EDITOR IN CHIEF: Jared Lloyd

jared@journalofwildlifephotography.com

MANAGING EDITOR: Jamie Banjak

jamie@journalofwildlifephotography.com

DESIGNER: Kristi Kern

kristi@vsi.co

Copyright © 2021 Journal of Wildlife Photography.

All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher.

BOB SCHAFER: ADVANCED WINNER

IMAGE DETAILS

DATA:
Pentax K20D, Pentax SMC DA 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 AL WR, focal length 28mm, f/16, 1/50, ISO 400, exposure comp +0.3

LOCATION:
St. Andrew’s Bay, South Georgia

ABOUT THE COVER

This image was taken from our 2009 voyage to Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falklands aboard the now-retired Lindblad National Geographic Endeavour. St. Andrew’s Bay has a two-mile-long gravel-and-black-sand beach backed by glaciers and mountains. It also has a king penguin colony that has as many as 300,000 king penguins along with elephant seals and fur seals! With favorable weather conditions, we had a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call and a 5:00 Zodiac shuttle to the beach. Shortly after our arrival, the sky turned pink, then the mountains, and finally, the beach. As we wandered around the edges of the colony, I came across this tidal pool and it all came together: reflections, penguins, glaciers, mountains, and the morning light. We wandered up and down the colony and had wonderful wildlife encounters until it was time to return to the ship on the last Zodiac at 11:00 a.m. I will always remember the sights, sounds, and smells 🙂 of that amazing morning.

ABOUT BOB

I am a retired engineer who, along with my partner Susan, loves to travel and photograph in the wild places both near our home in southeastern Pennsylvania and around the world. The list of places we want to visit only grows after each trip.

Letter From The Editor

Howdy folks, and welcome to the Summer edition of the Journal of Wildlife Photography!

Oh, what a summer it has been. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere – and yes, readers of the Journal hail from every habitable continent across the planet (!) – it has been one heck of a summer with heat domes and broken records seemingly every other week.

My response to this has been to find myself high up in the boreal forest that rings the planet like a great big crown of spruce, fir, aspen, and birch. From northern Minnesota (Canada wouldn’t let me in) to Alaska, I have spent the last few months escaping the heat and doing what many self-respecting wildlife photographers probably wanted to do: photographing bears.

But bears don’t factor into this issue of the Journal. That’s all for future issues.

However, that doesn’t mean that the boreal forest in all of its glory doesn’t make its way into the pages of this issue. This past winter, I spent a couple of weeks in deep negative temperatures snowshoeing through fens, glens, black spruce swamps, and bogs in search of great gray owls. And in the feature article “Chasing Ghosts,” I discuss how I go about “thinking like an owl” to find and photograph these silent and mysterious birds of prey that haunt the north woods of both the Western and Eastern Hemispheres.

Learning how to think like an animal is important.

There is nothing “heady” or “woo woo” about this. It’s something that all of our ancestors practiced for countless thousands of years. It’s the ability to think and see the world like our subject. It’s a measure of coming to understand the species of our desire. It’s a matter of connecting with an animal, a place, a season, and understanding the ways in which the world works.

Do this, and you will find wildlife.

Fail to come to transcend the species barrier in this regard and you will be forced to join the masses, driving around aimlessly looking for other long lenses in order to find wildlife.

But that’s just one of the articles you will find in the pages of the summer issue.

Alyce Bender joins us once again with her column on conservation photography, and this time she focuses in on the western snowy plover. With only 2,500 individuals remaining, the western snowy plover is in dire need of our help for its survival. In this article, she takes us on a deep dive into the life and times of this beautiful little bird and explains exactly what we can be doing right now with our photography to help these plovers.

Likewise, you will also find underwater photographer Eli Martinez back again. If you don’t know Eli yet, he is a guy you have to meet. Just check out Shark Week on the Discovery Channel if you want to see him at work, literally dancing with sharks. In his article “Is a Photo Worth Your Life?,” Eli talks about the ethics and safety considerations of working with predators. Given that this guy has built his entire reputation on working with some of the most extraordinary underwater predators on the planet, this is definitely a story you don’t want to miss – even if you are not an underwater photographer.

Clay Bolt returns again with a discussion about planning trips to photograph the biodiversity of Latin America. Moose Henderson brings us his considerations on composition for wildlife photography. Joe McDonald takes us to Uganda in search of mountain gorillas. And Greg Basco, the master of flash photography, discusses everything you never knew you needed to understand about high-speed sync flash – a VERY important topic.

In addition to our regular contributors, I am excited to also welcome Kate Garibaldi to the roster. Kate is going to begin writing a column for us entitled “Wild Lives.” And in this issue, she discusses using a photojournalist’s approach to photographing wildlife. You definitely do not want to miss this one!

If you haven’t noticed, the Journal of Wildlife Photography is growing. We are expanding. We are bringing on new writers and photographers as we continue to partner with some the best working wildlife photographers on the planet.

Additionally, this summer we also released a full-scale multi-part video course produced by Aaron Baggenstos. I have known Aaron since we worked on a PBS show together many years ago. Like myself, Aaron got into this whole professional wildlife photographer thing really young and has been at it for nearly two decades now, publishing and teaching.

Naturally, I get a lot of proposals on my desk for partnerships with the Journal. I’m pretty selective on this sort of stuff, however. These things have to “fit.” This is the Journal of Wildlife Photography after all. We have a reputation for being the foremost resource for educating wildlife photographers around the world. But when I sat down and watched Aaron’s video course that he produced over the pandemic, I knew right away that this was going to be a tremendous resource for wildlife photographers. Whereas the Journal tends to slant more to the advanced photographer in many ways, Aaron’s Ultimate Wildlife Photography Course is very much catered to the beginner and intermediate photographer. And given the information provided along with the production value of this course, Aaron’s course should be on your radar.

As always, I would love to hear your feedback on this issue. And don’t forget to keep an eye out on your inbox for those weekly Question & Action emails!

Cheers,
Jared

Shedding Light On Species Of Special Concern: Western Snowy Plover

By Alyce Bender

Banded as a chick in Oregon, this western snowy plover has overwintered in this area for several years and, I guess, decided to save energy, and was found remaining in the area over the 2020 summer when this image was taken. This back history of this individual was found by reporting the observation of the individual to the Bird Banding Lab.

It’s an overcast day with a chill in the air as I walk down one of the few sandy beaches along the central Californian coastline. It’s early morning and the sun’s been up for half an hour or so, but the layer of ocean fog makes it so that the whole scene is just washed in gray with soft light. The winds persist from the last few days of storms with random gusts pushing at me and throwing sand in my face.

This particular area has a wide band of sand between the waves and the cliff line, where multimillion dollar houses sit, windows and patios open to this view. A low tide makes this beach even wider for the moment. A few people are out at this hour, getting their morning walks and jogs in before breakfast, but I know more will be out in a few short hours, and my window for photographing shorebirds will essentially close due to the activity.

Out of the corner of my eye, I spot what someone could easily mistake as wave foam suddenly dart up the shore from the water to the high tide line— a small round shape, slightly bigger than a golf ball. Then I see it again, this time darting back down to the water’s edge. Foam does not do that! It appears to be a little bird.

Slowly, as with any shorebird I want to photograph, I make my way in its general direction, wandering rather than making a beeline for its location. About 15 yards out, I start getting low and really watching for any signs of my presence unsettling it. The last thing I want to do is flush this tiny bird. As I get closer, I end up in a prone position amidst the sand, seaweed, and other beach wrack that has concentrated about the high-tide line, for this is where the little bird is hunting. Then I realize that there is more than one of these small birds here in the area, including one with leg bands, and it clicks that this is a flock of western snowy plovers! My morning just got a lot more interesting.

A western snowy plover on an overcast day. Behind it are the eroded cliffs covered in invasive ice plants.


COMMON NAME: WESTERN SNOWY PLOVER

SCIENTIFIC NAME: CHARADRIUS NIVOSUS NIVOSUS

CONSERVATION STATUS: THREATENED

LIFE SPAN (IN THE WILD): THREE YEARS

SPECIES PROFILE AND HISTORY

As the name implies, the western snowy plover’s home range stretches from southern Washington state down the Pacific coast to Baja California, Mexico. Some inland populations exist as well in places like inland Oregon, California, Nevada, and Utah, but the federal government only recognizes the Pacific coast population, which was listed as “threatened” in 1993, and specified them as those who “nest on the mainland coast, peninsulas, offshore islands, bays, estuaries, or rivers of the United States Pacific coast and Baja California, Mexico.” Both resident and migratory depending on the individual, the number of individuals at any one location in their species’ range fluctuates throughout the year, with the majority found south of San Francisco Bay year-round.

Beach wrack acts not only as an important habitat for the western snowy plover’s prey, but it also provides shelter from gale-force winds that can buffet the Pacific coast.
This western snowy plover shows signs of disturbance as a beachcomber (out of frame) wanders too close to the bird’s resting area. Completely unaware, the passerby still influenced this tiny bird and caused it to expend additional energy. While I would have liked to educate them on what had just transpired, my movement or voice would have also been an additional stressor and thus, I proceeded to simply lie there in hopes that the bird would recover as the beachcomber moved on.

Weighing at most two ounces and measuring no more than six inches in length, these sparrow-sized plovers are usually identified by their small size and coloration. With dark legs, a pale tan “cape” across their top, and white below, western snowy plovers blend incredibly well with their beach environment. This dichotomy of color not only helps them camouflage against the sand from land-based predators, such as raccoons and coyotes, but also from aerial threats posed by beach-hunting raptors like falcons and owls.

Breeding season is really the only time you can tell the male from the female in this species. The male usually has black markings on its head and breast while the females will have dark brown. Beyond breeding season, when this plumage molts out, the two sexes are indistinguishable from each other.

Besides being super cute, these shorebirds have very interesting breeding behavior. Courtship begins in mid-February with pair bonding. Some pair bonds begin while individual birds are wintering together, and often, mated birds from previous years will re-pair. During this time, males defend territories and make several scrapes (indents on the ground that act as nests). The male makes these scrapes by leaning forward on his breast, kicking with his feet (scraping the sand), and moving back and forth.

Nesting starts in March, peaking around the beginning of June, and runs through September. During this time, the female pairs with a male and then chooses one of the scrapes he has prepared where she lays her eggs. Both parents share duties during incubation, which lasts about 27 days. The typical clutch has three speckled, sand-colored eggs. If you thought the adults were hard to spot, these eggs are even more so!

Shortly after the chicks hatch, the mother leaves the brood in the care of the father and goes to pair with another unpaired male in order to raise a second nest in the same season. Up to three nests in the same season by the same female have been recorded. The father of the first brood often raises his chicks alone because of this behavioral evolution within the female of the species. However, both parents usually raise the last clutch of the season together, as the female will stay with that nest and hatchlings due to the season ending.

If the nest is disturbed, western snowy plovers often react by simply running away, abandoning the eggs to save themselves. On occasion, if the eggs are at hatching stage, one or both of the parents will try using more traditional plover tactics to lure a predator away from the nest with distraction displays, such as the broken-wing charade. The adults also use these displays before the chicks fledge in an attempt to increase chick viability.

Western snowy plover chicks are ready to leave the nest within three hours of hatching. Unlike many other bird species, these chicks are not fed by their parent(s) but led to food and taught to hunt from day one outside the shell. The tending parent also provides the chicks with the necessary warmth in order for them to survive until they fledge, about a month after hatching. Chick down provides almost no protection from the elements, and the open nesting of the species does not provide any additional cover or warmth. Most chick mortality happens in the first six days after hatching when they are most susceptible to environmental changes and predators.

Foraging for this species takes place in a couple of environments, from the intertidal zone to salt pans to the edges of salt marches and lagoons. The common factor in all these spots is the plethora of small invertebrates, such as kelp flies and marine worms. 

CONSERVATION TODAY

Fewer than 2,500 breeding western snowy plovers remain in existence today. Historically, this species was prevalent throughout the western coastal environments, but by the 1980s, surveys showed that the western snowy plover had disappeared from significant parts of its coastal breeding ranges. Prior to 1970, it was thought that in California, western snowy plovers held breeding and nesting sites in more than 50 locations. Today, snowy plovers nest in fewer than 25 sites along the Californian coastline.

Preening is a good behavioral sign that the bird is unstressed by the presence of the photographer.

Human activity is the number-one factor in the ongoing decline in breeding sites and population of this species. The breeding season (March through September) happens to also be the time beaches see the highest rate of human visitation and recreation. Activities such as walking, jogging, allowing dogs (a human-introduced predator) off leash, or driving on sandy beaches all cause nest abandonment, reductions in nesting density, and chick mortality.

At only two ounces each, energy is very important to these tiny birds. Each disturbance causes the birds to consume energy. If those disturbances are man-made, such as a jogger unknowingly running through a nesting site or someone flying a kite in the area where snowy plovers are teaching their chicks to hunt (kites mimic aerial predators), adult western snowy plovers can and will abandon their nests or stay away from their chicks long enough that the chicks die of exposure to the elements or stress.

Development along the coast has only led to a decrease in adequate breeding sites as well. With the development has come the introduction of invasive plants, such as European beachgrass and the fast-growing succulent known as ice plant. Where buildings have not covered the sandy, open areas that offer plovers access to water and hunting territories, these invasive species of plants continue to spread, making it that much harder for historical nesting sites to reestablish themselves.

Once western snowy plovers were put on the list and given federal protection under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, conservation efforts quickly came in place, and yet the difficulties lie in getting the public to “Share the Shore.” In a 2012 review of the western snowy plover population, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service increased the critical habitat allotments for the western snowy plover to just under 25,000 acres of coastal beach-dune ecosystem habitat along the Pacific, stating that this area is essential to the survival and recovery of this species. That being said, all this does is notify other federal agencies of areas that need special consideration before they implement or fund activities that might impact those areas identified as critical habitat. Various parks and organizations across the western snowy plovers’ range have implemented conservation strategies to try and help with the recovery of this species. Since the leading cause of nesting failure is disturbance, there is an ongoing public awareness campaign on “Sharing the Shore.” Furthermore, in areas where management and oversight are ample enough, such as at Point Reyes National Seashore, conscientious staff erect physical nest enclosures to help keep predators from reaching nests, construct symbolic fencing (“rope off an area”) to make the general public give nesting areas a wider berth, and educate through the use of signage and brochures. At the busiest of beaches and on busy weekends, park rangers and volunteer docents educate visitors in person as well.

Areas with funding have also implemented programs to restore the coastal ecosystem in favor of the western snowy plover through invasive plant removal and dune restoration efforts. These efforts just within Point Reyes National Seashore have caused male snowy plovers to move their chicks from as far as a mile and a half away into these restored areas. Here, the open sand provides more areas of protection for their offspring (chicks are much harder to see in open sand fields than against vegetation due to their coloration) and allows adult plovers to see predators coming.

PHOTOGRAPHING WESTERN SNOWY PLOVERS

Obviously, the number-one aspect of photographing these birds is going to be not to disturb them. This is even more important when photographing them during breeding season. The key is to use a long lens (500mm minimum) and lots of patience.

But first, you need to get into place on a Pacific coast beach with open sandy areas, such as those found at Point Reyes National Seashore or Moss Landing State Beach. Weather in these locations is mild year-round, with few days ever reaching above 80°F/27°C, so you will want to dress in layers to provide yourself protection from the elements. The dampness of the air combined with the continuous presence of coastal breezes and winds most days can chill a photographer quickly, especially when you have to stay still for long periods of time. I find having a wind/water-repellent outer shell for my top and bottom to be an ideal solution to both the elements and making sure I can comfortably navigate photography positions necessary to capture quality images of western snowy plovers.

Hunting along the high-tide line and all the beach wrack that washes ashore, the western snowy plover is a ravenous consumer of invertebrates.
By being very, very low in the sand and allowing the snowy to come to me rather than trying to move in too close initially, I was able to capture these unique action images of this individual hunting kelp flies.
Not all tries are successful; as you see here, the snowy ended up with a bit of sand in its crop while the fly dodged. Images like this help emphasize the size of these small birds by giving viewers the fly and grains of sand as well-understood references. Viewers can then use these to infer how small and fragile this species is.

Since these birds are very much used to being prey to predators that are all larger than them, it is important to get low as soon as you can when in the vicinity of snowy plovers. Doing this helps limit how much they view you as a predator. Slowly and steadily, using a low crawl to edge a bit closer, watch for any physical or behavioral cues that your presence might be disturbing them. These can include waking from rest, suddenly standing if they had been seated, stopping foraging, or more active signals such as calling warnings to others, standing high, or rushing away from your direction. If you observe the more passive signs, stop where you are and wait until the birds go back to behaving normally. If a more active response takes place, back away slowly and give them plenty of space.

One of the western snowy plover’s prime hunting locations is in the beach wrack that piles along the high-tide mark, which makes for an ideal location to set up if you spot these birds foraging. The likelihood of them working their way down the high-tide mark is very good, given you choose the direction they are heading. This positioning will give you the ability to capture them in action and, with the insects in the frame to give scale to your subject, show just how small these birds really are.

Because the western snowy plover makes its home on open sand, if you have bright clear days, midday shots often will have harsh lighting. Early morning or late evening is best if you do not have overcast weather. Watch your highlights as you do not want to lose feather detailing on any white feathers.

And although bright, sunny days might not be optimal for photographing because of the harsh light quality, they can be helpful in keeping your shutter speed high enough to capture these tiny birds in sharp focus while they hunt. I often find that 1/1250th of a second is still not quite fast enough to capture their feet sharply when they are on the move.

When you finish photographing your subject, be it because you have filled your memory card, your batteries have died, or you are ready to move on, you need to leave your subject as undisturbed as you approached it. Carefully and slowly extract yourself from the vicinity. This may mean having to low crawl back a bit before you can stand up without causing them stress.

TAKING YOUR IMAGES FURTHER

On the off chance your subjects flush because of external factors such as an oblivious beach jogger or random off-leash dogs, you have a perfect time to use your photography to advocate for the western snowy plover. In these situations, try to get the person’s attention and get them to speak with you. Explain that the reason you have such a large lens out on a beach is because you have been photographing this tiny and adorable but rare bird — the bird they just scared. Many times, just showing them an image or two on the back of your camera gets responses of “Oh, I had no idea!” and “I will be more careful next time,” which, really, is all one can ask for in the collaborative effort to share the shore.

For dog owners, I try to explain that, while I too am a dog owner and lover, there are rules for dogs at the location: Either they must be on leash, or they are not allowed on the beach at all during the nesting season. Explaining that a federally protected species has been found on the beach and that their dogs are endangering it helps bring home the point. If you are familiar with the area, recommend other local parks or beaches that are dog friendly but are not sites for western snowy plovers.

Beyond educational encounters in the field while shooting, there are many other ways in which your photography can help bring additional recognition and conservation efforts to this species. By far the biggest one is promoting the idea of “Sharing the Shore.” I know I have mentioned it many times in this article, but it truly is the best way to get the general public on board and adjust their beach-going habits without it sounding like conservation groups or public-land managers want to take away access or limit activities on public lands. Like everything else in life, it’s about moderation. A bit for the birds, a bit for us, and we all win.

Continuing the hunt, this individual changed tactics and entered an area of wet sand adjacent to the wrack. Here it found a pale beach hopper (Megalorchestia columbiana), a type of amphipod that makes an easier target, and secured a beakful of nourishment.

Sharing images on social media with the hashtag #ShareTheShore helps get the word out. The other tag to use on social media is #shorebird_habitat. These help draw attention to the need to protect critical environments in order to gain back healthy populations of shorebirds, including the western snowy plover.


Beyond talking to friends, family, and people you encounter on the beach about western snowy plovers, you can also help the species by donating your photos to non-profits that work on conserving the species. Each state where this bird is found has Audubon chapters and projects surrounding this bird. Reach out to them if you have images and see if they can use the additional imagery to further their campaigns. Writing articles for local and regional publications can also be helpful in bringing attention to the western snowy plover and the extreme impact that human activity has on its survival as a species. Creating photo essays for local publications, especially in places further from the coast, helps educate people on proper behavior for when they do decide to take that summer vacation to Big Sur or along the Oregon coast. Your images can help reach others who would normally be left outside the usual conservation conversations, which often focus on education of the local public who live adjacent to these habitats.

Now, if you are lucky enough to photograph a western snowy plover with a bit of bling around its legs, your images can give researchers that have been following these banded birds a snapshot of how the bird is doing at that time in its life cycle. Beyond an image (or a few) of the banded bird, you will want to record the date, location (as specific as possible with full GPS coordinates being the absolute best), time of observation (recorded in your image file if you have adjusted you camera’s clock to the proper time zone), number of western snowy plovers seen with the banded individual, the color combinations of bands on each leg (usually two plastic bands on each leg, recorded as top color, then bottom color), and whether there was a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service silver metal band. Once you have all this information, submit it along with the images of the banded individual to snpl_bandreporting@googlegroups.com.

In addition, report any banded bird you observe or photograph to the North American Bird Banding Program/Bird Banding Laboratory, which is run by the U.S. Geological Survey under the U.S Department of the Interior, at www. pwrc.usgs.gov/bbl/bblretrv.

So, do you remember the banded western snowy plover I opened this article with? Well, I heard back from researchers at Point Blue Conservation Science, one of the research organizations that work with the Bird Banding Lab to whom I reported the sighting. They were able to tell me that this individual was banded as a chick in Oregon and has reportedly overwintered during the 2016/2017 and 2017/2018 winter seasons in the same location I photographed it in the summer of 2020, near Monterey, California.

How cool is that? 

Alyce Bender

Alyce Bender, a Tamron USA Ambassador, roams the globe, exploring Earth’s natural beauty. Happiest in the field, Bender uses photography to connect people to wildlife and environments from across the world. She leads tours, publishes articles, and hosts workshops promoting exploration, creativity, and ethical nature photography. Her work has been recognized nationally and internationally.

Find more of her work at: www.abenderphotography.com

Instagram: @abenderphoto Facebook: facebook.com/abenderphoto

IS A PHOTO WORTH YOUR LIFE?

By Eli Martinez

Crocodile off Banco Chinchorro, Mexico - 1/320th of a second, f10, ISO 200

Everyone loves a great predator image. A roaring lion, a howling wolf, a snarling bear — all different in where and how they are captured. However, all of these images have one thing in common: They are captured from a distance with some type of long lens. This is because there are rules for capturing images of land predators — and for good reason — so you do not end up getting hurt or killed by the animal. Don’t get me wrong; we all want to be as close as possible to our subjects. I know I do. We all wish we could capture images of them with a wide-angle lens, a mere few feet away — safely, of course — but sadly, we just can’t.

However, things are different in an underwater environment. There, you have no choice but to get close to everything you choose to photograph, including predatory species like sharks and orcas, and giant reptiles like anacondas and crocodiles. We need to get close to them. This is because the water creates a layer in front of our lenses that sometimes softens our images. As wildlife photographers seeking to share the best stories, we need to complement our text with crisp, colorful pictures of our subjects, and ideally ones that fill the frame.

So, getting close is essential. But how? How do we get close to an apex predator so we can capture an image of it and yet stay safe?

In this article, we will discuss some of the rules of photographing aquatic predators and touch on some of the myths surrounding these misunderstood creatures. Hopefully, it will help prepare you for your own adventures seeking out these icons of the underwater world.

Thankfully, despite the negative reputation that these underwater predators have, it is possible to get close to them safely as long as you follow the rules. But before I get into the rules, let us discuss some of the types of photography I’m talking about. Because of the different predatory species and how they react toward divers, some encounters will be natural, and some will be baited dives.

When discussing sharks and crocs in this article, I am referring to baited dives, where we use bait or chum to get our subjects to come in close so we have opportunities to film or photograph them. I know there is a lot of controversy behind this type of photography, and that is understandable. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But for any chance of photographing some of these predators, you need to chum them in.

There are places you can go where you can experience a natural shark encounter, like Cocos Island or the Galapagos, but that is a very different type of photography, which has more of a landscape vibe to it versus filling the frame with the animals.

Of course, there are some great species of sharks that don’t need to be chummed or baited in, like whitetip reef sharks, sand tiger sharks, leopard sharks, and horn sharks. But for marquee species like tiger sharks, mako sharks, great hammerheads, or the rock stars of our ocean, the great whites, you need chum or bait to attract them. Without it, you’ll never see them.

One of the biggest myths about feeding sharks is that they will get habituated to humans, go off and approach a diver or swimmer, and beg for food, and when they do not get fed, they will bite the person. This is false.

With land animals like bears and wolves, habituating them to baiting is dangerous because these animals can learn to associate people with food. However, with sharks, this is very different. Sharks can learn to associate an area where they potentially might find food, but they do not know to associate people with food because they are primarily scent driven, not sight driven. If the smell is not there, the shark is not there.

As for the baiting of crocodiles and alligators, these are unique animals that must be treated with the utmost respect. It is illegal to bait for these animals in the wild in almost every state and country. We have seen what happens in places like Florida where people illegally feed them. It often ends in disaster, and the alligator or crocodile often has to be euthanized.

The area where we dive with American crocodiles is at an island in a protected marine reserve in Mexico where permits are required, and no one is allowed to visit the park without permission. Here, we know we can safely interact with the animals without the risk of any unsuspecting swimmers jumping in the water with habituated crocodiles and getting injured or killed.

Crocodile with diver off Banco Chinchorro, Mexico - 1/250th of a second, f11, ISO 200

I will not get into the ethics of baited dives in this article since the focus is more on how to photograph them safely. However, I will say this: Respect is extremely important. I have spent countless hours working intimately with sharks and crocodiles in these types of baited diving expeditions, and the safety for both the divers and the wildlife is critical.

We want people to enjoy experiences with these animals. We also want these animals to feel safe when exposing themselves to divers, which is out of character for them. They are naturally shy and want nothing to do with people, so respect and rules are paramount when we organize and go out on these types of photography expeditions.

Nurse shark off Bimini Island, Bahamas - 1/320th of a second, f10, ISO 500

So what are the rules of diving with and photographing underwater predators? Well, let’s start with sharks.


When diving with them, the most important rule is that a shark should never be allowed to touch your body with its nose. I know this sounds simple enough, but you would be surprised how many people forget that they shouldn’t let a shark into their personal space.

Never allow a shark to bump into you because a bump could turn into a bite, and that is something you, of course, don’t want. Ninety-nine percent of the time, nothing will happen if a shark bumps into you. It will bump, then swim off. However, the one percent is what we look out for always.

If an accident happens, the shark is ultimately blamed, and even if it’s the diver’s fault, sharks will again have another stain on their already unjustly tarnished reputation. Plus, some of these sharks are big. If a sixfoot- long reef shark bites you, it will ruin your Sunday, but if a 12-foot-long tiger bites you, it can be life changing.

With that in mind, you always need to protect yourself, whether it be with a well-trained safety diver by your side or a safety pole, which can be used to deflect sharks. Or, for us photographers, you can use your camera as a deterrent if a curious shark approaches you too closely. If it swims up to you, extend your arms with your camera housing in hand and let the shark bump into it. They often bump, then swim off in another direction. If the shark turns and swims back toward you, keep an eye on it, constantly rotating your body to keep the shark in front of you. It may decide to bump you again, or it may not. Keep your camera rig between you and the animal until it eventually swims off.

Great hammerhead with a feeder off Bimini Island, Bahamas - 1/320th of a second, f9, ISO 1600

Of course, you are going to be snapping images of the shark as it swims up to you. Take as many as you can. However, I recommend turning your dome port up and away from the shark’s snout or teeth at the last minute before impact, as they can scratch the hell out of your dome port. If you have an acrylic dome, scratches are fixable, but if you’re using a glass port and get a big bump, you will likely doom your gear. As much as everyone loves a photo of a head-on, mouth-open shot of an approaching shark, it may come at a price to your equipment.

Now, if an overly curious shark approaches you, please do not hit the animal with your camera. I have seen this happen countless times, and it always makes me cringe. Remember, we are visitors in their world, so please give them plenty of respect. Just extend your arms and use your camera as a shield — the shark will bump, then swim off. If you start hitting the shark with your camera, you could cause it to act aggressively toward you and make it want to try harder to get to you. This also shows that you are uncomfortable being that close to the animal, and it is safer for both you and the shark if you position yourself in an area of the dive where you will get less attention.

Remember, the closer you are to the bait or chum during the dive, the more attention you will get from the visiting wildlife. So if you are comfortable getting that kind of attention from big sharks, then get ready for a chance to capture amazing images.

Rule number two: Pay attention to the eyes in the back of your head. When you dive with species like tiger or bull sharks, you must always know where they are, how many there are, and what they are doing. This will help keep you and your dive buddies safe. Sharks are ambush predators by nature, and they can be incredibly sneaky. Like land tigers, they know when you are not looking. So you should never get fixated only on what is in front of you. You always have to remember to look behind you.

Great white shark off Guadalupe Island, Mexico - 1/320th of a second, f8, ISO 400

Photographers often get tunnel vision and will snap images of the shark, then go straight to their viewfinder to look at the picture or their histogram — and forget that there is still a 12-foot tiger a few feet in front of them, or most likely behind them by the time they want to see their shots. Wait until the shark is gone before you review your images.

If I am making the sharks sound scary, it is intentional. Like I mentioned earlier in the article, nothing will happen 99 percent of the time. Sharks have no interest in divers. However, my job is always to keep everyone aware of that one percent when something could happen. It ensures that everyone follows the rules and stays safe. We are there to photograph sharks and safely bring back amazing memories from these once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Crocodile diving is different because this species has evolved with humans on the menu. Therefore, when we are with them, we limit the number of divers in the water and have safety divers with us at all times. We also have spotters on the deck looking out for us. The spotters keep an eye out for any other crocodiles that may decide to sneak in from behind while we focus on the crocodile in front of us.

The great thing about the American crocodile species is that once they get habituated to seeing divers in the water, they are exceptionally well behaved. You still have to respect them and never forget what they are capable of. However, once they’re comfortable, they are dream photo subjects for any wildlife photographer.

We do bait the crocodiles here in Mexico with lionfish, which are invasive species here and hunted from the reefs in the marine reserve. We are not allowed to feed them anything else, nor are we allowed to kill anything else. Lionfish are not supposed to be here, so we do our part to help remove them from the reef, and the crocs get a snack while we are in the water photographing them. We remove the spines before feeding them to the crocs to ensure that the crocs do not get injured.

Encounters with apex predators demand your respect and your adherence to the rules because you can get hurt if you do things wrong. If things go awry, the animal is blamed, not the diver. The media is always ready to write a bad story about a shark or crocodile attack. The public, sadly, is wild about these tales, and so the media will vilify these beautiful animals every chance they get.

Great hammerhead off Bimini Island, Bahamas - 1/320th of a second, f10, ISO 1250
Great hammerhead off Bimini Island, Bahamas - 1/320th of a second, f10, ISO 1250

I am so grateful that places like this exist that allow this type of activity. There are only a few places in the world where divers can swim with crocodiles. These huge animals have such a bad reputation, and respectably so, as they can be extremely dangerous. However, most people think that it’s impossible to swim with crocodiles and alligators without getting eaten. Because of these types of organized diving experiences, we now know they are wrong, and we have learned so much about this misunderstood reptile. We still have a lot to learn, but these experiences have taught us so much about what is possible with these animals. Not what is practical, per se, but what is possible.

It’s the same thing with sharks. Because of movies like Jaws, a lot of people believe sharks will eat you the moment you jump in the ocean. They think sharks are bad and crocodiles are evil. This mindset is why tens of thousands of these amazing animals have been needlessly caught and killed through the years in an attempt to keep the public safe. Sadly, it’s all due to fear and misunderstanding.

This is why it’s so important to continue learning and sharing images and stories of predatory species, not only for the excitement of the animals, but also for the future of their conservation. Articles and images with well researched and -reported information show the public their beauty and importance in the ecosystem.

Unfortunately, sharks and crocodiles are not the only predators with PR problems. Other misunderstood animals like orcas and not-so-cuddly but cool anacondas have also developed negative reputations they don’t deserve.

I have spent a lot of time in the water with orcas, and I always hope for more. These massive beauties have had a shadow cast over them, primarily due to the behavior of captive individuals losing their minds from being trapped in small enclosures. These orcas are asked to perform for food, and after years of this abuse, an orca lashed out and killed a trainer.

Very close-up image of a crocodile off Banco Chinchorro, Mexico - 1/320th of a second, f10, ISO 200

A subsequent documentary called Blackfish detailed the incident, and since then, many people have believed it’s dangerous being in the water with these creatures. However, every experience I have had with wild orcas has always been unique and magical and left me wanting more. In fact, I have never heard of a single person having a negative experience with an orca in the wild.

The only problem I have experienced diving with orcas is the frustration of wanting longer interactions and closer ones; the whales are never close enough for my taste. That distance makes for softer images, so I will just have to keep going out there searching for the perfect encounter and the perfect photo.

With orcas, the rule is to listen to the animals; they will tell you when they’ve had enough and want to be left alone. Orcas are extremely curious and will come in close to investigate swimmers when they feel like it. There’s no way to describe the amazing feeling of having a wild orca come in to investigate what you are — it is pure magic.

When orcas do not want to be bothered, they will keep their distance and swim far away from boats and divers. Typically when they act like this, it’s time to call it a day and just enjoy watching them from the surface.

Anacondas also suffer from bad publicity, and I will admit, it’s hard to persuade people to love a snake, especially a giant one. I admit being a bit nervous about the behavior of this animal before I finally had the privilege of swimming with one, mostly because I did not know much about it.

I had an idea of what an anaconda might do when I entered the water, which was flee, but I also wondered if it would get aggressive when I approached. Maybe it would try and bite my camera if I got close to it. This reputation that the snake had was one of the reasons I wanted to swim with it. I wanted to find out if it was really a dangerous animal or yet another victim of rumors and myths made up by people who knew as much about the species as I did.

When I finally got in the water with a big four-and-a-half-meter snake, it did what I expected it to do — it swam away and tried to hide from us, which is the complete opposite of what I had heard in rumors about this predator. It behaved a lot like massive sharks do. When a large shark is nervous or does not understand something, it leaves and swims off. Big sharks get big for a reason; they are careful, cautious, and will leave an area if they do not feel comfortable. So did our beautiful snake.

Caribbean reef shark with a school of horse-eye jacks off Tiger Beach, Bahamas - 1/400th of a second, f8, ISO 1000
Orcas off New Zealand - 1/500th of a second, f3.5, ISO 400

When photographing big predatory species, the most important thing to remember is to respect the animals and the area. As wildlife photographers, our job is to be a voice for the voiceless, and predators need as much positive exposure as possible. So if you follow the rules, you will find out firsthand that they can be very safe to swim with and may not be as dangerous as they are reputed to be.

So, is photographing underwater predators worth the inherent risks? To this day, I ask this of myself, and the answer is always yes. Educate yourself on the species you seek and listen to experienced guides and professionals, and you can have safe and amazing encounters with these misunderstood creatures. By telling honest stories of their lives, we can ensure they will continue to thrive in the natural world for generations to come.

Anaconda off Bonito, Brazil - 1/250th of a second, f8, ISO 800

Eli Martinez

Born and raised in South Texas, Eli Martinez is a wildlife photographer/filmmaker with a deep passion for predatory species, especially sharks, bears, and wildcats. Growing up in deep South Texas, wildlife was always a part of his life. As Shark Diver Magazine‘s former editor, his roots are deeply embedded in the shark-diving community, pushing and helping to change what’s known about sharks, shark behavior, and how they are perceived. His love (or, more accurately, his obsession) for all wildlife and nature is where his heart truly lies and dispelling the “predator myth” is his life’s work.

Eli has spent countless hours under the sea, photographing and interacting with different shark species (logging over a thousand tiger and lemon shark dives alone), photographing and studying their behavior, trying to discover their true nature.

He has been featured and has worked as a host/cameraman/wildlife guide/safety diver for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, Animal Planet, Nat Geo Wild, BBC, CNN Outdoor Channel, and NBC’s The Today Show, as well as various documentaries, newspapers, and magazines around the world.

Eli’s current underwater camera system is the Canon 5D MK4, with a Canon 8-15mm fisheye in the Aquatica Housing, with an eight-inch dome port.

TREKKING FOR THE MOUNTAIN GORILLAS OF RWANDA

Written by Joe McDonald
Photos by Joe and Mary Ann McDonald

The king of all he surveys, a silverback sits in a clearing in three countries: the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo), of a bamboo forest. Soft light produces few shadows, and a wide-angle lens captures the scene.

The label “gentle giant” is almost a cliché, and much overused. But if any animal truly qualifies for that moniker, I’d have to put the mountain gorilla first in that category. An adult silverback gorilla could quite easily take your head in one hand and your neck in the other and cleanly separate the two, but that he doesn’t may give you some conception of both the power and the gentleness of this, the world’s largest primate. They do, however, routinely break bamboo stalks the thickness of 2x4s into two, and on a gorilla trek, you might watch a gorilla do so from just a few yards away.

With most large mammals, being that close wouldn’t be very wise, but on a mountain gorilla trek, you are perfectly safe while often being no more than 20-odd feet away. Some visitors might have some initial trepidation — after all, you might be treated to having a 450-pound ape brush right past you on your very first encounter (that happened to me). Those reservations soon vanish, and most everyone feels not only safe but also decidedly privileged to be in the presence of these incredible animals.

Many consider their time with the mountain gorillas to be the most profound and moving, the most humbling and exciting, wildlife encounter of their life. And, unlike some wildlife tourism or photography opportunities that may be overhyped or exaggerated, trekking for mountain gorillas is the real thing. Every encounter is magical, and whether you do one trek or many, the experience never gets old.

My wife Mary Ann and I have been extremely fortunate in leading photo tours for Rwanda’s mountain gorillas for 18 years, accumulating 106 visits each to the gorillas in that time. We’ve seen a lot of changes since those first tours, and all but one of them have been changes for the better. I’ll get to that a bit later.

But first, let’s cover the logistics. Mountain gorilla tourism occurs The king of all he surveys, a silverback sits in a clearing in three countries: the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo), in Virunga National Park; Rwanda, in Volcanoes National Park; and in Uganda, in both Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Virunga, Volcanoes, and Mgahinga Gorilla National Parks share their borders, making a contiguous forest preserve for the gorillas. The DRC’s intermittent political problems and safety concerns have deterred us from making treks there, and although I’ve explored Bwindi in Uganda, personally I’m quite, quite happy with Rwanda’s offerings. I’ve known folks that have had great experiences in the other locales, so I’m not knocking these, but we’ve found Rwanda offers the best for our requirements.

Although a gorilla trek may last all day, depending upon how far you may need to hike to reach a mountain gorilla group, the actual encounter lasts, technically, only one hour. That doesn’t seem like a very long time for anyone traveling halfway around the world to see gorillas, but that complaint usually disappears after the encounter. The day starts with a 7 a.m. meeting at the national park headquarters where visitors assemble to be briefed, assigned a group, and meet with their gorilla trekking guides. By 8 a.m. or so, you’re off, driving to the closest parking area to your gorilla group to begin your trek. When we first started visiting Rwanda in 2003, most treks began at park headquarters, and we often walked a couple of miles before we even reached the forest. Now, from the different parking areas, treks begin by crossing the terraced farm fields as you ascend toward the park boundary, a shoulder-high stone fence that always reminds me of the wall from the original King Kong movie. The stone wall serves not only as a human barrier where no further farming is permitted, but also as a deterrent for forest dwelling African buffalo that might otherwise raid the farmers’ crops. The wall doesn’t stop the gorillas, however, who often forage in the farm fields, stripping bark from eucalyptus trees to chew on the tasty sap.

This stone boundary fence that separates Volcanoes National Park from the surrounding farm fields.
The canine fangs of a silverback are impressive and will be used when fighting with a rival.

The trekking guides are equipped with radios and stay in constant communication with the park rangers and trackers who have located a given gorilla family shortly after dawn. Any changes in location are swiftly relayed to the guides. The rangers and trackers stay with the gorillas all day until the family settles for the night, then return the next morning while the gorillas are still in their night nests or close enough to either be heard or easily tracked.

Once in the jungle, the hike to your gorilla family may only take 10 minutes or so if the gorillas are feeding close to the park boundary, or a hike may take several hours if your gorilla group is far away or the family decides to move. We’ve been on some treks where, as we entered the forest, the gorillas were just minutes away, but the gorillas moved on, either to visit a new feeding location or, perhaps, to avoid a close encounter with another gorilla family, making our short hike morph into a very long one. More than once, we’ve hiked up some jungle trail for hundreds of yards before reversing and returning the way we came to find a new route to reach a group’s new location. The trackers and rangers know all the trails, steep ravines, and cliffs, and while it may seem inconvenient to backtrack, the guides know there are many spots where a gorilla can travel that no tourist could possibly follow.

I always marvel at the trackers’ bushcraft. To me, although I’ve been on some trails dozens of times, I’d still be hopelessly lost if I left a trail and attempted to do a shortcut through the often very thick jungle vegetation, or if I headed downhill to reach the farm fields below. Trails often skirt the edge of ancient volcanic craters, with steep ledges that you may never see while on a trail but that would bring your unguided walk to a quick stop or an untimely end when you suddenly reach an impassable barrier. The guides, however, know where to go and lead their tourists on the easiest route possible.

That’s not to say that a trek is a walk in the park, err, jungle. Trails can be steep in spots. Think of doing a stairway, two or three steps at a time. Trails can also be muddy or downright sloppy after a heavy rain where boot-sucking muck awaits in the depressions. Some degree of physical fitness is required, which really means getting into shape before you come. Walking a couple flights of steps a day doesn’t cut it. Walking up hills and walking a mile or two a day is the kind of conditioning I’m talking about that will make your trek enjoyable.

Besides the gorilla guides, trackers, and rangers, the group will probably be accompanied by porters, local young men and women who will carry your camera gear and anything else you bring along. Although the camera gear Mary and I now carry really doesn’t require the services of a porter, we always take one for each of us and tip them well (they are paid only by tourist tips), and thereby help support the local economy and promote the value of gorillas to the locals.

Porters accompany you until the time when your guide announces that they’ve found the gorillas and you need to get ready. At this point, you may be only a minute or so away from seeing your first gorilla, and excitement runs high. It’s easy in the hustle and excitement as guides tell you that it’s time to go to feel rushed and forget something. Good guides, as well as Mary and I with our groups, always tell everyone to make sure they have along extra CF or SD cards and extra batteries, plus rain gear if needed, before we head off and follow the guides into the forest. From this point on, until the end of the gorilla visit, you must carry your own gear.

Silverbacks are tolerant of their young, and young gorillas often play around or on top of the adult.

For that, we recommend really minimizing what you carry. Some photographers, and you may be one of them, want to have EVERYTHING with them for a shoot, but for a gorilla shoot, that’s totally impractical, and it’s actually a major obstacle for quality photography. We’ve always done five treks on any trip we’ve made, and we’ve always recommended that photographers carry one camera and one lens for the first trek, ideally a zoom with a wide focal range covering wide-angle to medium telephoto. Why? Conditions can vary widely, and you never know until you’re actually with the gorillas what you’ll be dealing with. Even then, conditions can change in the course of your hour-long visit. You might start in a bamboo stand so thick that the only passage through it is on your hands and knees inside a narrow tunnel, and end up in an open meadow, or you might start in what you deem as ideal conditions and then find yourself practically hiking vertically as you follow a gorilla family moving uphill.

Once you see the conditions, assuming you’re doing more than one trek, you can decide what works best for you. We’ve found that most photographers stick with one camera and one lens. Mary has always done so, but until recently, I carried two cameras and two lenses, a wide-angle zoom on one camera and a 70-300mm zoom on the other. I was confident that I could handle the gear and negotiate any trail or obstacle, but I must admit I sometimes missed ANY shot because I was switching from one camera to the other. Now, we each carry just one camera, with a zoom lens covering 24mm to 200mm. We’re using Olympus, the Micro Four Thirds system, so our lens is small, a 12-100mm that gives us the equivalent of twice the focal length.

Guides distinguish individuals by their distinctive nose prints. Each crease, scar, or wrinkle is different, much like human fingerprints.
The chest-slapping display of a silverback is impressive and makes a great photograph. Prior to displaying, males often puff out their upper lip, a good signal to get your camera ready.

For years, we also carried a tripod, and when we shot with film, we felt a tripod was essential for obtaining sharp images when using low-ISO films, especially if we were huffing and puffing after just climbing up a steep hillside. Digital has changed our thinking since high ISOs are now possible, and now we use monopods. These provide the extra stability we may still need, but it’s a lot easier to change the shooting height of one leg rather than the three of a tripod. Some photographers use neither one, feeling confident that their gear’s image stabilization and their own steadiness will get the job done. Not me, unless I’m actually shooting at ground level where I can handhold with my elbows braced firmly on the ground.

As I mentioned earlier, the actual shooting time is about one hour. Some gorilla guides are extremely strict, and unreasonable in my opinion, and start and stop the clock precisely on a one-hour timeframe. Sometimes, however, gorillas move on, and although it’s often relatively easy to keep up and continue shooting, sometimes that’s impossible, and several very expensive minutes can tick by before you again meet up with the gorillas. The better guides are quite reasonable and will allow a bit of wiggle room on that exacting timeframe.

That’s what happened on one of our most exciting gorilla encounters, on our 75th trek. We had been photographing the Sabyinyo group in an open farm field where the gorillas were chomping away on eucalyptus tree bark. The shooting was excellent, and as the gorillas headed back toward the forest, still well within our allotted hour, another family group appeared: Hirwa. While encounters between family groups occur frequently, most happen deep in the forest where thick vegetation hides any action from human eyes. Then, the only clues to the excitement one is missing are shaking vegetation, fleeting shadow-like glimpses of charging gorillas, and a heck of a lot of screams. This encounter promised to be exceptional, and as we later learned, our extremely experienced guide had never witnessed anything approaching this in all his years of guiding.

A gang of juvenile mountain gorillas appear to be in a meeting with the leader urging them on.
Wide-angle lenses capture the subject and the environment. Low angles – here, I squatted beside the trail – help.

The leader of a gorilla group is the silverback, a dominant male characterized by a distinctive silvery saddle, and he determines the group’s routine, the duration of a rest period, the time to move on, and the location to feed. It’s in the silverback’s best interest to avoid meeting another group since fights may break out as males try to steal females away or attempt to round up females in their own family group that would like to move on to another group. Like humans, not all female gorillas are happy with the mate they’re stuck with. Consequently, family groups usually keep their distance, often alerted to each other’s presence by the hollow “pok-pok-pok” sounds a gorilla makes as it slaps its chest — it does not pound its chest with a closed fist.

The Sabyinyo group had two silverbacks (including Guhonda, the largest silverback then living) while the other group had only one: Munyinya, the second-biggest silverback. The silverbacks faced each other in a tense standoff, with the trio doing something the researchers I spoke to had never seen. They gaped their jaws, stuck out their tongues and wagged them, an action that reminded us of the intimidation display New Zealand’s soccer team does to psych out their opponents.

Only once did any of the males clash, slapping at each other in a gorilla high five that was anything but a friendly gesture. It happened so quickly, nothing more than a confusing, rolling mass of black fur, that the shots we made failed to convey the action. Contact like this where nobody really gets hurt offers significant survival value, since a fight might be won merely by intimidation and display without risking a life-threatening injury. Nonetheless, we were overwhelmed by excitement as silverbacks charged back and forth in front of our line of photographers, literally shaking the earth as they galloped past, pounding the ground with their fists.

A torrential rain almost dissuaded our group from beginning our trek, but we continued and I made this BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year shot minutes after the heavy rain stopped.
Zooming in for details can be especially effective. Here, the hands of the mother and the tiny hand of the infant frame its face.

On that occasion, we exceeded our hour by a bit, but the guides recognized the uniqueness of the event and the value we provided in documenting rarely seen behavior. Most times, however, that hour timeframe is enforced, but in almost all cases, the shooting and the experience is so intense that no one complains. Instead, many trekkers are almost exhausted from their concentration, and most are surprised with all that they witnessed in just one hour.

Although gorilla trekking takes place throughout the year, we consider the short rainy season to be optimum for photography for several reasons. During the dry season, mountain gorillas often travel to the high country where the volcanic peaks might trap moisture and the plant life is most enticing. That translates, for any photographer, into long treks, and it’s not unusual for folks to start at 8 a.m. and finally leave the jungle after dark. Also, in the dry season, the skies may be cloudless, and believe me, you want clouds, even if those clouds may bring rain. In direct sunlight, you’ll have contrast, which is very challenging to deal with. Blocky shadows, glaring highlights . . . well, awful light, and if the gorillas are in the forest, that contrast is even worse.

During the short rainy season, the day may start out clear, but as the morning progresses, the peaks begin to catch the clouds, causing the light to soften. There’s always the risk that the rains begin while you are still trekking, photographing, or hiking back, but it’s worth it. We have made some of our most interesting images during or after heavy rains.

Because the weather can be so changeable, and the gorillas can be anywhere — in a terribly thick stand of bamboo on a bright, sunny day or in a magnificent moss-encased forest on a cloudy day — we do not recommend any photographer doing only one trek. If you only do one trek and you’re lucky, you’ll have great light and an entire family in an open glade, with a couple of silverbacks, a suckling baby, and a bunch of juveniles that can’t help but play right in front of you for the entire hour. But if you’re not . . . well, just think of bright sun, thick bamboo, and a couple of gorillas that do nothing more than sleep for your entire hour.

A zoom lens with a wide focal range is the best lens for photographing gorillas, allowing you to zoom in for a tight shot or zoom out for an "animal in landscape" image. These were shot with a lens zoomed to 200mm.

Despite the high cost, if you are serious about photographing mountain gorillas and you want to maximize your chances of having at least one ideal day, plan on at least a three-day visit. As I said, we’ve always done five treks on all of our visits. We’ve had some trips where every single day seemed to be better than the last, where every day offered something new and unique. We’ve also had trips where we were very, very happy that we had five days, as one or two were challenging photographically. That’s not to say that everyone didn’t come out of that trek with some good photos, but face it, photographers are a greedy bunch, and we all want a lot of great photos, every single time.

When we did our first treks in 2003, mountain gorilla tourism was still in its infancy, and infrastructure, facilities, food, and lodging were somewhat primitive. In the early days, our meals consisted of grilled ham-and-cheese sandwiches for breakfast and lunch, and spaghetti bolognese for dinner, served by a staff that spoke only Kinyarwanda. Today, the infrastructure on all fronts is world class, with great food, lodging, and service. Also, the surrounding communities have benefited greatly from this tourism, with schools, better roads, clean water sources, and a plethora of shops in the nearest towns.

When we started, the cost for a mountain gorilla permit for a onehour visit was $250, and the relatively low cost of these permits attracted a wide spectrum of visitors, from the most wealthy that could afford a permit at any cost to the overland trekkers on a limited budget whose life dream, perhaps, was seeing a mountain gorilla in the wild. Over time, the cost of a permit continually rose until, today, the permit price for a one-hour visit is $1,500, a sudden doubling of the last high point of $750.

This is the one change made over the years that I disagree with. Even with this new, steep price, tourist demand doesn’t seem to be affected, at least pre-COVID, but the price increase now puts a trek out of reach of many less-affluent enthusiasts who, had they had the chance to visit the gorillas, may have returned home with a passion that would have been shared. A school teacher who may have conveyed the magic of their experience to their classroom, perhaps igniting a passion in their students, might not have that opportunity anymore, and the potential conservation message goes unsaid. Now, only the most serious or those with disposable incomes make up the majority of the visitors. I find this sad.

Perhaps even worse, high-end, luxury tourist lodges are springing up in several different locations, obviously with the reasoning that tourists who can afford the permit can also afford a fancy room, some of which go for well over $1,000 a night. The trouble is that many entrepreneurial Rwandans had invested in small boutique hotels with modest room rates that appealed to travelers who could not afford expensive lodging but instead wanted to spend their money on at least one permit so they could see the gorillas. Prior to the COVID shutdown, one hotel owner, a young man we met back when he was a busboy in the restaurant of our lodge, had no business at his small but beautiful hotel once the price increase in park permits took effect. His is a classic example where high permit fees and luxury, high-cost lodging went hand in hand, and his business, and the livelihood of those he employed, suffered greatly. For what it’s worth, we still use the lodge that we’ve enjoyed from the start, which supports a Rwandan businessman and not a multinational corporation.

Of course, proponents of the price increase have their own reasons, but I see the local human cost and the reality that many who would love to see and photograph the mountain gorillas may never get the chance. I’ll leave the “pro” arguments on the price increase to other voices.

That said, all of our fellow travelers agree that their visit to the mountain gorillas was one of the highlights of their lives, and truly one of the greatest wildlife experiences they’ve ever had. I could write a book about all that we’ve seen . . . uh, wait a minute, I have . . . but I’ll end with just two more anecdotes, two more magical experiences.

Mountain gorillas don’t drink water but get their moisture from the plants they eat. In an environment with frequent rains, plants are liquid rich. On one trek, however, we encountered a family group near a small forest stream. Several of the juvenile and baby gorillas gathered along the stream edge or at a small pool where they slapped the water with their hands or with sticks, and we saw a few sipping from the pool, something that isn’t supposed to happen!

Then there was a young blackback, a teenage male gorilla we’ve known since he was two years old. As a baby, Shirimpumu was always mischievous, often rolling downhill, slapping our tripod leg, or our legs, and then running off. As a blackback, he would false-charge tourists, no doubt having a blast doing so. One of our photographers, despite our prior assurances that her visit would be perfectly safe, was terrified and huddled with owl-sized eyes behind her camera as Shirimpumu crashed through the brush before her. But after those initial minutes of doubt and fear, she realized how special his display was, and like everyone else, she was thrilled. Her memories, like everyone else’s who visit the mountain gorillas, will last a lifetime.

Joe McDonald

Joe McDonald has been a full-time professional wildlife photographer for nearly 40 years, beginning his budding career as a freshman in high school. Although Joe and his wife Mary Ann have photographed all aspects of nature, Joe is best known for his work with the world’s big cats, mountain gorillas, and high-speed flash photography. Before COVID curtailed their schedule, Joe and Mary Ann led photo tours and photo safaris for nearly 30 weeks each year. Joe is the author of numerous books on wildlife and wildlife photography. They are now Olympus shooters.

CHASING GHOSTS

By Jared Lloyd

A great gray owl perches in aspen trees on an overcast day. Although I could have maneuvered to bring the dark needles of nearby spruce and fir trees behind this owl, I opted for a high-key image of white-on-white tones for a more artistic feel to the photograph. Nikon Z6ii | 600mm f/4G | f/4 | 1/1000 | ISO 5000

Each step plunges me several feet into the snow. One foot not quite in front of the other, my snowshoes accumulate great mounds of white that add to the weight of the burden. Never mind the 30 pounds of gear strapped to my back. That’s the easy part. It’s the high steps, knees to chest, hoisting an extra 10 pounds of snow on each foot above the surface of the crust that guarantee a mighty workout.

Temperatures plummeted overnight. Driving here in the dark, my vehicle’s thermometer reads -24°F (-31°C). This is cold. Bone-chilling cold. The type that makes the contents of your nose and sinus cavity freeze up. The type that made the little chip in my windshield turn into a sprawling four-foot crack while I slept.

I’ve experienced worse, though. Once in Yellowstone, while working on a PBS show, I found myself in -57°F. Nothing worked. Not my joints, not my muscles, or my camera equipment. The viewfinder went on strike, and the LCD was more like LSD at a Pink Floyd concert. It was a pointless day that resulted in little more than stage-three frostbite that still bothers a couple of fingers on my left hand in the cold.

Before me sprawls the beginning of one of the largest intact forests on Earth. Like the size of this forest, this is no small statement. Researchers have identified only five forests left on the planet that fall into the category they call “frontier forests.” This is one of them. These places are big. They have an oversized impact on the air we breathe and the global climate. There used to be more than five, of course, but we took care of that. These are the last remnants of a Paleolithic world. Pre-industrial. Pre-agricultural. True wilderness. The forests primeval.

The numbers we use to quantify it all hit proportions that are difficult to grasp. This place comprises 1.5 BILLION acres of living, breathing forest.

The North American Boreal Forest is a massive place. Stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, covering most of Canada and Alaska, and dropping down the spine of the Rocky Mountains and into northern Minnesota, this forest is larger than the Amazon Rainforest.

That’s nearly three million square miles, seven million square kilometers. In other words, the same size as the Amazon rainforest.

But I’m not in the tropics, in case the snowshoes didn’t clue you in. Nor is this a midwinter night’s dream. This is the North American boreal forest, named after Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind and harbinger of winter. And I’m here, along the north shore of Lake Superior, in search of ghosts.

Black spruce trees reach out and grab my jacket. Such species speak of both geography and geology, as all species do if you know how to listen to them. Black spruce grows lean and gives the appearance of the saddest Christmas tree you have ever seen, but with a large ball-like cluster of needles and branches at the very top. That’s life by design, perfect for shedding snow and maximizing photosynthesis when and where it matters. This is a species borne of seemingly never-ending snowfall, of deep cold, of life at the edge of the Ice Age. But more importantly to the day’s quest, black spruce speaks of wet soils.

A juvenile great gray owl comes in for a landing on a buck-and-rail fence. You can tell this is a juvenile by the white band across the tips of his tail feathers. Great gray owls hunt by sound. For this reason, they prefer to find hunting perches relatively low to the ground. These owls look for movement below before moving on. As this owl was hopping from fence post to fence post throughout the evening, I was able to anticipate where she would fly in next and set myself up accordingly. Nikon D5 | 200-400mm VR II | f/7.1 | 1/1000 | ISO 800

Here’s a simple ecological maxim for you: Geology drives biology. The two work in tandem, like two dance partners on the stage of Earth, inextricable, and made for each other. The presence of black spruce suggests bog-like habitat, wet grounds, and open canopies. This tells me that in the summer months, with the never-ending sunshine up here, the grasses of the wet meadow below grow tall and lush and plentiful.

In nature, nothing happens in a vacuum. Nothing goes unnoticed. And where you find lush wet meadows in the summer, you are sure to find a menagerie of little rodents working day and night to eke out a living, fattening themselves in the here and now while putting away great stores of food for colder, darker, leaner times ahead.

Of all the species the boreal forest shelters from the machine of civilization, of the wolves and caribou and martens, only the moose may be more iconic than the species of my desire here: the great gray owl.

This is a bird of many names, for it can be found in many places, across many human cultures and languages. It has been called the ghost of the Northwoods, the phantom of the forest, the gray ghost, and the spectral owl. But it’s the Latin name I have always been partial to: Strix nebulosa, something roughly akin to “the spirit owl.”

When you really think about it, making the decision to set out and spend a couple of weeks snowshoeing through the Northwoods in search of owls seems rather preposterous. It’s a bit like hunting for unicorns. How often do you just so “happen” upon an owl while walking through the woods?

Yet here I am. Knee deep in snow. Chasing unicorns.

What is it about owls that so captures our imaginations? They inhabit our collective conscious like few other species. These are the creatures of myth and legend. They have been both portents of death and bringers of life. They are the keepers of secrets to some and spiritual guides through this world to others.

In the cosmology of the Greeks, an owl was the earthly symbol of Athena, the goddess of wisdom. For the Sumerians, who came long before the Greeks, owls accompanied the demon Lilith (the origin of the Jewish tradition). The Romans associated owls with Minerva, the goddess of prophecy. The Ainu of Japan saw the owl as a messenger of the gods, and toasts were made to owls before hunts. For the Ojibwa who made their home around the Great Lakes, the bridge in which the dead crossed over to the spirit world was known as the Owl Bridge. The great horned owl was the keeper of the buffalo in the world of the Hidatsa, and the burrowing owl was a protective spirit for warriors going into battle.

The list goes on. And on. The fact of the matter is that humans from every continent have held a deep reverence for these birds for MANY thousands of years. Owls have been entrenched in the cosmology and world view of every culture that has ever encountered these birds of prey.

Great gray owls are physically the tallest species of owls in the world, but it’s all a big show. Or really, I should say it’s all feathers. Like every species of the boreal forest, a place where snow is measured in meters and temperatures stunt the growth of trees, these owls are purpose built. The bird inside is unlike what you see on the outside.

There is quite a lot of symbolism that can be made of this, especially regarding the human construct of self and identity. And of all the meanings that can be intoned here, none may be more fascinating than the one of a real-life man by the name of Washaquonasin.

In 1905, a 17-year-old English romantic by the name Archibald Belaney made his way across the Atlantic and wandered off into the boreal forest of Canada in search of a life less ordinary. As an infant, he had been abandoned by his parents and raised by two aunts in Hastings. There, he grew up hypnotized by the stories of the North American frontier, of the endless forests of Canada, of “wild Indians” and adventure.

It took a bit of maneuvering on snowshoes to position a forested background behind this owl. If I had photographed this owl with frontal lighting (more to the left), I would have had a considerably more broken-up background. Tremendous gaps in the background forest would have meant significantly more sky. All of this sky would have pulled attention away from the owl, and so finding a more solid expanse of trees was the goal here. This, of course, created a situation in which only the side of the owl was illuminated. Thus, I had to wait till she turned her head into the light to create the photograph – otherwise her face would have been in full shade and the photograph would have been deleted. Nikon Z6ii | 600mm f/4G | f/4 | 1/1000 | ISO 1400

Belaney quickly fell in love with an Ojibwa woman only to then be rescued from snow-blindness by Chief Ne-Ganikabo, The One Who Stands First.

Ne-Ganikabo adopted Belaney into the Ojibwa tribe and taught him the ways and means of their people. And it was here that Belaney was allegedly given the name Washaquonasin, the Ojibwa name for the great gray owl.

Washaquonasin was something of a double entendre, though. The literal translation is “He Who Moves by Night.” For the Ojibwa, this was a nod toward the fact that Belaney was a wanderer. But it also acknowledged that not everything is as it appears — like the gray owl’s physical size. And so, this name was bestowed upon him as a means of representing who he truly was — a wanderer, who was white on the outside but Native on the inside.

Like all interesting people, Belaney’s story is a complicated one with many layers. Mystery surrounded the story of his parents, why they abandoned him, and what ever became of them. So, Gray Owl began to craft his own narrative and origin story of being the son of a Scotsman and Apache woman, who was then adopted into the Ojibwa tribe of the Northwoods.

In short order, Gray Owl began to fear that the beaver was disappearing from the forest. Relentlessly trapped and killed to satisfy the European and American lust for fur, the beaver is inextricable from the history of Canada and much of the Western U.S. Gray Owl, with his formal English education, began to speak out against beaver trapping, writing articles and books in the process and becoming one of the best-known Canadian authors of his day.

Strong side lighting, coupled with a deeply shaded background, can result in very dramatic lighting for our wildlife photographs. This is a type of lighting we refer to as chiaroscuro lighting – which is simply Italian for “light dark.” This style of lighting was popularized during the Baroque period when Europe was descending into chaos in the form of religious wars. The style was used to create mood, mystery, and uncertainty – the very “feeling” that characterized life at that time. Owls occupy a sort of magical and mysterious realm in our collective psyche. So, finding an opportunity where I could exploit the extreme contrast and limits to the dynamic range of my camera was high on my priority list so as to try and play to our unconscious perceptions of owls as mysterious. Nikon Z6ii | 600mm f/4G | f/4 | 1/1600 | ISO 320
There is always a sort of magical quality to backlighting – especially when we can create a halo effect around our subject. After spending several minutes creating completely unremarkable portraits of this owl, I snowshoed around to the other side of him in order to work with different light that was more interesting in this situation. Luckily, there was a paper birch that I could also work into the composition as well in the background. Nikon Z6ii | 600mm f/4G | f/4 | 1/1000 | ISO 220
This photograph was actually created several years ago while leading a workshop. Great gray owls will often “exploit” photographers in the field. Given that they are hunting for small rodents, as we move about we often times “rustle up” these very rodents they are looking for. Within minutes of photographing this owl, she flew directly to us and landed in the top of this young tree a mere 10 feet away – TOO CLOSE for a 600mm lens! We actually had to back up just to be able to photograph her. Nikon D5 | 600mm f/4G | f/4 | 1/1250 | ISO 4000

Canadians and Europeans alike became mesmerized by Gray Owl. In their eyes, he was a Native who could write and articulate in a way that resonated with what they saw as civilized society. Book deals and speaking engagements came his way. Throughout the 1930s, Gray Owl propelled headlong into a lecture tour across Europe, Canada, and the United States where he was lionized as a spokesman for beaver and the disappearing way of life of “aboriginals” (as Natives were known in Canada). And as a result, history now views him as one of the first celebrity environmentalists.

Few people did more for protecting beaver and reestablishing colonies of this species across Canada. Few people had done more to try and alert the world of the disappearing way of life in the boreal forest, of the plight of the Native people there, and the unraveling of the ecosystem. So effective and beloved was Gray Owl during his time that he was given a cabin in the middle of Prince Albert National Park on the shores of Ajawaan Lake and was bestowed the title of “Caretaker of the Animals.”

Today, the memory of Gray Owl is very different. If you read the articles about his life that have been written in the last decade or so, the focus rests squarely on him being a fraud, how he duped the world, and his insensitivity to “real” Native people by assuming their identity. Such is the nature of the time in which we live, where scandal sells, and we all love to hate.

Great gray owls are not the only species of owl that inhabit the boreal forest. Oftentimes, while searching for gray owls, you will find other species hidden in the branches of spruce trees such as this appropriately named boreal owl. Smaller species of owls like this are also prey species for other animals. For this reason, they tend to stay closer to the trunk of the tree for protection themselves. This can make finding them very difficult. And working out a window to photograph them in can be equally as challenging. But, they are pretty confident in their ability to remain unseen by most predators this way and are very calm in the presence of photographers – much like the great gray owl. I created a video about locating this owl called “Do you have what it takes?” You can find this in your video library on the website. Nikon D5 | 600mm f/4G | f/4 | 1/800 | ISO 6400

Yet, herein lies the irony of Gray Owl’s story. Today, it is undisputed that Archie Belaney’s impact on the world rested solely upon the fact that the world thought he was an Indian. Had he just been Archibald Belaney, starry-eyed white boy from England, he would have been little more than a voice crying out in the wilderness, unheard, unseen, and most likely irrelevant. But as a Native, as a “half-breed” adopted into the Ojibwa tribe, the last vestige of the now highly offensive “noble savage” archetype, he captured the hearts and minds of the world and led the charge to save the beaver from extinction.

I like Washaquonasin’s story because I can relate. I’m not that much different, really. I’m also a starry-eyed white boy turned tireless advocate for the natural world. I too once had dreams of simply being in the woods, of drinking from the wellspring of Nature. And like Gray Owl, I also sort of stumbled into it all.

But where I differ is perhaps my historical perspective. I don’t need to be something I’m not. My ancestors hailed from northern Europe and Scandinavia (great gray owl country). They too were once inextricable from nature, as were the ancestors of every person who has ever lived. We are all descendants of hunters and gatherers, of people who found symbolism in storms and blue skies, of people who lived and died by knowing the pulse of the Earth, and who were intricately woven into the living fabric of nature.

This is the beauty of being alone in the woods, snowshoeing. The physical act of putting one foot in front of the other frees the mind, and thoughts and meditations begin to wander the full expanse of the universe.

As wildlife photographers, we are in many ways the modern equivalent of hunters and gatherers. We follow the rhythms of nature, and our success stems from our ability to understand the most nuanced details of the natural world. And when it comes to the task at hand, I borrow from the way in which these cultures approached and experienced the world.

In the Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, famed primatologist Frans de Wall makes the case that our real superpower as a species is our oversized capacity for empathy.

This may require a bit of an explanation, or maybe a definition.

Psychology Today defines empathy as the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another person, animal, or fictional character. However, this isn’t a uniquely human trait. All mammals do it. Birds do it. Even some reptiles do it. The more “social” an animal is, the more highly developed this skillset is. But all animals that raise and care for their offspring have the power of empathy.

However, empathy isn’t just about feeling others’ feels. It takes complex thinking, imagination, the ability to recognize another creature’s needs and wants and intentions, the mental and emotional faculty to project oneself into another’s shoes or paws and predict their future. It’s often argued that our capacity for empathy is what laid the foundation for our extraordinary capacity for creativity.

Much like all our ancestors, nature-based communities today continue to employ these concepts of empathy and creativity to thrive within the natural rhythms of the world. To find food, you must understand your food. You must know what makes it all tick, what drives your prey, and what their wants, needs, and intentions are, from the daily to the seasonal. In other words, hunters must project themselves into the world and mind of their prey. This is empathy at work in a very different fashion. To find an animal, you must become the animal.

Thus, to find an owl, I must become the owl. I must begin thinking like the owl.

To the uninitiated, this may border on crazy talk. But fear not. I’m a professional.

If food and sex are the two most powerful forces of nature dictating the minds and intentions of all life on Earth, then this is where we should start. If I were an owl, where would I be? What would I eat? How would I navigate the world? How would I experience all there is to experience? This isn’t random. There is order here. Predictability.

Know thy subject.

The boreal forest is also known as the snow forest – for obvious reasons. Both cold and snow dictate every facet of these forests. Their health and wealth is based upon the sheer quantity of snowfall that occurs throughout the winter months. I created this image with a DJI Phantom 4 drone. Working with a small unfrozen creek gives something of an anchor point to an otherwise abstract depiction of the forest when looking straight down on the landscape like this.

And to do so is to quickly come to understand that more than the forest primeval, it is the wetlands, which are a prominent feature of the snow forest, that is the siren song for Strix nebulosa.

The greater boreal forest, or taiga as it is known in Eurasia, is circumpolar. This biome sits like a great crown atop the planet, wrapping itself around the world at between roughly 50 and 60 degrees north latitude with the occasional fingers reaching south of this to encompass the spine of mountain chains. But some 20,000 years ago, there was no forest here. Instead, this same region sat locked beneath the great ice sheets of the Pleistocene that towered some two miles into the air. As the planet transitioned from the Pleistocene into the Holocene (now more accurately known as the Anthropocene) around 13,000 years ago, the retreat of these continent-sized ice sheets left their fingerprints embedded into the landscape like dimples on a golf ball. Minnesota, for instance, is the land of 10,000 lakes for this reason.

It is amidst this interplay of forest and freshwater where things get interesting. The North American boreal forest not only harbors 25 percent of the world’s forests (making it the largest intact forest on the planet), it also harbors 25 percent of the world’s freshwater as well. From peat bogs to spruce bogs, from fens to glens, marshes, and swamps, the boreal forest is both land and water. Well over half of all American wigeons, ring-necked ducks, mergansers, green-winged teal, scaup, bufflehead, goldeneye, and scoter are born in the boreal forest for this reason.

Wetlands are an admixture of land and water. There’s a seemingly impossible number of lakes across the North American boreal forest, and these habitats in between solid and liquid play into the story of the gray owl.

As I referenced at the beginning of all this, wet meadows appeal to the tastes of small, furry, bite-sized animals. Endless summer sun and wet soils mean a never-ending feast for rodents. Add to this the insulating effect that several feet of snow has as it blankets the ground in the winter, allowing the soil to remain unfrozen and the subnivean zone a constant hospitable temperature while the air above dips into the double-digit negatives, and you have a veritable Shangri-La for voles, moles, and mice across the north.

This is why Minnesota’s famed Sax-Zim Bog is what it is for owls in the wintertime. Though great gray owls are a resident species in Sax-Zim, their numbers swell come winter as their more northern comrades spill south across the international border, escaping any number of problems that can occur in the winter. These owls are followed by the likes of boreal, hawk, and even snowy owls — all for their own reasons. Thick stands of spruce, fir, hemlock, and tamarack (larch) offer up protection for everyone except the snowy owls, who can keep a steady body temperature below 160°F. Meanwhile, the great sprawling bogs of the region provide a seemingly endless food supply in the form of meadow-fattened rodents beneath the snow.

But for my tastes, Sax-Zim is too perfect under normal conditions. The same reasons that this particular area offers up hearth and home to so many owls also make it exceedingly difficult to find and photograph them here. The habitat is tremendous. Bogs can cover hundreds of acres. During an irruption year, this is ideal. So much great habitat equates to so many great owl opportunities. But outside of these cyclical events, you often end up relying on an intricate network of birders and photographers to pinpoint where owls have been seen — which means everyone else is in those spots as well. I don’t know about you, but I like to work in places where there is a very specific ratio between wildlife and people. In other words, somewhere where there is lots of wildlife and preferably no people.

Finding and photographing wildlife is made easier when we can narrow down the possible locations we need to search. For me, this means searching out hillier country than what a place like Sax-Zim Bog has to offer.

I want the golf-ball effect. Hill, bog, hill, bog, hill, bog. In this sort of topography, the wetlands are smaller and more confined and tend to focus the owl activity into tighter, more predictable areas. Instead of spending hours trying to aimlessly snowshoe my way across a single wetland, glassing thousands upon thousands of trees for the shape of an owl, I can map out a series of smaller bogs and significantly increase my chances during a non-irruption year.

Birds in flight can be difficult enough even in user-friendly frontal lighting. Backlit birds in flight can create a whole new realm of unique challenges due to the fact that our autofocus systems have a bias for locking onto contrast. Great gray owls, however, have a tendency toward a slow lofty glide and then “hover” just before plunging into the snow. This makes backlit flight shots like this significantly easier to “experiment” with. Nikon Z6ii | 600mm f/4G | f/4 | 1/1000 | ISO 1000

Working in this type of topography simplifies things considerably. A single bog may only be an acre or two in size. And stringing together 10 of these is a more manageable task than spending an entire day searching one gigantic area.

The concept of a bog can be a little confusing for the uninitiated, however. And honestly, I don’t like to use this word in general because it’s often wrong. For instance, when we talk about a black spruce or tamarack bog, we really aren’t talking about a bog at all. These are technically swamps, which are wetlands with trees.

Instead, I prefer the more appropriate word “muskeg” — derived from the native Ojibwe word mashkiig — which is the common term used across Canada and Alaska.

You see, there is a habitat type known as a bog. But there are also fens. And swamps, for instance. In fact, a bog is really a stage of succession here. Bogs in this region begin as fens, which then progress to swamps, and eventually into bogs. All three of these are wetlands. All three of these harbor great gray owls. Scientifically, they are not interchangeable, but there is one word that encompasses all these wetland habitats across the boreal forest: muskeg.

Identifying muskegs and suitable great gray owl habitat can be a bit more challenging at times than you might think. Yes, these are often open wet meadows (what’s known as fens), which are as unmistakable as the Grand Tetons when you see them. However, there are many different types of muskegs. Black spruce and tamarack swamps can be confusing in this regard. Both of these are characterized by trees that thrive in wet, highly acidic, nutrient-poor soils. But neither of them are going to conjure up the image of a flooded forest like the Okefenokee Swamp of Georgia.

The boreal forest sits atop the planet like a giant emerald crown. The North American portion of this forest is one of the great Frontier Forests in and of itself. But when the taiga is taken into account (the name for the Eurasian boreal forest), this biome quickly becomes the most important forest on the planet for oxygen production, fresh water storage, and regulating global climate.
Don’t overlook the other opportunities that arise – especially those that are not necessarily wildlife. Few human inventions scream “Northwoods” or “boreal forest” to me as much as a canoe. While in Canada, I came across this wooden canoe tied up in a lake as fresh snow was accumulating on it and the forested world around it. Though I was in the area for very different types of photographs, this has become one of my most sought after limited-edition fine art pieces.

If you think a tree is a tree or a forest is a forest, you will likely drive right past one of these black spruce swamps without knowing it — which is why being a solid naturalist makes you a better wildlife photographer. Knowing a black spruce from a balsam fir means the difference between knowing where you are likely to find great gray owls vs. boreal chickadees, similar to how knowing the difference between a red oak and a white oak can mean the difference between spending a day in the woods photographing black bears in the fall or just spending a day in the woods.

Every animal has a superpower, that thing that gives it an edge in survival. Ours is creativity combined with the fact we don’t rely on our hands for walking. A grizzly bear has its sense of smell, which is roughly 300 to 500 times more powerful than a dog. For the great gray owl, it’s all about hearing.

So much of a great gray owl’s physiology is purpose-built for detecting the slightest sounds, even beneath several feet of snow. Their facial feathers grow to create one big satellite dish for focusing sound while their ears sit asymmetrically in order to triangulate the exact location of the sound they need to isolate. In the winter, great gray owls typically have to punch through multiple feet of snow to trap a mouse. To do so, one’s hearing must be deadly accurate to pick up the sound of a mouse moving beneath the snow in the subnivean zone, pinpoint exactly where it is, and then calculate the right trajectory to dive into the snow —all while perched in a tree.

Because great gray owls live and die by their hearing like this, they can often be found perched anywhere between five and 20 feet off the ground. This is where actual bogs really come to factor into their world.

Again, bogs are what happen to swamps in the boreal forest once the soil becomes too wet and acidic. The trees begin to die. Some fall over, some snap in half, and highly specialized shrubs take root — all of which works to create a plethora of low perches, perfect for great gray owls to sit atop and listen for rodents below. This isn’t just nuanced information. Understanding these things is what allows us to take millions of acres of pristine forest and narrow our searches to a handful of locations and perches.

A large flock of pine grosbeaks drops out of the sky into a nearby spruce. The males of the species are a deep crimson red, and the whole scene conjures up images of Christmas as these red ornaments fill in to the canopy. It’s still early, but the earth is beginning to warm, and with this comes the morning breezes. Great gray owls, like most inland species of birds, aren’t the biggest fans of wind. At least, not in settings like this. In these more open muskegs, wind, especially coming off Lake Superior to the south, can quickly shut down any and all owl activity.

Owls in general have a high metabolism rate, which means they need to eat more frequently than a lot of mammals do. For a great gray owl up here in the winter, they need a lot of calories. Of course, different-sized prey offer up different portions of those calories. A red squirrel or a weasel is going to provide significantly more energy than a meadow vole. But things like meadow voles are more common and make up a greater percentage of these owls’ diets. And for this reason, a great gray owl is going to need to catch at least five of these voles a day to survive.

This warrants further consideration, though.

It was -24°F this morning. For me to spend the day out searching for owls in these temperatures means that I am going to burn an average of 6,000 calories just to stay warm. Add to this the strenuous workout of snowshoeing in, and there is no way I am not going to be at a major calorie deficit today (my justification for the ribeye and pints of Guinness later).

For great gray owls, each meadow vole is a hard-won meal in these same conditions. And to survive here, they have their own caloric needs each day. This need to feed means that a little wind doesn’t actually shut down the owl activity at all. Instead, it shifts the activity to locations where they can more easily hunt in the wind, such as denser spruce and tamarack swamps.

This is thinking like an owl.

A lot of photographers I have talked to misunderstand this part. A little wind kicks up, and they abandon ship with the notion that you can’t photograph gray owls in the wind. Really, they just need to change locations, adapt to the conditions, and understand how a gray owl thinks.

I created this photograph at the very northern edge of the boreal forest. You can see how the trees become sparse, eventually giving way to open tundra. Beyond these mountains lies the North Slope of Alaska where trees are practically non-existent and barren ground, grizzlies, muskox, caribou, and arctic wolves reign supreme.

I’m exhausted from the weight on my back and the weight on my snowshoes. I broke a sweat coming in here, and that’s problematic. Sweat means wet, and wet sucks the heat right out of you. If I keep pushing, I will stay warm, but I will continue to perspire. If I stop, my core body temperature will begin to fall, and the sweat will complicate matters as it cools and freezes. Such is the delicate balance of working in frozen landscapes.

Recognizing my limits, I take a break anyway. Pulling off my F-stop backpack, I lean it up against the trunk of a dead tree at the edge of the muskeg and plop butt-first into the snow beside it. Stashed deep in one of the outer pockets of the pack is a strategically placed thermos of coffee. Sure, I’m an addict. I freely admit it. But this isn’t so much about getting my caffeine fix as it is about stoking up the internal fire. Sitting here is going to cool me off, but filling my gullet with a cup or two of piping-hot coffee will help to keep my core temperature elevated while I rest.

Leaning back against the tree, I close my eyes and try to envision the object of my desire. I imagine that I am an owl at the edge of this forest, sitting atop a broken-off black spruce, surveying the snowy expanse before me, listening for the faint hint of my next meal. I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten since yesterday, and I’m feeling the pains of cold and wind blowing into my face.

The thought of the wind in my face jars me from my daydream. The wind really is blowing into my face. If I were an owl, listening intently to the sounds three feet beneath the snow, this wind would be damn near impossible to hear over. It’s not that it’s blowing 20 mph, but it’s enough to mask the other sounds of the forest for me as it hits me face-on.

If I were an owl, the edge of this muskeg with a face full of wind would be the last place I would want to be. I close my eyes once again and picture the layout of this bog. The wind is blowing in from the northwest — most likely foretelling an approaching front. I am sitting on the south side of the wetland. If the wind is out of the northwest, that side of the muskeg would sit inside of an eddy. The forest behind would work to block the wind.

With this thought, I pull up my binoculars and begin to scan the northwest quadrant of the muskeg. It takes no more than 10 seconds before I make out the telltale oval shape of an owl sitting just inside the forest.

Thinking like an owl.

Coming to understand the North American boreal forest is like a lesson in superlatives. The largest intact forest in the world. The largest supply of icefree freshwater in the world. The largest concentration of wetlands in the world. It all begins to feel a bit hyperbolic in this unsuspecting landscape of spruce and birch and aspen and fir. But the numbers don’t lie. This forest is estimated to harbor 500 billion trees compared to the Amazon’s 390 billion. And each year, some five billion birds, encompassing 300 different species, migrate south from this forest after nesting season.

In today’s world, we throw around words like billion and trillion as if they have no real tangible meaning. And yet, they are tangible — just bordering on the preposterous.

What exactly does a billion mean in terms of the number of birds, for instance?

On average, it takes about 25 seconds to count to 100. And about 10 minutes to get to 1,000 if you count fast. To make it to 10,000, it will take you two hours of nonstop counting. At this rate, if you never stop for a break, if you don’t eat, don’t drink, don’t sleep, it will take you roughly 100 YEARS to count to a billion. Let that sink in for a moment. It will take you 100 years to count to a billion — as long as you don’t eat, sleep, or ever stop counting. Now do this five times and you get an idea of how many birds this forest produces each year.

All that math is from UC Berkeley, so I feel confident sharing it here.

When put into this perspective, it really is preposterous. The number of birds. The number of trees. The amount of carbon stored (more than all the world’s tropical and temperate forests combined). The amount of freshwater. The impact this single forest has on global climates and how the outflow of water here literally drives ocean currents. And yet, all of this is changing fast. At current trends of global climate change, the North American boreal forest is projected to shrink by 25 percent come the turn of this century.

The camouflage of great gray owls is the stuff of legend. Notice how similar this bird looks to the lichen-covered trunk of a black spruce. For those predators who rely on their personal camo for hunting, mid-tones and simple contrasting streaks of dark and light colors are significantly more effective than the camouflage clothing sold in hunting supply stores. More often than not, hunting clothing is designed to make money more than it is to “fool” animals. I have written about science behind camouflage many times and those patterns made by companies such as Natural Gear routinely outperform anything else on the market due to their biomimicry of great gray owl camo patterns. Nikon Z6ii | 600mm f/4G | f/6.3 | 1/1000 | ISO 3200
Creating portraits of wildlife that tell stories or have impact is often a matter of finding a “plus value” to work with. In this photograph, that “plus value” happens to be the wind and blowing feathers. When a sudden gust of wind kicked up, pushing the branch backwards and tossing this female great gray owl's feathers into disarray, the opportunity took on an entirely different look and feel. What was a nice portrait of a great gray owl in a spruce tree quickly turned into one of my all-time favorite photographs of this species. I always think of Merlin and his owl Archimedes when I look at this image. Nikon Z6ii | 600mm f/4G | f/4 | 1/1250 | ISO 8000

Changes like this don’t have linear consequences. Instead, they often kick off runaway feedback loops. Take the 208 billion tons of carbon stored here, for instance. Climate change over the last 20 years has already increased the number, the severity, and length of droughts across this forest. This in turn has increased large-scale fires. Do you see where I’m going with this?

But this is big and obvious stuff that policymakers and activists alike tend to focus on. On the ground, in the here and now, the forest and its denizens already bear the scars of this new world order.

Three days ago, I watched as temperatures climbed to 45°F here just before this cold front swung through and plunged the mercury deep into the negatives. This is a regular occurrence now, of course. Midwinter warmups and melts are happening more frequently.

But, so what? Doesn’t warmer weather and less snow mean easier times for gray owls?

That climb into the 40s translated into massive snowmelt across this area. But come nightfall, when the temperatures dropped again, all that water froze solid, creating a layer of dense ice across the snowpack — ice that makes traveling through this landscape a hundredfold more difficult for everything from me to moose, but also ice that this great gray owl must penetrate to access food below. And how many other layers of ice are beneath that?

This photograph of a juvenile great gray owl was all about the lines of the dead willow she is perched on. It can be all too easy to become hyperfocused on the animal and forget that we are creating visual art. This means that all of the other “stuff” in the photograph is quite often just as important as the subject itself. So, the position of the perch and branches and the juxtaposition of the owl and her angle were all factored into the creation of this composition. Nikon D5 | 600mm f/4G | f/4 | 1/500 | ISO 10,000
Many of the other boreal species of birds add an extraordinary splash of color in an otherwise green-and-white landscape. Pine grosbeaks are large members of the finch family and are one such species I look forward to seeing of the boreal forests every winter. Nikon D5 | 200-400mm VR II | f/4 | 1/500 | ISO 6400

All of this translates to winter becoming more difficult for these owls to feed themselves.

You see, it’s easy to run mathematical models based on percentages of forest reduction. Data like this can be plugged into models and extrapolated. But how do you account for the frozen crust of ice that layers this snowpack now, and the impact this has on my gray owl’s ability to obtain the calories it needs to survive the next 10 days when temperatures are forecasted not to climb above 0°F?

We know, for instance, that there are one billion fewer birds coming out of the boreal forest each fall now than there were in the 1970s. But this isn’t part of the conversation we are having in North America. Nor is the impact that all of this is having at the southern extremes of the great gray owl’s range.

Life can be tough on the edge. Where I sit watching this gray owl through my binoculars is the southern edge of the snow forest. This sliver of boreal forest that drops down to the north shore of Lake Superior is one of only a handful of places across the western U.S. where great gray owls are capable of breeding. These are islands of boreal forest that continue to exist in microclimates that have thus far resisted climate change.

Compared to elsewhere, summers are hotter. Winters are warmer. There is less snow, and more fire. Genetic diversity is low. And like all species living on islands, they exist in a tenuous state of uncertainty, always one calamity away from extinction at the edge. Looking at a 25 percent loss of boreal forest by 2100 hides the reality of what will happen to great gray owls across these edge populations. South of the Canadian border, these magnificent birds face losing 97 percent of their habitat in that time. Say goodbye to gray owls in the lower 48 states.

This has already happened with species known as the boreal caribou in the contiguous United States. As the name implies, this is another boreal species like the gray owl, dependent on snow forest and climate thresholds to survive. On January 14, 2019, the last boreal, or woodland caribou, was removed from the wild in the lower 48 states, making them officially extinct.

Did you even know Idaho had caribou?

Will posterity know we had gray owls?

Over the course of several hours, I watch this owl make 12 plunges into the snow for food. Never once does she emerge with a rodent. So much energy lost when she needs every calorie she can get.

Of all the many species of owls in North America, great grays are my favorite to photograph. There is something about being in their presence that is difficult to explain. You don’t get this inside a horde of other photographers, stomping about, mobbing one of these birds — what I call the wildlife paparazzi. But in the wild, alone, heart racing from the exhilaration of discovery, you find yourself locked eye to eye with the huntress before you. Standing before the gray ghost, with her golden eyes piercing your soul, sizing you up, judging you for your past and future sins, time loses meaning and it can seem as though an eternity has passed as you feel her studying you.

And make no mistake here. She is studying you.

It takes only one experience like this to understand the reverence that our ancestors gave to owls. Spiritual guides. Keepers of the dead. Messengers from the gods.

For me, I’ll spend days like this. Early mornings, snowshoes, searching, filling memory cards, repeat. And most days, it’s with a different owl.

Success on this order doesn’t happen by accident. Sure, as always, there is a measure of luck involved with just about anything regarding wildlife. But as the saying goes, chance favors the prepared mind. Learning to think like an owl, or a moose, or a marten, or a black bear, allows us to make order out of the chaos of infinite possibilities.

But it does more than that.

It also deepens our own personal relationship with the natural world and creates an unbreakable bond between us and those animals we choose to become.

Jared Lloyd

Jared Lloyd is a professional wildlife photographer, environmental photojournalist, outdoor educator, photography workshop instructor, and the founder and editor in chief of the Journal of Wildlife Photography.

After more than a decade of teaching wildlife photography workshops around the world and working with outlets on every continent, including the BBC and National Geographic, he established the Journal in 2017. Conservation serves as the heart of his work, and he created this resource to weave together workshop-level photographic and environmental education for wildlife photographers across the globe.

WILD LIVES: USING A PHOTOJOURNALIST’S APPROACH TO TELL WILDLIFE STORIES

By Kate Garibaldi

The moment just before a days-old oystercatcher chick dives under her mother’s wings. The second chick can be seen just behind it, straining to press itself further into the warm soft feathers. Their gentle expressions, body language, and near-touching bills illustrate a mother’s love.

As a nature photographer, I have many approaches to a day out with the camera. Some days, I go out without a plan or intent and wander where the light brings me. Many great photographs and surprises can be found that way. Other times, I am struck with a desire to create a very specific photo. With wildlife that do as they please, this can seem an impossible task. However, by understanding their seasons and behaviors, and through careful planning, I can execute a precise vision like this.

There are few moments captured and told through photography that pull a viewer’s heartstrings more than a mother with her young. One winter, with the days growing warmer, a muse lodged in my mind of creating a photograph illustrating a mother shorebird with her chicks. A desire to escape the snow of the northeastern United States and put my feet in warm soft sand may have played a small part. In any case, the feeling stuck and I had to create it.

To create such an image with surety, to go out on a day and know that I was going to photograph a mother bird with her young chicks, might seem unrealistic. However, through the power of being a nature nerd, a great many things are possible. This secret, I will share with you.

I live several hours away from the East Coast of the United States. During the spring and summer, more than a few beaches are roped off and partitioned for nesting birds. Some birds, like piping plovers, are endangered species, and a quick search online will show areas designated for their protection. Often just a simple rope or wire fence is all that separates that sacred area from the hustle and bustle of humanity. However, ample signage to educate the public and a steep fine for trespassing helps enforce the concept of the modest rope fence.

When finding areas designated for endangered species like plovers, you also discover ecosystems and environments that host a number of species. A wide variety of shorebirds from oystercatchers to skimmers to terns favor these same habitats. Your location dictates the logistics of getting there, but everything else is on nature’s schedule. You see, shorebirds often nest in the same beach every year. Some species even nest in huge colonies.

Two oystercatcher chicks look around moments after Mom stood up suddenly to get breakfast from Dad. Her abrupt movement knocked them out from under her and onto the sand like tumbleweeds. If you look closely, you can see the sand still flying.
The male oystercatcher dutifully hunts at the water’s edge. With Mom, two young chicks, and himself to feed, he is a flurry of activity. This is a great time to practice photographing birds in flight as he flies back and forth with prey for his family.

To capture my muse of a shorebird with young, I envisioned an oystercatcher specifically. An oystercatcher is an unusual-looking bird with a long red bill and bright yellow eyes. The contrast in colors is quite striking. So, here is where the specifics of the life of an oystercatcher come into play. All species have seasons and behaviors that they repeat. Oystercatchers are monogamous and spend many years with their partner returning to the same territory to nest. The nest itself, however, uses the word “nest” very liberally. Like most shorebirds, the oystercatcher nest is called a scrape, and it is on the ground. Oystercatchers literally kick a bit of sand about and make a shallow depression in the sand. No twigs or intricate house building for these birds. This is why conservation and roping off bird habitats is important. For beaches where birds and humans must coexist, it would be all too easy for humans to trample or ruin shorebird nests.


The lack of a true nest is intentional on the part of the birds. The nest site is mundane; the eggs are mottled and camouflaged to avoid the gaze of predators.


However, nature didn’t anticipate human beachgoers, joggers, children playing, and dogs off leash. For this reason, known nesting sites are blocked off to allow nature a place to exist undisturbed.

With a bit of online research, you can find these protected sites listed on various websites and locate the beach nearest to you. One of my favorite resources is the Audubon website, which has an entire section dedicated to Important Bird Habitats: https:// www.audubon.org/important-bird-areas. For specific sightings, you can check the popular website and app eBird: https://ebird. org. However, even at well-known locations, I prefer to find my own nests off the beaten path to avoid crowds.

If you aren’t already familiar with the lifecycle of your target bird species, you should also take notes on that as well. You will need to know when they nest, what the nest and eggs look like, and the incubation period of the eggs. Time spent online researching will be invaluable once you are in the field. This is the secret for how you will cast aside fickle luck to instead create photographs by sheer skill and knowledge. This methodology works for many situations and species beyond my muse of a mother oystercatcher with her chicks. It is how time and again I have created photographs that capture timeless wildlife moments.

With wildlife photography like this, planning with intent is all about the where, when, and what. Once you have found a habitat near you for nesting shorebirds, you have researched to know when they nest, and what to look for. Now comes the wait.

Regarding my intended image and target species, I know female oystercatchers lay one clutch of eggs per year in late spring to early summer. The incubation period is 24 to 28 days. The eggs are a buff gray to beige shade, the color of sand, with dark brown mottled markings.

Located near the coast as I mentioned, I have choices for where I want to photograph shorebirds. I am fortunate to live within a four-hour drive of multiple different barrier islands across several states. These are a favorite habitat of oystercatchers. One beach in particular has colonies of skimmers, terns, and a few plover nest sites, and every year, multiple oystercatcher nests lay dotted across the sand. Despite being almost three hours away, this is my favorite area to go for nests as the density of birds is so high that it increases my chances exponentially.

In the pink first light of day, a mother oystercatcher and her days-old chick greet the sun. Their symmetry and perfect illumination in the pink light really struck me. It was the first photograph of the set that I felt encompassed what I was looking to make in this series. Of note is my extremely low angle of view, which is important to how I photograph. To create this low perspective, I am laying flat in the cool, damp sand. It is more pleasing to photograph wildlife on their terms, not at human height. Rather than towering over them, an angle at their height tells a different story: their story, not yours.

I have been photographing shorebirds for almost 20 years. Much of what I do now to photograph nests is truncated; I skip steps as I already know exactly where and when to go. However, for a first timer, you will want to scout your area and get the lay of the land much earlier than you may realize. The best photographs will come with a bit of due diligence. You see, oystercatchers mate for life and often return to the same area every year to nest. Many other shorebird species also live this way. Remember earlier when we researched the incubation period of the eggs and what time of year they lay them? All of this creates the groundwork for our photograph. To photograph young chicks with surety, you will want to visit the area long before there are even chicks to photograph. You are looking for eggs.

On the barrier islands near me, oystercatcher eggs begin hatching mostly in mid-June. There are some earlier and some later, but mid-June is the peak time. Earlier in spring comes the critical time to plan the shot. We know that oystercatcher eggs hatch mid- June and the incubation period from being laid to hatching is 24 to 28 days. Therefore, if you go in mid-May, you will find scattered on your beach a lovely Easter egg hunt. Visit then to carefully observe where the oystercatchers have chosen to nest. They usually choose an area near the edge of dune grass where there is cover but close enough to the open sand of the beach to hunt for prey. Likely one of a mated pair will be firmly pressed to their nest, incubating the eggs and protecting them from predators. Even if you cannot see the eggs, the behavior of the bird squatted low is hard to miss.

Take notes of the nest locations. If I have cell service, I create a custom private Google Map in the free Google Maps app with pinpoints to each nest location. I can use this later to return to those exact spots and to keep track of nests over the years. Each spring, I add a new layer to the map with different pinpoint colors for that year’s nests. I can see the movement of birds across the beach over time like stars in the sky.

For species like oystercatchers that mate for life, I can sometimes find the same pairs year after year. One male in particular, the father of this little family, has an unmistakable iris shape in both eyes. It looks like a freckle extends the usual round shape of the iris into that of a rectangle like the eye of a goat. I often look for him and feel relieved each year that he has survived another winter. I add his nest site to the map with a star marker.

Once I have located all of the desired nests, I plan a day to return roughly 25 days later in time for the eggs to hatch. If your timing is off and you only find eggs and no chicks, try again a few days later. If your timing was correct, you will be greeted to a beach teeming with life. The new bird families are full of activity. Oystercatcher chicks, mere balls of fluff, hatch ready to roam, but for the first few days, they stick close to a parent and the original nest site. They are hungry, and the parents take turns hunting almost constantly to catch saltwater bivalve mollusks, or as they are commonly called, shellfish, for the new brood and themselves. Crabs, mussels, and these birds’ namesake, oysters, are favorite food sources. This activity is great for flight shots and behavioral images, but as you may recall, I was after a very specific image.

For my target photograph, I wanted a certain look and feel to the image. The foundation of photography of any genre is light. For natural-light photographers, sunrise and sunset are holy times. Known as the golden hour, this is when the sun is low and the directional light illuminates our subjects with a pleasing glow. The closer the sun is to the horizon, the warmer the light and more intense the golden-hour effect is to our images. To achieve the desired feel of my photograph, I needed the very first or last light of the day when it is visually soft and pleasing to the eye.

Knowing that barrier island beaches are often shared between wildlife and humans, and that I want soft light, I choose to photograph at sunrise. This is when most humans are still in bed and the beach belongs to the wild world. As the first glow of the sun just barely crests the horizon, the light goes from the predawn blue to pink. All you hear are the waves crashing and the calls of birds beckoning your camera. This is when I feel alive.

When photographing wildlife at the ocean, I always look for the moment when the waves are crashing. I use a fast shutter speed and high speed burst mode. While keeping my subject in the frame, I watch the water. Every time a wave breaks at the shore, I fire off a burst of photos. Even when a subject is standing still, you can still add interest and a sense of action if you catch a good wave crashing for your background.

I selected a day when the forecast called for partly cloudy skies, for that natural softbox effect to cut the light, and as little wind as possible. Hiking down the beach in the dim light, I head to my nest sites with a full battery in my camera, an empty memory card, and a dream.

A days-old oystercatcher chick stands out in the open in the pink light of early morning.

The photograph that I visualized is that of a mother oystercatcher with her chicks. I did not want a feeding or action shot. I wanted a tender quiet moment in soft light, intimate to draw the observer in and full of warmth. I wanted the viewer to feel like the world stood still for this tiny moment captured and frozen in time. A gesture or a compositional element of clarity was needed for interest, but the light was the base and foundation. I also wanted a very clean background free of distractions, which on a barrier island beach tends to be debris of various types. I would need to avoid any scattered shells, dead grass, or even worse, trash at all costs.

So in the first light of the day, I carefully searched the beach for oystercatchers in an area closer to the open sand for a clean work area. With several possible nests, I selected one at the border of the dunes with plenty of fresh open sand leading to the water’s edge. This was the nest of the freckle-eyed father and his lady. An adult oystercatcher was huddled down, resting mere feet from where I had marked the eggs a month ago on my app. I could see from her eyes that it was the mother. From afar, you might think she was just sleeping alone, but I knew better. I approached just close enough for my 500mm lens to photograph her undisturbed. From here, I could barely see a pair of chick’s legs sticking out from underneath each of her wings. Two chicks and the light was starting to brighten, turning pink and then golden. I did not want side light or back lighting for this. I positioned so that the rising sun was directly behind me, which was key to getting the subject, in this case my oystercatcher family, evenly lit full on.

A days-old oystercatcher chick runs back to its mother in pink morning light. The father and mother off screen were sharing breakfast that the father had brought. All the two chicks wanted, however, was to go back to bed under Mom’s wings.
My secret to photographing young shorebirds is going during nesting season to document where eggs are laid. By returning later after estimating the incubation period of several nests that I find, I can be greeted with days-old chicks. Here in my photograph of American oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus) eggs, you can see how these birds nest in a simple, shallow scrape in the sand. They don’t build anything or bring in any cover or decoration. I like to think of them as minimalists.

With my Sigma 50-500mm lens at 500mm, I laid down flat on my belly in the cool damp sand. This extreme low angle puts me directly at eye level with the birds, which is my preferred way of photographing them. It is more pleasing to photograph wildlife on their terms, not at human height. Rather than towering over them, an angle at their height tells a different story — their story, not yours. Visually, a low perspective is less distorted as well, but I am more interested in the effect that you get from your focus and aperture. By using the maximum aperture or lowest number f-stop, also called shooting wide open, you will have a very narrow field of view and focus plane. The foreground and background will be blurred out to a creamy effect called “bokeh.” The area that you choose as your focus point will appear sharper in contrast to that blur. On a beach of sand, grass, and shells, this technique is vital for a minimalist look. Any distractions in the background are lost to the void of the bokeh. When you photograph in this way, the subject is the clear star of the show.To take this concept to the next level, you can even choose your background just by moving slightly in any direction with careful positioning. You can transform the entire feeling of the image by changing the color of the negative space. On the beach, positioning with the dune grass as the background gives you a lush green bokeh. If you are low enough or the subject takes to a small rise or dune, you can angle upward to use the sky as your bokeh. Angling toward the water instead gives you a dark blue background for contrast. This is great for light-colored birds. If you increase your f-stop just a bit, you can even try to capture a wave crashing behind the subject for added interest. In the case of sunrise, you can use the beautiful pinks created by the rising sun as your background. That is my favorite. This choice adds not only visual but also emotional warmth to your photograph and draws the viewer in to your subject.

Laying in position in the sand that morning, I had everything in my favor. I had found the oystercatcher and chicks through careful planning. The weather conditions and light were immaculate, and the stage was set. I double checked my settings. Knowing that I was in low light and going for an image without much action, I selected a much slower shutter speed than I usually use for wildlife. I tend to keep my shutter speed at 1/2000th of a second when I am out in nature photographing, just in case there is sudden action. This is especially true for birds, which may take flight. However, for this series I was between 1/250th and 1/500th of a second. I used my ISO as my variable but kept an eye on it. I didn’t want it to get so high that the image quality would suffer horribly, but with such dim light, I needed to push it a bit to get a decent shutter speed. In many cameras, you can set a max ISO, so look for that setting if you want to preserve image quality. I ended up using a range of ISO 400 to 1600 throughout the morning, adjusting based on need and again giving absolute priority to shutter speed to maintain a sharp image. I would much rather have to do noise reduction in post-processing than to have a photograph ruined by unintended motion blur.

When I am out photographing, I am mostly observing. I don’t press my shutter for every little thing. I choose my moments. This isn’t only to protect the memory card buffer in times of high action, but also to create more mindful photographs. I am looking for just the right expression, the glint of light in the eye, a glance toward me, or an interaction. These interactions or behaviors are how wildlife communicate. It can be complex body language or often just a simple specific gesture. When you create a still image in the absence of speech, this is how you capture a photograph that tells a story. The old adage that a photograph is worth a thousand words can be created by the interaction between two animals that have no words. They speak with their entire being. Capture this and you have made something special indeed.

As the morning grows later, more and more birds from the various colonies and nests take to the skies. Mostly skimmers, terns, and a few oystercatchers and plovers, they all have one goal in mind: hunt for their families.

In observing these oystercatchers, I waited patiently for the right moments. I wanted to allow the story to unfold before me, and as the photographer and observer, freeze time only for something unmistakable. I took a few portrait-type photographs here and there, but I was on high alert for the interaction between mother and chicks. This was what all my planning was for. In the soft morning light, the damp sand beginning to chill me, I didn’t move a muscle. The birds didn’t mind me whatsoever. By now, I had become part of the environment like a strange log that makes clicking sounds occasionally and therefore posed no threat. The mother oystercatcher, larger than the male, was still covering the chicks. I could only see their legs. I waited. Time dragged on.

In the light of sunrise, the father oystercatcher of my pair has caught breakfast for the family. His expression seems to show surprise and delight. His catch is a large Atlantic mole crab (Emerita talpoida), commonly known as a sand crab.

Suddenly in the distance, I could hear the familiar sharp call of an incoming oystercatcher, “KLEEP! KLEEP! KLEEP!” Dad was home with food! Mom stood up suddenly, unceremoniously knocking over the chicks like tumbleweeds, and ran over to him. I focused on the chicks now out in the open and got a few clear photos of them standing up, regaining their composure. I may well have named them Flotsam and Jetsam at that point. They appeared rather confused at the sudden disruption of being knocked over. The pair looked to be maybe a day or two old, all legs and fluff, their wings tiny nubs. At this young, the chicks tend to stay near a parent whenever possible for protection and warmth.

The father quickly flew back away to hunt again, and Mom, now standing on a small rise of sand, called to the chicks. They bumbled over. Knowing that they were going to tuck themselves back in, I waited with my camera pointed at her and not at them as they clumsily ran over to her. I wanted the moment of interaction when they reached her, not them running. I knew that I would miss the moment if I stayed focused on them rather than going for the real shot that I wanted. With her in my viewfinder, I made sure to leave extra space in the composition for them. Soon enough, they reached her, and she hunkered down, wings ever so slightly raised to allow them room to dip underneath to safety. The first chick went straight under without hesitation. The second chick, bolder, stood still for just a moment looking around. When it looked in the same direction as its mother, their bills pointing left in unison, I pressed the shutter, firing off a burst of frames. I only caught one single frame with the chick before he dove under his mother’s other wing. It happened that fast. Everything about the photograph was what I was looking for, and the soft pink light, even I couldn’t have imagined it would be so beautiful in person. But the day was young. What other moments would I capture?

As the light turned from pink to pale yellow to the white of daylight, I lay in the sand, waiting. The mother oystercatcher crouched stoically, only occasionally looking this direction or that. The chicks’ legs sticking out were the only indication of their existence. As the sun climbed higher, so did the wind. Sharp gusts created miniature sand storms. I captured some interesting looks as the mother oystercatcher squinted against the gale. But still I waited, feeling yet unfinished.

As the morning light changes from sunrise to cool daylight, the wind picks up. So too does the sand. Squinting against the flying debris, the mother oystercatcher hunkers down against the onslaught. Under her, her two chicks are safe and warm, one tucked under each wing.

After what seemed like an eternity after the adrenaline rush of getting the previous shot, the father came back again with fresh provisions. The female stood up ever so slowly, this time revealing the chicks like the blooming of a fine rose, first one side and then the other. As one chick uncovered, it took a few steps forward and turned toward her. The very tips of their bills almost touched like the split second before a kiss, their expressions tender and comfortable. The other chick, still safely tucked away, could be seen under the mother’s wing, its legs reaching to press itself farther into the warm silky feathers. This was THE moment, the gesture, the soft squint in the eyes of contentment, the bills in near kiss, so tender and true. While the pink light of the earlier photograph was gone, this image had the precise interaction between mother and chick that I had dreamed of.

You can ask a painter, “How do you know when your painting is complete?” They will answer, “You just know.” In that moment, I felt it. That was what I needed to create, and there it was. You feel both full and empty at the same time. Then once the moment passes, you cannot wait to get home and see it on the computer, to share, to shout, and to celebrate. But lying in the wet sand, amongst colonies of skittish nesting shorebirds, all I could do was smile.

I felt that it was helpful to include a screenshot of my folder from that day at the beach. I photograph in RAW + JPG so there are two copies of each image as backups. Here you can see how I am not just constantly pressing my shutter to get hundreds and hundreds of photos of the same thing. Instead, I am waiting for interesting moments. By doing this, I keep my buffer clear, I can pay better attention to what is happening all around me and tune in to the wildlife’s behaviors. In this instance, I was always looking out for where the father is as he comes and goes. Every time he comes back with food is when the mother will stand up and reveal the two young chicks. Those are the moments that I look for.

I stayed on the beach the rest of the day photographing various bird species. I had almost a three-hour drive to home after all, so I figured that I would finish out the day. I rode the feeling of accomplishment the whole way. Having created not one but two moments from that simple idea was so rewarding. I have been back to the beach and photographed shorebirds many times since, but nothing compares to what I captured that morning. Since then, those two photographs have won quite a few awards, and collectors have also ordered them as prints.

I think those two photographs attract people for the same reason that I needed to create them. They show a human moment, but one that all species share and understand: the undeniable connection between a parent and child. They are relatable and draw up memories and feelings that the viewer may have of their own experiences. We can see this and self identify. As wildlife photographers in a time when most of the world’s human population is so removed from the wild world, storytelling is invaluable to create photographs that help viewers connect with nature. All of my planning put me in a position to create what I had envisioned; however, it was up to nature and the birds to live their lives. I was simply there and ready to capture it. That is the nature photojournalist’s approach.

For more information on oystercatchers, their behavior, and shooting tips for this species, see the Fall 2020 issue of the Journal of Wildlife Photography.

Kate Garibaldi

Kate is an award-winning travel and nature photographer, educator, and author. She was classically trained on black-and-white photography in the dark room while she earned her BFA in Fine Art and Design. With this strong foundation, Kate bought her first color digital camera and immersed herself in the craft. She has since been recognized by National Geographic Travel, the National Wildlife Federation, and Photo District News for her exceptional landscape and wildlife photography. When she is not working on assignment, Kate teaches photography workshops to share her love and knowledge of wildlife and wild places.

BASIC AND ADVANCED COMPOSITION FOR WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY

By Moose Henderson

The raised paw of this Teton grizzly gives the image a high-impact, dynamic quality.

Browse the shelves of any well-stocked library or bookstore and you will encounter a plethora of books about photographic composition. Most of these books deal with composition as it relates to landscapes, people, or pets. This is understandable; landscapes are immobile, so it’s possible to choose vantage points and compositions prior to the arrival of the best light, and photographers can generally pose people and pets or encourage them into engaging compositions.

Wildlife, by their very nature, are wild. They are mobile, elusive, and generally not posable, and at times, wildlife are dangerous. However, composition is just as applicable to wildlife as it is to other genres. Some of the same compositional techniques used in landscape photography can also apply to wildlife photography. We will cover some of them in this article. Other compositional techniques are more applicable to wildlife than other subjects, and we will cover these, also.

Some of the composition techniques are called rules, such as the Rule of Thirds and the Rule of Space. Most of us agree there are no “true” rules of composition; however, we will use the traditional names without quibbling about the nomenclature.

To better facilitate our discussion, I have grouped some of the compositional techniques together below. Each of these “rules” can be used in isolation or in combination with any other compositional technique.

BASIC COMPOSITION

Rule of Thirds

One of the first compositional “rules” photographers learn is the Rule of Thirds. If you divide a photograph into three equal sections horizontally and three equal sections vertically, your image will have two vertical lines and two horizontal lines, resulting in nine sections. The intersections of these vertical and horizontal lines are called “power points.” Generally, the eyes of your subject are the most compelling, and placing the nearest eye on one of these power points results in a powerful composition.

Left-to-Right Rule, Rule of Space, and Rule of Negative Space

Three closely related rules are the Left-to-Right Rule, the Rule of Space, and the Rule of Negative Space. Most written languages are read from left to right. Our eyes are accustomed to scanning text in this manner, and we tend to look at art in the same way, left to right. Generally, images that are oriented left to right flow well.

The Rule of Space relates to the direction the animal is facing. This rule implies we need room in front of the animal so that the subject is not crowded by the edges of the picture frame. Equally, the Rule of Negative Space relates to leaving empty space in the image. Empty space signifies simplicity, openness, and minimalism.

This second group of composition techniques seem to contradict the first, which reinforces the idea that these compositional “rules” are better identified as guidelines to follow. Some subjects fit best with the Rule of Thirds, Rule of Space, etc., and other subjects fit best with other techniques.

Positioning your shot so that the coyote’s nearest eye lies in the upper-left power point focuses our attention on the animal. Providing the open space in the direction of the coyote’s gaze provides room for the animal to look without crowding it within the frame. The viewer is left wondering what has caught the coyote’s attention.
Centering the portrait of this arctic fox increases the intimacy between the animal and the viewer. The subject is isolated and centered in the frame and the face is bilaterally symmetrical. This crop works well to maintain simplicity and minimalism.

Centered and Symmetrical, Isolate Your Subject, and Fill the Frame

Centered and Symmetrical is a compositional technique in which the photographer centers the subject in the frame and composes the image somewhat symmetrically. This technique is related to the technique known as Isolate Your Subject in which you make your subject the center of interest. It is also related to the technique known as Fill the Frame. Of course, you can isolate your subject and fill the frame without a centered and symmetrical image. Using these three techniques alone or in combination tends to result in an image with impact.

This great gray owl is perfectly matched to the pattern and texture of the cottonwood trees.

Change Your Point of View 

If any single composition could characterize beginner photographers, it would be “center-i-tis” where every picture has the point of interest dead center in the frame. Likewise, I would say the turning point toward intermediate photography is when the photographer begins shooting at eye level. When we say “eye level,” we are speaking the eye level of our subject. If it’s a standing moose, then we will be standing at roughly the same elevation. If it’s a shorebird on a beach, then we will be flat on the beach sand using a ground pod. Generally, eye-level images have more impact and intimacy, and shooting from eye level usually renders better background bokeh.

On occasion, shoot out of the box and try a different point of view. Photographing a large animal from a slightly lower angle makes the animal appear more imposing. Photographing a coiled rattlesnake from overhead emphasizes the texture and form while maximizing the depth of field as the camera plane more closely parallels the entire snake.

Simplicity or Minimalism

There are two extremes in wildlife photography. One extreme is the environmental image where the animal is captured in the context of its surroundings and habitat. Another extreme is minimalism or extreme simplicity. Both extremes tell a story. When photographing a subject, always think, “What story do I want to tell with this image, and how can I best tell that story?” On occasion, the image we need is simplistic or minimal.

Classic Landscape Compositional Techniques

Four techniques are considered cornerstones for landscape compositions: Foreground, Middle Ground, and Background; Leading Lines; Scene Balance; and Frame within a Frame.

Foreground, Middle Ground, and Background refers to having interesting elements throughout your landscape image. For example, if you photograph a waterfall, you might have a maple leaf on a rock in the foreground, ripples in the water and some minor cascades of the waterfall in the middle ground, and the large rock face with water streaks in the background.

Patterns and Textures

Nature is full of patterns and textures. Many times, these elements compete for attention in our images. However, we can use these patterns and textures to complement and isolate our subjects. Using a wide aperture on a long prime lens provides the creamy backgrounds or smooth bokeh so desired in wildlife photography. Generally, the greater the separation between the subject and the background, the smoother the bokeh.

Patterns and textures can also be used as camouflage or to show how our subject “fits” within its habitat. Many times, bird plumage is well matched to its surroundings, making the bird fit in as a part of nature. This camouflage enhances the bird’s ability to blend into its environment and avoid predation. When the bird is the predator, this same camouflage enhances its ability to capture unknowing prey.

You can use this same technique to produce “animalscapes,” or images with a prominent animal in the image plus an interesting background. Effective animalscapes maximize depth of field so the animal and background form a cohesive image.

Patterns and textures improve this image of a yellow-bellied marmot. The out-of-focus backdrop clearly separates the tree and the marmot from the background. The pattern lines of the tree limb and trunk provide framing for the animal, and the fur of the marmot provides texture and crispness to the image.

Leading lines are strong compositional elements that lead the eye to the element of interest. For example, using a sinuous stone wall to lead the eye to a pleasing mountain in the distance creates a strong composition.

Scene balance refers to an image that is weighted equally. Refer back to the waterfall example; if the foreground rock is huge, the image would be unbalanced.

Frame within a Frame refers to using a foreground frame to outline the image shown in the background. Shooting from indoors and using a cabin window in the foreground to frame a picturesque background scene is a good example.

Keep these three compositional elements in mind when you frame your wildlife images. Many times, curving roads can be used as leading lines, massive animals can be balanced by natural objects, and foreground leaves can function as a frame within a frame.

ADVANCED COMPOSITION

The remaining five techniques are grouped as advanced compositional techniques; however, they are not really advanced — they are just more suited to wildlife photography than to landscape and other genres of photography. These techniques include Virtual Feet, Anthropomorphism, Movement, Impact, and Color Combinations.

Virtual Feet

Often when we photograph wildlife, obstructions like brush and water hide our subject animal’s legs and feet. However, even when they are not shown, it’s important to provide enough space in the image for virtual legs and feet. We should not amputate our critters just because their appendages are hidden.

Anthropomorphism

As a scientist, I learned to never anthropomorphize animals, or attribute human qualities to them. However, as wildlife photographers, when we emphasize human qualities of our subjects, we humanize them and provide visual interest. Viewers love to see themselves or loved ones in images, and humanizing animals in your work provides that direct connection.

Movement

Many times, wildlife can appear very static when photographed in a field or on a perch. Providing a sense of action or movement will provide increased interest. Birds singing on a stick, flapping their wings as they bathe, or flying through the air are more dynamic and interesting than birds sitting still. Likewise, a running or walking animal with a raised paw is more interesting than a static animal. I generally prefer the far front paw slightly raised, which implies movement forward. If you can capture water or snow falling from the raised paw, that gives an added bonus.

The piercing gaze of a great gray owl connects the animal with the viewer.

Impact

Powerful animals command respect. Bull elk, moose, grizzly bears, mountain lions, and other large herbivores and predators are iconic and majestic. Photographing these animals in a way that emphasizes their strength, power, and impact will significantly improve the composition of your image. We must always keep safety in mind, so using long lenses and teleconverters are nearly essential for high-impact images of these species.

Color Combinations

The final composition technique is Color Combinations. Primary, secondary, and tertiary colors make up the traditional color wheel. Warmer colors such as reds and oranges are on one side the wheel, and cooler colors are on the opposite side. Complementary colors are directly opposite each other on the wheel. Warmer colors appear closer to the viewer whereas cooler colors recede. Using these complementary colors can add depth to your image. I commonly use golden colors in combination with bluish colors in my images. Shooting in the soft light of the morning and evenings accentuates these colors.

To the neophyte, composition can seem confusing. Many of the rules or techniques seem to contradict each other. The Rule of Thirds dictates placing the subject of interest on one of the power points; however, the Centered and Symmetrical Rule places the subject dead center.

Each scene we approach is different, and we use these compositional techniques in isolation or in combination to provide the most pleasing images. This is part of the joy of wildlife photography. We need to actively involve ourselves in the creation process and use these techniques as tools to create the most engaging images. We also need to do it quickly, as the animals will not wait for us to fumble with the camera dials or refer to cheat sheets for ideas. The more you practice these techniques, the more you will be able to incorporate them into your work, and the result will be radically improved images.

Moose Henderson

As a professional wildlife photographer, based in Jackson, Wyoming, Moose Henderson has been involved in photography for more than 50 years. His education background in science helps him better understand his subjects and predict behavior patterns. He has a B.S. in geology and an M.S. in wildlife biology, and he studied winter moose foraging behavior during his PhD. He has extensively photographed animals around North America and spent two years in Siberia photographing wildlife. His images are handled by multiple stock agencies and he has more than 11,000 published credits. He can be reached at moosehenderson@yahoo.com, via his website moosehenderson.net, and on YouTube at https://youtube. com/c/MooseHenderson1.

¡Vamos a Latin America!

Considering a photo trip to Latin America? Try these tips for a successful experience.

By Clay Bolt

Helmeted iguana (Corytophanes cristatus), Cocobolo Nature Reserve, Panama

As I hung my hammock near the muddy banks of the Rupununi River, I thought back across the many months of preparation that had led to this moment. For nearly two years, I had dreamed about this expedition to search for and photograph rarely seen insects in the Kanuku Mountains, one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges, located deep within the South American country of Guyana.

I paused after stowing away the last of my gear and peered up into the low roof of the abandoned Wapishanan hut in which I’d slung my hammock. Within the thatch, I was just able to make out the outline of an arrow and a worn macaw feather that had been anchored there by the previous tenant. It was a surreal sensation, and in that moment, the long days of travel by plane, truck, and boat began to fade away along with the last rays of the setting sun.

As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I noticed the delicate chain of a paper wasp’s nest hanging from the hut’s roofline. At my feet, a six-inch-long millipede slowly lumbered past, and in the speckled sunlight dancing on banana leaves, the silhouettes of stingless bees came in and out of focus. The Amazon truly is a macro photographer’s dream.

Since this experience several years ago, I’ve traveled to other countries within Latin America and have learned a lot along the way. Nature and wildlife photographers flock to this part of the world to photograph its biodiversity and lush habitats, but if you’ve never traveled in Central and South America, it can be intimidating.

With the right planning and preparation, however, traveling to many Latin American destinations can be quite easy. In this article, I’ll share several of my favorite pointers for improving your opportunities for a successful trip to Latin America. While it is important to remember that every one of its countries is unique, here are a few guidelines that have made my own experiences easier and more enjoyable.

GOOD GUIDES GIVE GOOD GUIDANCE

Quite often, visitors to exotic locations generally seem to be divided into two categories: those who want the luxury vacation and those who fantasize about really roughing it. However, quite often, nature photographers and birders seek something in between. They want to experience beautiful nature coupled with the comfort of falling asleep each night in a cozy bed after a delicious dinner and a couple of mojitos. I’ll be the first to admit that, although I really enjoy physically putting myself to the test in places that are well off the beaten path, there is something really wonderful about visiting an eco-lodge that offers the total package.

Many first-time travelers to the tropics are under the false impression that an abundance of wildlife means an abundance of wildlife sightings.

Bioluminescent click beetle (Pyrophorus sp), Cocobolo Nature Reserve, Panama
Red-eyed tree frog (Agalychnis callidryas), Costa Rica

Unfortunately, in a rainforest habitat, this is rarely the case. Wildlife often doesn’t want to be seen, or can’t be seen, due to dense vegetation. In fact, many species are nocturnal, which means that you’ll need to set out on a night hike if you’d like to see them. This can put inexperienced tropical explorers at the risk of run-ins with dicey terrain and venomous snakes.

For first-time travelers, or even regular ones, to Central or South America, I highly recommend that you check out wonderful eco-lodges such as Bosque del Cabo Rainforest Lodge in Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula or Ecuador’s Mashpi Lodge. Both locations feature incredible forests, great staff, and amazing accommodations. In addition, lodges such as these also have their own guides who can take you out on hikes and point out wildlife that you might not see otherwise. For travelers on very slim budgets, this might not be an affordable option. If this sounds like you, look for working vacations where you can volunteer to help with conservation projects in exchange for room and board. No matter where you choose to go, be sure to read as many customer or participant reviews as possible. It’s easy to be lured in by a flashy website, but traveling to these locations isn’t always simple, and there’s nothing more disappointing than being stuck in a place that doesn’t deliver.

Other options that I highly recommend are wildlife photography tours and workshops with experienced guides. There are many photographers and photo-tour operators, such as Summit Workshops, that offer amazing tours to locations where you’re nearly guaranteed to see a stunning array of species. In addition, I specifically mention Summit Workshops because I know that the organization cares deeply about the well-being of the species that you’ll be photographing. There are a lot of guides who try to cut corners and treat the wildlife only as props, so take your time and choose carefully. You’ll feel better about your photos, and you’ll come home knowing that you haven’t harmed these precious places or their inhabitants.

A LITTLE HOLA GOES A LONG WAY

One of my pet peeves is hearing Americans and other foreign travelers in Latin American countries treating locals like second-class citizens. I have been amazed by how many tourists don’t even attempt to speak even simple greetings or polite responses such as “por favor” (please) and “gracias” (thank you). As a result, I have learned that travelers who make even a simple attempt at speaking the native language are often treated with extra kindness. In my experience, native Spanish speakers are particularly patient with those who try to speak their language, and if you do so, you may find that you’ll not only have the opportunity to meet new friends but also witness some extra-special things. Many times, I have been at places where a guide or kitchen hand that I’ve gotten to know will run up and say “perezoso” (sloth) or “culebra” (snake), affording me an opportunity I would have otherwise missed. A little effort goes a very long way. Your new friends won’t expect you to be fluent, but demonstrating that you’ve taken the time to learn a few words can help so much, especially if you find yourself in a situation where you’re in desperate need of the kindness of strangers.

Funnel-web tarantula (Dipluridae), Kanuku Mountains, Rupununi, Guyana
Northern little yellow-eared bat (Vampyressa thyone), Cocobolo Rainforest Reserve, Panama
Tityus cerroazul, one of the most highly toxic species of scorpions in Central America. Cocobolo Nature Reserve, Panama.

If you’re interested in learning a little Spanish, Portuguese (for Brazil), or French (for French Guiana and Haiti) before a trip to Latin America, YouTube has a tremendous amount of free online resources. If you’re more serious about your studies, many excellent teachers offer courses via Skype and other online platforms. My personal favorite is Spanishland School, which can be found on YouTube, Facebook, and spanishlandschool.com. They also offer two great podcasts. Another useful option for brushing up on speaking with native Spanish speakers prior to your trip is another free website called conversationexchange.com. I have met some wonderful friends via this site who I practice Spanish with on a regular basis, and it has made a tremendous difference in my own learning experience. Just remember: You don’t have to speak perfectly — just do your best. And hey, it will be cute when you say things like, “I’ll have the soap sandwich, please.”

TECHNOLINGUAL

While we are on the subject of speaking, there are several apps that can really help you out while you’re traveling in Latin America. WhatsApp is a free app that is extremely popular in many countries outside of the U.S. It functions very much like Facebook Messenger. Many areas in Latin America don’t have great cell signal, so Wi-Fi in cafés and other public spaces allows people to send messages and make calls for free. Another great tool is Google Translate, which makes it easy to communicate in many different languages. With this app, you can download a language to your phone in case there isn’t signal. It also has the ability to use your camera phone to translate printed words in the language of your choice. Although it isn’t always 100 percent accurate, it usually translates things well enough for you to understand.

Traveling by boat deep into the heart of Guyana's Kanuku Mountains.
Blue-crowned motmot (Momotus coeruliceps), Cocobolo Nature Reserve, Panama. Photographed after being observed by a biologist surveying with a mist-net.
Mining or digger bees in the genus Centris are among the most commonly encountered species in Guyana. These medium-to-large bees are important pollinators, visiting plants such as the Brazil nut and cashew trees. Like bees from several other genera, Centris species will often rest with their mandibles attached to a bit of vegetation.

NOT-ON-TIME TRAVELER

One thing that I adore about Latin America is the relaxed pace of life. Also, one of the things that sometimes really frustrates me about Latin America is the relaxed pace of life. I really appreciate the chilled-out vibe that you’ll find in many Latin American countries, but I’d recommend that you go ahead and accept that promptness isn’t always going to be at the top of everyone’s list. Things often happen in their own time, and this is fine as long as you’ve given yourself plenty of space between flight connections, bus travel, and other timely events. Rather than stressing about it, plan accordingly, drink a cerveza or strong coffee while you wait, practice your Spanish, and be tranquilo. The main thing to remember is that eventually you will get to your destination, so just go with the flow. ¡Pura vida, baby!

OH, THE HUMIDITY OF IT ALL

As a native of the Southeastern U.S., I love humidity, and it’s one thing that I really miss now that I live in Montana. To me, humidity represents biodiversity: Frogs, salamanders, wildflowers, and insects all thrive in humidity. However, humidity in the tropics is another story altogether, and even more so for photographers. It isn’t the way that it affects my body, but the way that it affects my camera gear that gets to me. If you’ve ever found yourself traveling within the equatorial regions of the world, then you won’t be surprised to hear that during the dry season, it can still rain hard every single day. This means fogged lenses, and fogged lenses mean you may miss the opportunity to photograph the jaguar taking a nap on your trail. Save yourself some heartache by bringing along two very essential items: a dry bag that can hold your most important gear and a several desiccant packs. For the most part, I’ve been very lucky with fogging, but on one trip to Panama, I dropped not one, but two cameras and a flash into a river. Talk about depressing! Fortunately, because I had desiccant and dry bags with me, I was able to save all of my gear.

Even if you aren’t a klutz like me, constant exposure to humidity can slowly build moisture inside your lenses and cause your electronics to do weird things. Dry bags and desiccant packs can save you a ton of money and heartache. Oh, and along these lines, be sure to insure your gear before you travel to the tropics, and bring along a portable hard drive to store your photos. I’ve had students who have been devastated to discover that their photos, which were all stored on a single memory card, have been accidentally deleted.

Stingless bees (Tetragonisca sp) cooling nest entrance, Cocobolo Nature Reserve, Panama. Species in this group are raised for honey in the tropics.

DON’T BE SUCH A SHOW-OFF

In all my years of travel, I’ve been fortunate to have never had any issues with theft. Truth be told, I’ve had many more issues as a result of getting excited about some bug that I’ve seen and running off after it without half of my gear. However, traveling in any big city or unfamiliar place requires a certain degree of awareness. Central and South America are no different. For example, don’t walk around with a spellbound expression on your face and your expensive camera out for all to see. You’re going to make yourself into an easy target. Also, be careful when taking photos with your expensive iPhone. They are easy to grab and are often targeted by thieves in crowded areas such as markets. However, it is worth saying again that if you use some common sense, you don’t have any more to worry about in most places throughout Latin America than you do in any other metropolitan area.

Finally, pay close attention: Don’t wear white socks with sandals and shorts while traveling abroad. I’m not sure that doing so increases your chances for theft, but the fashion police might take you away.

¡VAMOS!

At the end of the day, traveling in Latin America can be an amazing, life-changing experience. The people are friendly, the food is incredible, and the nature can’t be beat. Just remember to plan very carefully before you travel and let things flow once you arrive at your destination. Everything may not go exactly as you’d expected, but that can lead to some of those wonderful unplanned opportunities that make traveling such a joy.

Clay Bolt

Clay Bolt is a natural history and conservation photographer specializing in the world’s smaller creatures who regularly partners with organizations such as the National Geographic Society and the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. His current major focus is on North American bumblebees. He was a leading voice in the fight to protect the rusty-patched bumblebee under the Endangered Species Act, which became North America’s first federally protected native bee in 2017. In 2019, Bolt became the first photographer to document a living Wallace’s giant bee — the world’s largest bee — as a part of a four-person exploration team to rediscover the species in the Indonesian islands of North Maluku. After the rediscovery, he worked closely with Indonesian authorities and TRAFFIC to prohibit nonscientific collection of the species across Indonesia as well as sales of the insect across all major online sales and social media sites.

In his current role as communications lead for World Wildlife Fund’s Northern Great Plains Program, he develops comms strategies to fight insect and grasslands biodiversity loss. Clay is a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London, Associate Fellow in the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP), and past president of the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA). Learn more at www.claybolt.com.

UNDERSTANDING HIGH-SPEED SYNC FLASH FOR NATURE PHOTOGRAPHY

By Gregory Basco

Keel-billed toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus), Costa Rica Canon 7D Mark II, Canon 500mm f/4, Induro tripod, Mongoose head, f/4.5, ISO 400, 1/1000th of a second, Godox V860II flash on telephoto bracket

High-speed sync (HSS) flash allows us to use flash with fast shutter speeds in order to fill in shadows from bright but harsh natural light. In practice, employing HSS flash couldn’t be easier. Just click a button on the flash or set a function in our camera’s menu, and we’re set to go. Understanding HSS flash is another story.

In this article, I explain the basics of HSS flash and its benefits for the nature photographer. Nonetheless, my larger goal is for you to gain a deeper comprehension of what is really going on behind the scenes.

Couldn’t we just keep it simple and learn how and when to turn on HSS flash? Of course, but I strongly believe that nailing down the technical side of nature photography is very important — not as an end goal but rather as the vehicle to using our gear to be creative and artistic in expressing our vision. Truly understanding HSS flash and the temporal concepts behind it will allow us to expand our flash skills in the future to freeze or blur motion as we incorporate flash even more into our photography.

THE SYNC SPEED

Every camera — film, DSLR, or mirrorless — has a sync speed. For film or DSLR cameras (or even mirrorless cameras if using the mechanical shutter), the sync speed is the shortest amount of time during which the entire sensor is exposed to light without being blocked by the shutter curtains. For mirrorless cameras when using the electronic first curtain shutter (EFC), the sync speed is the shortest amount of time during which every pixel on the sensor is active and receiving light but before the second, mechanical curtain closes to terminate the exposure. For mirrorless cameras when using the fully electronic shutter (AKA silent shutter), the sync speed is the shortest amount of time during which every pixel on the sensor is active and receiving light but before the pixels begin to be turned off or deactivated. I know, this article would have been so much easier to write a couple of years ago before mirrorless cameras were a thing for nature photography!

Typical sync speeds for film and DSLR cameras fall somewhere around 1/200th or 1/250th of a second. For many mirrorless cameras, the typical sync speed traditionally has been much slower (e.g., 1/50th of a second) unless the fully mechanical shutter option is used. Some members of the newer generations of mirrorless cameras now offer better sync speeds with the electronic first curtain option (EFC). For instance, the Canon EOS R5 has a sync speed of 1/250th of a second with EFC. And even my little Canon M50 (which I use for video and stills when I need to travel light) has a sync speed of 1/200th of a second with EFC. The new Sony A1 has upped the bar and achieves 1/200th of a second sync speed with completely electronic, silent shutter. And it boasts a sync speed of 1/400th of a second with the full mechanical shutter option.

As is clear from the graphics below, both manual and TTL flash modes use one single pulse of light at the moment when the sensor is entirely exposed or active. TTL also uses a pre-flash to gauge exposure, but this happens before the image capture begins. The concept is the same whether we use a DSLR or mirrorless camera with full mechanical shutter, with electronic first curtain, or even with silent shutter. No matter our camera or shutter choice, mixing flash and fast shutter speeds will cause a problem.

Perhaps in a few years when global shutters (which activate all sensor pixels instantaneously and simultaneously) are found in our mirrorless cameras, we will not even be talking about high-speed sync flash any more. For now, though, and despite the technological advances noted above, we still need to use HSS in order to combine flash with fast shutter speeds.

Blue-gray tanager (Thraupis episcopus), Costa Rica. Canon 5D, Canon 300mm f/2.8, Induro tripod, Mongoose head, f/5.6, ISO 800, 1/640th of a second, two Canon 430EX flashes off-camera

THE PROBLEM

As we learned from the previous figures, when we use shutter speeds that are faster than our camera’s sync speed, all pixels or portions of the sensor will absorb light. But importantly, not all pixels will absorb that light at the same time. By way of a simple (though not entirely accurate) example, we might think of it this way. During our exposure, the bottom part of the sensor starts to capture light, then the middle, and then the top. The entire sensor captures light, but it happens in sequential fashion.

This is usually not a problem when we shoot with natural light, because even though the light is absorbed by different parts of the sensor at different times, each part of the sensor does indeed receive the same amount of light. The sun continues shining throughout our exposure. Each pixel is absorbing the photons from the natural light for the same amount of time as every other pixel during a given exposure.

When we try to use flash with fast shutter speeds, however, we encounter a problem. Because there is no point in time during which the entire sensor is exposed or activated, some pixels on the sensor will not be able to absorb the light from our flash.

This causes a banding effect that becomes more pronounced as the shutter speed becomes faster. Consider the following graphic based on photos of a violet-tailed sylph hummingbird from a multiple-flash setup in Ecuador. If we use flash at the camera sync speed (say 1/250th of a second), everything works well. If we set a faster shutter speed of 1/500th of a second, we start to see an issue. And if we go to 1/2000th of a second, we start to see some major problems!

Scarlet macaw (Ara macao), Costa Rica Canon 1D Mark IV, Canon 300mm f/2.8 lens, handheld, f/2.8, ISO 250, 1/800th of a second, Canon 580EX flash in hotshoe with Better Beamer

HSS FLASH TO THE RESCUE

High-speed sync flash offers an elegant way to circumvent the problem of using flash with fast shutter speeds. In HSS mode, instead of emitting a single burst of light, our flash will produce a near-steady stream of shorter pulses so that the entire sensor area is hit by the light from the flash during the exposure. This is how we avoid the problem of the shutter curtains (or inactive pixels) causing shadows from the flash pulse on the sensor. Even though the sensor is still being exposed as a moving slit (with mechanical curtains) or by sequentially activated pixel rows, the sensor is receiving rapid flash pulses the entire time and across its entire area. Those rapid flash pulses add up to equal the amount of light we have dialed in via our flash settings, either in manual or TTL flash mode and in any of our available shutter modes. That’s right: We can use HSS in exactly the same way regardless of whether we use manual or TTL flash.

In the following graphic, we can see that a normal flash pulse begins and reaches peak intensity quite quickly. It then rapidly drops off in power. When graphed over time, this forms a very pointy peak. In high-speed sync mode, the flash ramps up quickly to peak intensity but stays there until the end of the exposure where it drops off again. When graphed over time, high-speed sync flash forms a plateau or flat peak.

HOW TO USE HSS

Setting high-speed sync flash is easy. On many camera systems, HSS can be set through the camera body’s flash controls. The function usually will appear as “HSS” or “high-speed sync.” On Nikon cameras, the HSS function is called “FP.”

Bonus tip: The Nikon “FP” moniker refers to the “flat peak” we observed in the previous graphic that described the curve of the flash pulses in highspeed sync mode. Remember that the next time you attend a cocktail party. You will either impress your friends or be asked to leave for making the most boring small talk ever!

Great curassow (Crax rubra), Costa Rica. Canon 1D Mark IV, Canon 300mm f/2.8, handheld, f/2.8, ISO 320, 1/400th of a second, Canon 580EX flash in hotshoe

If our camera does not offer the option of setting HSS through the body, there is another way: We can set HSS on the flash itself for many brands. Just go to the “sync” section on the flash and then select the H⚡ icon.

However we set HSS, it will work the same way, and we should ALWAYS have it engaged. When we work at shutter speeds at or below the sync speed, our flash will behave normally, e.g., as a single pulse. When we go to faster shutter speeds, our flash will work in HSS mode by pulsing throughout our exposure. By having HSS always set to be available, it will be there when we need it.

WHY USE HSS?

Although high-speed sync flash remains a mystery to many nature photographers, any wedding or outdoor portrait photographer will be very familiar with the technique. Using a fast prime lens wide open (say an 85mm f/1.4) will be a mainstay option for these photographers. But, if they are working in bright light or photographing against a sunset, this combo will yield a fast shutter speed, even at lower ISO values. As we saw in the most recent graphic, if we need to use flash in this scenario, we have a problem. These photographers could use a neutral-density filter to cut the light hitting the sensor in order to get the shutter speed back to the sync speed and use regular flash. But it’s much easier, of course, to simply engage HSS flash and shoot at a fast shutter speed.

We nature photographers are often faced with the exact same issues. Perhaps we want to use flash for a bird or animal portrait in bright sunlight. We want to use a wide aperture with our telephoto lens to keep a nice smooth background. That will often leave us with shutter speeds faster than the sync speed. This is no problem if we don’t use flash, but what if the light is strong, creating deep shadows on our subject? HSS flash allows us to keep that creamy background and also fill in those strong shadows on our subject. Remember, though, whenever we use fill flash in nature photography, we want to make sure that we leave some of the natural shadows. Too much flash makes our photos look artificial!

Collared aracari (Pteroglossus torquatus), Costa Rica. Canon 1DX, Sigma 150-600mm C zoom, Induro tripod, Mongoose head, f/6.3, ISO 1000, 1/2500th of a second, Godox V860II flash on telephoto bracket with Better Beamer
Collared aracari (Pteroglossus torquatus), Costa Rica. Canon 1DX, Sigma 150-600mm C zoom, Induro tripod, Mongoose head, f/6.3, ISO 1000, 1/2500th of a second, Godox V860II flash on telephoto bracket with Better Beamer

HSS flash can also be useful for daytime action. This might mean full-on action such as birds in flight or mammals on the run, but we may also want to use faster shutter speeds for active or calling birds on a perch or energetic mammals out in the field. To understand HSS flash in these scenarios, I find it useful to revisit the concept I introduced to you in the previous issue of The Journal of Wildlife Photography: the “flash/ambient ratio.” The flash/ambient ratio describes the temporal relationship between the flash duration and the natural light exposure time. For a long exposure with flash (say a 20-second night sky exposure with a pop of flash to light up a foreground tree), we will have a low flash/ambient ratio. The natural light will influence the exposure for the full 20 seconds while the flash only affects the image for a tiny fraction of a second. For an all-flash macro photo of a nocturnal insect, we will have a high flash/ambient ratio. In fact, if we’re out in a dark forest, there will be no ambient light affecting the image. The pop from our flash will do all of the work.

Because HSS flash pulses throughout the exposure, we effectively have a 1:1 flash/ambient ratio when we use our flash with fast shutter speeds. Our flash and the natural light are both illuminating our subject for the entire duration of our exposure. That is, unlike the use of flash at slower shutter speeds, with HSS flash the flash duration and the shutter speed are equivalent. What this means for action photography (say flying birds or running mammals) is that the shutter speed still matters if we hope to freeze action. The flash will not add any action-stopping power in HSS mode; we use it because it helps to fill in shadows when shooting at high shutter speeds in harsh light.

Magenta-throated woodstar (Philodice bryantae), Costa Rica. Canon 1D Mark IV, Canon 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1.4x teleconverter, Induro tripod, Mongoose head, f/4, ISO 1600, 1/2500th of a second, Canon 580EX flash on telephoto bracket with Better Beamer, Godox PB960 battery pack

For example, I took the photo (above) of a magenta-throated woodstar in a cloud forest in Costa Rica using a shutter speed of 1/2500th of a second and flash as fill in HSS mode. The hummingbird’s head is tack sharp, but the wings show a bit of motion. That’s because the natural light and flash combined to illuminate the hummingbird for 1/2500th of a second, and that wasn’t quite brief enough to freeze the fast-beating wings. The flash helped to fill in shadows as the midday tropical light was quite harsh. Nonetheless, even with HSS flash, I would have needed a faster shutter speed to completely freeze the rapidly beating wings of this very small hummingbird.

I also used HSS flash to help tame (but not eliminate) the shadows on an endangered Great Green Macaw flying out of a shady forest and into the sun. In this case, a shutter speed of 1/2500th of a second was fast enough to freeze the wings of this large and slower-flying bird.

Great green macaw (Ara ambiguus), Costa Rica. Canon 1D Mark IV, Canon 300mm f/2.8 lens, handheld, f/2.8, ISO 320, 1/2500th of a second, Canon 580EX flash in hotshoe with Better Beamer
Great green macaw (Ara ambiguus), Costa Rica. Canon 5D, Canon 300 mm, handheld, f/2.8, ISO 100, 1/1600th of a second, Canon 580EX flash in hotshoe

CONSIDERATIONS FOR HSS FLASH

HSS flash is a valuable technique for the nature photographer as it allows us to shoot at any shutter speed we want while also employing our flash to help fill in harsh shadows. Nonetheless, there are a couple of considerations to keep in mind.

First, our flash usually will not keep up with fast shooting bursts. Our flash may only fire on a few of the frames in a burst (particularly with the crazy high frame rates of newer cameras) because the flash simply cannot recycle quickly enough. Using a Better Beamer, MagMod, or similar flash extender will help in this situation because the flash will work more effectively, shortening the flash’s recycling time.

If we don’t have a flash extender handy, setting our flash head zoom to the longest possible value (say 105mm or 200mm) will also help a bit. An auxiliary flash battery pack (I like the Godox PB960) will also give our flash a boost and help it to keep up to a degree when we’re shooting fast shutter speed bursts. Nonetheless, when I find myself in a situation where I’m shooting action and the success of the image depends on the flash, I will drop my frame rate to a continuous low setting so that the flash can better keep up with my camera.

Second, we lose a bit of effective flash power when we engage HSS flash. Usually this loss is about two stops, though HSS flash power declines even more (and in a non-linear fashion) when we use the fastest shutter speeds our camera offers. This is usually not that important unless our subject is very far away. As with flash recycling times, flash extenders such as Better Beamers or MagMods will allow us to recover some of that lost flash power.

Gregory Basco

Gregory Basco is a professional nature photographer based in Costa Rica. After completing graduate degrees in political science and tropical ecology (his doctoral dissertation focused on the politics of ecotourism in Costa Rica), Greg worked in conservation before turning to photography full time in 2006. His images have been awarded in the Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Nature’s Best Windland Smith Rice competitions and have appeared in numerous magazines and books around the world. His latest major printed book project was National Parks of Costa Rica in conjunction with Zona Tropical and Cornell University Press.

His popular e-books include The Guide to Tropical Nature Photography, Lightroom for the Nature Photographer, and the recent mega e-book Flash for the Nature Photographer. Greg is also co-owner of Foto Verde Tours, Costa Rica’s first travel company specializing in photographic tourism. Foto Verde Tours offers nature and travel photography workshops throughout Latin America.

You can see more of Greg’s work at his website deepgreenphotography.com.

Want to join Greg on a workshop in Latin America? Check out fotoverdetours.com.

Instagram: @gregbascophotography

Facebook: facebook.com/deepgreenphotography

Youtube: Deep Green Photography

DID YOU KNOW?

Many different species of amphibians, such as this pinewoods tree frog (Hyla femoralis), form symbiotic relationships with the plants in their neighborhood. Pitcher plants, like the one pictured here, have evolved to lure in insects to their toxic brew of digestive juices that sit at the bottom of the “pitcher.” Frogs, however, have learned that if they sit inside a pitcher planet, they can just slurp up any and all insects that get lured in.

At first glance, it would seem as though the frog was stealing from the pitcher plant. But that is not the case at all. Instead, the frog’s excrement drops down into the digestive juices of the pitcher plant — instead of the actual insect. By being “processed” through the frog’s digestive system, this “waste” is actually easier for the pitcher plant to absorb the hard-to-come-by nutrients than if the plant had to do the painstaking work of breaking down the insect itself. The frog does not need the pitcher plant to survive. Nor does the pitcher plant need the frog to survive. However, by coming together in a cooperative relationship, they are both better off. There is so much to be learned about life from this!