Starting late Wednesday, ultra-cold overnight temperatures covered all area wetlands with a sheet of ice by Saturday – except the deepest big lake that traditionally is the last to freeze and that traditionally attracts the largest seasonal concentration of geese in the region – numbering in the hundreds of thousands some years! Up to Saturday, there were at least 8 huge flocks of Snow Geese in the area with a small percentage of Ross’s Geese mixed among them. At the same time, flocks of 3 other species of geese concentrated in flocks of hundreds, segregated from the clouds of Snows – mostly Cackling Geese mixed with varied numbers of White-fronted Geese and fewer Canada Geese.
Taken while photographing geese along a flight path, this image shows the dramatic difference in size between Cackling and Canada Geese that also have distinctively different calls (photo info: 600mm zoom lens, f-10 aperture, 1/1600 shutter speed, 800 ISO).
The super-cool weather seemed to bring on a sense of urgency among the geese, as it did for me, knowing this was the beginning of the end. When the water surface of the deepest big lake freezes, the accumulated geese will continue their migration, leaving a deep silence and emptiness in this area of the northern plains. As you can imagine, I made the most of every morning and afternoon, monitoring the movements of geese, their changing haunts, their favorite feeding fields – all with the interest of a biologist, but with the intent of a wildlife photographer.
Even so, I picked my times, and picked my locations – photographing when the sun was at its best in a clear blue sky, approaching photo locations with the sun at my back, and always keeping the birds’ welfare paramount as they fed or rested en masse, or flew from site to site. I have been concentrating on flight photographs, so have a few good suggestions to share with anyone ready to search out migrating or wintering flocks of geese in coming weeks and months. Then too, you may be able to use some of these photo suggestions in other situations where you encounter birds.
Taken along the same flight path, these White-fronted Geese show the range of black markings on the belly of adults (600mm zoom lens, f-11 aperture, 1/2000 shutter speed, 800 ISO).
Flight Path Fotos
Some of the most exciting photography can materialize when you find a flight path where waterfowl are flying from a lake to a feeding area. One of my favorite flight path photo locations during the past 10 days has been Melody’s Marsh, just a half-mile south of my office – what luck! For a couple weeks Cackling Geese have been building in numbers, joined by a few Canada Geese and ever-more White-fronted Geese.
The growing flocks that rest and drink at the marsh have been feeding in an adjacent harvested soybean field between a quarter-mile to half-mile to the west. I simply park my mobile blind (car) on one side or the other of the wide shoulder of the road that passes by the west side of Melody’s Marsh. Positioned to the south with the sun at my back during late mornings, I wait for flocks of geese to fly back to the marsh after feeding. And when possible, when the sun is shining, I return afternoons to photograph from the southwest as the geese fly back to the ag field for a second feeding session.
It's so much fun, with periods of anticipation followed by fast foto action as flocks take flight and cross before your anxious view, hoping they fly a bit closer, turn a bit to the left, bunch together rather than forming a straight line – it’s definitely exciting! Focusing in advance as geese take flight, then following their flight path with a quickening of my heartbeat, it’s all very exciting, and rather fleeting – literally. And then there is the totally unexpected, the ultimately rare; a unique goose among millions of geese. I could see it from a distance as a flock of White-fronted Geese took flight, its white underside caught my attention and I quickly focused on the flight of the rarest of fall’s geese – a white-bellied White-fronted Goose, an apparent hybrid between a White-front with a white-morph Snow Goose – ultra-rare, but documented in my photos taken a half-mile south of home.
A super-rare white-bellied hybrid goose, apparently produced by a White-fronted Goose that mated with white-morph Snow Goose, was photographed among a flock of White-fronts (600mm zoom lens, f-11 aperture, 1/2000 shutter speed, 800 ISO).
Freezing Waters, Cold Fingers
When temperatures dip below freezing, and often before that magic temp, you will find that photographing from your mobile blind will be imperative to spending time in the cold and wind that turns large bodies of water into ice-covered water basins. Within your mobile blind you can turn on the heater anytime, and I'm really appreciating the luxury of my car’s heated seats and steering wheel these days. But you will definitely want to turn your vehicle’s engine off when photographing to eliminate the effect of the motor’s vibration. Last week I also started wearing gloves when I had my window open – while photographing – and even that wasn’t enough to keep my hands warm for more than 10 minutes or so.
No problem, I just rolled up the window and turned on the engine to warm my hands on the heated steering wheel while the heated seat and car heater restore a more temperature inside my mobile blind. Then a flock of Cackling Geese takes flight and I’m putting my gloves back on and focusing my zoom lens on the approaching flock as they bark their welcome calls to fill the cold Dakota air.
After flushing from a feeding field, a mixed flock of Snow Geese and Ross’s Geese returns to resume feeding. Geese habitually flush when feeding in open ag fields, often for no apparent reason, although the approach of an eagle will also prompt thousands of geese to take flight at once (600mm zoom lens, f-10 aperture, 1/1600 shutter speed, 800 ISO).
This time of year, with the sun fairly low in the southern sky throughout the day, it’s a great boon to bird photographers who rely on sunlight to illuminate the birds they focus on. And when you are in the field, you can literally see the change in light quality and color, especially during late afternoon. When light begins to dim, your shutter speed is reduced, and you see a yellowing hue to the birds’ colors (if they are close enough), as the surrounding fall grasses or cattails become yellower too. You will also see this change when you review your photos on a larger screen, a computer or tablet screen for example. The yellowing effect usually signals a good time to end that afternoon’s photo session, or to reduce your aperture (f-stop) to re-gain faster shutter speed.
As I’ve shared with you during the past month, I’ve increased my ISO setting from 400 to 800, initiated to get a much faster shutter speed for photographing waterfowl in flight – geese, swans, and ducks. It has definitely worked to my advantage, but I will admit that last week when reviewing and editing photos I noticed some photos were a bit grainy when I enlarged them to look at details.
That made me question if I need a 1/4000 of a second shutter speed and f-11 aperture? Probably not, but an f-10 with 1/2500 shutter speed is nice, and it may not require an ISO 800. I could use an in-between ISO setting, say 600; and I might try that as a compromise, hoping for less grain while retaining a faster shutter speed and wider aperture. I’ll keep you posted on that, but isn’t it worthwhile to note that this photographer with decades of bird photography experience is still fine-tuning and making adjustments. It’s part of what makes photography so interesting – and hopefully it’s what helps us create better photos.
When photographing at the edge of a large feeding flock, watch for opportunities to photograph pairs, like this pair of white-morph Snow Geese, along with family groups, interesting flocks, and uniquely colored individuals (600mm zoom lens, f-10 aperture, 1/4000 shutter speed, 800 ISO).
The same photo blind activities are par for the course when photographing waterfowl beyond a flight path too. To photograph the huge flocks of Snow Geese it’s a matter of finding a flock, then assessing whether it is approachable from a geographic standpoint. Big flocks most often pick feeding and water sites where they can land far removed from a road – often a half-mile away, or more. With as many as 8 huge clouds of Snow Geese in the area within a dozen mile radius, I have had the opportunity to pick and choose which flocks to try to photograph, depending on the position of the flock with relation to area roads and tracks, the direction of the sunlight, and the demeanor of the geese in the flock, especially geese on the edge of a flock.
I found that in my home area the geese are fairly trusting, often allowing me to approach the edge of a huge flock without disturbing the flock. Trying not to flush any geese, I make every effort to stop short of them reacting to my slow, steady approach. In a worse-case some birds on the edge of the flock fly up for a moment and land again a few feet away. Then I await flocks, family groups, and pairs flying in to join the mega-flock to feed – in essence, I get into a flight path position again – or move to a better location if the action is slow.
Wherever the geese are, I approach the flock from the south – directly south during midday, from the southeast in the morning, or from the southwest during the afternoon – so I have the best sunlight with a minimum of shadowing on the birds. Wind can also be a factor as you choose a photo location or reposition along the edge of a big flock. The geese will fly into the wind as they land, and as they take flight, so if the position of the sun and the wind direction gel, you can get some nice images of birds landing and taking flight.
A photo of a family group of blue morph Snow Geese provides an interesting chance to compare the adult and first-fall plumage of “blues” (600mm zoom lens, f-13 aperture, 1/2500 shutter speed, 800 ISO).
Among the hustle of geese in a big flock there is a constant motion of birds repositioning, flying in, and taking flight, all of which add to your photo opportunities as you absorb the sights and sounds of a stadium-like assemblage of more than 10,000 Snow Geese. I enjoy watching for groups of geese positioned within flocks, including family groups, interesting color morphs, or simply interesting positioning among a group of birds. That’s when the adrenaline kicks in and you try to anticipate which birds will fly closer, which birds are angling in perfect sunlight, which group of geese creates an interesting pattern – it’s all very fun and invigorating.
Suddenly, the roar of geese taking flight and the sight of a wall of geese explodes into the cold air, offering a completely different kind of photo op as you try to take a meaningful photo of a mass of white, blue, and gray Snow Geese. “What happened,” you wonder as the mega-flock circles and returns a short distance away – the easy answer is: That’s what geese do from time to time. Other times the approach of an eagle can start the goose stampede, but your best bet is to keep looking for photo ops as the birds take flight and return to the feeding area.
This is a period of the year when I look forward to the high level of excitement the concentrations of geese bring to the surrounding area, and even to the sky above the trees in my yard. But it’s also a time when the geese will literally vanish overnight when the Big Freeze arrives, so I appreciate the dramatic transition by using my camera as much as possible while I can. Enjoy any chances you get to visit concentrations of migrating or wintering geese and other waterfowl the next time you have a chance. It’s always exhilarating, and geese always seem to draw me into the essence of nature when I’m in their presence. Good Luck!
Article and photographs by Paul Konrad
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