I’m sure I speak for birders everywhere when I say that for the most part strong wind blows. (See what I did there?) Nothing puts wee birds into heavy cover, shakes your scope, and wicks the heat out of your extremities like a strong wind. Long-anticipated pelagic plans can be dashed when the wind gets the sea up too much, and even from the steadiness of shore waterfowl and seabirds drop out of view in wave troughs for inconsiderate amounts of time. But often our time to bird, whether it be an hour snuck in after work or a full day leading or joining a scheduled trip, falls on such a windy day. And you know that the best time to go birding is when you can, so wind is going to enter into the equation at times. There’s one potential silver lining to birding in a gale that I’d like to put forth- flight photography.
As uncomfortable and inconvenient as a windy day can be, if you get the magic combo of birds flying both into the wind and generally towards the Sun you should jump on the chance to photograph them. Their ground speed will be greatly diminished, giving you an opportunity similar in experience to playing a movie in slow motion. For example, if a Sandhill Crane can cruise along at say, 45 miles per hour, adding a 25 mph headwind would mean the crane is only making 20 mph over the ground, a much slower target to work with. The light does have to cooperate for the best photo conditions- if the wind is blowing generally towards the Sun any bird flying into the wind will be lit from behind.
Maybe it’s just me but it has seemed to be an unusually windy late winter and early spring in Colorado this year. One such day of screaming wind accompanied me as I led folks to see Sandhill Cranes and other avifauna in the San Luis Valley near The Great Sand Dunes. My fellow leader Ted Floyd, our participants, and I all persevered as best as we could and fortunately folks came prepared with extra layers (and our hosts at The Nature Conservancy came prepared with spirit-lifting refreshments) to watch thousands of Greater Sandhill Cranes Congregating at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge one evening late last March. The strong west wind lined up well with the setting sun, so in addition to the wind chill numbing my fingers the approaching cranes were seemingly just crawling over with wonderful evening light washing their faces as our vorpal cameras went snicker-snack, snicker-snack.
Strong wind also caught up to me at the Salton Sea later in March on my pilgrimage to see Yellow-footed Gull and the other wonders of hyperbaric birding in Southern California. Wind chill wasn’t a problem this time but it was dusty and as I scoped from the east shore roosting gulls were wind-vaned away from me, giving looks at mainly backs and tails. The only useful scoping I could do was by setting my legs at their widest angle and sitting low to scan flocks of larids and shorebirds. The method proved successful at the Red Hill Marina where I found a Yellow-footed Gull. (I was pretty pleased with the situation but the gull didn’t seem to share my enthusiasm as it crouched behind a rock to get a bit of a wind break.) On a later walk in to Rock Hill from the Salton Sea NWR Headquarters the low & wide tripod technique proved especially important so I could focus on flight photography without worrying about my scope tipping over. (Have you ever heard the sound of a scope objective cracking on a rock? I have, and I guarantee you it is one of the most cringe-worthy things you can hear, whether it is your scope or someone else’s.) Birds were making short flights from a protected pond over to the open shore of the southern Salton Sea, passing right over the dike where I sat into a fierce headwind. Other than some buffeting it was like the birds were just hanging there on a string begging for their pictures to be taken mid-air.
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