So here we were, 5 days into a shoot for the South Carolina Waterfowl Association and the birds just weren’t there. By this point things had become pretty routine for us. At 5 am the alarm clocks sounded. 5:20 we were at the lodge for a couple cups of coffee and to finalize where everyone would be that morning. Temperatures ranged from the high 20’s to mid thirties in the morning and the day before we had 5 inches of snow on the ground. For this shoot, the Waterfowl Association had given us access to some of the best private duck impoundments in the entire state. Each day we were treated to multimillion dollar duck ponds that were being managed by some of the top wildlife managers and waterfowl biologists in the country. Yet, the birds were few and far between.
Finally, maybe out of desperation, a couple of us changed tactics one evening. Near one of the waterfowl impoundments Ben Clewis and Doug Gardner had noticed that in the evening a handful of mallards would drop into this little section of flooded winter wheat. Each afternoon as they came out of the property they would jump these birds. With this information in hand, Robert Smith and I decided that considering nothing else was panning out and we were still trying to earn our keep that we would give it a whirl.
Around 3 pm the two of us found ourselves sitting in Robert’s truck staring at what was essentially nothing more than a mud puddle on the edge of this field. We were 20 minutes past the property that the two of us had been working from the past couple days and time was now of the essence. So, we decided to go for it. Robert parked his truck down the road away and we hauled stuff off the edge of the road to the “puddle.” With the 5 inches of snow that had just melted off the day before, this low section of the field had flooded out and now ranged from 4 to 16 inches of water.
Neither of us brought blinds with us, instead opting to just use natural material that was available there along the side of the road. Pine bows, wax myrtle branches, and some broom straw would have to suffice today as a chair blind would just be far to conspicuous to these extremely shy birds this time of year. Now talk about feeling like a moron. Here we were just a few feet off the side of a main road, building blinds at the edge of a mud puddle facing a 3.5 million dollar waterfowl impoundment just 100 yards away on the other side of the field. We were cursing Doug for this one and were half convinced he had a trail cam set up in the bushes filming the whole thing. It would be our luck that season 3 of Wild Photo Adventures would come out with a bloopers clip of me and Robert sitting in a puddle on the side of the road – wildlife photography at its best.
To make things worse, the birds were even late showing up to the impoundments. It wasn’t until 5 pm before we even began to see birds flying in from the lake, and none of them giving our mud puddle even so much as a glance as they came in. To be honest, I had given up on the idea and had begun to focus in on a little kill deer working the edge of our puddle. By this point, I was slouched down slow in the water, resting my back on a clump of grass and trying to angle myself to photograph the kill deer, when all of a sudden two cannon balls crashed into the water right in front me of me. From the other blind, Robert mutters out a “well I’ll be damned!” I glance around the camera to see a couple mallards sitting 15 feet from me.
I couldn’t believe it. There was actually birds coming to our decoys on the edge of a dag on mud puddle! Only problem though, was now in order for me to get in behind my camera I would have to pull myself back up and reposition – in which case I ran the risk of spooking the birds off the water. Knowing I really had no other choice, I put my left hand around the center column of my gitzo tripod and pulled myself up the the camera. I sat in that position, holding myself up in one of the most awkward positions I have ever photographed in for nearly 30 minutes – arm shaking about half way through – as more birds continued to drop in.
Being that this puddle was in an open field and there was another field on the other side of the road, we managed to keep light on the birds till nearly 6 pm. All in all, this turned out to be the best shoot for either of us the entire trip.
So lessons learned from this one? Absolutely. First off, you can’t discount birds not quite following the rules. Though we had access to some of the best duck waters in the region, what little photography was happening there was just too cluttered, and very unpredictable. Here in the puddle, it was just as clean of a scene as you could imagine with soft sexy light that would never have been possible on the other side of the dike and surrounded by trees.
The other thing that I took from this was how much more effective a natural blind was on late season birds. Everyone at the shoot started out with chair blinds and the like, brushed up with some natural vegetation. By the end of the week, everyone had abandoned their blinds and were instead opting for just a handful of pine branches to conceal them.
Now I have watched as birds flared in response to my blinds before. That is nothing new for any wildlife photographer. Yet no matter how hard I worked at concealing my chair blind, the birds, though coming in closer, in the end, still flared off. That’s when I realized that I was putting in a lot of time and effort to hide something that was designed to hide me. Talk about redundant. One morning, after 5 hours of watching ice form around my waders, when I came out of the blind I had put up in one of the ponds I walked a ways out and set down on a dirt mound to study it. What was making these birds skittish? The blind was a gray forest pattern, it was tucked up into the woods, and I had dead limbs stuck up in front of it, Spanish moss draped over top, and all kinds of stuff in place to break up its outline. That’s when it hit me, it was the outline.
In all the years that I have been guiding wildlife trips all across the country, one of the first things that I tell my customers is that when your looking for wildlife, look for the “horizontals.” In nature, everything is vertically oriented except for animals. A deer has a horizontal back, as does a grizzly bear, a wolf, or a cougar. Though my blind was not square, it was relatively domed shape and that dome was creating the impression of an animal standing in the trees. As an experiment, I walked back into the woods, dropped my blind down below the waters edge and then leaned up against the tree. Wouldn’t you know it, the very next group of mallards to fly by dropped right in on me. Of course, it didn’t take them long to realize I was standing there and they bolted again, but this was all I needed to confirm my hypothesis about my blind. Standing up, I was vertically oriented just like the trees were. Without a blind, to this duck I was better camouflaged than I was sitting inside the chair blind.
That afternoon I decided to experiment with this notion once again on a different impoundment. I threw out about 20 ring neck decoys along a skinny section of open water between some standing corn and the tree line. Here I simply sat down on the dike next to a couple pine saplings with two small pine branches stuck in the mud in front of me and my camera. Sure enough, wood ducks and ring necks came right in to my decoys that afternoon.
Now I had always known that natural vegetation was typically needed to help conceal your blind, but here I was finding that using anything other than natural vegetation, oriented in a “natural” way, was spooking the birds. These birds of course were something of the scraps of the season if you will. All season long people had been hunting these birds from the ponds we were sitting in and so therefore they were extremely “gun shy” if you will. Which, as it turned out, made these extremely blind shy as well. Yet, with just two small pine bows, I was able to “blend in” better than with a chair blind that concealed every square inch of me except my lens hood.
This whole vertical orientation really got me thinking along other lines as well. You know, anthropologists have been theorizing for a century now as to why humans began to stand up instead of remaining on all fours. Many ideas abound in this regards such as this freed our hands for carrying and working. This made us taller so we could see further across the savanna. Now, with what Ive seen, I would argue that by standing, this also may have helped us blend in to our surroundings better in the presence of some of the biggest super predators on Earth. Its probably a number of reasons that both pushed and pulled our species into evolving into a two legged creature – but this idea seems to fit nicely.
I think from here on out, I will be leaving the chair blind in the truck. Its a lot easier to take a pair of clippers and a little saw into the back country than it is a big blind and if the chair blind has worked for me before, imagine how much better just using natural vegetation in a vertical orientation will work on animals not as skittish as ducks already missing feathers from bird shot.