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    To Birders, Wind is a Four Letter Word… Usually

    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.

    Tree Swallow flying into a gale, Jackson County, Colorado, April 2009.  Photo ©Bill Schmoker

    Tree Swallow flying into a gale, Jackson County, Colorado, April 2009. Photo ©Bill Schmoker

    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.

    Sandhill Cranes on final approach, heading into the wind and into the sunset, Monte Vista NWR, Colorado, March 2014.  Photo ©Bill Schmoker

    Sandhill Cranes on final approach, heading into the wind and into the sunset, Monte Vista NWR, Colorado, March 2014. Photo © Bill Schmoker

    SACRs2_MonteVistaNWR_March2014_Schmoker

    Sandhill Cranes and clouds on a windy evening, Monte Vista NWR, Colorado, March 2014. Photo © Bill Schmoker

    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.

    Adult California Gull, Salton Sea NWR, California, March 2014.  A tough day to be in the field at least produced some prime photo opps of birds pressing into the wind.  Photo ©Bill Schmoker

    Adult California Gull, Salton Sea NWR, California, March 2014. A tough day to be in the field at least produced some prime photo opps of birds pressing into the wind. Photo © Bill Schmoker

    American Avocet, Salton Sea NWR, California, March 2014.  Stiff winds tossed the bird around a bit but also nearly stood it still at times.  Photo ©Bill Schmoker

    American Avocet, Salton Sea NWR, California, March 2014. Stiff winds tossed the bird around a bit but also nearly stood it still at times. Photo © Bill Schmoker

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    Bill Schmoker

    Bill Schmoker

    Bill is known in the birding community as a leading digital photographer of birds. Since 2001 he has built a collection of digital bird photos documenting over 640 species of North American birds. His photography has appeared in international nature publications, books, newspapers, interpretive signs, web pages, advertisements, corporate logos, and as references for art works. Also a published writer, Bill wrote a chapter for Good Birders Don't Wear White, is a past Colorado/Wyoming regional editor for North American Birds and is proud to be on the Leica Birding Team. Bill is a Colorado eBird reviewer and is especially fond of his involvement with the ABA's Institute for Field Ornithology and Young Birder Programs. Bill is a popular birding guide, speaker, and workshop instructor, and teaches middle school science in Boulder, Colorado. When he isn’t birding he enjoys family time with his wife and son.
    Bill Schmoker

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    • DanielRMorris

      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. http://buyh.tk/wC

    • Madeline

      Hi Nate, You’ll want to delete the first comment. :-(

    • Madeline

      That said, Bill, these are spectacular photos! I like how you make lemonade when life gives you lemons. And I’ve heard that sound of crashing scope when I walked under a lower-than expected walkway, carrying the tripod and scope.

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