The Humor with Critters

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.

Dealing with the Background

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.

A Little Color Is All It Takes

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.

Wildlife Can Be Funny

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.

Little White Jets

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.

Working a Nest

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.

The Shooting Perspective

Every shooting experience tells a different story. Each one has a subject and then a bunch of supporting details. With every decision, as a photographer, you make will change the story in the final photograph. When it comes to working with wildlife, things like the foreground and background make a dramatic difference in showing the habitat of where that species lives.

This is the Tiaga sub species of the Spruce Grouse. They live in Boreal forests in the arctic, which is where we found this lone male. You can tell it’s the Tiaga by that Rufous Band on the tips of the tail feathers. This male was displaying looking for a female and was very kind to let us photograph him for a while.

I wanted to show the perspective of this bird in two ways. Since he was cooperative I choose to start with the tripod fully extended and shooting with the D5, 600f/4, and TC-17EII I got a lot of shots. Then after a while I lowered the tripod and shot at ground level. The difference is seen in the background and foreground because you’re changing the focal plane, which is changing the amount of information captured by the depth of field. So why go lower? The Spruce Grouse is a ground bird but most photographs you see are looking down at ground birds. Since this was a cooperative subject, I got low to photograph the bird at his level to show what he sees. It’s a great technique to try when you have a workable subject. Remember it comes back to the story you want to tell.

Meet Jim Bob

No that’s not his actual name, it’s a phrase Dad came up with, but it fits this particular species pretty darn well. The Willow Ptarmigan can only be found in the most northern parts of North America. They turn white in winter and brown in summer. They blend in really well with their habitat except in between seasons when they molt. Ptarmigan’s are a type of ground bird and are fiercely territorial.

So why the name? Well Willow Ptarmigan’s aren’t the smartest of birds and their call really doesn’t help their cause. The only way to understand is to hear it. You can click here to hear the call. Once you do you’ll understand. It truly doesn’t sound like anything a bird could come up with as a call. However, they are a great photographic subject. Not only do they hold still, allowing you to get close physically, they are a striking color which makes them visually pop. Without a doubt the Willow Ptarmigan has been added to my list of favorite birds.

Images Captured with Nikon D5, 600 f/4, TC-17eII, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film

Exploring Churchill

Churchill, CA is a meca for Polar Bears and nesting birds. For years I have heard stories from my Dad about all he had seen while at Churchill. Polar Bears, Pacific Loons, Hudsonian Godwits, they’re all hear and each one sounded spectacular. After all those years of stories I finally get to experience the place for myself.

Churchill is hard to explain to someone who hasn’t been there. When you fly over you think why did anyone settle here to begin with? The land has a rich history going back to French Fur Traders in Churchill River and Hudson Bay. Today it is known for the Polar Bear adventures in the winter and in the summer, technically the off season, Churchill is known to wildlife photographers for nesting birds. On my first day out I saw over a dozen species I never had before but the one I got to photograph is the Greater Yellowlegs, a species you see often in the lower US. The difference is these Yellowlegs are in their breeding plumage which transforms the necks and back into a brilliant speckled black. The bird is absolutely gorgeous! The one thing that makes this place special for photography, besides the breeding plumage, is the tundra. The small spruce trees and tundra tell the story of where these birds breed in the summer.

Images Captured with Nikon D5, 600f/4, TC-17eII, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film

Focus Forward

If you’ve spent time working waterways then at some point you’ve seen or heard one of these guys busily moving about. Marsh Wrens are really cool birds that are constantly on the move. They blend in perfectly with their environment and are built to go in between the reeds with ease. This makes tracking them difficult. The way I do it is either with a single point AF-S or manually focusing. The last thing you want when tracking through the reeds is too loose focus by accidentally focusing on a reed. Since my left hand is always on top of the 600f/4 for stabilization using that old fashioned system of manually moving and tracking the subject can help keep it in the frame. If you know where you want the subject in the frame using the single point AF-S and moving with the subject is the other way to do it. If you’re a Nikon shooter, using group or auto area AF doesn’t work. Remember these guys are smaller then a tennis ball, so keeping them in the frame takes practice.

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