When I go into the woods with my cameras, I usually wear camouflage. Some wildlife photographers believe it’s not necessary, and maybe for them it isn’t. But through years of photographing wild animals and birds, I’ve learned to do whatever it takes to improve my chances for success, and camo works for me.
Early one morning, while heading to a photo blind in my woods, I spotted a distant movement. I was surprised to see a bobcat, a rare sighting in these parts, cautiously working its way toward me. In typical catlike fashion, it stalked its way close enough that I could see its whiskers and pink nose. I stood stock-still among the open hardwoods, which were my only cover, and I was 10 feet away from the nearest tree trunk. I knew if I moved or raised my camera the cat would spot the motion and be gone in an instant, so I decided to just stand there and savor the experience. The early morning lighting wasn’t all that good anyway. That bobcat came and went and never knew I was there. Why didn’t it see me standing in the open woods in plain sight? You guessed it: camouflage.
Maybe camouflage isn’t always necessary. You might get by wearing subdued or earth-tone colors. Most mammals can’t perceive colors the way we do anyway, but birds can. An eagle, hawk, heron or wild turkey can spot you from a quarter-mile away. If I’m going to gamble my success in getting that prized wildlife photo based on what I’m wearing, it will be camo every time.
A photo blind enables you to hide from wary wild animals and birds. It can even be something as comfortable as your own car or truck. Wildlife that is accustomed to seeing motor vehicles will often tolerate their presence, especially if you park quietly and don’t get out. I have photographed all kinds of wild animals and birds from the window of my Jeep. Don’t forget to turn your vehicle off before taking pictures. Especially at slower shutter speeds, engine vibrations can blur your images. The same holds true for outboard motors and all-terrain vehicles.
Photo blinds can range from simple to sophisticated and from portable to permanent. My simplest blind is a 4 by-12 foot, three-dimensional, leafy camo fabric that I bought for about $20. I can wrap it around myself and my tripod or I can drape it over a limb or clump of brush. It’s small enough to fold up and carry into the woods or stuff into my tripod case when I travel. With a couple of spring-loaded shop clamps to hold it in place, I can wrap it around a small clump of trees and hide behind it. When I leave, it goes with me. You can cut some holes for your lens to peek through or simply shoot over the top.
Portable pop-up tent-style blinds are popular among bowhunters and they make excellent photo blinds as well. These camouflage cloth enclosures are about 3 feet in diameter when folded flat, but pop open into a dome-shaped structure nearly 4 feet in diameter when set up. Mine is tall enough to stand in. A folding chair or stool inside will add some comfort. Most hunting blinds have a u-zip window on each side that provides an opening to shoot through. Outdoor outfitters are your best sources for pop-up blinds, which start around $50 and go up from there. If you can leave your blind in place for a few days before using it, wildlife will become accustomed to its presence.
You can also build a ground blind from the natural materials you find in the woods. Look for a downed treetop as a place to start or some brush that you can drag to where you want to set up. Construct a space large enough to conceal yourself and your gear using branches, limbs, twigs or whatever else you can find. Alongside a marsh, you can use reeds and cattails; or near a cornfield, cornstalks. Get creative, but remember not to destroy or injure any living plants. A ground blind is something you can leave in place, use often, and improve upon from time to time. Remember to pay attention to prevailing wind directions when locating your blind. You won’t see any wild animals downwind from your position.
Many hunters use cover scents to mask human odor. While most human scent is comprised of odors like the bacon and eggs that permeated your clothes before heading into the woods, it’s important to realize how important the sense of smell is to a wild animal. Mammals depend on their noses to alert them to danger, but birds don’t. As with camouflage, a cover scent may not always be necessary but if it helps to get that prized photo, it’s worth the effort. Commercial cover scents are available at any store that sells hunting supplies or you can put a drop of vanilla extract on your knee, which emanates a floral smell, to mask your scent. I prefer vanilla over the skunky-smelling natural scents that hunters use.
Using bait to attract wildlife is an ethical issue among wildlife photographers and every professional photography organization that I know of is opposed to the practice. Biologists warn that feeding wildlife leads to habituation, which can cause an animal to lose its instinctive fear of people and develop an unnatural dependency on handouts. Baiting can also result in safety issues for the photographer, or even worse, the demise of a wild animal that has become aggressive.
Calling wildlife is another technique that you can use to attract a variety of wild animals to approach your blind. Predator calls, which are used by varmint hunters to entice bobcats, coyotes and foxes, come in two types: electronic and mouth calls. Electronic calls play a recorded repertoire through a speaker; mouth calls are self explanatory. Some calls imitate an animal in distress like an injured rabbit while others mimic the actual voice of the species being sought. It takes an intimate knowledge of predator behavior and a certain amount of skill to be successful. It also takes some daring to purposely call a wild carnivorous predator to your location. On two occasions, I have inadvertently called in a fox, one gray and the other red, with a wild turkey call while attempting to attract turkeys to my blind.
Once while photographing elk in Wyoming, I spotted a lone coyote hunting. It didn’t see me so I sat down in some tall grass and imitated a mouse squeak by kissing the back of my hand. Drawn by the sound, the coyote came to within 30 feet as I fired off several frames before the sound of the shutter scared it off.
I have often used a canoe, a kayak, or a rubber raft to access marshes and wetlands. I’ve found that waterfowl, and even wary birds like herons and ospreys, will tolerate a slow-moving, low-profile watercraft to a certain extent. I’ve also been able to get close to beavers and muskrats using the same approach. One of my favorite places for kayaking with a camera is West River at the south end of Canandaigua Lake, which is teeming with waterfowl and wildlife.
Next Time Around
In the July/August 2016 issue, we’ll put everything that we’ve learned so far to use. We’ll focus on where to look, what to look for, and when. And, we’ll compare photographing wildlife in general with strategies for the best ways to target specific species. We’ll also look at the opportunities to be found in our state forests, parks and wildlife-management areas.
story and photos by John Adamski