Photographing Wildlife, Part III

A truly memorable photo experience: Eye-to-eye with a wild ruffed grouse.

The Finger Lakes Region is blessed with dozens of nature preserves, state forests, parks and wildlife management areas, as well as the Finger Lakes National Forest and Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. Many of my photos are taken in public places like these. In some areas, where wildlife is accustomed to human presence, it can be somewhat easier to get that special shot.

But it is still important to become familiar with the habits and habitats of the creatures you want to photograph. Learning the natural history of wild animals and birds beforehand will help you to find them more easily by showing you where to look, what to look for, and when to look there. Understanding wild animal and bird behavior is the most important part of being able to consistently and successfully photograph them.

Resources include biology texts, field guides, outdoor magazines, and nature photography websites. Hunting books and periodicals provide a great deal of behavioral insight into game birds, game animals and waterfowl. Just like a hunter, a photographer can use hunting strategies to locate and photograph his or her quarry but without the restrictions of closed seasons or bag limits. Study as much as you can ahead of time. If you’re an experienced hunter, you already have many of the skills necessary to become a successful wildlife photographer.

One Species or Many

You may choose to photograph a variety of wildlife species, as I do, or specialize in a particular kind. My friend and fellow outdoor writer and photographer, Charles Alsheimer, has been fascinated with whitetail deer since growing up on his family’s farm in the Southern Tier. Although Charlie, a longtime field editor for Deer and Deer Hunting magazine, has also photographed bighorn sheep, caribou, elk, moose and grizzly bears, his specialty is whitetail deer. He has authored and photo-illustrated a number of books on the subject and is a leading authority on whitetail deer behavior, with dozens of magazine cover photos to his credit. If your goal is to photograph whitetails, any of Charlie’s books would be a good place to start learning about them. You can find them online.

The late wildlife photographer Bill Silliker, Jr., dubbed “the Mooseman” because of his expertise in moose behavior, authored several photography books on moose and contributed articles and images to many other publications. Even though he traveled extensively to photograph other wildlife species, Bill’s philosophy was, “to be more productive, wildlife photographers need to focus—literally—on one species at a time.” By following that advice, you can study whatever species has captured your interest and work toward developing an expertise of your own.

Surprise Encounters

This doesn’t mean that unplanned photo opportunities won’t happen. I photographed a coyote while I was stalking pronghorns in Wyoming; a bald eagle when I staked out a marsh looking for waterfowl here at home; and foxes in my own woods on two different occasions while trying to call wild turkeys to my blind. But to target a particular species on a regular basis, you must have an intimate knowledge of its behavior, habits and habitat. You have to know where to look, what to look for, and when to look there. And, depending on the species you’re seeking, it’s not always that difficult to find them. Today people and wildlife share more habitats than ever before, greatly increasing the opportunities for wildlife encounters.

Finding Wildlife

Finding wildlife is simply a matter of taking what you’ve learned and applying it to what you observe in the field. Animal tracks, droppings, browsed vegetation or remnants of a kill can all provide evidence that indicates what kind of animal or bird inhabits an area. Small hand-like prints in the mud point to raccoons; scratched-up leaves and j-shaped droppings indicate wild turkeys; nibbled buds and twigs are proof of deer; and bones and feathers in front of a burrow identify it as a coyote or fox den. I was once puzzled by a dozen bullhead carcasses littering the shore alongside a marsh. Only the head and skin of each fish remained. The next day, after setting up a portable blind, I photographed a bald eagle as it snatched a bullhead from the pond, landed in a tree, fed on the fish, and dropped the remains to the ground when it had finished. Observing nature’s clues is an important part of finding wildlife.

Wild animals that have been antagonized by man over time have evolved to become crepuscular – mostly active at dawn and dusk – or entirely nocturnal. This means that many of your wildlife photo opportunities will occur early or late in the day. In places where hunting is not permitted, like state or national parks and nature preserves, those windows of opportunity stay open longer and can sometimes last all day. Although the lighting at dawn and dusk can present some challenges, especially when using a light-hungry telephoto lens, the majority of your wildlife photo opportunities will likely occur during those periods. The first hour after sunrise and the last hour before sunset, when there is little harsh contrast or dark shadows, are called the “golden hours” and can provide the best lighting conditions for most outdoor photography. Slightly overcast days are good for the same reasons.

What’s in Season?

Seasonal timing is another consideration. Spring is the time of year for babies. Fox kits, born in mid-March, won’t emerge from their dens until their eyes open when they are three weeks old. By that time, both parents are out hunting and the kits begin to explore the area surrounding their den. Fox dens are more common than you’d think and it’s the curious kits that usually give them away. Ruffed grouse and wild turkeys mate in April and you can often find the males of both species strutting around with fanned tails in an attempt to impress the ladies. Sometimes a tom turkey can be called to your blind by using the same wild turkey calls that hunters use. Since turkeys are wary, you need to be discreet with your setup.

Whitetail fawns – usually twins – are born near the end of May and are left alone by their mother for the first week or so. The doe returns several times a day to nurse her babies and then leaves them again. Finding a fawn is like looking for a needle in a haystack but it is possible if you spend enough time in the woods. If you find one, remember to keep your distance and stay just long enough to take a few photos. Wear knee-high rubber boots to prevent leaving human scent that could attract a predator to the fawn’s location.

Antler growth in adult bucks begins in late spring and continues until September when they shed their velvet. Buck rubs on saplings and small trees in the fall are an indication of whitetail buck rutting activity. During the “chase phase” of the rut in late October, amorous bucks are constantly on the move, offering the best opportunities to photograph them during the day.

Trail Cameras

Motion-activated trail cameras are another reliable way to find wild creatures when you can’t be out in the woods. Hunters use them to locate game animals in order to determine where to set up their stands. Most trail cameras will date and time stamp your images so that you know what animals are present and when they are active, which can be helpful in deciding where to set up your blind and when to be in it.

Focus on Water

All species of wild animals and birds need water and focusing on watery places will increase your odds of finding wildlife. Lakes, ponds, marshes and wetlands all provide habitats for water birds ranging from puddle ducks to great blue herons and for mammals like mink, muskrats and beavers. Many state wildlife management areas contain beaver ponds that attract beautiful but timid wood ducks. And larger animals like coyotes, foxes and deer will stop by any water source for a drink. These are some of the methods that I use to find and photograph wildlife and I know that they’ll work for you.


story and photos by John Adamski

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