It’s really fun when you go do something that you’ve been wanting to do for a long time. Working with American White Pelicans in Montana is one of those things for me. Every year they come back and haunt the Madison River in big flocks. As you can see most of them are juveniles but with the regularity of people floating by on drift boats and rafts, they have become rather habituated to people. This made approaching them easier which I did with waders.
Two big things when working a group of birds like this. First, you got to watch the light. These birds are big and bright and they really stick out against the dark blue background causing a lot of contrast. Due to the nature of the local, the light was kinda hard when I started so that caused more contrast. The solution was wearing a pair of waders and walking around the birds until I found the angle that worked. I went slowly, and watched them, thus making sure they were comfortable with me.
The second piece of advice is having to work with the group itself. With so many heads, bodies and butts it’s easy to chop something off or have something extra you don’t want in your photo. So, be patient and watch the birds. Find a good subject and wait for the right moment.
Whenever I go out looking for critters I always have my TC-17eII in my pocket or on the camera itself. This is especially true with birds. Often times when working with such small subjects that tend to be far away, so you tend to need that extra reach. The downside with a teleconverter is that you add a joint in between the camera and the lens. This makes it less stable and more prone to vibration from your hand leading up to potentially fuzzy images. Plus if the subject moves then it becomes really hard to get a tack sharp images. The TC-20eII is a 2x magnifier and is a really great tool for working with birds but for that stability reason I rarely use mine. Well this is the one case where I wish I had it.
This Pied Billed Grebe was a bloody rock. There was one spot where he liked to sit and outside from a little feeding he was always there. If there was a time where having a little bit more glass would’ve been nice it would’ve been here. While I don’t always like the portrait shot all the time, I go for them when the opportunity arises.
Image Captured with Nikon D5, 600f/4, TC-17eII on Lexar UDMA Digital Film
It may be a common duck on the west side of the Rocky Mountains, but for me it’s one that I’ve never been able to photograph. That changed this past weekend when I spent the afternoon down at one of the local ponds. I love working the ponds because there will always be those predictable birds to work with, in my case the Yellow Headed Blackbirds, and then there is the chance that you will be able to see something special.
Now I was shooting with the D5, 600f/4 with a TC-17E II and at times in High Speed Crop. This was as close as the male Teal came to me. He just wanted to feed, wasn’t interested in playing around. The female was more cooperative and came over for a little bit.
When it comes to working in a body of water, you really have to watch those foregrounds and backgrounds for pesky surface debris that when magnified are just really blurry dots. He liked this foliage for feeding purposes and I can’t say I minded all that much either.
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