Wetland Watch - Photography on the Edge
by Heather Simonds
May 11, 2012
Wetland at sunrise
Serene, reflective, dynamic and unpredictable... Looking for a versatile image generating nature locale?… a nature photographer’s dream, perhaps. More than likely it may be found at the local fishing hole, municipal lagoon or the sleepy swamp in the next county. Available widely in Canada (and every continent except Antarctica), ponds, shorelines, bogs, fens, marshes, oxbows, estuaries and other saturated soils and standing waters can be found from coast to coast from the prairie pothole region to the boreal forest to the central lowlands, the Atlantic salt marshes and every local depression in between.
As “edge ecosystems” (the juxtaposition of contrasting environments) wetlands are teeming with photographic possibilities in unique, crucial habitats for animal and plant species. Some are permanent but others don’t last, filled seasonally with water from melting snow and tidal marshesthat temporarily flood daily. Functioning as transitions between different habitats (ecotones), they have characteristics of both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and thus, are similar but vary in content. For these reasons the local or travelling photographer needs to keep wetlands near the top of the image procurement list.
A Day in the Life of the Wetland Photographer
The mood of this highly lucrative ecosystem is one of repose … contemplative, peaceful and calm; it does not stir the adrenaline rush of a raging waterfall or rugged mountain range. Rather, it is a place of tranquility, “photographic meditation”. Water, as a basic element of this site, affects most imagery; hues of yellow, green and blue. Offered up is a full range of wildlife - mammals from ungulates to rodents, insects, amphibians, a convenient package of migrant, resident and accidental birds of every size and description. It is easy to grab an eye “catch light” but watch the effect of bright water on animals, especially light body parts. Protection offered in this sheltered environment provides opportunities for wildlife behaviour, instead of catching them by surprise before running away in fear. Subjects that are spooked by movement or shadows require a zoom (frogs and butterflies). When wildlife is scarce, or the light is just right, botanicals and landscapes stand by as a “slower shutter speed” possibility.
A full day can include moose at the dawn watering hole, sneaky shorebirds pecking at the “edge”, morning mist rising off the green and gold landscape, warblers snarfling insects off willows, butterflies and dragonflies basking in the midday sun, muskrats home building with grasses, a black tern swooping for grub. Shooting in a wetland doesn’t necessarily confine captures to the sweet hours like most photography. Midday stack filters for long exposures to block harsh light, swish grasses on windy days, smooth water surface. Sunset drama could finish off an evening with cattails, sedges or grasses in the foreground to provide extra dimension if the reflection does not cast long enough. The potential of a reflection in any of the foregoing is a bonus; catching reflections of animals reduces cropping; sheltered sites mitigate ripples that break the mirror effect. Incorporate a landscape with a wildlife shot or a water lily with dragonfly for a “double whammy”.
Go broad with lens choice and remain open to a range of possibilities at almost any time and season. Cover all bases with equipment to capture close-ups of insects, zoom unsuspecting wildlife from a distance, go wide (in both directions) to capture the layers of the landscape. Master polarizing and neutral density filters to control glare or partially shield brighter light; rotate polarizer to get desirable surface effects (diminish underneath muck with a mirror reflection). The astute photographer may plan on one species seen last week and end up capturing a sunset over a placid reflection. Surprises continue to await the returning photographer but don’t be surprised by the unpleasant effects of moisture - mosquitoes, soggy boots, a brow of sweat, damp to soaked clothes, condensation on equipment . Be prepared and don’t sweat the small stuff by letting it interfere with photo opportunities.
Trumpeter Swans and mallards rest on the ice in Spring waiting for the ice to thaw
Migration, Species on the Move
Spring and fall migrations provide a cornucopia of wetland imagery. Simplistically speaking, there are four migratory bird routes in North America (Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific Flyways) so wetlands under these fair well with deposits of shorebirds, waterfowl and birds of prey intersecting with neighbourhood wetland life. The prairie pothole region ("Duck Factory" of North America) has half of the migratory birds on the continent pass through it.
American coot and young
The frantic journey north to breed has large flocks moving continually in spring compared to the more dispersed fall movement. Early spring has snow providing fresh contrast (instead of the usual muddy shore) where shorebirds clinging to the bit of open shoreline, an opportunistic fox hunkering down for a capture while waterfowl spray their wings in anticipation of warmer days. Get familiar with glare and reflections long before frozen wetlands are open. Watch histograms and use compensation to keep back the dreaded “blinkies”. Later in spring, early morning brings the animal kingdom out to sustain itself for the day, and, likewise, the evening forage sets in before nightfall. Although these times are full of activity it is not mandatory to follow the motto “get up with the birds” to locate subjects. While other photographers slip off for a mid day snooze, the wetland photographer can arrive on the scene to catch what dropped down on the migration route, if only for a temporary visit. Birds on the migratory route or mammals feeding young can’t always afford the luxury of waiting for a less risky time to fulfil a demanding feeding schedule and one of the main sources of nourishment, insects, are only out during daylight.
The spring bonus is weather - playing a big role in what species is available in wetlands; it brings nomads in during barometric changes, offers rest, keeps them secreted and, when foraging is optimal, delays their departure. Photographers are typically dismayed at inclement weather but the wetland watcher is quietly enthused with the anticipation of new subjects, no bug spray required. Early migrants may hunt for “anything edible” if ice cover is still hiding the regular diet, i.e., ospreys hunt muskrats in local marshes before fish are available. Photographers need to be ready for sudden changes in the weather or frosty mornings so keep well stocked with winter wear and nourishment.
After the summer solstice continuing into late fall, southbound species take sanctuary offered in wetlands; this time migration is more sporadic. The trip to the southern winter locale depends on the species, how quickly nesting and breeding took place, i.e., a lot of cool or wet northern weather delays departure. Keeping in touch with what the weather was like during the season helps predict more reliably the details of fall migration. Offsetting the less predictable migration is the increase in species numbers; besides migrating adults and juveniles, offspring of locals are added to the wetland mix. As the seasons progress, don’t be surprised to see new animals in overlooked places as juveniles leave to establish new territories.
Pond in Autumn
Circle of Life - Summer and Winter
Squeezed between the migrations is summer, leaving the photographer to haunt the species who stayed on, the occasional straggler and the year round locals. With migration over, dynamics have changed to nesting, the routine of maintaining the shelter, procreating and rearing young to independence in the shortest time period. Insect populations are increasing: breeding, hatching, circulating, buzzing, swarming, and, when not harassing the photographer, supplying the animal kingdom with tasty morsels. The canny photographer records weather patterns, animal comings and goings, maturation dates through the seasons and years to provide a handy forecast tool. Combine this data with a good field guides to disclose the approximate time for each phase for each species. More cool or wet weather in spring or summer can result in a postponed migration, if nests got flooded and had to be relocated. A late spring and summer with lots of warm weather could foster a second hatch. But heed, offspring develop fast, very fast, so don’t postpone. Within days that hatchling will be paddling the shores and then, poof, gone south.
Muskrats are year round locals in the pond
Winter exposes the essential elements of life on an icy, frosty canvas – bare and open with a neutral background. This minimalism is a stark contrast to the warm season’s dynamic life and earthy tones. Vibrant reflections are subtle now while cattails and grasses or a low wide angle ice pattern provide foreground interest. All of this is blended with wildlife eking out an existence, from mice to moose, even in the bleakest of temperatures. Coyote and hare tracks intersecting in freshly fallen snow or a well gleaned skeleton on a frozen pond are eerie reminders. Drifting snow or tracks are leading lines and indicate activities such as catching prey or ones that got away. Tracks tell a story of life, death, chase and survival. As winter gives way to longer daylight hours those single leading lines expand into a jigsaw puzzle of increased activity as animals den, forage, procreate, feed and persevere and the circle of life evolves.
Sunrise over pond in winter
Call to Action
Wetlands evoke contemplative imagery, energizing in their thoughtful, meditative quality. Once seen as “wastelands” because they were too "dirty" to swim in or too shallow for large boats, wetlands (although they are fast disappearing to the developers shovel) are gaining importance as habitats for protection. For those looking to add purpose to life the secondary goal of using photography to raise nature conservation awareness may be as satisfying as the personal pleasure of engaging in wetland photography.
Heather lives on an acreage just outside of Calgary. She is rarely without photo equipment and binoculars and has found you don't have to go far to find an interesting subject in nature. "If you miss the shot, you can still observe and admire and learn. There is a lot happening in your backyard and neighbourhood, just waiting for you to open your eyes and become more mindful of your surroundings."
Recommended web site: talkaboutwildlife.ca
This Heather's second article for the Canadian Nature photographer - also see her first article on Foxy Photography.
Additional Links and Features by Heather Simonds
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