ARTICLES: THE TRAVELING PHOTOGRAPHER
by Brian E. Small
June is perhaps my favorite month for bird photography. It not only signals the beginning of summer, but more importantly, it is the height of nesting season for many birds. From the barren tundra of the high arctic to the dense river forest of the Rio Grande Valley and from the rugged California coast to the sandy shores of the Delaware Bay, the avian breeding season is in full swing, and for me, that means it is travel season.
Every summer, I plan a three or four week driving trip to a different part of the country to search for new birds to photograph. The excitement of these trips comes from never really knowing what I will find when I am on the road and what new adventures are awaiting me. For example, let me share some of my experiences from my 1997 trip and perhaps provide you with a little information to help you plan a bird photo trip of your own this summer.
During June of 1997 I took my first summer bird photography trip through the Rocky Mountain states of Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. After leaving southern California, I headed north along Interstate 15 towards Salt Lake City. My plan was to visit the Bear River National Migratory Bird Refuge at the northern end of the Great Salt Lake.
I had been to this area the previous summer when I attended the American Birding Association convention in nearby Park City; however, I didn't make the time to visit Bear River. When I returned from the convention and mentioned this to WildBird's Editor At Large Paul Konrad, he told me I had missed a wonderful refuge and a great place for bird photography--boy was he right!
The key to successful photography at Bear River is to use your car as a blind. The cattail marshes, wet meadows and ponds within the refuge and especially those along the entrance road before you actually reach the refuge itself are wonderful areas to photograph. I had great luck with singing Marsh Wrens, displaying Yellow-headed Blackbirds, nesting Bank Swallows, White-faced Ibis, Western Grebes, American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts, Spotted Sandpipers, Wilson's Phalaropes and many more.
In summer, these birds are in their spectacular breeding plumage and are actively singing, courting, establishing and defending territories and nesting. In fact, because the water levels were so high along the entrance road in 1997, I found that both American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts were nesting literally on the side of the gravel road. As I would stop my car, the avocets and stilts would do their "broken-wing" distraction display and this gave me a great opportunity for some dramatic action photography.
Like many wildlife refuge drives, your best bet is to use a window mount or bean bag to support your camera and slowly drive the road looking for targets of opportunity. A camera window mount is a simple device that rests in or clips to the window frame of your car door when the window is lowered. In addition, most of the available mounts require that you attach a ballhead to aid in the positioning of your camera and lens. The added stability you gain by using a high-quality window mount can dramatically improve your image sharpness because of how well it will steady your camera and lens.
My favorite tool for this job is the very sturdy Groofwin Pod from the L.L.Rue catalog (800-734-2568 and www.rue.com). In many parks and refuges I have visited, the birds are so used to cars that they hardly pay attention as I photograph out my car window and that's why I always like to travel with a good window mount.
From Utah, I worked my way along the western edge of the Rockies photographing in parts of Idaho and southern Montana as I traveled. My next goal was to photograph nesting waterbirds in the lakes around Glacier National Park near the Canadian border. I was met by a good friend and fellow WildBird contributor named Tom Ulrich. Tom had offered to take me out in his canoe to a few of his favorite lakes for some up-close and personal grebe and loon photography-this was an offer I couldn't refuse.
We photographed at two different lakes--one held a beautiful pair of nesting Red-necked Grebes and the other was home to a family of Common Loons. At the first stop, I could hardly contain my excitement as we approached a striking pair of breeding plumage Red-necked Grebes. The adult birds actually came out to our canoe to investigate us while they were taking turns feeding their three newly fledged young. The youngsters would swim around the adults and beg for food and then take turns resting on the back of one of the adults. As you can imagine, the shutter in my camera was humming with roll after roll of wonderful photos.
Again, the Groofwin came in handy, as I was able to photograph the grebes from the front platform of the canoe. The mount helped to steady my Nikon F5 and Nikon 500mm AF-S lens while I attempted to photograph at a low angle to the birds. I wanted my photos to communicate a feeling of being right in the water with the Red-necked Grebe family so I tried to get down to their eye level by photographing as close to the water as I could.
Tom and I had virtually the same experience with the Common Loon family; however, the difference here was that I also brought along a medium magnification Nikon 80-200mm telephoto zoom lens. I wanted to photograph not only the birds up close and personal with my 500mm, but also in a wider view to show the loon family within their environment.
Leaving these beautiful birds was hard but I needed to press on toward the south. I crossed through the spectacular mountain passes of the northern Rockies and headed towards the open prairies further south and east. My next objective was to photograph some of the special birds of the prairie landscape--I was after longspurs!
Finding photographable longspurs is not easy, but if you have an experienced Montana photographer like my friend Alan Nelson along, the challenge becomes much easier. I met up with Alan in Great Falls and we headed out to some of his favorite grassland areas.
Alan knew exactly what kind of very specific microhabitat to look for in our quest for both Chestnut-collared and McCown's Longspurs. Chestnut-collared seem to prefer the thicker and taller grass while McCown's like shorter grasses and rockier areas. We searched for the male longspurs singing on territory and once we found them, we set up a photo blind on a preferred perch and waited for the birds to return.
Eventually both species of longspurs became accustomed to our photo blind and returned again and again to proclaim their territory by singing from a favorite perch. Alan and I were able to take many beautiful photographs because we were prepared for the photographic circumstances. A blind is another piece of photo gear I always bring with me on my summer travels because I just never know when it will come in handy.
Someday, you too may get the bug to travel and photograph birds. When that time comes, I have a few recommendations for you.
Bring as much camera gear as you can because equipment left behind won't do you any good sitting at home. You may be surprised at all the things you will end up using by the time your trip is over.
I suggest you have a basic plan of where you want to go and what birds you want to photograph. However, be flexible in your schedule. Don't lock yourself into a hard and fast itinerary with many motel rooms paid for in advance. When you arrive at you destination, weather conditions, road conditions, park restrictions and other factors may require you to change your original plan.
Probably the best thing you can do is network with other photographers. Before you leave home, speak with others who have visited the same places you plan to go. Ask about which specific locations were productive and which were not. Also try to get information on specific birds you want to photograph. There is nothing quite as good as solid, first-hand information because it can save you lots of your valuable vacation time.
If you have ever dreamed about fantastic new photo opportunities or undiscovered places to take pictures, I encourage you to become a traveling photographer. New destinations will take you into new habitats and that is sure to give you lots of great new birds to photograph. This summer, I hope you will hit the road like me and who knows, maybe our paths will cross somewhere out on the highway.