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Photographing Wildlife Near Your Home

2000 Mike MacDonald

Great Egret from blind Many wildlife photographers trot around the globe in search of the best locations to photograph animals. For most, best usually means easiest and most convenient, which translates to places where the wildlife is varied, plentiful, and most importantly, approachable. These elements are what attract thousands of photographers to national parks and cause bird photographers to flock to Florida.

Trips to the best locations are often remote and expensive, and, consequently, infrequent. This is why it can be very rewarding to take pictures near your home, using a portable blind to conceal yourself from skittish animals. If you live near a forest preserve, woodland, or wetland, you probably have plenty of opportunities to photograph wildlife. In addition to being fun and inexpensive, the expertise you'll gain from the experience will make you a better photographer.

More importantly, though, is the opportunity to experience nature without the distraction of others. Spending a morning in the blind, no matter what happens, is a wonderful escape from reality. There's nothing like the peacefulness of nature to quiet the mind and restore the spirit. Whether I end up getting a picture or not, I always leave feeling satisfied, looking forward to next time.

You can always buy a blind, but you can make one pretty easily, too. Assemble a frame using PVC pipe and couplers, purchased from the plumbing department of the hardware store, and cover it with camouflage material. Using PVC lets you make a blind that's light, portable, and assembles quickly in the field.

The height of the blind will depend on your particular situation. It should be at least as tall as you are when seated. So, if you're going to use a small folding chair, sit on that chair and measure the height. If you plan to build a floating blind (just the blind floats, not you), the total height can be much lower since most of your body will be underwater. Don't make it any bigger than necessary.

Your blind should have two or three lens flaps (or sleeves) wide enough to accommodate the diameter of your largest lens (with hood) and positioned at the proper height. When making the flaps, make a circular cut, but stop before completing the circle, letting the fabric hang down over the hole. This flap will conceal you from view when you're not using that hole. To see what's going on outside the blind, cut out large sections along the upper wall of the blind and replace it with fine camouflage mesh material.

Black-crowned Night Heron - from blind For a doorway, just wrap the material all the way around. Where the fabric meets is your entryway. The fabric should overlap a little so that wildlife cannot see in. Sew on oversized buttons and button loops to keep the door closed. Big buttons make it easy to manage with gloved hands.

You might wonder why I didn't recommend making a much simpler bag blind (basically a big piece of camouflage material to drape over your body and equipment). The reason is that if you move, you'll be detected. You can't change film, reach into your pocket, or even scratch your nose. And, let me tell you. Just knowing that you can't scratch your nose will cause your nose to itch beyond belief! I never have this problem in my framed blind.

Another problem is that if you're using predator calls, your slight motion may be mistaken as the wounded animal that your sounds are trying to imitate. In a bag blind, vision is greatly limited, making you vulnerable to a surprise attack. Though unlikely, to me it's uncomfortable not being able to see in all directions.

If you want to photograph wading birds and waterfowl, you'll get more intimate pictures if you can actually get into the water with them. To make the blind float on water, wrap and tape a piece of one-inch pipe insulation around the bottom ring. This should be adequate, as long as your blind is made of lightweight materials like those described above. When inside photographing, sometimes your tripod, lens, or clothes can catch onto the fabric or framework and cause the structure to tip. This transfer of weight to just one edge can sink the blind. To be safe, apply more flotation than you need and test it before going out with all of your expensive camera equipment.

submerged and so is my tripod. The base of the blind, however, is floating on top of the water only a foot or two below my chin and lens. Therefore, you're going to need lens flaps that are low on the blind.

The first step to actually putting your blind into use is learning where to find wildlife in your area. Ask naturalists and park officials for wildlife sightings and go there with binoculars in the morning and evening to scout things out. Read about the behavior of the animals you wish to photograph. Notice the numbers and varieties of animals. Areas with greater animal populations increase your chance of one happening by your blind.

Once you decide where to set up, crouch down to shooting level and see if there are any distracting elements that may obscure your camera's view. Pay attention to the light, too. It could happen that hills or trees will block the morning light, in which case, you'll need to pick a more photogenic venue.

I try to visit a site the evening before I plan to work the blind because conditions may have changed since the last time I was there. I use this visit to determine the best spot for the blind. In the dark before sunrise is not the time to figure this stuff out. If I plan to photograph birds from the water, I wade out with the blind and anchor it. I scout the water depth, the height of the reeds, and where the birds are roosting and feeding. Wading out to the blind in the dark with all your photo equipment is hard enough without having to haul your blind, too.

Using a blind in the water requires special care and attention. First of all, chest waders are needed to protect you from injury and disease. Every two or three times out, I need to patch my waders as a result of coming into contact with sharp objects that I couldn't see. I have yet to receive more than a surface scratch through my waders, but if you get cut and expose it to mucky water, you can contract tetanus. That why it's good to protect your legs and to get a tetanus shot ahead of time.

Waders are really easy to fix. Just smear Goop or Aquaseal Urethane Repair Adhesive over the hole and, the next day, you're back in action. Because my waders get punctured between the knee and the ankle, I bought big repair patches and glued them on as kneepads.

I prefer waders that are really baggy in the chest area so that I can wear my photo vest underneath. And, while I'm wading out to the blind, it gives me a roomy place to stuff my long lens and camera. Your waders don't have to be insulated because you can wear layers of insulation under them. Plus, in warm weather, an insulated wader is the last thing you want.

When moving through water with your camera equipment, proceed slowly. Take small steps. Extend one leg of your tripod and probe the bottom ahead of you. You'll be able to feel the stability of the bottom and see how deep it is before setting foot there. Take your next step only after you've judged it to be safe.

Set up your blind in water that's only a couple of feet deep. Any deeper, and you may risk water entering your waders when you kneel down. Instead of trying to step inside the blind, set up your equipment first, then lift the blind over you and your equipment. Make sure to extend the tripod legs to a length that will not allow the lens to hit the water if it were to accidentally flop forward. Under one of the lens flaps, firmly plant the tripod into earth below. Carefully kneel behind your camera without splashing and position the lens through the lens flap. Perform all of these steps slowly and without a lot of commotion, otherwise you may scare off any nearby wildlife.

To change the position of the blind while you are in it, remove the lens from the blind's lens hole and lift your tripod and camera assembly out of the water. Slowly walk on your knees while pushing the blink forward with the front of your lens. Take your time, it can be quite tedious and disorienting.

When I talk to people about hiding out for many hours in a blind, I'm often asked, "Don't you get bored?" The secret is that you can't get bored when you're full of anticipation. Nature is spontaneous and unpredictable. At any given moment, everything can change. Just because nothing seems to be happening one second, doesn't mean that something remarkable won't occur the next second.

It's like watching a horror movie and the man in the film is sitting on his couch watching TV. In just a few short moments, he'll be dragged off his sofa and eaten alive. We, the audience, know something terrible is going to happen because we begin to hear haunting background music. But the poor guy never had a clue. In life, or in the blind, there's no background music to warn you when something's about to happen. It's all about preparation and anticipation.

To successfully work a blind, it helps to be on your toes at all times, ready to correctly compose and expose at a moment's notice. To get through the slow times, practice and prepare by pretending your subject has just shown up. Position your subject in the scene. How about over there by those flowers, or by that tree trunk. Practice different compositions. Focus and calculate your exposures, but remain ready for the swift and unexpected arrival of animals. If you remain alert, and sometimes it's hard, you won't miss your chance. Anticipation and preparation make for a very eventful time and swiftly hones your skills. The next time you go to Florida, shooting the birds will be like photographing fish in a barrel.

The satisfaction of working a blind extends far beyond the photography. Of course, we always want to get the shot, but there's a great deal more to the experience. It's about seeing the day emerge from darkness, as the morning sun transforms ginger-colored cattails into golden rows of light. And there are few experiences more thrilling than when an animal draws near your blind. These intimate encounters with nature cannot be experienced while shooting from a row of twenty photographers.

One September morning, a great egret flew into photographic range. The bird was molting, but it was uniquely beautiful as a single feather dangled from its wing. I made a photograph of this tall white bird as it slowly strolled through rich green waters of pink aquatic flowers (see image "Pretty in Pink"). Later, the egret flew up into a tree. I redirected the lens to view the bird to view its behavior. As it perched in the tree, it preened its wings-setting free the solitary quill, as it gracefully danced through the air into the deep green water below.

As I continued to watch the bird through my lens, I noticed through the mesh wall of the blind that a gentle breeze was blowing the floating white feather in my direction. As it arrived outside my slit-for-a-door, I reached out to receive my special delivery. This is just one of many perfect moments I've experienced while spending time in my photo blind. Go undercover for an intimate encounter with nature and you'll be richly rewarded. Oh, and you might get some great pictures, too!




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