Long before you are face to face with your subject, you should have done your homework and learned as much as possible about your subject. Not only will this knowledge give you an edge when it comes to anticipating behavior, but you’ll learn some fascinating information. For example, a grizzly bear cub is born in the dead of winter weighing mere ounces and nurses for several months while its mother hibernates before they both emerge from the den in the spring. The cubs are born with a light-colored necklace (natal ring), which gradually disappears over the course of a summer. If you are interested enough to photograph a subject, you ought to be interested in learning as much as you can about it. Knowledge of your subjects makes the time in the field much more enjoyable and helps to pass the slow times knowing that action can happen at a moment’s notice.
There are many ways to learn about wildlife. Books are a great resource with tens of thousands of titles directed at wildlife in general, as well as those that are specific to an individual species. A good book on birds helps you to identify them and provides you with information on range, plumage during mating and nonmating seasons, size, shape, and so much more. Most libraries have a great wildlife section, but I prefer to build my own library of the subjects that I am most interested in to refer to at my convenience. I also enjoy coffee-table books filled with gorgeous photographs that give me ideas and motivation to go out and make my own beautiful images.
DVDs (Figure 4.1) are also a great way to learn more about your subject. Not only will you learn behavior traits, but you’ll get to witness that behavior in action as you watch bulls sparring with each other over harem rights or the mating dance of a prairie chicken. DVDs are informational and inspirational. The Life of Birds and The Life of Mammals narrated by Sir David Attenborough are filled with hours of great footage and information.
Figure 4.1 DVDs are a great way to observe wildlife behavior with narration explaining it at the same time.
We are so lucky to be living in the current technology age where information on any and all subjects is available at our fingertips. The Internet is full of sites that are dedicated to wildlife. Some sites provide a wealth of information about any subject you are interested in; others focus on what wildlife can be found in a specific location; and still others place an emphasis on protecting our wild heritage. Additionally, there are forums where members share wildlife sightings by area. You can join these forums to learn more and in the process make friends with those of similar interests. Some of the sites I frequent most are the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (http://www.birds.cornell.edu/Page.aspx?pid=1478) for in-depth information of birds; Wikipedia for a quick overview of any bird, mammal, reptile, and so on that I need to know about; and Birdbrains (http://listserv.admin.usf.edu/archives/brdbrain.html), which is an excellent forum for finding current hotspots to photograph birds in Florida. Numerous sites are available. Simply do a search to find information on the subject you are interested in.
Nowadays, you can take your research a step further with apps for your portable devices that you can take with you in the field (Figure 4.2) for on-the-spot information. Not only do these apps tell you all about your subjects, but many provide audio of the calls and sounds they make.
Figure 4.2 iBird Pro is one of the apps that I have on my iPad for in-the-field reference.
Local and National Wildlife Organizations
Check your local area for organizations that are dedicated to wildlife, such as the Audubon Society, which is a great resource for learning with all the classes and field trips they offer. Not only will you learn more about wildlife, you will also discover where to find wildlife in your area that you can revisit on your own time with your camera in hand. Chances are that you will even make friends with people who share the same interest and find photography companions to join you on wildlife adventures. NANPA (National Association of Nature Photographers of America) is a great organization for learning about wildlife and wildlife photography, and for meeting other like-minded wildlife photographers. The association also promotes good field ethics to protect wildlife while you enjoy the opportunity to photograph it (see the section “Field Ethics” for more on NANPA). Wildlife conservation is another area where you can learn about wildlife and give back to the wildlife that gives you such photographing pleasure. Some conservation groups include National Wildlife Federation, World Wildlife Fund, and Defenders of Wildlife. An Internet search will help you find an organization in your location and area of interest.
Experts in the Field
Once you begin your research, you will be surprised at where it leads you. Knowing that mid-July is the best time to visit Florida to photograph Skimmers with their young (Figure 4.3), I make the trip there every couple of years. On one visit, an early-morning encounter with a couple of rangers led to an invitation to join them as they excavated a hatched-out sea turtle nest (Figure 4.4). Not only did I get some new images for my files, but I also learned that the turtles come ashore beginning in May to lay their eggs. The female drags her massive body out of the surf to the dunes at night and then uses her rear flippers to dig a hole in which she lays approximately 100 eggs that are ping-pong ball size. She then covers the nest with sand and returns to the sea, never to return to that nest again. Approximately 60 days later, the hatchlings dig their way out of the nest and scurry to the sea (usually in the cool, dark of night) where they remain until it’s their time to continue the reproduction process. I could go on and on, but I think you get my drift. Had I not met Ranger Mike, I wouldn’t have had such an interesting and educational morning. In addition to rangers, biologists, wildlife researchers, volunteers at various refuges, and so on are all great resources for information.
Figure 4.3 Using a wide aperture, especially with a longer lens, blurs distracting background details.
Figure 4.4 Working with experts provides excellent photo opportunities and learning experiences.