This story was originally published in March 2019.
As I dug through about a decade of wildlife photography, I was surprised to see how many different animals I’d been lucky enough to photograph while exploring Maine—and the fond memories brought back by those photos.
I almost forgot the Beaver that I saw carrying wood across a pond in Aroostook County, and the newborn fawn Saw me strolling across a field near Moosehead Lake. Then there was the time I visited Eastern Egg Rock, an island covered in nesting puffins, and the boat trip where I found myself surrounded by a pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins. All this in Maine.
Looking back through those photos, I felt extremely happy. I am by no means a professional wildlife photographer. My equipment and knowledge is inferior to those who can confidently claim that title. However, I have learned a thing or two about photographing wildlife in Maine over the years, as an amateur.
So as winter turns into spring, if you’re interested in picking up a camera and exploring nature, here are a few tips that I hope will help you.
I mean this figuratively and literally. First off, don’t get caught up in the fact that you may not have the best gear or locations to find wildlife. Camera equipment is expensive. For most people, it takes some saving and bargain hunting to upgrade. And when it comes to locations, 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 near a major shopping center and highway. So you don’t have to make massive road trips to spot wildlife.
Another way to start small is by photographing little thingssuch as flowers, mushrooms, bees, beetles, moths and butterflies. In fact, if you’re sneaky enough to photograph butterflies, you’ll have no problem with birds. This type of photography often uses a macro lens, which is not particularly expensive compared to other lenses. You can also try using your phone camera, which should be fine for capturing images of the larger items of the ‘little world’, such as mushrooms.
When looking for something it’s normal to want to walk around and look in many places, but when looking for wildlife it’s often more effective to find a good spot and then wait – or at least move slowly. Movement and sounds quickly alarm and scare off many creatures; however, if you just sit still, you may be surprised at what you will see. I was once resting on a walk, sitting in the snow and eating a granola bar, when a squirrel came up and sat down on a log about a foot away. It sat there and chewed the seeds from a pinecone, oblivious to my presence. You can imagine how shocked 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 carry it around. Most of my nature photography I do during walks. But I’ve heard from more experienced photographers that using a tripod can really help with image clarity, especially if you tend 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 got into wildlife photography, I was fortunate enough to meet Sharon, a local wildlife photographer, who invited me to take a number of trips with her, including a search for a snowy owl at a local business park and a trip to pin-tailed ducks gathered in a thawed section of a nearby river. She taught me many things about where to find local wildlife all year round. She also taught me a thing or two about my camera settings.
To find other wildlife photographers, both professional and amateur, I recommend joining online communities, such as the Facebook group MAINE Birds. There are also local outing groups that you can join on websites like meetup.com.
A wide variety of creatures are attracted to water, be it rivers, ponds, lakes, swamps, estuaries or the ocean. Therefore, visiting those places will likely increase your chances of seeing animals. That’s one of the reasons I love canoeing so much. It is usually a great opportunity to see wildlife. For example, when I go canoeing on a lake near my house, I often see: bald eagles† crazyred-hammered kingfishers, a variety of ducks and herons† In the winter, when animals are a little harder to find, I often drive to the coast to see seabirds floating off the coast. Even small ponds and swampy areas will attract a variety of birds and other wildlife, such as: muskratsbeavers and turtles†
Leave your dog at home
I love being outside with my dog Oreo, but if I really want to shoot wildlife, I leave him at home. Even on a leash, Oreo tends to scare wildlife away by rolling around in the grass and whining if I stop too long. When looking for animals, I walk slowly and often pause. That pace is just not acceptable for Oreo, and I think it is for a lot of dogs.
View 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 in places such as Fields Pond Audubon Center in Holden and Hirundo Wildlife Refuge in Old Town, bird nests scattered across the fields attract an even greater variety of birds. Just be sure to stay on established trails or mowed paths so you don’t step on eggs or baby birds. Another great place for birdwatching in the spring and summer is Saxl Park, which is accessible from Cascade Park in Bangor. Saxl Park has a large network of mowed paths through fields, home to bobo links, one of my favorite birds to listen to; their call is almost robotic.
Keep a respectful distance from wildlife.
Harassment of 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 distance that is “acceptable” for wildlife observation, as each species detects and responds to humans differently. For example, moose have poor eyesight, but they have a great sense of smell. Therefore, if a moose feeds on plants as you wade into a pond and sit motionless at the water’s edge, the creature may not even be able to sense your presence. A diver, on the other hand, has much better eyesight and would likely be disturbed.
This distance problem was heavily discussed in Maine bird circles when a large number of snowy owls flew to Maine from the Arctic a few winters ago to spend the winter. A small number of Snowy Owls do this every year, but the increase in numbers attracted 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 gather with their cameras and tripods to get the best pictures; however, some photographers got way too close to the owls, disrupting their hunting habits and chasing their prey.
Leave No Trace materials offer a “rule of thumb,” which states that if a wild animal can’t be covered by your thumb when your arm is outstretched in front of you, you should move further away. This is a good start, but I also suggest looking at the animal’s actions. If they look at you, they probably see you too. If they run away, you are too close and you need to back up as well.