For the past several days I have been photographing exclusively at lake Mattamsukeet National Wildlife Refuge. As the swans have begun to return in mass, the action has picked up to a fever pitch out there. One problem that any photographer who attempts to photograph the waterfowl in this area is faced with however, is that these birds are hunted to no end and therefore very wary of people and anything out of the ordinary. From thier nesting grounds to North Carolina, these birds probably move through three seperate hunting seasons. Even here on Mattamuskeet there are schedualed hunts. All of this combines to create a potentially challenging situation for photographers.
Now dont get me wrong, there really are so many birds here that you cannot come to Mattamuskeet and not walk away with photographs of swans – as well as deer and even bald eagles for that matter. But in order to take your photographs up to the next notch, you have to get close, and you in my opinion, you have to get low.
My entry in this photojournal today can be compared to my last entry as I was photographing from the same spot but from a different perspective and weahter conditions. With my last entry, the photographs were all made from sitting down inside of an Ameristep chair blind. This put my lens just a few feet above the water level and really brought out the bordering swamp as a background to the phtographs. In this current entry however, I was moved back about 30 feet to a higher elevation – my lense probably being 7 feet above the water. In these photographs, I lose the forest as a background and instead have only the water itself to work with.
The reason that I made this change though was due to the skittishness of the birds. Even with my blind pushed back up into the edge of the dead phragmites and zipped up with only my lens hood (which is camoflauged) sticking outside of the blind, the birds were still very wary of my presence. I watched as flock after flock began to fly in, only to notice my blind and flair back out to open water and move around me. I have always had great success with this blind and so at first I couldnt understand what was going on and even if it was really the blind that was spooking them. Then, a great egret started to fly and and land about 10 feet in front of me. When the bird looked right at me and started squaking as it flew off, I knew what the problem was.
That evening I spoke with a couple old school duck hunters from the area about birds being blind shy. They told me that quite often people speak of ducks near the end of the season as being decoy shy, but from their experience its really blind shyness and that if you remove the blind, often the birds will come back into the same spread of decoys they were seemingly flairing from to begin with.
When it comes to photographing wild waterfowl, duck hunters should be your mentor and your best friend. They are the onese who have mastered the art of luring in these wary birds for centuries if not melinia. When people talk of hunters, waterfowl hunters carry a certain mistique – even more so I think than the big game hunters. People use words like obssession to describe thier past time. Food bases, what birds are eatingwhen the first arrive and what they are eating before the leave, migration routes, lunar impact upon migrations, drought conditions of areas thousand of miles away, breeding cycles, etc. . . What other sport hunter goes so in depth with their understanding of ecology, biology, and natural history of thier querry now a days? So like hunting these birds, if you want to photograph them you have to know as much as there is to know about the birds, and you cannot simply walk up to the side of the road and expect to make award winning photographs of them. There is a good reason that waterfowl hunters have decoys, calls, waders, camoflauge, and spend days working to perfect thier hunting blinds before the birds begin to arrive.
What all of these means then, is that even though I was concealed in a blind, it just wasnt good enough. The blind was far to conspicous to these waterfowl. After learning of birds becoming blind shy like this, I set mine up and studied it. First off, it has a slight sheen to the fabric. This means of the light hits it right the blind will be illuminated. Second, its too dark for the phragmites. I have photographed waterfowl from this blind many times before, but not with such a uniformly light tan background as these phragmites. I probably looked like a giant glistening bear with knife and fork in hand to these birds. Or maybe I just looked like the last thing that killed a few of thier friends. Eitherway, these birds were spooking.
So the solution? I will be picking up a couple mats of shadow grass and a thing of burlap this week. The burlap is light and can be spray painted with cattails and phragmites used as stencils to create the perception of depth. The shadow grass on the other hand will make me completely disappear into the dead phragmites, but is really heavy and a burden to tote around. Where I photograph in Mattamuskeet, I can simply cart my gear (with one of those fishing gear carts you see people using on piers) to the area and then just stash the cart. Elsewhere, when I need to done waders and trudge belly deep through the water, I can float the burlap along with the rest of my gear in a large mortar mixing tub with a rope attached to it. This actually works great because it keeps your stuff dry even if you take a fall in the water.