As is the case most mornings that I am out photographing, the alarm went off at 4:00 am and I was on the road by 4:30. My original destination was to be Poccosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge to photograph geese blizzards – you know, the photographs of 50,000 geese taking off at once. Just before I was to leave the island, it dawned on me that I hadn’t been down to Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge in over a month. The last time I was there, not many birds (waterfowl) had really made it in there yet. Considering the sudden explosion of birds elsewhere however, it seemed safe to assume that Pea Island would be holding now as well.
I was pulling up along side of the waterfowl impounments about an hour before sunrise and already I could make out a few hundred swans out on the water. Their distinctive cooing and hoots filled the predawn sky and made them hard to miss. This was a good sign. Once the swans have arrived in mass at Pea Island, the greater snow goose has as well. And really, when it comes to photographing birds at this National Wildlife Refuge in the winter time, snow geese are the only reason I make the drive down.
Sure there are tens of thousands of birds out on the impoundments at Pea Island, but access is very limited here. There is a hiking trail around what is called the North Pond, and there is even a photo blind here, but the real action is to be had just to the south in the impoundments that are off-limits to us humans. This makes photography extremely difficult this time of year as ducks are very small creatures and therefore you have to be right on top of them often times in order to make succesful photographs of them.The swans, though many, routinely stay out in the middle of the impoundments or along the western boundary away from the road. This means that the only species of waterfowl that is truly accessible here are the snow geese.
As the greater snow goose is a dabbling species that prefers to much around in extremely shallow water or better yet, a wet meadow, these geese tend to be concentrated within 40 yards of the road side. This side of the impoundments are very shallow with a gentle slope from the roadside that turns into wet meadows and marsh habitats. As the impoundment progresses to the west, it gets deeper, culminating in a dyke along the soundside (western) border. This is why Pea Island can be such a tease. You stand along the road looking out at a raft of oh say 1,000 redheads or canvasbacks but considering these are diving species, they are on the wrong side of the impoundment. Now if you want to photograph geese however, the situation is almost perfect.
In the winter the typical winds out here on the barrier islands are out of the North. This means Northwest or Northeast. Now a northwest wind is a great wind because it usually brings in new birds to the area and really gets the birds jumping around a lot. This is for a good reason as they are usually associated with cold fronts. A northeast wind can be good, or it can wash your house away and open up a new inlet in the middle of the islands. It just depends on how long it blows.
Considering birds typically take off and land into the wind so as to exploit the lifting and breaking potential of the wind, knowing where the wind will be blowing before you come out is always a good thing. My personal favorite time to photograph these geese here is early morning with a northeast wind at around 20 mph. This is strong enough to concentrate the birds into tight groups. This is strong enough to keep them tight against the bank. But really the key here is the combination of the angle of sunlight and the direction that birds will be facing when they land.
As it is winter, the sun rises in the southeast. Along this strip of sand it feels more like south-southeast really. This is great in that if you’re facing north, than you have the sun right over your shoulder which is the optimal direction for photographing birds in flight. The only problem here though is that with the wind blowing out of the north, the birds will be facing away from you giving plenty of opportunities to photograph their butts but little else except as they whiz by you. This is where the northeast wind kicks in. Since the birds will be landing in an easterly direction, and the sun is rising up out of the southeast, the birds will be perfectly illuminated from the side. This means heads, bodies, wings, etc. . . all bathed in that beautiful glow of early morning light. A strong southeast wind would bring the birds landing directly into the sun, which would be great, but rarely happens here in the winter.
So with a northeast wind you are going to want to position your vehicle southeast of the birds – for reasons that I have explained above. For a northwest wind however, I prefer to be northeast of the birds as this will allow me to see their faces. This becomes tricky in the since that often times the face of the bird is hidden in shadows and timing or bird angle has to be just right in order to illuminate the face. But hey, thats wildlife photography right?
Here are a couple photographs from today, with a northwest wind. Note the bird landing angled away from me.