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Written By onci on Thursday, December 3, 2009 | 4:44 PM

Photographing Migrations
by Tim Kuhn

Fall and spring are the high times for bird migrations. What does this mean to the wildlife photographer? Tens of thousands of chances for the next great photograph! Each year, as the dog days of summer and the lack of avian subjects that they bring begin to wane, the fall migrations offer new hope and excitement.

What with the flocks of thousands passing through the flyways going from summer breeding areas to winter feeding grounds there are lots of opportunities for the wildlife photographer to photograph something refreshingly different. The migrations mean different things in different locales. On a small local pond it may mean that the year round resident Mallards are now joined with Hooded Mergansers, American Wigeons, countless Coots or some other variety of waterfowl.

It could mean the patch of woods nearby is suddenly bursting with numerous warblers of various species. Or it could mean an annual vacation to places like Bosque del Apache and the opportunity to see tens of thousands of Snow Geese, Sandhill Cranes, waterfowl or even unbelievable numbers of crows. Where ever the migrations occur it is an exciting time, maybe even the highlight of the year.

In my corner of the world, the Pacific Northwest, one of the birds the fall migration brings is Snow Geese! Thousands of them! Along with all that potential food also come the big raptors, Bald Eagles. All of this conspires to create fantastic photographic opportunities. Now is the time of year to explore different areas, go back to seasonal hot spots offering new excitement and different scenery. For me approaching the feeding grounds of the Snow Geese for the first time of the year gives a lift to my soul and raises the excitement level as I recall past experiences in the same area. Photographing such huge numbers of birds involves many different kinds of shooting.

When one first arrives and the vast numbers of birds begins to sink in, the mind boggles. How do I shoot this and just what do I want to capture are just some of the thoughts that go through the mind. There are almost too many opportunities for great images, both long lens work and wide angle, something that is not the norm for most of us when we think of avian photography. No matter what type of shot one decides on the vast numbers of birds provide numerous chances to get just the right shot. Do you want some tight portraits? Put on the long glass and patiently scan the throng of birds ahead of you. Chances are you will get the perfect head turn, catch light in the eye, perfect light across the face and maybe even the chance to isolate the bird from its neighbors.

Did you want to capture some in flights? If you are lucky enough the birds will decide they need to be in a different spot, taking off, banking and landing again. When there are thousands of them doing this you will have lots of chances to get just the shot you want. Maybe the “hitting the brakes” shot with wings outstretched and feathers splayed catching all the wind they can. A fly by with that perfect snowy mountain background offers itself over and over again allowing for trying different exposure settings almost guaranteeing the desired result. If one is lucky one of the powerful and regal Bald Eagles will fly overhead sending the whole flock into air! This is an experience to behold, the cacophony of all those geese alerting, the sound of the wind coming off of all those wings lifting the birds into the air is enough to make even the most jaded photographer lower the camera at some point and just drink in the experience. It is a truly unique experience and one that should be on the list of things one just has to do.

If the eagle is on the hunt the chance to capture one nabbing a goose and flying away with it or sitting in the field enjoying the spoils of the hunt could be just the shot to make ones day! One other scene that may play out for is the mass landing, when the birds are coming in from being on the water and they all decide to land in a single field. They will circle around and slowly descend, all the while calling out, the sound adding to the experience. This is where that wide angle can come into play, capturing the graceful shape of and the unbelievable numbers of birds coming in for a landing. For once it isn’t about feather detail and head turns!

The migrations offer many different opportunities, for me the return of the Snow Geese each year is something to look forward to and a grand experience at that.

Tim Kuhn
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