Wildlife Photography Close to Home
by Randy Kimura
February 2, 2011
Living in Calgary provides numerous opportunities for wildlife photography - the Rocky Mountains are to the west, the open prairie lies east and further north is the start of the boreal forest. Birders have this concept of a “Favourite Patch”, which is quite simply a place they like to frequent. There is a green movement in birding called Non-Motorized Transport (NMT) birding that when applied by a determined person, yields amazing wildlife photography opportunities. I live within walking distance of a few city parks (ideal for NMT even when one is packing 10 kgs of equipment) and a short commute from several other parks. Including photography sessions as part of my daily commute takes advantage of the golden hour at dawn and at dusk.
Less Travel = More Time for Photography
Selecting sites closer to home allows a photographer to increase the number and extend the duration of their photo shoots. One spring I decided to go to Churchill Manitoba in the fall to photograph Polar Bears. My preparation for trips of this type include practicing for the conditions I anticipate. In preparation for Polar Bear photography I concentrated on large white or light-colored subjects in a variety of conditions as I wanted to be confident in my exposure. I added to my commute a stop to photograph American White Pelicans at a local park where I experimented with exposure under a wide range of weather conditions.
My pelican practice sessions yielded a second benefit - they inspired me to pursue a feeding photograph. I wanted to capture one individual pelican with a visible fish in its bill. Taking photographs at a local park made it convenient to make repeat trips to capture this image.
Be Prepared For the Usual
There are a few ponds in the developed section of the park near my home. One spring day during my lunch walk I discovered a pair of American Beavers. Although beavers are very common, getting a close-up view is not. Beavers are known for the large dam structures they build; however they also build homes in mud banks, which is what this pair was doing. Later that day I returned during the “golden” hour before sunset to capture some unique images of a beaver diving into the pond and bringing up clumps of mud for the entrance to its den.
Canada Geese are plentiful (some would argue too plentiful) and can be found everywhere, even nesting in shopping centers. Goslings are a popular photograph; however the often ignored adults provide numerous photographic opportunities - for example bathing and wing flaps. The flight, especially the start, of this large bird can be quite dramatic.
Wildlife photography is not limited to mammals and birds, local parks provide numerous macro photography opportunities. Butterflies are easily found at dawn, warming themselves at their favourite locations. Dragonflies and Damselflies can be creatures of habit, frequently returning to the same perch.
This helps my subjects get accustomed to my presence, especially the close proximity of a macro lens.
Be Prepared For the Unusual
In late fall I was checking a park for winter birds. The pond was mostly frozen with a small, open area where a group of muskrats were diving and feeding on the ice. The ice was still thin and I often observed the muskrats swimming as they foraged for food. Return visits provided opportunities to observe their behaviour and experiment with different equipment setups. I noticed the muskrats returned to the same spots on the ice, allowing me to setup and concentrate on a particular location. Although I could get full-frame images with a 300 mm lens, I moved back to decrease the angle and use a 600 mm lens.
One morning I arrived at the park and spotted a muskrat under the ice. I waited and it did not move. I waited another minute and still no movement. Oh no, a dead muskrat, a terrible start to my day. Then it kicked a back leg and swam off. Subsequent observation revealed that muskrats frequently stop while swimming under the ice and use their back feet to push off the ice. I spent several days trying to photograph muskrats through the ice - a very unique and challenging photo op. An equipment change was required to increase manoeuvrability and focusing speed (it is probably impossible to get a tack-sharp image through ice, but I still wanted as sharp an image as possible) so I settled on hand holding a 300 mm setup.
Spring brings warmer weather, longer days, and more importantly, migratory birds. Local parks are abundant with returning waterfowl; providing opportunities for flight, courtship, and mating photos. The action is plentiful and varied, requiring a range of equipment from short, fast-focusing telephotos for flight shots to longer super-telephotos for intimate courtship shots. Photographers who frequent a park develop favourite spots and may pack in a lot of equipment with the intention of setting up for an extended period of time (I myself have been guilty of this). One spring morning I was photographing Wood Ducks. The color on the drakes was spectacular and the competition for the hens was nonstop.
Slowly all the waterfowl drifted towards the far shore and became very vocal. This type of behaviour occurs when there is a predator in the area; in this case it was an American Mink. The waterfowl were slowly escorting the mink out of the area, which helped predict where it was going to be. I locked my tripod head, threw my rig on my shoulder and got moving. For the next 20 wonderful minutes, I photographed this mink - first with a 600, then switching to a shorter telephoto when it is too close for the 600 to focus – as the water fowl moved it in my direction. I never imagined there would be a time when I wished I had an extension tube with me because a mink was closer than the minimum focusing distance.
Pileated Woodpecker sightings are uncommon and every encounter is special to me. I spotted a Pileated Woodpecker as it flew to a dead a tree and I felt very fortunate that it was posing on this tree. But wait, what was that? Its mate was sticking its head out of a hole in the tree. A Pileated nesting cavity! Ethics require one to remain a reasonable distance away from nests in order to ensure the parents do not abandon it. I hurried home to get a bigger lens and a camouflage cover. For a two-week period, I arrived before sunrise, set up and got some amazing photos. I also learned how effective my camouflage cover was during this period. One morning, a couple came along and started harassing the birds - they were very embarrassed when I came out from under my camouflage to confront their unethical behaviour.
Randy Kimura is a Professional Engineer whose career has taken him around the world. Randy enjoys the life long pursuit of nature photography.
[ Top ]