In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt established the Lower Klamath National Wildlife refuge as the first waterfowl refuge in the United States.
I’ve had several fellow photographers tell me about shooting wildlife photographs at this refuge and the great experience it can be. So early, well okay so it was about 10am when I got up…..honestly I planned to get up much earlier, no really I did. So anyway, I called over to the refuge bookstore/information center and asked about the auto tour route conditions. The pleasant lady that answered the phone told me that road conditions were great and that a 2 wheel drive car would be just fine on the route. After trying unsuccessfully to convince Taunya to go with me I dressed warmly, loaded up my photography equipment and headed out for the 90 minute drive to the Refuge.
The auto route is a gravel/dirt road, that this time of year depending on the snow the area has received, has areas of snow packed road surfaces. I didn’t have any trouble navigating the roads with our Yaris, wanted to take the Z for the drive, but thought better of it thinking about the possibility of snow packed roads.
Now unfortunately, because I’m a photographer and not an ornithologist, I don’t know many of the names of these amazing raptors I’ve photographed. I know the American Bald Eagle and the ring-necked pheasants both male and female, and I believe one of the hawks is called a red-tail hawk since it has red tail feathers……
Now I had planned on using my 24-120mm lens to photograph these birds since it is my best quality lens and has VR. Unfortunately, I soon realized I needed a longer focal length lens to capture these birds with detail. The only longer lens I have is an older Sigma 70-300mm f 4-5.6 zoom lens. For an inexpensive zoom lens, that I purchased more than a decade ago for my film camera, it did pretty good. The resolution just wasn’t there though, and the auto focus was slower than I desired. Because of these shortcomings and the incredibly great time I had photographing wildlife, I started reconsidering the purchase of a new D600 right away and instead getting the 300mm f/4 lens. I think though, with the rumors of an updated version of this lens, I’ll wait for a few months. I definitely can see one of those with a 1.4x teleconverter in my future. Shhhhhhh not so loud! Taunya will hear and try to get me a vaccine for my GAS, no not that, Gear Acquisition Syndrome.
This shot here would have been so much better with a larger aperture lens and a teleconverter. This coyote was about a quarter-mile away so even with my 300mm lens he was just a little too far away for much detail. I wanted to get closer but couldn’t because he is actually standing on the ice of the lake.
I didn’t fully appreciate the need for a tripod with a fast-moving tripod head for wildlife photography before yesterday. Now, I am pretty good at hand holding shots, for example I’m able to take a picture of moving water, with a VR lens, down to 1/5th of a second, but the amount of shake when you are zoomed out to 300 mm is incredible. To compensate for this I found I needed a shutter speed over 1/1000th of a second which I thought would have been excessive, but looking at shots at lower shutter speeds even 1/800th there was some blur from camera shake.
The other learning experience I appreciated, as I did with my 18-200mm zoom, was the difference in resolving power of higher quality lenses. Having a lens with good optics that is able to resolve an image clearly is essential when you are photographing fast-moving birds at long focal lengths. With my Sigma zoom even when the bird was in focus, the clarity wasn’t there like I’ve seen with good “glass”.
The photo above was taken with my 24-120mm, one of the rare times I was able to get close enough to use this lens, and the one below with the 70-300mm. The resolution is so much better than with the 70-300mm.
I love downsampling it makes the bottom photograph so much clearer, but on the other hand it doesn’t allow me to show you what I am seeing in lightroom at 100% view.
It is hunting season over at the refuge for pheasants or maybe it was ducks I’m not sure not being a hunter…, but I felt the same kind of rush and challenge trying to “shoot” my subjects as hunters do. It is invigorating to drive along in your car and see a raptor in a tree or on a fence post, to park the car 50 yards away and to sneak up for a closer shot hoping to get close enough before it flies off. Then the skill to get the camera up to your eye, locate the bird in the viewfinder ,to focus and shoot all with in 1-2 seconds. One of the amenities the wildlife refuge has are blinds for wildlife photography. I may have to reserve one of these some time to try and get up close shots without disturbing the wildlife.
Although one of the advantages I found about walking up on your subjects to get a close shot is the movement causes them to take off. It is these take off and landing shots, I find, that make more exciting photographs. The disadvantage is that they sometimes don’t wait for you to be ready. By the end of the day though, I got pretty good at reading their “body language” and could tell with reasonable certainty when they were about to take off.
So if you haven’t had an opportunity to dabble in wildlife photography I highly recommend giving it a try.
If you are in the area and want to head out to the refuge drop me a line I would love an excuse to head out there and try my hand again at capturing these beautiful birds of prey.
I have another favor to ask of those reading this article. There is a photo contest giving away a Nikon D600 by Moose Peterson, who is an amazing wildlife photographer. I would love some imput on the photographs in the image gallery on which you think would be the best one to enter. The submission deadline is in a week, wish me luck!
The first image in the gallery of Mt. Shasta was taken on the way up to the refuge at the intersection of Hwy A-12 and Hwy 97. Thought I would include it in the photos since I liked the clouds and the sunlight.