Photographing Shore Birds, Waterfowl and Other Wetland Birds
By Dr. Robert Berdan
April 24, 2011
Tundra Swans taking off from Ghost Lake. Tundra Swans appear similar to Trumpeter Swans but can be distinquished by having a yellow spot on the inside of the eye if you can get close enough to see it.
Marsh adjacent to Lake Newell near Brooks, Alberta - Late April
I have always been fascinated by life around marshes, ponds, sloughs, creeks and lakes. Marshes support a complex assortment of insects, algae, amphibians, fish and birds. Ponds and marshes also emanate a wide variety of sounds in Spring and Summer including the peeping sounds of frogs and a wide variety of bird calls. Often the first birds to land in Spring time are Canada Geese that stake out their territories even before the ice melts. Shallow sloughs seem to melt first and many species of migrating birds stop over to rest and feed. The number of birds stopping seems greater in the Springtime presumably because they need to wait until lakes and waterways thaw in the far north. Some of the larger lakes are still frozen in up to early July in the North West Territories. In March and April east of Calgary it’s possible to observe dozens of V shaped flocks of birds in the sky going north. As the marshes begin to green up more and more birds arrive and begin their mating rituals in late April and May. It's one of the best times to visit wetlands with your camera, binoculars and favourite bird guide.
Tundra swans taking off from a prairie slough in April south of Calgary with the Rocky Mountains in the Background.
Tundra swans flying in V formation over the prairies east of Calgary - April 23, 2011
I like to visit a marshes in Spring and just sit quietly, watch, listen and take photographs. Intimate bird behavior may be observed if you are willing to set up a blind (see the Blind photographer) but I mostly like to scan the marsh with my binoculars and have an unimpeded view. Occasionally I will use my car as a blind and simply park next to the pond if it is close to the road and set up a window mount from to take photographs. (See article on shooting from your car window for details). Most birds seem to ignore you if you stay in your car.
American Avocet spreads its wings on the prairies
Bird Photography is challenging because most wetland birds move quickly from place to place and rarely stay in one place for long. .It is essential to be able to focus and shoot your camera a quickly if you want to capture close-up photographs. This is one domain where a digital SLR camera is essential. On one occasion last summer, I could hear the sound of Marsh Wrens but not see them. I played a recording and they quickly showed themselves but these fidgety birds will only give you a few seconds to focus and shoot before moving on. When using recordings be sure to limit the time that you use them especially during the nesting season.
Top left: Red Winged Blackbird, Red-winged black bird nest, Baby Coot, Next Row: Northern Shovelers, Hooded Mergansers, Long billed Curlew, Bottom Row: Sora, Killdeer and Trumpeter Swan
For most types of bird photography you will need a telephoto lens of 300 mm focal length or longer (6x magnification). A 70-300 mm zoom is a good starter lens and if you photograph birds more often you might consider investing in a 300 mm F4 or F2.8 lens with teleconverters. If you can afford the cost, photographers that specialize in birds often choose a longer lens with a focal length between 400-600 mm. Large lenses like this are expensive and demand a sturdy support. Many bird photographers like to use a monopod to support their camera and lens so they can move the lens quickly in any direction. Others prefer a large tripod with a Wimberly head that swivels. If there is a fence you can sometimes use it for support or put a bean bag on top of a fence post to reduce vibrations of the camera (see below). I use a variety of techniques and tools and I also like to hand hold my 300 mm F2.8 lens with 1.5X teleconverter if there is a chance the birds might take off and fly away. It takes lots of practice to get sharp shots of birds and the faster the shutter speed the better your chances (see my article on photographing birds in flight for more tips). Try to shoot with a shutter speed of 1\500 of a second or faster. For this reason bright sunny days are ideal for photographing wetland birds though you can also increase your ISO speed to get faster shutter speeds. Some photographers like to use a fill flash to put a catch light in the birds eye and it also fills in the shadows on bright sunny days. A fill flash works particularly well for photographing birds from your car window and for those birds that land on fence posts. I use a fill lash sometimes, but most of the time I simply try and position myself so that the sun is behind me. Try to avoid sudden movements with your camera and you will be less likely to scare the birds away.
Friend Jack Leung uses a monopod to support his 500 mm F4 lens for photographing birds.
Friend, David Lilly uses a bean bag on fence post to support his 200-400 mm F4 Nikon lens.
American Avocet in Flight, Lower right Marbled Godwit and smaller birds long-billed Dowitchers near Brooks, AB
To become a better bird photographer it is essential to learn as much as you can about the birds. The more you know about their habitat, food sources and migratory behavior the better your chances. It helps to hook up with someone that is knowledgeable about birds – I have had the pleasure of shooting with Alan Mackeigan , Keith Logan and Dr. Wayne Lynch – three of Alberta’s most knowledgeable bird photographers. I also recommend that you invest in several good bird guides. For the Calgary area I recommend “A Bird finding Guide to The Calgary Region” which provides driving routes around the city and describes the various birds you may encounter in different seasons. Also see Dr. Wayne Lynch’s book on “Birds of the Prairies” shown below. I also recommend that you listen to various recordings of birds, it is a real thrill to identify a bird i even before you see it. One of the most interesting birds sounds encountered in marshes around Calgary is the winnowing sound of a Snipe whose specialized tail feathers vibrate in the wind as they fly above the marsh producing a high pitched whowhowho sound. Some birds like the Yellow-headed blackbird have a distinct rough “rahrahrah” call that can be heard for long distances. The most haunting and beautiful sound, however belongs to the common loon. It is the the true call of the wild.
Common Snipe on fence post - you will often hear these birds before you see them. I used a fill flash on this bird.
Common loon photographed from my kayak, 300 mm F2.8 lens, Pyramid Lake, Jasper National Park, AB
Tips for Photographing Wetland Birds
Use a long focal length lens 300 mm or longer with F2.8 or F4 max aperture
Use of a shutter speed of 1\500 of a second or faster if possible
Consider using a blind, your car or one made out of natural materials
For shore birds bring a pair of waterproof boots
Carry binoculars and a bird guide with you
Listen to audio recordings at home to help you identify and locate birds in the field.
During summer bring insect repellent or a Mosquito hat
Get low to the ground and photograph the birds from ground level if possible
Marsh Wren on bullrush, Eagle lake, AB - This one responded to my Ipod recording and came over to check out the intruder.
Suggested code of Ethics – the welfare of the birds and habitat is critical
Never disturb a nest or remove vegetation from around a nest site
Keep the use of sound recordings to a minimum especially during nesting season
Do not disturb flightless waterfowl during the moulting season
Avoid trespassing on private land or seek permission to access private land
Observe nesting colonies from a distance
Spotted Sandpiper, Kananaskis Lower lake, AB 300 mm F2.8 lens + 1.5X teleconverter.
Possible Dangers and Hazards of Photographing Birds in Alberta
Use insect repellent with DEET to discourage wood ticks and check your hair at the end of the day. If you are bitten (they usually do this when you sleep) see your doctor for antibiotics.
Prairie rattlesnakes are rare, but can be encountered in southern Alberta. Wear knee high thick boots and look where you walk. Never reach into crevices or under rocks.
In the mountains and foothills you could encounter Bears, Moose and elk. Always let someone know where you are going, when you plan to be back, and carry bear repellent.
Black-necked Silts are relatively recent birds that breed in Alberta.
Learning to identify large birds like Tundra swans, Canada geese or birds with distinctly coloured plumages like Avocets and Black-necked stilts is easy. However, some of the shorebirds like Curlews, sandpipers, Willets, Godwits and curlews can be difficult as their plumage various with their age and time of the year. One of the most effective ways to learn how to identify specific birds is to note their overall shape and size. It also helps to know whether certain species are common in your area as it can narrow down the identity. Keep in mind that some bird location maps may be out of date and the distribution of some species is constantly changing. Black-necked stilts for instance only moved into Alberta around 1977 and now are common in many marshes around Calgary.
The White-faced Ibis is also a relatively newcomer to Southern Alberta, these colourful birds look like they belong
in the tropics but were photographed at Frank Lake, south of Calgary, AB in 2010.
The white-faced ibis, often reported to be rare north of Yellowstone National Park, has been seen frequently on the shores of Frank Lake south of Calgary in the past few years. Some birds unfortunately have become very rare or may be extinct. The Eskimo Curlew is one species where the numbers are thought to be less then 100 birds world wide or may now be extinct. I have tried to memorize its features just in case I might encounter one in my photography workshops around the Point Lake area in the North West Territories. If you are interested in the Eskimo Curlew - see the links at the end of the article for photographs, migration routes and nesting locations in Northern Canada. The Eskimo Curlew closely resembles the Little Curlew and a Whimbrel so it is likely if I were ever to photograph one I would need an expert to confirm its identity.
The Male Yellow-headed blackbird has a raucous call that can't be mistaken
Marbled Godwit and reflection at Frank Lake, AB
The biggest threat to birds that use wetlands is habitat loss. Oil spills and pollution are also a major threats. Near the Fort McMurray tar sands the tailings ponds have claimed thousands of birds lives. I have visited the ponds and while many of them have artificial scare crows the ponds are very large its’ unlikely that birds flying at night would see the “scare crows”. The Oil company also uses noise makers in an attempt to deter birds from landing in the huge toxic ponds between spring and fall but they often fail to deter the birds. There seems to be limited research on bird deterrents used to repel or scare birds from agricultural areas and airports and it would seem beneficial if some fines that Oil company’s pay out each year should go to this type of research.
Mallard and Ducklings
Pelicans in Marsh near Brooks, AB
Tundra Swans gather on Frank Lake before flying North in March.
In Calgary a favorite spot to photograph birds is in the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary, but be sure not to step off trail or
the Bird police may scold you.
Blue Heron, Inglewood Bird Sanctuary, Calgary, AB - Velvia 300 mm F2.8 lens
Short movie showing Yellow-headed blackbird, Heron rookery and White Breasted Nuthatch. Taken with the
Canon 5D Mark II and 300 mm F4 lens. The Nuthatch was found in a tree next to a wetland.