Finding Wildlife to Photograph

March 13, 2018

A wide variety of photographable wildlife is available to everyone, in fact many may live close to your home.  How do you find suitable spots where photographable wildlife is plentiful?

Start with the Internet

A tremendous amount of wildlife information is easily found on the Internet.  Search for potentially wildlife-rich places in nearby national parks, nature centers, lakeshores, state and city parks, seacoasts, public swimming areas on local lakes, boat docks, fishing lakes and hunting areas.  And don’t forget local, state, and national wildlife refuges.  Most of these places are open to the public.

This eared grebe hunts for insects among the weeds in Henry’s Lake, Idaho. I wore chest waders inside a homemade floating blind that let me approach birds and mammals in shallow water rather closely and easily. As always, the longer the focal length of the lens, the easier it is to capture a large image of the subject without resorting to significantly cropping the image. Therefore, I used the Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM lens. The lens is attached to a Wimberley gimbal head that is mounted to the wood-frame of my floating blind that resembles a muskrat house. The blind bobs up and down a little, so I favor fast shutter speeds to freeze slight camera and subject movement. Autofocus was set to AI Servo and the camera was set to a fast shooting speed of 10 images per second. If the water is completely calm and the lens movement is minimal, then I stop the lens down to f/8 to acquire more depth of field and lower the shutter speed to 1/500th or 1/250th second. I used ISO 1000 and the quality was excellent. Being able to use high ISOs is enormously helpful for wildlife photography because it permits fast shutter speeds to make sharp images even in rather dim ambient light. Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Manual exposure, 1/1000th sec, f/5.6, ISO 1000, EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM, Evaluative metering, Daylight White Balance, AI Servo AF, AF Point expansion: top/bottom/left/right, AF Microadjustment at -2, High-speed continuous shooting.

Plenty of photographers have the inside scoop on where to find wildlife where you live.  Visit photography forums on the Internet and ask if anyone knows places where you might go.  Photographers tend to be quite helpful, and many offer very good advice.

It seems every state has wildlife and photography sites on social media.  If you live in Nebraska, for example, search the web for Nebraska and wildlife viewing.  A great deal of information will appear.  I know because I tried it.

Ask questions on nature photography forums.  I did that when looking for productive places to photograph water birds in Florida during late winter.  Plenty of helpful photographers made suggestions.  Try this yourself.  There are many nature photography forums on the web.  I received my best answers at www.dpreview.com.  Go to this free site, click on forums, and then go to the Nature and Wildlife Photography section.  Ask detailed questions there.  Be sure to include the area you are considering and the time of year you plan to visit.  Most likely you will get several replies that direct you to local wildlife hot spots.  

Seasons Matter

Keep in mind that wildlife abundance is highly seasonal.  Many birds migrate south, so they might not be present in northern latitudes much of the time.  And some superb hot spots for photography are completely unexpected.  Be open to new ideas.  Do you want to photograph ducks in gorgeous breeding plumage?  Easy! Go to the desert state of Arizona in late January through February.  Desert?  I thought ducks like water, and they do.  Both Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona have many manmade ponds within the city limits.  Wild ducks migrate south and find these ponds provide a splendid warm place to winter, just like so many human “snowbirds” do.  Locals often toss the wild ducks a bit of food, and in no time at all they become quite used to approaching humans well within excellent camera range.  It is amazing how many species of wild waterfowl can be photographed successfully on these ponds.  But, it isn’t just Arizona.  Many cities have ponds where waterfowl gather during the winter.  Usually these ponds are full of domesticated ducks, but wild ducks often join their ranks.

Formerly known as the blue goose, now it is known as a snow goose since it freely interbreeds with the more abundant white snow geese. Thousands of snow geese winter from mid-November into January each year at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge near Socorro, New Mexico. Many national wildlife refuges are fabulous places for wildlife photography, especially at certain times of the year. The enormous masses of wintering geese, along with sandhill cranes, makes Bosque del Apache a tremendous draw for both bird watchers and photographers alike. If you are a bird lover, put Bosque on your bucket list for late November or December. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Manual Exposure, 1/2500th sec, f/5.6, Evaluative Metering, ISO Speed 1000, Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM lens, White Balance Auto: Ambience priority, AI Servo AF, AF area select mode: Manual select. Large Zone AF, and High-speed continuous shooting.

And don’t forget when wildlife appears their best.  Both birds and mammals look a bit ragged when they are molting their hair or feathers in late spring or summer.  Mammals tend to look best during autumn and winter, when they sport new fur.  Birds are most beautiful in spring when they are adorned in their finest breeding plumage.  That does not mean you can’t photograph them in summer, but for optimal appearance, autumn to spring are usually the best seasons. Keep in mind many species look different from one season to the next.  For instance, the gorgeous male American goldfinch is bright yellow and black in spring, but looks nearly identical to the much duller females during winter.

Although not as colorful as many ducks, male gadwalls are quite handsome during the spring when they display their newly grown feathers. Keep that in mind! Birds usually look their best right before the breeding season in spring, while mammals look best in the autumn with their new winter fur coats. Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Manual Exposure, 1/2500th sec, f/5.6, Evaluative Metering, ISO 1000, Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM, Daylight white balance, AI Servo AF, AF Point expansion: top/bottom/left/right, AF Microadjustment -2, and High-speed continuous shooting.

Start with your Home and Yard

Chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, and raccoons thrive around humans.  Be on the lookout for mammals that live near you and have become habituated to people.  Often these animals are quite approachable and therefore simple to photograph well.  Chipmunks and squirrels are easily attracted to black oil sunflower seeds and enjoy fresh dripping water into a small pool made for them.  For best results, avoid photographing wildlife standing in a pile of food.  Instead, attract them and then hide the sunflower seeds so they don’t appear in the image with the animal.  For example, drill a small hole in a natural log and fill the hole with shelled sunflower seeds.  Position the log or disguise the hole with bark so it isn’t noticeable in the image, then you can shoot a lot of fine images when your subject arrives.

This red fox lived in a housing development in Island Park, Idaho. It was habituated to people, so it proved to be an easy animal to photograph, and so adorable too. Since the ambient light was steady that morning, I used Manual exposure and determined the ideal exposure by manually adding about 1 2/3-stops of light from the standard exposure to compensate for the reflectance of the snow. The Canon EOS-1D Mark III with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM lens (set to 100mm) made the image as the fox was quite close to me. Naturally, I used AI Servo AF with High-speed continuous shooting. Exposure was ISO 250, 1/800th sec, with an aperture of f/10. At the time in 2009, I used a spot meter to meter the snow and make the exposure compensation of +1 2/3-stops to make the snow white in the image. Today I use Evaluative metering for everything and adjust the exposure to produce the first blinking highlights that appear on the LCD image during playback and go with that for the RAW images I shoot. I use Canon’s free Digital Photo Professional software (DPP version 4.7.1) to process all my images.

Water is an especially effective wildlife lure because there is no need to hide the water that is contained in a natural-looking rock pool.  Photograph the animals drinking or bathing and compose their reflection into the image, too.

Learn the foods that local animals prefer to eat.  Many birds relish black oil sunflower seeds, but some like sparrows and doves prefer small seeds like millet or cracked corn.  Woodpeckers and jays are attracted to suet that you can obtain at the meat processor in your supermarket.  Colorful orioles prefer sliced oranges.  Ask area bird clubs or store clerks who work at places that sell lots of bird feed and feeders what works best in your area.  Some stores, such as Wildbirds Unlimited, have employees that are particularly knowledgeable.   And don’t forget hummingbirds.  Some places attract few hummingbirds, but other spots have swarms of them if you put out sugar water in red feeders.  The regular cane sugar should be mixed with one cup of sugar to four cups of fresh water.  Stir thoroughly, don’t add red dye to it, and hang the feeder in a shady spot to keep from having it spoil in the sun too quickly.  If hummingbirds frequent your area, you will know soon enough.

Local Parks

Often local parks are populated with wildlife that is already somewhat easy to get closer to, as they see humans frequently.  Sometimes wildlife is almost oblivious to humans near them.  If the park offers waterways such as creeks, marshes, and ponds, be sure to carefully watch them for wildlife photo opportunities.  Many cities have ponds where people gather to feed the ducks.  Often these ducks are domestics that have been released.  Still, they are fun to look at and an excellent way to practice your photo skills.

Nature Centers

These places are most abundant around large cities, as folks have less access to natural areas.  Nature centers typically have a staff naturalist that knows a lot about local wildlife.  Visit the center to see what wildlife may be present, and speak with the naturalist to learn more about the center’s wildlife and perhaps some nearby places where wildlife is plentiful.  I know some nature centers in southern Michigan that feed birds in winter.  These are excellent places for winter bird photography and your own region may have similar opportunities.

Birding Clubs

Birding is a rapidly growing hobby with clubs all over the place.  Search the web for the nearest one to you, or check the directory of clubs associated with the American Birding Society.  Go to www.aba.org.

Birds clubs have members of all skill levels, but most clubs have some amazing birders.  They know many of the best places to find wildlife that is approachable enough to photograph.

This red-necked grebe is courting another in a marshy area at Idaho’s Henry’s Lake. Eventually, the grebes will build a floating mound of vegetation anchored in dense aquatic weeds to protect their eggs and raise their young. I hid in a floating blind while I slowly walked in the marsh wearing chest waders to get within 800mm lens range. When birds are nesting, I prefer to give them space to avoid disturbing them during the sensitive nesting period. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Shutter-Priority AE, 1/1600th sec, f/5.6, ISO 1250 (Auto ISO), Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM, Auto white balance, AI Servo AF, and High-speed continuous shooting.

Birding Trails

Many states offer both guidebooks and online information about excellent spots that attract numerous birds.  Places that appeal to birds are also favored by mammals and other wildlife such as lizards, frogs, and toads.  Birding trails in numerous locations can be located at this website:  www.aba.org.

State Parks

Look for state parks where you live.  Many of these parks offer a wide array of wildlife that might be photographable.  Again, if animals see humans frequently, they often learn to accept us being closer to them than otherwise.

National Parks

Perhaps a national park is nearby.  Hunting and trapping is forbidden in these parks, and tourists are plentiful, making wildlife accustomed to humans.  National parks are larger than most other parks and offer far more wildlife.  It is no secret that a large percentage of the wildlife images you see published are photographed in national parks.  Indeed, many parks are famous for their wildlife photo opportunities.  This incudes Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Theodore Roosevelt, Everglades, Denali, Wind Cave, and the Great Smoky Mountains.

Mountain goats live high in the mountains where they feed on plants in the alpine and sub-alpine zones. They are normally difficult to reach in their lofty homes, but one of the best places to photograph them is west of Denver, Colorado near the summit of Mt. Evans. A narrow-paved road leads all the way up to a parking lot above 14,000 feet in the alpine zone. Mountains goats are frequently seen here in late June and July and are quite easy to photograph. Driving up is easy, but remember to walk slowly in the thin air at high altitude. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Shutter-Priority AE, 1/1250th sec, f/13, Exposure compensation -1/3, ISO 400, EF 300mm f/4L IS USM, Cloudy white balance, AI Servo AF, and Spot AF.

Wildlife Refuges

These refuges are numerous and scattered across the landscape.  They are set aside because large numbers of various kinds of wildlife seek them out.  Naturally, refuges are often excellent places for wildlife photography, and some are world famous.  For example, Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge near Naples, Florida offers a wide assortment of birds and Bosque del Apache near Socorro, New Mexico is justly famous for the enormous flocks of snow geese and sandhill cranes that winter there from mid-November through December.  Both attract photographers from all over the world.  Find a directory of refuges on the web and visit the ones closest to you.

The Masai Mara Wildlife Reserve in southern Kenya is world famous for the incredible number and diversity of wildlife living there. After a long night of hunting, these lions are contently drinking before they move to the bushes to sleep in the shade during the hottest part of the day. Always remember that wildlife are usually most visible and active during the first two and last two hours of the day. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Shutter-Priority AE, 1/800th sec, f/6.3, ISO 400, Evaluative Metering, EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM, Auto ISO, Cloudy white balance, AI Servo AF, AF Point expansion: top/bottom/left/right, High-speed continuous shooting.

Beaches

Any beach may offer some interesting wildlife to photograph, and coastal beaches are especially good.  Many birds feed along beaches and become unwary of the many humans who continually walk the beach.  Eventually, these birds accept us as part of their environment, allowing close approach.

Watchable Wildlife

Wildlife viewing is a popular tourist activity that generates considerable revenue for state businesses.  As a result, most states have viewing guides that direct you to super places to see wildlife.  Perhaps some sites are near you, or not too far away.  And in case you are wondering, I searched Nebraska and wildlife, for example, and that immediately directed me to www.outdoornebraska.gov/wildlifeviewing.  Most states have similar programs!  Many guidebooks are available on wildlife viewing, too.  Search online to purchase watchable wildlife books.  Most states have one.  These books tell you how to find the spot, what type of wildlife you are likely to see, and when are the best seasons for viewing.

Join a Camera Club

Among the club members, surely every great local wildlife spot is known by one of the members and they will share their information if you are respectful of wildlife.  Some clubs lead field trips to great locales.  Members are amazingly helpful and can offer some important advice, not only on wildlife locations, but also on how to use your camera gear more effectively.

The yellow-billed oxpecker perched on the face of this African cape buffalo can safely feed on the insects that are attracted to the buffalo. This buffalo readily accepts the bird but would not accept a person anywhere near it. By using a safari vehicle as a hide, this buffalo and other dangerous wildlife could be safely photographed. I used f/10 for more depth of field to get both the oxpecker and the buffalo’s face in sharp focus as much as possible. Exposure compensation was minus 1/3-stop to avoid overexposing the buffalo’s face and the lighter oxpecker. Canon EOS 7D, EF 500mm f/4.0 USM IS lens, ISO 400, 1/200th sec, f/10.0, Continuous focus, and high-speed shooting.

Photography Workshops and Tours

Hundreds of skilled photographers earn much of their living by teaching photography classes of various lengths and venues. Look for wildlife workshops held in places near you or further away that you wish to visit. Photo workshops are a tough competitive business. All workshop leaders know their clients must be successful, so they plan their workshops for the optimum time to be at a place. For example, search for winter wildlife and Yellowstone, and you find most photo tours take place from mid-January to mid-February. Why? Lots of animals are present and the deep snow adds considerably to photo opportunities. Knowing when to be someplace is crucial information. Consider taking the workshop, or just go to public places on your own while workshops are being conducted. You won’t get the instruction, but the wildlife will be present.

Reticulated giraffes prefer semi-arid habitats where their long necks allow them to reach green leaves high up in the trees that are out of reach to other browsers. This one is at Samburu National Park in Kenya and photographed from the safety of a safari vehicle’s roof. Many national parks are terrific places to photograph wildlife because they are protected within the park and become accustomed to seeing humans near them. Canon EOS-1D Mark III, Manual Exposure, 1/500th sec, f/10, ISO 400, EF 300mm f/4L IS USM lens, AI Servo AF, High-speed continuous shooting, and Auto White Balance.

Visit the Zoo

Zoos are steadily improving their exhibits to make them appear more natural.  Pick a bright cloudy day for reduced contrast and spend plenty of time photographing animals in the best exhibits when they strike a pose.  This improves your camera skills, and be aware that wild animals are often attracted to zoos.  Once in the Albuquerque, NM zoo, I was photographing the waterfowl exhibit on an open pond when I noticed the wild northern pintails and wood ducks that used the pond, too.  I enjoyed a splendid time photographing these wild birds that were originally attracted to the pond by captive birds.

Some zoological parks offer unexpected dividends. One is the Alligator Farm and Zoological Park near St. Augustine, Florida.  Every crocodile-like animal is exhibited there.  But, what makes it would famous is a swamp in the back of the farm with a boardwalk through it. The swamp is full of hungry alligators and that makes it near impossible for raccoons and other predators to raid the nests of the tremendous number and diversity of herons and egrets that breed there. Many birds nest adjacent to the boardwalk and are completely unafraid of people on the boardwalk. The photography is so good during the mid-winter to late spring breeding season that shutterbugs from around the world visit the park, not to see the crocodiles, but for the exquisite photography of colorful and fascinating birds at ridiculously close range.

Wildlife Rehabilitators

Injured birds are often taken to rehab facilities who care for them to help them recover and be returned to the wild. We hope all can be returned, but many cannot be released as they are injured too severely. Sometimes these places conduct photo workshops for a small fee that goes to support their work of helping birds. Once again this gives you valuable experience for learning to use your camera gear to best advantage. Then, when you have a wild animal, you are more likely to do everything right to make outstanding images.

As you learn where the best wildlife places are near you, and your camera skills increase, like so many before you, wildlife photography becomes a passion. You will love enjoying beautiful wild creatures, making lasting memories, and sharing special images with your friends and family.  Wildlife photography is a wonderful way to use your time and encourages you to spend more time in gorgeous wild places.

The CDLC contributors are compensated spokespersons and actual users of the Canon products that they promote.

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