A Special Moment

Let’s start with a few words, then our story about a special moment.

I know I harp on fieldcraft. The word figures into the title of several of my blogs, and I’ve used the word or touched on some of the skills involved many times. For example, I recently quoted Melissa Groo, who said that when it comes to capturing wildlife, a photographer’s conduct is as important as his or her choice of gear.

It’s interesting. I’m often asked what camera or lens I use, but I’m never asked about how I approach birds in the field. That question never comes up. Here’s a typical exchange. I’m DRG, and SR was responding to a photo I took of an Ash-throated Flycatcher, a western stray. The Ash-throated made a quick appearance as I was shooting fall-migrating Yellow-rumped Warblers in SE Virginia.

Ash-throated Flycatcher
Ash-throated Flycatcher

SR: “Absolutely gorgeous! What lens are you using David?”
DRG: “Canon 500mm f/4 II. Great lens. Often with a 1.4x III extender, but this a.m., without.”
SR: “Canon body?”
DRG: “Canon 1D X. But as important as the gear was, it was the planning, my position, and the light that made the shot.”

Here’s a SE Pennsylvania, fall-migrating Yellow-rump. Careful planning, positioning, and light made this shot possible, too. To me, the bird has an almost sculptural quality to it.

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler

Here’s the bird moments later, approaching a food source. I posted it on another site with this heading: “Something in the Bird World You Don’t Often See.” Photographers make the unseen visible.

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler

A Perfect Segue

The above serves as a perfect segue to our story.

It was a cold, windy, but sunny November morning. I didn’t expect to find much as I grabbed my photo gear and headed to Lower Allen Community Park in Lower Allen Twp., PA. When I got there, the place was empty except for a lone dog walker. After I parked, I made a beeline for the little fish pond that few know is there. It’s a great place to find birds, even on less hopeful days. It’s where I found this one, perched amid a bazillion shoots.

Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk

I climbed the hill to reach the pond and spotted a flock of Hooded Mergansers right off. They spotted me, too. I immediately climbed back down to get out of sight but also to make my way to the east edge where I knew I’d be on lower ground and have the sun to my back. I got there in no time and sat down. The birds, which had been out in the middle, had drifted toward the west edge and were settling under some small trees that at one time had lined the bank but had fallen toward the water. It was clear they weren’t going anywhere unless I posed a threat. This was perfect “Hoodie” habitat. I knew I’d have a chance to photograph them if I stayed put and stayed still.

Hooded Mergansers
Hooded Mergansers

While I was there and hunkered down, a Belted Kingfisher came in close. I was just able to turn and shoot it through heavy brush. If I’d stood and tried to get a clear shot, I would have flushed the bird, for sure. Few bird species are as skittish.

Belted Kingfisher
Belted Kingfisher

After 15 minutes and some patient waiting, the Hoodies emerged. I’d become a fixture, and they felt comfortable enough to leave and drift back toward the middle of the pond. It was a special moment. As I watched in disbelief, one of my first thoughts was that I’d earned the birds’ trust. I also thought of Melissa’s words, which I’ve included again below.

Hooded Mergansers
Hooded Mergansers

Here’s a close-up.

Hooded Mergansers
Hooded Mergansers

Pretty soon the small flock was out in front of me, and I was able to take some high-resolution shots of single birds. That’s usually the goal we have in mind when we set out with our gear. Here’s a male, complete with nice reflection.

Male Hooded Merganser
Male Hooded Merganser

Not to be outdone, here’s a female. She’d moved in a little closer.

Female Hooded Merganser
Female Hooded Merganser

FYI, the above 2 birds could be a mating pair. Courtship and pair formation start as early as November for these birds.

Not long after they’d swam my way, the small flock headed back to the west edge. But this time they didn’t disappear under the trees. Instead, they settled out in the open, occasionally flapping their wings and diving.

And This Just In

I mentioned my Canon 1D X (Canon EOS-1D X). That camera is now my backup. My main body, my go-to rig, is the Canon EOS R5.

Quip, Question, Quote(s)

“In my own journey as a bird photographer, I’ve discovered that knowing how to approach birds, how to simply be around birds, is just as important as knowing which lens to use.” Melissa Groo

“Before heading out on a shoot, you can only prepare yourself to a point. Then it comes down to the old adage, ‘f/8 and be there.’ Once on location it’s all about your experience and intuition to know where to be, and when and how to approach wildlife.” Ralph Lee Hopkins

Thanks for reading.

 

14 thoughts on “A Special Moment

  1. I always enjoy your posts, Dave! Awesome bird photos! I have figured out how to utilize the sun to my advantage. Living in the desert SW I can almost guarantee a sunny morning. If I ever move somewhere with more overcast days, I’m going to need to relearn how to take photos. I also take away snippets of tips from other bloggers 😊

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  2. Thanks for the term ‘field craft’. I instinctively do it, because I love watching bird behavior more than the photography, but didn’t know there was a name.

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  3. Dave, you are an amazing photographer! I never got the hang of technical settings and have not spent much time with the close in type of photos you are so good at. As a former art student, I center on the composition of a shot, and capturing a feel of a place. I loved your discussion of your careful approach to your flighty subjects, an art form in itself! I can picture you out there, hiding and waiting for the right moment. The Mergansers with reflection are great.

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    1. Thanks so much, Ruth. I’ve learned the last couple of years that capturing wildlife is all about approach. You mentioned composition. I just sent these words to a friend: “I’m always after composition [when I shoot].” So glad you enjoyed your trip to the Cape. P’town may be unforgettable, but so is the entire area.

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