I want to tell you a story that will help improve your wildlife photography. . .
It was the Saturday before Easter, and to escape the crowds of people in a favorite park of mine, we decided to get off the beaten path and search for owls. Over the course of a couple weeks along the Gulf coast of Florida, we had found several families of barred owls in the old growth tropical hardwood hammocks. In typical fashion, the screeching calls of begging chicks tuned us in to the general area where boots on the ground, or in my case, Chaco sandals, and patience, and Swarovski binoculars did the rest of the work.
Although there was a migrating flock of endangered red knots along the beach I was hoping to spend more time with, I was desperate to escape the sea of humanity out recreating on this beautiful three day weekend.
Hiking in, we knew from scouting that there should be three owls in this 20 acre section of of live oak and sable palm forest. In these situations, you have but two methods of finding a family of barred owls: identifying the anomaly in the canopy by sight, or pick out the particular sounds of a begging owlet or reassuring adult.
Walking in blind, that is to say, without having a specific nesting site to go to, you you need to be prepared to put in the work – watching, studying, scrutinizing, and listening intently.
If you think this is always easy for folks like myself, you are wrong. When there is a specific subject I am looking for, such as owls, days might pass where the only thing I come away with is my Garmin watch congratulating me on reaching 10,000 steps.
But put in the work, do the scouting, piece together the puzzle, and you can spend weeks working with a single subject, getting to know them, building trust, and creating extraordinary photographs.
Most photographers across North America are familiar with the classic “who cooks for you” call of the barred owl. But of the 200+ different types of calls that a barred owl will make, the ones that are loud and distinguishable are meant for establishing territories or communicating at distance with mates.
With owlets about, everything is different.
In the presence of chicks, adults will make more of a cooing sound – similar to a mourning dove – as a means of communicating from tree to tree with owlets who have left the nest. Those chicks, on the other hand, make a screeching noise similar to the call of a gray squirrel when they are begging for food.
Mourning doves and gray squirrels. Neither of these are exactly right, but recognizing the similarities will put you on the mark.
On this particular afternoon, however, the “eyes” had it.
In a dense thicket of vegetation beneath the overstory of the forest, I spotted the telltale blob of an animal. I cannot even begin to count the number of times I have found subjects to photograph by recognizing the anomaly like this inside the pattern of shapes of vegetation: black bears feeding on hawthorn berries while I’m driving down the road, porcupines napping in the middle of the day, American martens, and even a bobcat up in a Douglas-fir. But on this day, the “blob” proved to be the adult female owl. And within another minute of searching, we identified the owlet tucked deeper inside the brush.
It was hot and the light was still harsh. But with the heavy lift of finding owls accomplished, we settled down into the leaf litter of the forest floor to wait out the heat and sun and owls.
There seems to be a 10 minute rule with wildlife. Sit down. Shut up. Stop moving. Relax. And after about 10 minutes, the rest of the forest relaxes as well.
In short order, the owlet had enough of quietly watching us from her concealed position.
This part about relaxing is more important than you may realize. Even when communicating with each other, we say far more with our body language, our posture, our facial expressions, etc, than we ever do with our words.
The rest of the natural world understands they live in a mixed species community. Their audible words, or vocalizations, may be very different from species to species but they can communicate with each other via body language. And every time you encounter an animal in the wild, that individual communicates with you – whether you realize it or not.
Whether bison, bear, moose, or owl, that individual will attempt to engage in communication with you.
We as a culture are tragically oblivious to this simply because we have isolated ourselves from the rest of the world both physically and mentally.
Hopping out onto the branch of a live oak for a better look, the owlet began the telltale head bob as she was taking the measure of us.
But then she stopped and began looking down.
The owlet would look at us and head bob. Then she would look down and head bob.
Head bob, in owlet speak, is who are you?
It was only then that we realized just below the owls was a newborn fawn curled up in the leaf litter waiting for her mother to return.
What does it mean to truly be present in the moment? Wildlife photography isn’t just about finding an animal in front of your lens. It’s a multi sensory experience. You can’t be here if you are elsewhere.
If we hadn’t put in the work, listening and searching, we never would have found the owls – for which I created some very unique photographs that I’ll share in the coming weeks.
If we hadn’t simply set down and put in the time sitting quietly, showing the world that we were not a threat, the owls would never have relaxed.
If we had stood there in front of the owls, clanking away with tripods, shifting about, engaging in small talk, impatiently trying to entertain ourselves until the owls “performed,” we certainly would have never captured the images we did.
If we had not been paying attention to the owls body language we would never have realized we were not the only other animal she was inspecting.
This is how most wildlife photography works.
Sure, you can charge about a National Park searching for animals that are stoned on the carbon monoxide of vehicles and line up with 50 other photographers. But this is not how compelling images are created – especially of our more secretive and shy neighbors.
Understanding the BIOGRAPHY of an animal, understanding what they are communicating to you and what you are inadvertently communicating to them, is how we begin to take our photography to the next level.
It doesn’t matter how technically proficient you are with a camera. It doesn’t matter how awesome your new camera’s “eye detect” autofocus is. It doesn’t matter how well your camera handles noise, or how beautiful the bokeh is with that fancy lens. If you can’t find animals, and put them at ease, how are you going to be a wildlife photographer?