“Here it is,” said Sharon as a small bridge came into view. She slowed the car and rolled down her window. Below, mounds of snow lined the stream, which was surprisingly free of ice in the depth of winter. And in the rushing water were more than 100 ducks. Mallards, mostly — the males with their iridescent green heads, and the females dressed in light brown. But there were also goldeneyes, small dark ducks named for their bright gold stare. And in the distance, common mergansers, which I always think look like punks, with their spiked up crowns and razor-sharp bills.
But we were looking for northern pintails, a duck I’d never seen in person. And they were nowhere in sight.
Though a bit disappointed, we weren’t at all surprised. You can never pinpoint exactly where a wild animal will be. One day a bird loafing under a bridge, and the next day it can be miles away. But we didn’t give up right away.
We explored the neighborhood and found another bridge up river. And there they were, pintails, fishing in a pool at the mouth of the stream. Their long, thin tails waved in the air and their grey legs flailed as they dipped their heads underwater in search of food. They were a bit too far away to photograph from the car, so I convinced Sharon to follow me over a large snowbank and through the deep snow along the edge of the water, where we stood behind a tree and snapped photos around the trunk with our 100-400mm lenses.
They were big ducks, larger than mallards. The males were handsome, with solid chocolate brown heads that shined with a touch red in the sun. They had long white necks, grey bodies and a black tail that tapered to a thin black point. The females, as usual with birds, were less flashy, their plumage a delicate pattern of light browns and white.
Our fingers froze quickly in the frigid wind, and after about 15 minutes, we retreated to the car, both of us smiling and cursing the weather. Before I write any more, I think I need to make clear that I’m new to the world of wildlife photography. I’m a novice. But I also think I have gathered some knowledge about the activity worth sharing.
When I started photographing animals, it was while hiking. I’d stumble upon an animal by chance, do my best to capture an image of it, and continue on the trail. Over time, I noticed that I was a lot more likely to see animals if I hiked alone. After all, one person makes a lot less noise in the woods than two. So I came to view wildlife photography as a solo activity. However, in the past year or so, my approach has entirely changed. I’ve come to realize that photographing wildlife doesn’t need to be a lonely venture.In fact, I’ve been more successful at finding wildlife and improving my wildlife photos from networking with other photographers and nature lovers. After all, the only reason I got a photo of pintail ducks is because a fellow wildlife photographer named Gail told Sharon about them, and Sharon offered to show them to me. Otherwise, I’d never have known.
In that vein, it was Sharon who suggested I check out MAINE birds, a Facebook group with the purpose to educate the public about birds. The group, which is currently 1,874 members strong, is extremely active. Members post bird photos constantly throughout the day, and people comment, stirring discussions about everything from animal behavior to birding ethics. I’ve learned a great deal about birds and photography just from reading the group’s many posts.
Another popular place for people to network is the Google group “Maine Birds,” where birders post sightings on a regular basis. And then there’s eBird, a website that compiles public bird sightings from all over the world. These networks help wildlife photographers answer the big question: Where do I find wildlife? But there’s more to it than that. I’ve discovered I’m more successful at finding a particular species if I know a little something about it — chiefly, the habitat where it typically hunts or forages for food.
For example, the more I’ve learned about osprey, the easier they’ve been to find. I know what their nests look like and where I might find them — on old dock pilings or atop telephone poles. In the Bangor area, I’ve come to know several osprey nest locations. And when the alewives are running, I know to look to the rivers, especially near dams, where osprey swoop down with deadly accuracy to pluck the eels from the rushing water. Some of that knowledge comes from reading, but mostly, I’ve learned from talking with other wildlife enthusiasts and going out to photograph wildlife with others who are more experienced than I.
It takes time, but all of a sudden, you realize that you’re seeing more wildlife simply because you know where to look. If you’re heading outside today in search for some wildlife, here are a few tips:
- Find water. The ocean, lakes, ponds, wetlands — these bodies of water all attract a variety of wildlife. If it’s winter time, try to find water that isn’t iced over. And if you find waterfowl there, look up at the trees, you’ll likely find an eagle getting ready to take one for a meal.
- Crabapple trees and berry bushes are popular spots places in the winter to find a variety of birds, including the colorful cedar waxwings and Bohemian waxwings. And bushes provide shelter to a variety of birds in the cold months.
- Put up a bird feeder, especially in the winter, to attract a variety of birds (and squirrels). You can also put out suet cakes, which may attract some additional species, such as woodpeckers. And don’t forget to toss some seed on the ground for the ground feeders such as pigeons, crows, mourning doves, etc. If you don’t have room for an avian circus in your backyard, visit a Maine Audubon center or other nature center that puts out feeders.
- Scan the edges of fields for birds of prey such as owls and hawks. While you typically won’t see most owls until dusk, the snowy owl, which migrates down from the Arctic in the winter, is often active during the daytime. This majestic bird has recently been a big hit among birders in Maine.
Of course, there’s a lot more to wildlife photography than finding animals. Once you have the critter in your sight, you need to make sure not to scare it away.
Respect wildlife and keep your distance. This will require you to have a zoom lens, at least 300mm, if not 400mm. In fact, plenty of wildlife photographers I’ve met have 500mm and 600mm lenses, which cost a pretty penny. Often you can avoid disturbing wildlife if you photograph from within a shelter, such as an observation blind. If you’re photographing from inside your car, you’ll want to turn your car off so the engine doesn’t make your camera vibrate, which will mess up the clarity of your photos.
Many people insist on using tripods, while others shoot by hand or steadying their lens against a stable object. Then you have to judge what settings you need to get a crisp, detailed, well-lighted photo. If you expect the animal to move quickly or fly, you’ll need to use a faster shutter speed to capture the movement without blur.
If the sun comes out from behind a cloud, you need to adjust accordingly. All of these little details are important. And even the seasoned photographer makes mistakes in the excitement of the moment. And then there’s the cold hard truth that wild animals cannot be counted upon to actually show up.
If you decide to pursue wildlife photography, there will be plenty of times when you go out and don’t find a thing. It’s disappointing, but I think it makes finding an animal that much more exciting and rewarding. Lastly, once you start to network with other wildlife photographers, you’ll learn it’s a big community with a lot of talented people. You will see amazing photos, stuff that will make you think in dismay, “I could never produce something like that!” And maybe you won’t.
My best advice for someone looking to get into photographing wildlife is this: Do it because you enjoy it. Don’t do it for money or recognition or success. Do it because you truly enjoy the process, from the hours spent outdoors to sharing your images and experiences with others. Do it because you treasure wildlife and want to learn more about it. That way, I promise you, you can’t go wrong.