Black Bear

Who's Comin' Today?

by Weldon Lee (photos and text) 

            Dinner. That’s what we called lunch back then; and dinner . . . well, that was supper. Anyway, it was always fun having friends drop by for a visit. I would stand at the window waiting for their car to pull into our driveway.

            It’s been awhile since I’ve been to Texas. The mountains of Colorado have been my home for a number of years.

            However, I still enjoy having friends come visit. Maybe it’s a throwback to my youth or perhaps it’s the company I now keep. Just this morning, Brother Coyote dropped by to say hello and check out the leftovers ‘neath the bird feeders hung outside my cabin window.

            I’ve found that it’s not necessary to drive halfway across the country to photograph my wild brothers and sisters. They visit me - not just on Sundays, but everyday of the week.

            It doesn’t matter where you live, a variety of photographic subjects await just outside your back door. With just a little preparation and knowledge, you can add thousands of new images to your stock files and awaken every morning filled with excitement as you contemplate Who’s Coming Today?

            Here’s how…

Mountain Chickadee
Black-headed Grosbeak

Potential Visitors

            Depending on where you live, visitors may range from cicadas to mountain lions. If Gulf Coast toads congregate on your patio every night to feast on the local insect population, then make the world’s best toad images. After all, not everyone has elk wandering through their yard on a regular basis or osprey nesting in a tree next to their driveway. In other words, concentrate on what you have. Besides, who’s in a better position to do that than you?

            I’m fortunate to live in a log cabin in an area known as Wild Basin, less than a hundred yards from the southeast corner of Rocky Mountain National Park; and yes, elk do wander through my yard on a regular basis as do mule deer. Bobcats, although shy and skittish, drop by once or twice a year. Coyotes are regular wintertime visitors. I can count on at least 15 different bird species at my feeders every day, to say nothing of the variety of squirrels and chipmunks. Did I mention bear? During summer, I can count on representatives from the local bruin population dropping by several times a week.

            Prior to moving to Colorado, I lived in the suburbs of Houston, Texas. Suburban wildlife is different from what one can expect to find in the country. Nevertheless, mockingbirds often awoke me in the middle of the night, singing their courtship medley. Anoles - we called them chameleons when I was a kid - extended red throat pouches and bobbed their heads in hopes of attracting females. Great-tailed grackles were frequent backyard visitors. Ladybugs, cicadas, and twig-girdlers represented the insect world and became photographic subjects when nothing else was available.

            The best advice that I can give . . . when in Rome, shoot Roman candles.

Bird Feeders

            What wildlife photographer worth his or her salt doesn’t have at least one bird feeder hanging up around their place? Although a couple of strategically placed bird feeders are not necessary for basic backyard wildlife photography, they will certainly attract a greater number of our feathered relatives.

Food.  You’ll attract a greater variety of birds by providing a wider selection of foods.

            Finches prefer thistle seeds; blue jays love peanuts, while woodpeckers and nuthatches favor suet. Proso millet is a favorite among many sparrow species, including juncos. Practically any bird worth its weight in seeds will cherish a meal of black oiled sunflower seeds. Several species, including mourning doves, relish finely cracked corn. Earlier this year, a wild turkey dropped by several days in a row to enjoy the cracked corn scattered on the ground.

            In addition to birdseed, I provide an inexpensive dry dog food for my winged guests. Costing less than nine dollars for a 50-pound bag, the dog food attracts several species of jays, crows, and grackles to my feeders.

            Regarding suet, you can purchase commercially prepared suet cakes or prepare your own mixture. If you elect the latter, here’s how:

Chop suet into half-inch chunks; this hastens the melting process. Cook in a large pot until suet becomes liquid. Strain mixture to remove all solids. Cool. Reheat and add ingredients.

Here’s a few possibilities for ingredients: bird seed, peanuts (whole or hearts), corn (cracked), Grape Nuts, raisins, dried cranberries, peanut butter. I add peanut butter to all of my concoctions.

Feeders.  The selection of available bird feeders is practically endless: so are the preferences of various species.

            Some species prefer hanging or pole-mounted feeders, while platform feeders attract ground-feeding birds. Some feeders are especially designed for dispensing thistle seeds. Special nectar feeders holding sugar-water beckon orioles to your back yard. Suet feeders can be purchased that hold commercially prepared suet cakes.

            A three or four inch diameter limb section approximately 18-inches long can easily be transformed into a suet feeder. Simply drill a number of 1-inch diameter holes approximately a half-inch deep around the circumference and insert a screw-eye into one end. A small chain with “S” hooks attached to each end is all that’s needed for hanging your creation in a tree. Fill the drilled holes with a melted suet mixture of your choice.

Water.  Don’t forget water. A fresh supply of water is not only an important element in any bird feeding program, it’s necessary to the good health of your backyard visitors. Several commercial birdbaths are available. My feathered friends enjoy a heated bath that remains ice-free all winter.

Landscaping.  Nearby trees and shrubs provide a sense of security and a means of quick escape should a predator suddenly appear. If you’re lacking trees, there’s no time like the present for visiting your local nursery.

            Once your feeding routine has begun, it’s important to keep the feeders filled, especially during winter.

White-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted Nuthatch

 Techniques

Chipmunk Perspective.  Use what I call the “chipmunk perspective” when photographing wildlife. In other words, get down on the same level as your subject, which may require lying low to the ground like a chipmunk when making the image.

            Shooting from this perspective not only adds a sense of importance to your subject, it can eliminate many background distractions. I’ve also found that subjects often become curious when they see me lying on the ground and occasionally come closer to check things out.

Up Close & Personal.  Nowhere in the “Ten Commandments of Wildlife Photography” is it chiseled in stone that an image must show the entire animal. It’s all right if only an eye and portion of your subject’s face are portrayed.

            Back yard photography makes frame-filling shots easy since most subjects, over a period of time, come to accept your presence and allow an up-close-and-personal approach.

Blinds.  Although I’ve made numerous images while simply standing in the open, I’ve found that many species are less intimidated if I’m seated in a chair. In the short term, a blind may be necessary when working extremely wary subjects. Over a period of time, however, I’ve found that a sense of trust becomes established between photographer and subject.

Open Window.  One of the best moves that I’ve ever made was when I arranged my office furniture in a manner that would allow me to sit in my easy chair while photographing subjects through an open window.

            Just outside the window are several Douglas firs. In and under these trees, I’ve placed eight bird feeders - everything from sunflower and thistle feeders to my homemade suet feeders. Birdseed, dry dog food, and cracked corn are scattered beneath the trees daily.

            The area has become a mecca for wildlife, some coming to feast on my offerings and others simply out of curiosity.

            One day, a red squirrel hopped through the window in order to get a closer look at what I was doing. That, however, was nowhere near as surprising as the time I looked up and saw a black bear watching me from less than 10-feet away.

            The only real problem I’ve encountered with this setup is finding time to get any work done. It’s much more fun to relax and watch the antics of my wild brothers and sisters.

Natural Lighting.  Some of the best lighting - I call it “soft light” - typically occurs when a thin cloud layer conceals the sun; not so thick that all shadows are eliminated, but thin enough to allow faint shadows to appear. Completely overcast skies are not necessary for this condition to occur. On blue-sky days, simply wait for one of those puffy white clouds to drift in front of the sun.

            “Spot lighting,” although one must often wait days before all the elements to come together, is one of Nature’s special gifts. Occasionally, an early morning sun’s ray will find its ways through the branches and spotlight a worthy subject against a dark background.

            Whatever you do, avoid the combination of bright sunshine and harsh shadows like the plague. Images made under these lighting conditions usually wind up in the trash.

 

Equipment

Camera & Lens.  Any camera body will work. However, I especially like the magnification factor offered by many of today’s digital cameras. Add a Nikon 80-400mm VR lens or a Canon 100-400mm IS lens and you have a combination that’s difficult to beat. The mobility and close-focus capability of these lenses is perfect for back yard wildlife photography.

            A 200mm macro lens offers frame-filling capability at a longer working distance; an idea combination when photographing butterflies, frogs, lizards and other subjects that might flee if approached too closely.

Specialized equipment.  Smaller subjects such a tiny insects often require special equipment.

            Extension tubes, for example, reduce a lens’ working distance. The closer you are to your subject, the larger that subject will appear in the viewfinder.

            A bellows extension provides essentially the same results as an extension tube. The difference being an unlimited number of settings, plus even greater magnification of image size.

            The tiniest subjects requiring even more magnification can be photographed by stacking one lens atop another. Simply mount a larger-than-normal focal-length lens directly to your camera body. Using a reversing ring, reverse mount a smaller focal-length lens onto the larger one.

            Focusing can be extremely difficult with increased magnification. The solution¾a rack and piñon focusing rail. My advice is to purchase one that can be adjusted laterally as well as backward-and-forward.

Flash.  Fill-flash is important, not only for eliminating harsh shadows on bright sunny days, it’s great for bringing out the color of subjects photographed on cloudy days.

            In TTL mode, I typically use settings ranging from –1.0 to +1.0. The actual setting depends on the brightness of ambient light, the tonality of my subject, and the amount of subject filling the viewfinder.

            Lighter subjects require less light. Brighter days often necessitate increased flash output. Experiment to find which flash settings you prefer.

 

Miscellaneous

Know Your Subject.  Whether you live in bear country like me or make your home along the Gulf of Mexico and photograph cicadas, it’s important to know your subject.

            Bears are highly misunderstood creatures. Sure, the potential for danger is always present. However, if one truly understands bears and acts accordingly, the threat is minimal. The same holds true with all wild creatures.

            Cicada attacks, on the other hand, are not something photographers need worry about. However, understanding the cicada’s life cycle is paramount in photographing the various changes they undergo from egg to adult.

            The more knowledge you have regarding your subject, the better prepared you’ll be in capturing the essence of its personality.

Hairy Woodpecker
Conclusion

            The anticipation of friends coming to visit excites me as much today, if not more so, than when I was a kid. Adding their images to my files is like having your Gummy Bears and eating ‘em too!

            This excitement doesn’t have to wait until I go on a trip, nor must it wait for you.

            Once you realize that you can pursue the enjoyment of wildlife photography without ever leaving the comfort of home, you’ll awaken every morning, just like me, filled with excitement and anticipation as you wonder - WHO’S COMING TODAY?

Steller's Jay
© Weldon Lee/All Rights Reserved
You have to EXPERIENCE IT . . .
to BELIEVE IT!