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.
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.
When it comes to the vertical composition and big game the question most often asked is where do you crop into the subject? Shoulders, neck line, legs, you really have to be careful what you include and what you don’t because it can really look odd if you aren’t. For instance, just like with a person it’s often best not to compose with the legs cutoff below the knees. Same logic goes with big game. It just looks odd. Like stumps sticking there.
Antlers and horns are another big area to be careful with. If the subject has them then it’s best to include them. Antlers are basically another appendage like an arm or leg. You cut one off and it looks odd. My general rule of them is to go tight enough so that the legs aren’t in the photo thus creating a portrait or wide enough to capture the whole subject. It’s that simple for me.
It’s getting close to that time of the year when all the big game get their full luscious fur coats back. With the drop in temperatures that surely are coming next month, big game like Bighorn Sheep, Elk, Deer and Bison, will are start looking bigger and more romantic thanks to that winter coat. For photographers it’s one of the best parts about fall and winter. When it comes to photographing them be sure to really watch your depth of field, too much depth all that fur can really start to look over sharpened. I tend to shoot mostly with the 200-400 VR but it never hurts to have the 600 f4 ready to go.
There is always an element of humor when it comes to wildlife because as a human we try to humanize everything that we see. Every critter is unique and has its own characteristics which we identify with human emotions. Sometimes this can be a great thing because it forces us to be more engaged with the subject but other times it forces us to want to get involved in mother nature when we really shouldn’t be. It’s a unique line.
When it comes to humorous subjects the Willow Ptarmigan falls into that category pretty darn well. Their call sounds like something no animal would make and yet they do. Then there are moments like these that we all can identify with. Annoying bugs flying around his head and all he wants is to be left alone.
Belted Kingfisher’s are a common North American bird species but despite that they are among the most annoying subjects to try and get a clean shot of. They are found by rivers, streams, ponds and lakes. Their primary food supply is tiny fish that they dive for. Surprisingly they nest in tunnels along the shoreline that the couple digs out. They are an interesting species but also a frustrating one.
I consider these little birds frustrating because my experience with them has always been that. Despite being so common I still don’t have that one shot of them. Kingfishers are always on the move, they are lightning fast, move from perch to perch and always seem to show up when you don’t have a camera. Rude describes them quite well. In this particular case I had a pair of them alongside this pond. Their nest was nearby since they never left the area. While this one individual was cooperative he picked the worst branch to pose on. Background is a big deal with any photograph and when it comes to wildlife you have to be really careful of lines going through the back of the animals head. It doesn’t look good. The best way to deal with this is to move slightly left or right to get a cleaner line of sight. Well this little guy picked the perfect spot because there was no direction without sticks. The other option is to include the branches to show more habitat and give a better story.
Working up in the arctic the one photo you want to make sure you walk away with has ice in it. In Hudson Bay, everyday the ice would be somewhere else. The wind and tide is constantly keeping the icebergs moving so they never are in the same place twice. As a result, there are no do overs, there’s no going back the next day, there’s only here and now. So if that is the one shot you need and you see an opportunity, you better stop and take it. Interestingly enough the birds tend to gather around icebergs as they move along the shoreline.
The Beluga Whales would stir up fish and the icebergs would then trap the fish. This activity would make the birds gather around the ice to feed on the pools of fish. It’s a great time to be out there with a camera capturing this activity. I used the D5 and 600f/4 with the TC-17EII and focused on this Common Eider. The Eider is a really big duck but a rather striking one. The Common Eider has a brilliant combination of black, white, yellow, orange and a little green. But that black is all it takes in a monochromatic image like this one, to really stand out. It’s the reverse of light and bright. When everything is light the eye instantly goes to the darkest spot, in this case the Eider.
Birds aren’t the only critters to work with in Churchill. We were constantly on the lookout for foxes, wolves, beluga’s and of course Arctic Hares. We saw over a dozen individuals, mostly crossing the road which they so often do. One individual came out at sunset and was quite cooperative. As the sun was getting low the light started to look beautiful on the Hare and the rock behind him. It also created a shadow, which he didn’t seem to like.
This was a simple shot with the D5 and 70-300 VR, handheld as we moved about the tundra working the subject. Wildlife can be really fun to work with because each subject is unique. Capturing that side is of the critter helps to tell its story. Even if that is a Hare big enough to beat up a fox, looking at its own shadow. Didn’t care about us, but was curious about the shadow.
If you’ve ever spent much time around the ocean or the beach then at some point you’ve probably seen one member of the Tern family. There are seventeen types of terns in North America including natives and vagrants. They have great agility in the air and can travel long distances during migration. The Arctic Tern, as seen here, is amongst those that fly the farthest, traveling to the antarctic in the fall and back to the arctic in the Spring. They forage by piercing small fish with their needle like bill.
All Terns have similar behavior. Arctic Terns in Churchill, Canada right now are pairing up to mate. Unlike other bird species Terns mate for life. It’s an interesting courtship to watch. The male will bring in a fish and present it to the female. The male will bow while the female talks. IF she is accepts the offering he might get some, if not he goes back to fishing. As a human it’s easy to find the humor in all of this but from natures standpoint it’s a very interesting evolution.
Photographically Terns always make great subjects. Terns are a combination of white and black, mostly white. They standout against almost all backgrounds with the exception of the sandy beaches or rock ways that they nest on. Shooting with the D5, 600f/4, TC-17EII it’s a matter of following the subject and waiting for it to land. If there is a female present then it’s a no brainer to figure out. Fun fact about Tern’s after they land they usually do a little wing stretch before settling in.
Nests can be a lot of fun to work because they provide a very unique window into the life of birds. Each one is different, each bird has a different way of protecting their own nest and the amount of time you can spend at each site varies. While watching nesting birds can be a lot of fun for the photographer, it can cause great stress on the subject and can lead to the abandonment of the nest. This is the ONE thing that every photographer needs to avoid. Respect must be given during nesting season or next season we might not have as many birds.
When it comes to a nest start big. Use the longest glass you have and a teleconverter if you have it. I use the D5, 600 f/4,
and TC-17EII. Yes I do have a TC-20EIII but with the amount of wind at this Killdeer nest, nothing would’ve been sharp. Long glass helps you keep further away while still able to get a good shot. Next, scout ahead of time. Look around for the nest and determine what species is nesting there. Then go home and research that bird so you know how much time you have with it if the bird gets off the eggs. Each species varies between minutes to an hour. Knowing this info is critical. Next, while at a nest watch very closely to what the bird is doing. Is their head moving up and down, did they flatten out, did they get up? All signs they are uncomfortable and you either have to approach slowly or not at all. You must approach slowly or the subject will flush. Lastly, remember the photograph is just a photograph. It’s not worth endangering the subject. If all the signs say walk away then do so.