coastal areas should be picking up with activity. The only way to know for sure is to go out and spend some time with the binos and the camera. The migration should keep up all the way through May depending upon where you are in the US. If you’re down in Florida or Texas then you might want to head to those beaches.
Remember when it comes to shorebirds there are many variables to watch for. Make sure the background and foreground aren’t too busy, watch the angle of the light, try to be level with the subject not looking down at it, watch the birds gesture and most important don’t chase the birds. Shorebirds have a habit of walking away and towards you as the tide brings in food. Work your way up to them but don’t chase them.
As for your equipment go minimal, don’t carry a lot with you. It doesn’t help you or the subject you are trying to work with if you have a lot of gear moving around. Don’t put your hands in the sand because then it will get on your camera gear. Use your forearms as much as possible. Bring a towel with you to brush off dry sand. Never brush off wet sand because that could get lodged into places you don’t want it to.
Lastly be smart. Don’t go to a really busy beach for birds. Try and find somewhere more private so you get less interruptions from people and less potential for problems. Going out early will also help with this and it will give you better light.
These are just a couple of tips that I’ve picked up over the years. The best advice is always to just keep shooting and to learn from your past mistakes and accomplishments.
Image captured with Nikon D5, 600f/4 on Lexar UDMA Digital Film
If you’ve spent much time hiking around outdoors then you’ve probably seen one or two sets of remains laying around. It’s pretty common and yet every time I see them I think about what was once there and no longer is. But here’s the thing, I never photograph them. If you think about Wildlife photography, in general we tend to skip over those scenes that would seem gruesome, gross or sad. It’s not how we like to picture critters and it’s not how we like to think about our own mortality in the animal kingdom. But it is important to document this stage in a tasteful way because it is part of the life cycle and that’s really what wildlife photographers do. We document the life cycle.
It’s quickly coming up on that time to head to the beach. Not for the sun or the sand but for the birds. Spring migration can be one of the most exciting times of the year as thousands of birds move throughout the United States. I have spent some time down in Florida over the years enjoying these migrations and each year it’s a little bit different. Since migration is affected by temperature and weather there is never a precise date when it’s going to be the best. The end of March is usually when it starts and goes throughout May. Shorebirds and waterfowl aren’t the only species to be watching for. Going into May smaller birds like warblers move through areas like Lake Michigan which can produce some amazing images. So the question is how do you prep for this?
Keep in mind one important element from the get go, no matter where you live there is some form of migration happening. The country is big but birds do fly. While they tend to move along waterways it does vary by species. For instance in Montana we get a big Bald Eagle migration each year. So start by researching your area first. If you plan on going somewhere else study that area and the birds that inhabit it. Go through your gear carefully. If you’re going to the beach be sure to bring a panning plate and a frisbee so you can get down low. Practice your proper long lens technique because if you’re going after birds you’re going to need a long lens. Proper technique means the hand resting on top of the lens barrel, with the eyecup tight against your face. Watch your backgrounds and look for clean images. Most of all be hard on yourself and critique the images. Look at gesture, light and how they tell the story of the subject. Then use that info to push yourself to get better images.
If you need more help Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon can yield some more answers.
Image Captured with Nikon D5, 600f4, TC-17eII on Lexar UDMA Digital Film
I love using the Gray Wolf as an example for this topic because for me it is the very definition of persistence. Since I decided to become a photographer I have wanted to get one truly great shot of a Gray Wolf. The species lives in Montana and is most often photographed in Yellowstone, which is mostly in Wyoming and isn’t far away. For years I have made improvements, like this image taken last winter, but I have still not gotten that one image. Persistence is what it takes to get that one great shot.
Persistence can mean many things when you start to think about the actual activity that goes into being persistent. Whether it’s studying more, practicing more or my favorite, spending more time in the field. All of these make up being a persistent photographer. Luck is always a factor but it cannot be relied upon. You can’t control it or unleash it when needed. You could say it’s part of being persistent, that eventually your luck will increase but if you’re truly being persistent then time will reward you.
Images Captured with Nikon D5, 200-400 VR, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film