I was out with Doug Gardner and David Reagan at Poccosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge this past week working on another episode of Wild Photo Adventures. Now that the show is in High Definition and is airing nationwide, Doug wanted to revisit the refuge for another show on snow geese and tundra swan action. The other reason for re-doing a show here is that everything has changed quite dramatically at the refuges since the first season of the show. Before, you could apply for a special use permit and set up blinds in the fields of Poccosin and in the waterfowl impoundments at Lake Mattamuskeet NWR. These days however access to such locations has been completely closed down to photographers.
There are a number of reasons for this, one of which being the increased pressure at these refuges by photographers. The other reason however has been because the actions and behaviors of some photographers while shooting at refuges like Poccosin. With anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 snow geese in the winter time, the refuge has become world reknowend by photographers for the birds famous blast off. This many birds suddenly taking flight is truly a sight to behold. The problem here however is that photographers have taken to scaring the birds into creating such explosions. These birds are hunted throughout their migration range and are naturally a prey species. Evolution has selected them to be paranoid – and for good reason. Some photographers are exploiting this by flushing the birds in order to get the shots that they want.
This sort of behavior is what will inevitably shut down photographers access to these birds for good. It is not only irresponsible but its unethical as these folks are putting the birds at risk. Survival for these birds during the winter is all about a careful balance between calories in and calories out. Flushing birds forces them to expend calories which leads to starvation. The other issue here is that when birds are flushed they will often times move to surrounding feilds off of the refuge where they are then hunted relentlessly. The refuge is supposed to be just as the name implies, a refuge for these birds.
The other issue here is the lack of understanding of these birds biology and behavior. Two weeks ago I arrived at Poccosin to begin scouting for the upcoming television show. Upon arriving however I noticed that there were nearly 30 vehicles on site and a horde of photographers lined up to shoot the birds. People were standing around laughing, slamming doors, clanking tripods around, and the like. Knowing how these birds work, I knew that the geese would not stand for this long. For this reason I backed out and drove off to the far end of the fields where there was still some corn. When the temperatures stay in the 30s or lower, these birds have to feed heavily in order to consume the calories needed to keep warm.
As I suspected, in no time the birds took flight trying to flee the commotion and dropped in right beside where I was sitting. And like I had worried, the convoy of vehicles fired up and chased after them. The result? Birds jumping again. Back and forth I watched as people chased these snow geese around the fields. With behavior like this, why shouldn’t they close down the refuge?
Working the snow geese for the show, we made sure we were going to be in there when no photographers had workshops going on, and during the weekday when the weekend warriors would be at bay. On site a half hour before sunrise we positioned our self in such a way as to watch for the geese rising up off of Pungo Lake in the distance. Once we knew where the birds were going to be feeding we made our way in that direction. Upon nearing the birds, we parked the truck a good 100 yards away and walked in to about 40 yards from the birds.
By doing this we kept the birds at ease and allowed them plenty of room to work their way towards us. As these birds busy themselves with feeding, if you are already in place and STAY that way, than the birds will habituate to your presence and ignore you as they slowly work their way in your direction. We settled in low along the side of ditch with a bit of cover in front of us to put the birds at ease. Within a 30 minutes of getting set up, we had birds 15 feet from the end of our lens.
Since the birds were working in our direction, and we were not being viewed as a potential threat, geese in the back were constantly jumping to the front of the group. This meant that we were afforded a constant stream of birds flying and landing directly in front of us. Could you ask for a better situation at Poccosin? NO. This is how you photograph these birds at this refuge. When you have birds steadily coming in on top of you, and staying that way for 3 solid hours, it gives you the opportunity to move beyond the frantic shooting that most photographers find themselves caught up in, and allows you to begin to isolate individuals as well as move into the more creative realms of your photography.
I have several thousand images I have to go through from just that one day of photographing geese. Here are the first two I pulled up.