View Full Version : Getting Close & Field Craft

Steve Wheeler
02-06-2008, 01:02 PM
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I would enjoy hearing how those of you in different parts of the country… Indeed the WORLD approach the issue of getting close. IF your willing to share some of your secrets!

I see images of folks with their tripods in the shallows of some bay in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" /><st1:State w:st="on">Florida</st1:State> and can't begin to imagine doing the same thing here on our <st1:place w:st="on">North Texas</st1:place> lakes. While I’ve not tried it I just don’t think the birds would stand for it here. I ease out of my truck in the pre-dawn darkness 300 yards away from Herons I can’t even see (or can’t see me) and hear them squawking away in protest as I try to very quietly and slowly make my way to lakes edge… and I’m only 50 ft from the truck!

While I understand vehicles make good blinds, there are limitations… One being shooting angle… Especially sitting up high in a pick-up truck. The biggest though is there are no shore line roads here on most of our lakes.I’ve been considering ground blinds… either the pop up tent kind or the camo “Tarps” that basically drape over the user. Also looked at those fishing inner tubes, small boats and kayaks, although I’m concerned about the stability (and storage capability) of a kayak so I’m looking more at something like this…

http://www.nucanoe.com/nucanoe-fishing (http://www.nucanoe.com/nucanoe-fishing)

I know one of the biggest disadvantages I have right now is that with only a 100-400mm in my arsenal I am “Focal Length Challenged”, but that’s a different discussion…. And BUDGET!

So my question (finally) is this…

How do those of you in reasonable proximity to very skittish birds close the distance and get close enough for the shots I see here on a daily basis?

Any thoughts on the use of blinds or boats?

Sorry this is so long and thank you for sticking with me if you’ve made it this far!


Steve “Apparently not so Stealthy” Wheeler<?XML:NAMESPACE PREFIX = O /><o:p></o:p>

James Shadle
02-06-2008, 07:48 PM
I use a blind for Belted Kingfishers and many ducks.

In general, using are car or boat will allow you to get much, much closer to your subjects.

You will also find approaching birds from the water will get you closer than approaching from land.
For the most part, bird predators are land based.

When approaching it is good to know your subject. If the subject is preening or feeding, they are comfortable and you may approach. If they raise their head, freeze and wait for them to resume the aforementioned behaviors before attempting to approach more closely.

Some will disagree, however, from my experience in the wild it is best to avoid eye contact or proceed in a straight line to-wards you subject.

I have even walked sideways, so I am not facing my subject.
If you can get low to the water/ground and move slowly, that is a huge help as well.

I hope this helps,

Steve Wheeler
02-06-2008, 09:47 PM
Thank you James...That helps a great deal and what your saying makes perfect sense. From what I've observed on the lakes it looked like a boat of some kind would be the way to go, but I've never had the opportunity to try it. Hadn't considered the preditor issue either, but that makes a lot of sense as well.

Thank you again!


"Shaper of minds, Triangles are my favorite"

That's too funny....

Axel Hildebrandt
02-06-2008, 10:04 PM
If you know the 'schedule' of your subject, being there before they arrive and using some kind of blind can help a lot. If you have to approach them I agree with James. Just think of yourself as a grazing sheep and avoid sudden movements and eye contact. :)

Anita Rakestraw
02-07-2008, 02:39 AM
Thanks, Steve, for posing these questions here! I too am having trouble getting close enough to most birds to get decent images. Many times I've spotted a hawk perched while driving and the instant I slow the car, the hawk is gone. Same for the local bald eagles, great blue herons, egrets and many others. Or they leave when the car is stopped, or for sure when I point the lens out the window....I too have been thinking about some sort of camouflage, but not sure which kind would be most effective....Even just locating a good place for birds is hard....I go to a likely location but get impatient waiting when I don't even know for sure if there are birds who will appear if I wait long enough (& how long is 'long enough?') Bird call tapes?....baiting? I haven't tried those yet.... Thanks, James and Axel, for some good pointers.

Jim Johnson
02-07-2008, 12:28 PM
Steve, I have the same problem in Louisiana with lakeshores and I have tried the pop up blinds and with some success. The only problem is packing it in. Last month I purchased a chair blind from Ameristep and it works fantastic. It sets up in just a few seconds and is very easy to take down and pack up.
Hope this helps.


Tim Vidrine
02-07-2008, 02:03 PM
Steve, I agree with the previously mentioned tactics, no eye contact, watch the subject's posture and behavior, etc. Like Jim, most of the areas I visit have a lot of hunting pressure so the non-timid subject is very rare. I usually try to break my human form by using 3-D camo (ghillie jacket) and watching my silhouette by paying attention to my approach. I like to keep something behind me or stay low so I don't stand out in the horizon. I also try not to focus on the subject until I am ready to capture the image. I've found if I focus my attention on the subject, it may become nervous. Kind of like when you get the feeling someone is watching you in a crowd. Also, I try not to make any abrupt changes in my approach. That's my $0.02.

Steve Wheeler
02-07-2008, 02:21 PM
Jim... I think I've seen that blind. I know I've scoured Ameristep's web site. If I remember correctly it seems like some of the reviewers of that blind (on Cabelas web site I believe) felt it wasn't made very well. I duuno... I've never seen one.<?XML:NAMESPACE PREFIX = O /><O:p< font O:p<>
It is encouraging that you like the product... It looked like a pretty slick set up!<O:p></O:p>
Of course James made some excellent suggestions above. I went to his web site for "further investigation" and one of the things he mentions is going to places where the birds are habituated (sp?) by/to people. There's a lake here in Dallas that fits that bill to a T and there are hundreds of birds there. White pelicans even winter at this lake smack in the middle of town and I've spent my fare share of days capturing images of them and others. While there are probably many here that don't have that opportunity for close encounters of the white pelican kind, because I've spent so much time there I’m ready for the next thing.<O:p></O:p>
Based on the feedback from James I think I'm going to look into a small boat of some kind as I believe that will open up a lot of opportunities.<O:p></O:p>
Anita... I'm right there with you! I've seen the tail end of so many hawks I can't count'em. I can say form my hunting days that the best camo for your situation is the one that fits or mimics the area you’re going to be sitting in the best. There are so many patterns for just about every conceivable environment... Matching that environment exactly is not as important I don't think as breaking up the human form and concealing movement. Someone please correct me if I'm wrong.<O:p></O:p>
Axel.... Thank you for your thoughts as well. I have noticed that the less attention I pay to them the less they seem to pay to me... to a point.<O:p></O:p>
I'm beginning to think the birds in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-comhttp://www.birdphotographers.net/forums/ /><st1:City w:st=<ST1http://www.birdphotographers.net/forums/ /><st1:State w:st=Florida</st1:State> are just a LOT friendlier than the birds here in <st1:State w:st=" /><ST1:place w:st="on">Texas</ST1:place>....<O:p></O:p>

Tim... I was working on my response when you posted yours. Thank you for the advice. I know my fieldcraft needs a lot of work. What your saying makes sense.

Nonda Surratt
02-07-2008, 02:42 PM
Boy I'm glad you started this thread Steve! Cool on the hair blind I have been looking a those and wondering how they do.

Robert Amoruso
02-07-2008, 10:13 PM

I rarely use blinds and camo which is why I don't have a lot duck images, but most of the wading and shore birds as well as the terns and gulls are people tolerate here and getting close is not too hard. I also use a boat and in many places, the birds are very tolerate of that being used to fishermen and pleasure craft.

I just recently purchased a kayak (Native Watercraft Ultimate 12') and looking forward to making better use of it for photography. It is a hybrid canoe/kayak, loads of room in the interior, dry and you can't tip it over due to a pontoon shaped hull. Plus it was a seat like a Lazy Boy (http://kayakfishingstuff.com/Merchant2/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Product_Code=Ultimate12-08&Category_Code=nativekayaks).

Kenn Christensen
02-08-2008, 03:41 PM
my 2 cents worth.. (adjusted for inflation so its less than 2 cents).. Ive shot in a number of areas.. in some places the birds are habituated and dont mind people.. not suprisingly these areas are often inside large metro areas....
birds in the "wild".. away from much human influence are often anyway from skittish to cautious.... wainting in a blind must be done in an area with a decent concentration of birds.. Ive tried it anywhere from almost random to carefully selected.. for sure much care needs to be selected.. even then a blind isnt always the way to go.. for me.. Ive had no luck with raptors... but then Ive not tried anywhere near a nest.... just near feeding spots... waterfowl I do ok with.. but there are some species that are tougher than others... goldeneyes for instance.. since they are divers are often out farther from shore and I have a real hard time getting close to them.....
Ive not tried electronic calls.. Ive considered them.. I have no idea how well they work...
Ive not used bait directly ... not in the field.. I feed birds here at home though.... Ive heard that using bait in the field is often a great way to go...
I bought a kayak last year to use for photography.. lol.. had to much fun just paddling around!... didnt do ANY from it... it sure has a low perspective... and though they assured me it couldnt be tipped over... (there were emphatically wrong! lol)

Mike Poe
02-17-2008, 11:27 AM
As you pointed out birds are tolerant to different degrees. Let me give you an example that could be played out here by someone visiting these boards.

You see a fantastic photography of a Tricolored Heron on a nest feeding young. You do your research and locate a Tricolored Heron on a nest and formulate a plan on how to obtain the best photograph of it. You setup a blind and wait but the bird seems reluctant to return so in order not to endanger the young you retreat some. You have some luck but still your images are not as close as what others have shown is possible. You opt for a remote control setup but even this leaves less than optimal results compared to the image you saw. Your happy with the results you get but they are still below your expectations. You figure it must be your field craft so you research camouflage, stalking techniques, etc. (I am not knocking you here as this is something we should all continue to learn and practice) However the image that motivated you was taken at St. Augustine Alligator Farm within six feet of the nest while the photographer was carrying on a conversation with three other photographers.

Photographers seem to recognize, as you noted, when they are "focal length challenged" but seem to overlook the fact they can also be "location challenged". Many great images seen are a result of great photographers working with cooperative subjects. If I wanted some killer shots of spoonies in flight I would probably arrange to go with Mr. Shadle as I have seen numerous photos from a wide range of photographers resulting from the great opportunities he provides. Other examples can be sighted for almost any species.

As mentioned before I never tire of learning new tricks to get closer to my subjects but just as I realize my 100-200mm lens is at a disadvantage in capturing a chickadee compared to a 600mm with a 1.4x, I also am aware I am at a disadvantage at stalking that chickadee in the woods compared to it coming to a feeder.

Jared Lloyd
02-23-2008, 02:30 AM
This is a great thread on a crtically important topic. Heres my two cents worth. Blinds are great but not only are you stationary but sometimes it will take animals several days to grow acustomed to a blind - especially in areas were natural predators are abundant. I have worked for 5 years as a professional kayak guide, and I have to say this is the way to go. The close proximity that I find myself to birds never ceases to amaze me. First off you have to understand that hunting was one of the primary uses of the kayak originally. The kayak would allow the Inupiat, Inuite, Alutians, etc. . . to aproach animals (including birds) within distances that never would be possible by land. Egrets that otherwise spook when a human aproaches 150 ft away often allow kayaks to come as close as 10. I have even had a black crowned night heron land on the bow of my boat once while I was photographing willets!

There are some issues with phtographing from kayaks however. The beam (width) of the boat is a consideration depending on your skill level as a kayaker. Most people prefer what we call Rec boats, as in recreational. Along this line I would recomend a Wilderness Systems pungo 140 or pamlico 140. These boats are incredibly stable (I have yet to see people tip in them unless they were goofing off) and there is plenty of storage room. The cockpits are very large and can accomadate a tripod and gear. These boats also have dry storage that can hold up to 3 or 4 days worth of supplies. The next option would be a light touring boat. Here my recomendation is a Tsunami 145, 165, or 175. These boats are designed to bridge the gap between hard core expedition style boats and recreational boats. They are fast, hold lots of gear, can handle big water, can easily cover 20 - 40 miles of water in a days paddle, and are also very stable (especially the Tsunami 145). When shooting from one of these, I would reccomend purchasing a waterproof deck bag. These bags strap to the deck of your boat right in front of you for easy access. The only problem is that I have yet to find one large enough to hold a 500 or 600 mm lens - although, you could simply fashion a dry bag with some padding in the same place. If your going to be on relatively calm water within a couple miles of your shooting locations and have no interest in using your kayak for anything other than photography, go with the rec boat like the pungo or pamlico. I reccomend the 140 which is 14 ft long. Extra stability, storage, tracking, and the ability to cover more water with less effort (the longer the faster and more effecient). If your into camping, exploring, and will be encountering rough water from time to time, go with a Tsunami, Cape Horn, or Cape Lookout.

I hope this helps... I know i went way more into the kayaking aspect instead of photographic so if you have any questions relating to photographing from a kayak dont hesitate to ask.


Peter Murray
02-29-2008, 05:42 PM
Every time I hear the subject of getting close the hackles on my back get prickly. IF you are approaching any wildlife and they back off, become alert, change their posture and of course move away you are too close. We need to all adhere to the rule of. Don't disturb the critters. Respect their place and defend it from folks who don't know better. I have seen guys in Yellowstone trying to get close to Grizzles and I calll out clearly....your going to dieee.
We can be good stewards of the land and critters by helping others to respect the Distance Rule.

Steve Wheeler
02-29-2008, 07:46 PM
This has been/is a great thread… Thanks to all that have contributed!

Thank you to JLphoto for the suggestions on kayaks! I’ve been white water rafting, but never been in a kayak. I knew there were some built for speed and maneuverability and others built more for stability. Your write up and suggestions are MOST appreciated and exactly the type of feedback I was hoping to solicit by starting the thread in the first place. Someone that’s been there and done that helping those of us that haven't. With several good sized lakes in this area I think something like this will be a great way to get around… get “Closer”… and have a lot of fun in the process.

Peter M…. I understand and share your concerns and thank you for bringing them up. It IS extremely important we protect and preserve what we so lovingly try to photograph. (Was going to say “Shoot”, but it didn’t seem appropriate.) I started this thread because it seems some (like me) who are “Location Challenged” as Mike P. points out very well, have to work a little harder to even have a chance of getting in range. There are no board walks that see 10s if not 100s of folks a day meandering through the refuges here so I was hoping to elicit ethical approaches to a problem many I suspect share. I think that’s been accomplished don’t you?


Steve Ashton
03-01-2008, 06:54 PM
Guys this is very interesting stuff. I am based in the UK and our birds are so shy and distant its crazy. I spend some time a few years ago in Florida and was amazed at just how much there is to photograph. In the Uk you could go out for 8 hours a day for a week and not get close to a bird. Then we have a few species which are tame in some ways.

Being new back into this game and with more time and money available these days I am looking at long lenses and time setting up feeding stations. Our reserves run by the like of the RSPB seem designed to keep you away from the birds. We put paths round the edge not the middle.

I have just spent two days on a local estuary and not got a single keeper!! Its good fun this game!!! Maybe we should just move to Florida!!

Paul Pagano
03-01-2008, 08:49 PM
There is a place I go hiking and it has a lot of marsh/ponds. I have a ghillie suit I wear and a throw that matches the suit. If I get there early enough or have the patience to sit for some time until the birds forget I am there, it works okay for the skiddish wild ones. Many times the waders here in Fla come up to you (esp where many people fish)...they want a hand out!

Wayne Wood
03-02-2008, 05:48 AM
I practice a lot of what James said at the top of the thread , plus I always wear camo which I'm sure helps , since I only shoot with a 200 F/2.8 , Ive had to hone these aforementioned stalking skills , patience , patience patience , I also have an Ameristep doghouse blind , but only use it when I'm calling birds to set up perches with my MP3

Jared Lloyd
03-02-2008, 11:26 AM
Up here in North Carolina, our sounds, wetlands, and most productive birding sights (Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge) have duck blinds all over the place. Some are private, but in places like Hatteras Island National Seashore and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, the blinds are owned and maintained by the government. The great thing about these is that birds have become totally accustomed to them being there for generations, and they are placed in some of the hottest bird activity zones. A good pair of waders, a long stick to shew off the occasional venomous cottonmouth and food,water, and a good book is all you need.

For you folks in the UK that are talking about having a difficult time due to the management of the refuge systems, it's much the same way here with out national wildlife refuges (except for Florida it would seem) and the motto of these places is "Refuges are for Wildlife" meaning, these aren't national parks. You can enter, but be prepared to do so without the convenience of boardwalks, hot dog stands, toilets, gift shops, and coke machines. I don't know if people do a lot of duck hunting in the UK but you might try contacting some of the protected areas and find out if there are blinds to work from. Otherwise, try renting a kayak. Like I said in the post above, one of the primary traditional uses of these boats was to approach animals without scaring them off. If you are interested in using your own blind (good for areas that you can set it up for several days before hand) check out Cabela's, they have all sorts of blinds and then materials you can add on to break up outline of the blind. Link to one of their inexpensive pop ups is bellow.


David Fletcher
03-02-2008, 02:27 PM
I'm another UK based photographer, and much of what has been posted makes an awful lot of sense, there being core similarities. In the UK, I'll kit up with Cabela's best, as it does give an edge: ( although it' s probably just as good to break the outline up, but camo will work for other species, which sometimes adds a bonus): then usually spend time spotting or watching first to plan a shot on a species: (watch it's habits, favorite haunts etc, from a safe distance). Then it's a set up for a blind, or perch etc. for live stalking, I agree totally with what's been said before. (No direct eye contact. Watch the bird's posture etc, sometimes walking at diagonals, or sitting, which all relates to not breaching it's comfort zone. They all vary, so research on species is useful as is the behavior for the time of year, as breeding/ courtship behavior presents opportunities not available perhaps near a hunting season start! Re Cabela's outfits, for the majority of sites, such as Florida, or blind work, they naturally aren't nec', but in the field they do offer more, as well as basics such as comfort from the elements. Dave

Ryan Marshik
03-02-2008, 10:07 PM

I've had some fun and made some nice images from a homemade floating blind. The blind is about 4 x 5 foot and is constructed out of two layes of 2-3inch thick rigid foam. The foam sheets were enclosed in a wood frame with a thin plywood decking and bottom to keep the foam from breaking up with handling. There is a 2 foot square hole in the center. I use a Wimberely Sidekick on a head mounted to a 1 x 3 foot piece of plywood serving as my tripod. With my waders on I stand in the hole, drape camo netting over some tent poles fastened to the deck, and walk in. Its a lot of work, but I aways come away from a shoot having had tons of fun, images or not. Check out this link: http://www.web-nat.com/bic/ont/tips24.html. The blind I shoot from is similar to what is shown in the last photo. Its limited to water depths you can wade into, although I have taken along a pair of flippers to cross deep sections ( I have a sling seat that suspends me in deep water).

The major benefit of the floating blind is that it places your camera 6-8 inches from the water, making for wonderful eye level photos.

Good luck & stay dry

Jared Lloyd
03-03-2008, 12:24 AM
Ive thought about setting up a floating blind with a float tube, tent poles, and blind material. It sound similiar to what you have designed, only yours is much more rigid. Something similiar could be designed from one of these:


Though your idea would be closer to the waters edge. Tim Fitzharris created something similiar back in the 80s though I believe he actually laid down inside of his and floated ontop of the water - but I could be wrong about that.