In Florida along the Gulf Coast birding is very popular. The Great Florida Birding Trail encompasses over 2000 miles of highway and 489 sites to view and learn about birds. During a recent trip to the Gulf Coast I decided to visit sites along the panhandle section of the trail to photograph birds. I chose Big Lagoon State Park and the Gulf Islands National Seashore Perdido Key area.
There are several things to keep in mind when photographing birds or wildlife in general. It is important that you understand the potential hazards of being in close proximity to wildlife. For your safety as well as the animal you intend to photograph, please do not stalk or chase wildlife. I have heard more than one story about an unlucky photographer spooking wildlife. In one case, an elk turned on the photographer and aggressively charged him. The photographer dove out of the way but the camera strap got caught around the antlers of the elk. The elk and the camera along with the lens and tripod attached disappeared into the forest and haven’t been seen since. Besides this, you will get images of the backsides of animals as they evacuate the area you just inhabited if you attempt to follow them.
For best results, place yourself a safe distance from where you know the wildlife will eventually be and then wait for them to show up. With remote and wild animals the difficulty of getting the shot is greatly increased. In some cases you might have to research a particular animal’s migration habits, use a hunting blind and camp to get the image. In other cases like in national parks where wildlife frequently comes in contact with humans you can openly photograph animals without spooking them. In all cases before shooting wildlife I prepare and check my equipment at the point of entry. Make sure you and your equipment are as quiet as possible. Test this by mounting your camera on your tripod and shouldering your equipment. Walk around listening for noises that would warn wildlife of your arrival. Remove straps and deal with other potential noise makers like change in your pocket, jewelry and items knocking together in your bag. Practice until you can walk quietly while holding a tripod.
Stability and shutter speed are the two main concerns when using the longer focal length lenses necessary to photograph wildlife. It is important to use the appropriate tripod for the equipment. For a 500mm or 600mm F/4, you will need a substantially larger and heavier tripod than I used to support the Nikon D700 and Tamron 200-500mm telephoto-zoom combination when photographing the included images. If your lens comes with its own tripod mount, use it. If your subject stays in one place and doesn’t move around a lot, you can use slower shutter speeds to get the job done. If your goal is to freeze animals running or wings in motion, you will need shutter speeds like 1/1000th of a second or faster depending on the subject and your physical relationship to it. Use your drive mode to shoot several frames per second to greatly increase the chances of getting a great image.
On this day after landing in Pensacola, I drove directly to the Big Lagoon State Park. I noticed a Grey Heron in the water as I walked the nature trail. I carefully and quietly positioned myself for a few minutes to study the behavior of the bird so I could photograph it. You want to study the wildlife so you can guess where the wildlife might go to. It is very difficult to see wildlife and then aim your long lens at it. Chances are good that you will be noticed setting up and spook the animal. While it’s not impossible, I have had better luck setting up, aiming at an area and waiting. With my Nikon D700 and the Tamron 200-500 lens mounted on my tripod, I was prepared for action.
As I waited, I noticed that there was a commotion coming from smaller birds over in the grass to the right of my first image. This caught the heron’s attention and soon he began to survey the area. I figured this would result in the heron moving to the area for a look around so I quietly moved there and prepared. In hindsight, it was apparent that the flock of little birds chirping and raising a commotion indicated to the heron that there was a potential meal in the area. I gathered this because, soon after the heron checked into the situation, it was lunch time. The second image shows the heron with its meal. I was able to get this image by moving into the area before the heron. I was setup, still and quiet for several minutes before capturing the image.
On another day I visited the Gulf Islands National Seashore Perdido Key Area. About a mile from the car on a nature trail, I noticed a hawk nest high in a tree. I could hear the hawk in the nest, but couldn’t see it. Taking good pictures of wildlife takes patience and I waited for over an hour just for the opportunity see the hawk. For all I knew it may have never left the nest while I was there. I basically gambled that it would. A little over an hour after I was setup, quiet and about to give up, it did. I took just a couple of images and then the hawk flew off. I waited for about another 30 minutes and then decided to give up and leave. I picked up my tripod and started walking away from the nest. As I proceeded to do so, another hawk flew right overhead toward the nest. It was at this point that I decided to stay for the duration of the light and it paid off.
I quietly walked back and setup positioning my lens on the nest area. A great deal of time passed and I was leaning toward giving up again. Just before I did however, I noticed one hawk in the distance viewing the nest from a tree branch. For several minutes I held perfectly still with my hands on the camera composed on the nest area. Finally the distant hawk started the flight toward the nest. I was prepared and waiting as the excitement was building inside knowing I would have another opportunity. As the hawk circled, the other left the nest and I was able to photograph both of them in flight above the nest. I was able to make several good images before the hawks again flew off.
When shooting in this type of a situation you want to get everything locked down and ready as soon as possible. Birds in flight move fast! Get the composition and settings in the camera taken care of or you will be fiddling with your camera while the action unfolds. More than once during this shoot I was making an adjustment just as something compelling happened causing me to miss potential shots. Shooting birds is difficult and takes lots of practice. I have several frames like the cropped image below where the tip of a wing is clipped off at the side of the frame. While I feel some of these images are good, having the entire wing would have resulted in many more usable images. Even after several years of shooting, I’m constantly reminded that the repeated practice of the fundamentals and refinancing of your processes are the keys to success. Enjoy!