This story was originally published in March 2019.
While researching over a decade of wildlife photography, I was amazed to see how many different animals I had been lucky enough to photograph while exploring Maine, and the fond memories that came from those images.
I had almost forgotten about the beaver I saw carrying firewood across a pond in Aroostook County, and the newborn fawn I saw wandering through a field near Moosehead Lake. Then there was the time I visited Eastern Egg Rock, an island covered in nesting puffins, and the boat ride during which I found myself surrounded by a pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins. All this in Maine.
Looking back through those photos, I felt extremely lucky. I am by no means a professional wildlife photographer. My equipment and knowledge are inferior to those who can confidently claim that title. However, I have learned a thing or two over the years about photographing wildlife in Maine, as a hobbyist.
So, as winter turns to spring, if you’re interested in picking up a camera and exploring nature, here are some tips that I hope will help.
I mean that figuratively and literally. First of all, don’t get caught up in the fact that you may not have the best equipment or the best places to find wildlife. Camera equipment is expensive. For most people, it takes a bit of saving and bargain hunting to upgrade. And when it comes to places, I’ve learned that fascinating creatures can often be found in your backyard or in a city park. One of my favorite places to photograph birds is in a small park next to a major shopping center and highway. So you don’t need to go on massive road trips to find wildlife.
Another way to start small is to photograph small things, such as flowers, mushrooms, bees, beetles, moths, and butterflies. In fact, if you can be stealthy enough to photograph butterflies, then you won’t have a problem with birds. This type of photography usually involves the use of a macro lens, which is not particularly expensive compared to other lenses. You can also try using your phone’s camera, which should be fine for capturing images of the larger “small world” items like mushrooms.
When searching for something, it’s natural to want to move around and search many places, but when searching for wild animals, it’s often more effective to find a good spot and then wait, or at least move slowly. Movement and sounds quickly alert and scare away many creatures; however, if you stand still, you may be surprised at what you see. Once I was resting while hiking, sitting in the snow eating a granola bar, when a squirrel came up and sat a foot away on a log. He perched there, chewing on the seeds of a pineapple, unaware of my presence. You can imagine how scared the animal was when I finally had to move.
try a tripod
I don’t use a tripod, yet. I just don’t want to load it. Most of my wildlife photography is done during walks. But I’ve heard from more experienced photographers that using a tripod can really help with image clarity, especially if you have a tendency to shake. Tripods are also useful for holding and aiming large cameras and lenses, which are quite heavy.
Join someone who has more experience.
When I first started getting involved in wildlife photography, I was lucky enough to meet a local wildlife photographer, Sharon, who invited me on several outings with her, including a quest to find a snowy owl at a local business park and a trip to see pintail ducks gathering on a thawed section of a nearby river. She taught me a lot about where to find local wildlife throughout the year. She also taught me a thing or two about setting up my camera.
To find other wildlife photographers, both professional and amateur, I suggest joining online communities, such as the MAINE Birds Facebook group. There are also local dating groups that you can join on websites like meetup.com.
A wide variety of creatures are attracted to water, whether it be rivers, ponds, lakes, swamps, estuaries, or the ocean. Therefore, visiting those places will probably increase your chances of seeing animals. That’s one of the reasons I love canoeing. It is usually a great opportunity to see wildlife. For example, when canoeing on a lake near my home, I often see bald eagles, loons, red-belted kingfishers, a variety of ducks, and herons. In the winter, when the animals are a little harder to find, I often drive to the coast to find seabirds floating offshore. Even small ponds and marshy areas will attract a variety of birds and other animals, such as muskrats, beavers, and turtles.
leave your dog at home
I love spending time outdoors with my dog Oreo, but when I really want to photograph wildlife, I leave him at home. Even on a leash, Oreos tend to chase away wild animals by rolling around in the grass and whimpering when I sit too long. When looking for animals, I walk slowly and stop often. That pace just isn’t acceptable for Oreos, and I think it’s true for a lot of dogs.
Check out the fields in spring and early summer.
A variety of ground-nesting birds can be found singing in the fields of Maine during the spring and early summer as they raise their young, and at places like the Fields Pond Audubon Center in Holden and the Hirundo Wildlife Refuge in Old Town, boxes Bird nesting grounds scattered throughout the fields attract an even greater variety of birds. Just be sure to stay on established trails or cut paths so you don’t step on eggs or baby birds. Another great place to see birds in the spring and summer is Saxl Park, which can be accessed from Cascade Park in Bangor. Saxl Park has a large network of paths cut through the fields, which are home to bobolinks, one of my favorite birds to listen to; his call is almost robotic.
Keep a respectful distance from wildlife.
Stalking animals is the last thing you want to do as a wildlife photographer. The goal is to capture a creature in its element, comfortable and undisturbed by your presence. Unfortunately, there is no specific “acceptable” distance for wildlife viewing because each species detects and reacts to people differently. For example, moose have terrible eyesight, but they have a great sense of smell. So, if a moose feeds on plant life while wading in a pond and you are sitting motionless at the water’s edge, the creature may not even be able to sense your presence. A loon, on the other hand, has much better eyesight and is likely to be annoyed.
This issue of distance was much discussed in Maine birding circles when a large number of Snowy Owls flew to Maine from the Arctic a few winters ago for the winter. A small number of snowy owls do this every year, but the increase in numbers drew a lot of attention and many people were eager to photograph these beautiful white birds. In some places where snowy owls were sighted, wildlife photographers would congregate with their cameras and tripods to capture the best images; however, some photographers got too close to the owls, disrupting their hunting habits and driving away their prey.
Leave No Trace materials offer a “rule of thumb,” which states that if a wild animal cannot be covered by your thumb when your arm is out in front of you, then you should move further away. This is a good start, however I also suggest observing the actions of the animal. If they are looking at you, they are likely to see you. If they are moving away, you are too close and should back up as well.