Wildlife Photography

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In the article I wrote a couple of weeks ago, How To Relate To and Learn From Other Photographers I mentioned a photographer I had met at a local art show. I also featured a number of his photos. Today I’m very happy to introduce Greg Stephens as a guest contributor to Beyond Megapixels. Greg’s article is about one of his favorite places to photograph wildlife, Paynes Prairie. Althought I’m making plans to join Greg and his photographer friends at Paynes Prairie Preserve, I’ll step back and let Greg tell you about this great place and share a number of his wildlife images.
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Wildlife Photography

As I sit in my little white home away from home at art shows, and attempt to sell my photography to unsuspecting people, I am often inundated with a question that I consider kind of silly. I can see where this curiosity comes from, as I am often able to get within 20 to 30 feet from an animal or bird that one would rarely get within 100 or 200 feet in the wild. People see some of my bird shots and are curious as to how I got so close.


Coopers Hawk from 22 feet

That question is “Do you ever shoot in a zoo?” And that answer is no, but then I do stop and do a bit of explaining.

The vast majority of my wildlife shots are taken in public parks, most notably Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, in Micanopy, Florida. Micanopy is a small town 12 or so miles south of Gainesville, on US 441.


Bird Bridge in Paynes Prairie Preserve

Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park was purchased by the State of Florida in 1971 and became a National Historical Landmark in 1974 because of its unique geographical and biological features. If you visit the Gainesville, Florida area, be sure to check out the park’s vast animal and bird species. It truly is a gem in the Florida State Park system. It has bison, wild horses, numerous bird species including eagles, and of course, alligators. As a matter of fact, lots of alligators.

Now back to the original question. In fairness to the people asking that question about taking pictures in a zoo, Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park and other parks are often similar to zoos.

How so? The animals and birds here are wild, and must be treated as such. But they are so regularly in such close proximity to humans, that they sometimes show a sense of familiarity and calmness that if approached in a quiet and respectful manner, you may be surprised at how close you can get to them.

One of my most memorable examples is early one morning I was walking out La Chua Trail, on the north side of the park. It was cold, and I think I was probably the first visitor out that morning. I spotted a raptor sitting on the guardrail of the boardwalk about 250 or so feet away. I stopped, shot a couple of captures with my camera. I stood there for a few seconds, and the bird, which turned out to be a Coopers Hawk, looked at me and then went back to surveying the brush, obviously intent on finding his breakfast.


Coopers Hawk from 250 feet

I slowly moved closer until I saw him (or her) turn and look at me again. I stopped, shot some more captures and let him calm down.


Coopers Hawk from 80 feet

I kept this up for about 15 or so minutes, until I was so close that my lens, a Nikon 600mm F4 would no longer focus. That minimum focusing distance is 20.6 feet. I sat there and just watched, honestly amazed. The Coopers Hawk must have known that I was no threat and went back to scanning the brush. After a few moments, I began to feel a little guilty perhaps that I was infringing on his space, and slowly began to back away. It was one of the neatest things that a wildlife photographer can do, to approach a wild creature and get close, but not too close.

On yet another day, I was on the observation platform on La Chua Trail, scanning the horizon, waiting for a photo ‘op’ to jump out in front of me. Little did I know that a really super photo opportunity was on the way.


Whooping Cranes from 200 yards

I was watching the surrounding wetlands and as I turned and looked back down the trail, I noticed two white headed birds in the grassland just north of the trail. It was two of the resident Whooping Cranes. For the non birders, Whooping Cranes are one of the most treasured and sought after birds to add to your life list. We are blessed as we usually have somewhere between 4 or 5 resident Whoopers. I don’t know the exact figure, but there are around 350 or so in the wild and perhaps another 150 in captivity used for egg production.

My attention was glued to the pair as they fed out of the tall grass areas and worked their way south to the trail proper. They continued walking, and I assumed they would cross the trail and continue out into the area southeast of the platform.


Whooping Crane from 75 feet

Not so. As they walked out onto the trail, they turned and headed towards the platform area. I was blasting away with my camera capturing every little nuance. They gradually got so close that I could no longer get them both in the frame with the 600mm. I watched as they came right under me to the bottom of the tower and began to feed on some seeds they were picking out of all things, bison dung. I carry two cameras and had a 70-300 zoom on the second body. I could not get both birds in the same frame at 70mm as they had gotten so close. My heart was pounding as these two creatures continued to eat not 15 feet below me. I had checked the time when I first spotted them, and one hour and 22 minutes later, they were still at the bottom of the platform eating. They knew I was there, as they looked at me often, but as I was moving very slowly and not threatening them, they tolerated my presence. Finally two park visitors approached on foot and the birds saw them and took off. The visitors approached me and were astonished that they had gotten to see the whooping cranes. They asked if I had seen the whooping cranes. I just smiled.


Whooping Crane from 25 feet

As far as the bison, those are regularly seen in Paynes Prairie also. But that’s another story.

I know that I am lucky to spend so much time in this park and in other wild places and get to see so many neat creatures up close. Are all creatures so cooperative? Obviously, no. And do we have a moral obligation not to disturb wild creatures with our presence? Yes.

I totally understand that there is a fine line as to my need to record, but not to disturb wild birds and animals. But, when some of those same people come into my booth and see that Coopers Hawk photo, they become a little more curious about photography and birding and the need to preserve our wild heritage. While I am a businessman and hope to sell images at the art fairs, my ultimate goal is to inform the public about the beauty of our wild birds and animals.

Come and visit us at Paynes Prairie or your local park. Or, become more familiar with your home park and explore the photo ‘ops’ they present.

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I’m compelled to make a comment about Greg’s article. I can remember when there were only 40 Whooping Cranes living on the planet. The fact that there are so many of them alive today is a tribute to the hard work from many people to save this wonderful bird. That there are places like Paynes Prairie where photographers can photograph them in the wild is a gift we should greatly appreciate. Thank you, Greg, for sharing this with us.

All Photos by Greg Stephens

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  • http://tcaapwildlifeviewingarea.blogspot.com/ Mully410

    Thanks for the great article.  I’m amazed at the reactions of visitors to “my” park when I explain the diversity of wildlife I’ve seen.   They walk past and stay for a couple minutes and miss everything.  I agree slow and steady is the key to getting close to birds as is patience.  For a lot of mammals, it can be bit different.  Scent is a huge deal to deer and coyote, for example.  I always keep a closer eye up wind or position myself so the wind is in my face and the sun behind me…not always possible but I’m always aware. 

  • Brisbane Wedding Photography

    I really like wildlife photography. I think we should explore nature more in order to see to real beauty. Taking pictures in the wildlife is both a challenging and rewarding experience.

  • http://twitter.com/AlexisJDeCaprio Alexis J. DeCaprio

    Great article… It’s so nice to hear photographers appreciate wildlife as we all should!