Last spring, our Audubon chapter organized a field trip to a Nature Conservancy property, the Brett Gray Ranch. Located out on the short-grass prairies east of Colorado Springs, the ranch has widely diverse habitat. Dry grasslands, riparian cottonwoods, marsh and pond attract birds from miles around to eat and drink at this oasis on the plains.
Our group included several “power birders,” luminaries who excelled at spotting and identifying rarities. I was eager to follow in their footsteps. Lugging my largest lens and bulky tripod, I just knew I was going to get spectacular photos.
You can tell from the title that things didn’t go according to plan.
Oh, we saw plenty of birds… even I managed to see 66 species in one day, and I missed a bunch of birds that others saw. You who live in places like the Rio Grande Valley may yawn, but for Colorado, that’s a lot of birds! The problems came when I tried to photograph them. I learned some things that I’d like to pass along to other enthusiastic bird photographers.
Rule 1: The longer the legs on your tripod, the thicker the brush will be. Brett Gray Ranch doesn’t have trails. There are a few roads, but for the most part you’re traipsing though underbrush, squelching through mud, climbing over downed trees. By the time I got my gear untangled, the bird would be long gone.
Rule 2: The distance to the bird is inversely related to the number of birders per season . To get good close-ups, go to popular birding destinations. We were excited to bird this ranch because no one goes there. Surely we’d find some undiscovered treasures. We did—I got two lifers on one day. However, the birds were all afraid of us; they weren’t used to birders disturbing their quiet neighborhood. You can see the consequences in my photos. (Yes, there’s a bird in that picture!)
Rule 3: The best birds will be found while you’re in the bushes attending to other needs. The ranch doesn’t have facilities for public use, so we had to loiter behind the group, then duck behind a clump of willows or an old dilapidated shed, hoping no one would notice. Invariably, that’s when someone would call out “Ovenbird!” or “Hermit Thrush!”—hard-to-find birds in Colorado, and birds I very much wanted to see and photograph.
Rule 4: Water attracts birds, but you won’t be able to see them. We chose Brett Gray Ranch because it has year-round water, even in a drought year. We figured the birds would concentrate where the water was, and we were right. However, the plants also responded to the presence of moisture by growing large, leafy branches. Very leafy. So leafy that we couldn’t get a good look at the birds, much less a clear photo. Of course I’m grateful for the rain we’ve been having lately, but I’m thinking my next birding trip will either be in winter or to a relatively leaf-less location such as the beach or desert. I’m tired of fighting foliage.
Rule 5: The more birders looking for birds, the more species end up on the trip list—and the fewer photographs you’ll get. Having a good-sized group means more eyes hunting for birds (until the group is so large the birds are scared away). But all those people invariably wind up in front of my lens. Just when I’ve finally got my subject in focus, it’s time to move on to the next spot. Sometimes it pays to bird—and photograph—alone.
Rule 6: When it comes to nature photography, there ain’t no such thing as a sure bet. You can go to the right place at the right time, bring the proper equipment, see amazing birds, and still not get the photos you dream about. The only solution is to try, try again. It took me four trips to Bosque del Apache and Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuges and approximately one thousand pictures of Sandhill Cranes, shot in temperatures well below freezing, to get the perfect photo of a pair in flight. I’ve only been to the Brett Gray Ranch once. So far.