I recently found myself enjoying a day of birding & bird photography on the Pawnee National Grasslands in NE Colorado. Among the highly sought-after birds there are McCown's & Chestnut-collared Longspurs. Although I try to see both every year, I never tire of the prairie and these specialty open-country birds. McCown's can be quite dense along the tour loop roads but Chestnut-collared Longspurs are pretty scarce here, at about the southern extent of their breeding range. Even the common McCown's present photo challenges, as they are often seen running or flying away from the vehicle and scattering away from those on shank's mare. With patience, they can be captured walking by a stationary car, but this yeilds a somewhat uncomfortable angle looking down on the birds and they have a knack for keeping even sparse grass between them and you. The numbers game alone makes Chestnut-collared photography here even tougher, as does their preference for thicker stands of grass.
I usually take a serendipitous approach to bird photography, watching for photo opps to present themselves and enjoying birding in-between. On this recent trip I saw the elements of a great longspur photo shoot almost magically come together and took advantage of it. It began when I noticed big groups of little birds coming and going from a stock tank in a pasture near the tour loop road. I strolled over to note McCown's Longpurs and Horned Larks trying to balance on the edge of the tank to get a drink. They were skittish and the galvanized metal mileau wasn't ideal. I splashed some water out onto the concrete skirt around the tank and sat on the ground nearby to try again. Some birds came down and I got several pics that I was happy with, but the strong prairie wind soon dried the supplementary puddles and most birds were drinking from the far side of the tank, probably avoiding me.
When a spanking Chestnut-collared Longspur approached but never came in all the way I realized I needed to improve the situation or move on. I retreated to my vehicle for two items- a small pail (otherwise employed to carry straps and rope) and a length of lightweight camo mesh netting that I carry around. Returning to the stock tank, I used the pail to fill a damp, hoofprint-filled patch of ground with a few gallons of fresh water. I sat in a nearby depression (mercifully dry) to get as low as possible with the sun and wind at my back and covered up with the netting. I have a circle cut out of the camo to put my lens through and just drape the whole thing over me like a poncho. A camo Lens Coat on my telephoto completed the effect. Forgetting my monopod, I instead propped my telephoto lens on my spotting scope tripod head to steady it and minimize movement that might spook off birds. Soon I had clots of McCown's coming down to drink, often hovering in the wind for a few moments before landing. While lots of flight shots were throw-aways (too blurry or with clipped wings), many came out pretty nicely. And my friend Mr. Chestnut-collared Came in for a refreshing drink about 15 feet in front of me!
Lessons of the successful photo shoot:
- Water can be key, especially in a dry habitat.
- Wind & sun both at your back is a magic combo for flight shots.
- Sitting on the ground lessens threat percieved by birds in many cases and creates more dramatic photo angle for small birds also on the ground.
- A compact portable blind or simple camo netting can induce birds to ignore you. Minimizing movement and keeping quiet is as important as the hiding method employed.