A little over two years ago I caught the bug of photography as a friend tried to reconnect me with nature. I started with a visit to him in Florida, and we went to places that he knew would give good opportunities. We did the National Seashore on Merritt Island near Cape Canaveral. We went to public beaches near Daytona Beach. We even visited city parks near where he lived.
Once I got home, I needed to find public land as I was living in a high rise apartment building in Rolla, MO. So I started with state parks that I had visited before and went in blind just to see what was around. I also started visiting Missouri conservation areas that I had never had a call to go to before. These are primarily places that city folks go to for hunting with weapons. I figured that if I went between hunting seasons, I should still find wildlife, and boy did that come true.
When I found a location that was productive or should be productive and provided either a drive through to use the car for a blind or a good place to set up a camouflage blind on the ground, I paid attention to lighting at the best places. Is this spot going to have the sun behind me in the morning or in the evening? I shoot primarily with the sun at my back or at least quartering from rear left or rear right. Trying to get wildlife shots with back lighting is extremely difficult and should be avoided until you are more advanced.
I should point out that one visit is never enough to judge a location. Some of my best continue to surprise me as the seasons change and the wildlife migrate through. Over time I have found at least five locations that ALWAYS give me shots and a few others that are very seasonal. I often get asked, “How do you get so many shots of eagles?” This is where the scouting comes in. One of my “always” locations is a smaller river with a good population of trout. I am usually the only photographer around and just politely fit in with a dozen fisherman or more. I create good will by showing the ones who ask some of my better shots with the LCD on the back of the camera.
Last year about this time, my daughter and son-in-law moved to Clarksville, TN. So my first visit to see them I budgeted time for scouting locations. I got online and started looking for public lands that were within driving distance from their home. I found Cross Creeks National Wildlife Reserve. This convinced me that NWR’s are great places to shoot wildlife. Since then I have checked others that were side trips off of my travels and have had good success with those as well. Crab Orchard NWR near Marion, IL has given me many good shots with just a two or three hour visit as I pass through on my way to family and friends. I also found a National Battle Field near Cross Creeks NWR and drove through only to discover that a nesting pair of eagles lived on site. I got some great shots there as well. And when I returned in June of this year to house sit for my daughter, I got many shots of their juvenile that hatched this year and was only flying for about a month or less.
One other location I scouted on my first trip to Tennessee was Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area; it actually is between Kentucky Lake and Barkley Lake. This is a huge area, as it is a little over 40 miles from the south gate in Tennessee to the north gate in Kentucky. I have been back many times since my first scouting trip and have only scratched the surface. However, I did plan a visit near the end of August of this year. I needed to help my daughter with a few things, so I timed my trip to let me drive through the night and arrive at the Elk and Bison Range at Land Between The Lakes just at sunrise. This is a “drive through” opportunity on 700+ acres of restored prairie (there is a $5 entry fee). On this occasion the bison were out of sight, but the elk were everywhere. The bulls had just rubbed the velvet off of their antlers and were dueling to win the right to the cows. I got great shots (and an awesome experience) watching the lesser bulls lock horns and push each other around in clearings. The rattle of their horns in the foggy early morning light was incredible.
I had just about resolved myself to an unfortunate fact that my best locations were all about two hours’ drive away (about 100 miles). But last winter I decided to try a conservation area that is only 45 minutes from my home and discovered that several migratory eagles had set up nests in the area and both mature and juvenile eagles could be found here from November to about March. This was great and the area also was home to many, many Red Tail Hawks. This is why you really need to try an area in all seasons before deciding it is not productive.
So scouting for sites is important and I have also found that talking with hunters (in person and online) can really help you find places to scout. Not every one has access to public lands, but in the United States we generally do; all it takes is some foot work. If nothing else, you got out in nature and away from the city! Good luck and great shooting!
About the Author:
Mark Pashia is an amateur photographer that focuses on Wildlife and Landscape photography. He also only uses open source software for editing his images. The GIMP is his primary tool for editing and he has given tips on how to edit with The Gimp on many online forums. He can be reached by email through firstname.lastname@example.org for more details or sample images.
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