Start Your Engines

Pintail in Flight | Beebower Productions

The noise level rivaled the Indy 500.  Chaotic quacks, riotous wings flapping and sudden splashes erupted around the pond as groups of ducks traveled back and forth over the water.

Pintail ducks revved their engines and launched from the water, the wind whistling through their feathers as they screamed around the imaginary racetrack in the sky. A group of mallards flew back from a mission, their energy gone.  They plopped down unceremoniously and loudly on the water.

From his spot hunkered down in the brush along the pond, Dad shot frame after frame of ducks as they zoomed past him.  Even without camouflage clothing, the plants hid him so well, the birds never knew he was there.  The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch was the perfect place for a high-speed bird photo shoot.

A Dream Come True

That really long name describes an oasis for humans and animals alike.  In 1999 Gilbert, Arizona officials started the Preserve based on a 13-year-old dream.  Years ago the town had pledged to reuse 100 percent of its wastewater.   The Preserve helps city officials do just that. 

Seven recharge basins or ponds are filled on an alternating basis with treated effluent water.  That water then steeps down into an aquifer for future use.  In the meanwhile, 298 species of birds and insects plus mammals, amphibians, reptiles and fish benefit from the reliable ponds in the middle of not only a desert, but also a heavily populated suburb of Phoenix.

From its humble start with wastewater, the Preserve provides wildlife habitat, learning and leisure opportunities as well as clean water, a hot commodity in an arid climate.  Visitors can wander over 4 ½ miles of trails, get a duck’s perspective on a floating boardwalk, catch rainbow trout in the designated fishing pond or visit a hummingbird garden.

Flustered Goose | Beebower Productions

Lots of families come to the park and the kids enjoy feeding the birds.  Right off the bat my Mom, who accompanies Dad on all of his travels, met a few of these semi-tamed and opportunistic birds.  Two geese decided Mom really should have purchased more bird food.  When she ran out, one Canadian goose got its feathers ruffled.  It waddled up and attempted to eat the buttons right off her shirt. We’re happy to report the shirt and my Mom are still intact.  The goose was out of luck.

Getting Down to Business

Those miles of wide and smooth trails I mentioned earlier make it particularly easy for wildlife photographers toting lots of gear.  While many of the birds seemed used to people feeding them from the bridge, the majority of ducks preferred a little quieter area near the back edge of the park.  Maybe they were hiding out from the plethora of nature photographers Dad spied on his walk.  In any case, he had no problem reaching the back ponds even with all of the equipment he brought.

One rig contained his Canon EOS-ID Mark IV paired with a Canon 400mm/f.28 lens and a 2X extender on a Wimberley Gimbal head and Gitzo tripod.  The other rig was his Canon EOS-ID Mark IV and his lightweight 400mm/f.5.6 lens that he was able to handhold.

After spending some time studying the birds’ flight patterns around the pond, Dad decided to use the lightweight 400mm lens.  You can read all about the pros and cons of this lens here  in our earlier product review. 

As Dad said, “Those ducks were flying 100 miles an hour like greased lightening. Handholding the 400mm/f5.6 turned my body into the pivot point.  It allowed me to quickly turn, hone in and follow the birds through my viewfinder.  The Wimberley is great in many situations but being tripod-free here gave me the edge in shooting the duck photos.

Mallard on a Mission | Beebower Productions

If you imagine a World War II battleship with those big guns that locked on and followed the target no matter where it went, that was me.  Those ducks were flying so fast, it was all you could do just to find them and mash the camera button down.  Shoot.  Shoot.  Shoot.”

The ducks seemed to move in short bursts.  A group of five to 10 would take off.  Another group landed on the ponds.  Two flew out.  Then nothing.  Dad took the down time to study the images he’d just shot and to make adjustments on the camera.  He was pleased with the photos he was getting. 

“The Preserve is an excellent place to hone your panning and long lens skills,” Dad said.  “Shooting a fast moving subject is tricky and requires a lot of practice.  This place has a plethora of ducks just waiting to be photographed.  It’s easy to get in and it’s free.  What more could you want?”

Ring-Necked Duck | Beebower Productions

If You Go

The Preserve is right in the city of Gilbert between Guadalupe and Greenfield roads, at 2757 E. Guadalupe Road.  You’ll find a small-ish parking area off Guadalupe Road.  I say small-ish because this is a popular spot.  The lot fills quickly.

Hours are 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily but certain areas within the Preserve close at dusk.  You can contact the Gilbert Parks and Recreation Department at 480-503-6200 for more information.  Entrance is free as is the parking.

The family could easily tag along on this photo shoot.   Between the kids’ play area, floating boardwalk and pollinator gardens the kiddos will keep busy while you’re shooting.  Picnic tables, an observatory with a nifty telescope and plentiful restrooms round out the kid-appealing aspects of the park.  Another bonus:  you can also bring the dog along since they’re allowed on the trails.

We recommend taking a variety of gear since you may be able to shoot close ups like the ring-necked duck as well as long lens shots like the pintail ducks. Having two camera bodies ready to roll with different lenses makes it easy to capture a shot when opportunity knocks.  A long lens like a 400mm with extenders, a zoom of 70-200mm and a wide-angle lens give you the flexibility to shoot tight wildlife photos as well as landscapes.  Naturally you’ll want a tripod with a Wimberley Gimbal head combo just in case.

Good luck on your photo shoot and have fun at the races! 


Desert Oasis

Cranes and Blackbirds | Beebower Productions

The predawn cold seeped into our bones despite three layers of clothing.  As Dad, my husband and I walked to our shooting locations in the dark, the ponds were eerily quiet.  The soft hoot of an owl broke the stillness just as we began setting up our gear.  Then complete silence again. 

As the sun began to kiss the mountains, we could finally see the ponds before us.  Thousands of elegant sandhill cranes were packed close together standing stock still in the shallow water. Suddenly a solo trumpeting call reached across the water to us.  Within seconds a quartet answered back with loud, rolling bugles.  Then one bird was air borne. 

Rapidly thousands of sandhill cranes began calling and flying out in the crisp morning air.  The controlled chaos of flapping wings and rolling bugle calls were deafening.  Within a few moments the once packed ponds were empty.  Stray feathers fluttered quietly down and the skies turned gray with a mass of hungry cranes.

They were off to local agricultural fields to glean grains and corn left behind from harvest.   It’s the perfect combination for these magnificent birds, shallow-water roosting areas that provide protection from predators and plentiful food.  Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area is, for the cranes, a desert oasis.  It is an oasis for wildlife photographers too.

Whitewater Draw near McNeal, Arizona is a little known gem of 1,500 acres.  The area consists of a mix of ponds and grasslands that support a vast array of wildlife.  Compared to the famous Bosque del Apache in New Mexico, Whitewater offers less human traffic and plenty of shooting opportunities.

Are you sure about this?

The first time my husband and I drove out to Whitewater, I’d begun to think our directions were wrong.  It appears to be in the middle of nowhere without a drop of water in sight.  The dry, bush-filled valley is dotted mostly with ranches.  In fact, Whitewater used to be a working ranch that the Arizona Game and Fish Department purchased in 1997.  The agency now irrigates the shallow ponds that draw sandhill cranes by the thousands.

Incoming Cranes | Beebower Productions

But you don’t see water anywhere until you turn off the rutted, dusty road that leads you to the refuge.  Then the desert becomes a watery retreat teaming with wildlife.  We couldn’t wait to get out and explore.

Someone thoughtfully created wide, smooth walking paths around the ponds.  That’s very helpful at 0-dark-thirty in the morning when you’re carrying camera gear.  They also installed viewing decks, a few scopes and informational signs about the wildlife.

But what I love about the place is that it isn’t overdeveloped and certainly not crowded.  Very rarely did we run into other people in our pre-dawn tromps.  Even during the peak season for the cranes, it wasn’t nearly as congested as Bosque.

Cranes, Cranes and More Cranes

We’d come to photograph the cranes.  We weren’t disappointed.   Officials estimated there were about 20,000 of the gray birds hanging out at Whitewater, their winter home. 

Sandhilll cranes have a graceful elegance about them despite their large size.  Cranes can reach 5’ tall and have a remarkable wingspan of 6-7’.  Yet they perform amazingly choreographed mating dances with ease.

There are six subspecies of sandhill cranes.  These subspecies are broken into different groups based on their migration patterns.  Members of the Mid-Continent and Rocky Mountain populations visit Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and northern Mexico during the winter, but they make a remarkable journey to reach their breeding grounds as spring approaches.

The Mid-Continent group travels from Whitewater to their summer breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska and northeastern Siberia.  The Rocky Mountain group doesn’t go as far, sticking to Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Utah and Canada. 

Tandem Cranes | Beebower Productions

Each year the cycle continues.   After the breeding season, the birds begin to gather in late August for the southern journey.  By September and October the cranes begin showing up at the ponds and marshes at Whitewater.  They hang out in the desert enjoying their custom made resort until February or March.  Then they prepare to head north.

Photographing the cranes is easy with the right equipment.  These birds are a jittery and wilily bunch, so they tend gather a bit further out from the walking path.  If you want a good close up of them roosting or flying, you’ll need a long lens like a 300mm.  If you’ve got a longer lens or extenders, bring them.    

Also consider your clothes when heading out.  A white or bright shirts scream “HUMAN” to a crane.  All it takes is one nervous crane noticing you and the whole bunch will fly further away.  Brown, green and mottled shirts and pants are great as is a hat.  You’ll want some camouflage on your gear too.

With a little preparation, you’ll be able to capture some great images at Whitewater.

The Other Guys

While we came primarily to photograph the cranes, we quickly realized there were a lot of other fantastic birds hanging out at Whitewater.  They love the area for the same reason as the cranes-plentiful food and water.

Loggerhead Shrike | Beebower Productions

On one of our early morning adventures I was walking to my Dad’s shooting location when a loggerhead shrike flew right in front of me carrying something in his beak.  Reflexively I whipped the camera up and shot quickly.  This cute little mouse was definitely on the shrike’s breakfast menu.

The loggerhead, to borrow a phrase from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “is a songbird with a raptor’s habits”.  It sure is a cute little bugger.  However, you might look at a shrike a little differently after learning about its unusual habit.  The shrike kills its prey with its sharp, hooked beak.  But it has, for humans, a nasty habit of storing food by impaling its victims on thorns or barbed wire.

The shrike wasn’t the only “non-crane” I found at Whitewater.  Each morning when we pulled into the parking lot I noticed a curve-billed thrasher sitting on the fence.   It always kept a close eye on us as we walked by, but it never flew away.  Since the thrasher seemed to be as interested in me as I was in it, I stopped and took its photo.

Curved Billed Thrasher | Beebower Productions

You’ve got to admire this guy.  Thrashers often build their nests on cholla cacti or other spiny plants.  The spines and thorns provide protection from predators like snakes.  But cholla have vicious spines with hooks on the end that once embedded are very painful to remove.  How this bird manages to build and nest and stay spine-free is a mystery.  Kuddos my curve-billed friend!

The shrike and thrasher are the tip of the iceberg at Whitewater.  Depending upon the season, I regularly saw cinnamon teals, northern shovelers, vermilion flycatchers, owls, a variety of sparrows, hawks of several varieties and shorebirds.

Birds aren’t the only wildlife at Whitewater.  Coyotes stalk the cranes, deer graze in the grasslands and the plains leopard frog calls the marsh home too.  Not to be out done, Mohave and Western diamondback rattlesnakes plus a plethora of reptiles like the Texas horned lizard inhabit the land too.  During the summer months you’ll find colorful butterflies and dragonflies along with copious amounts of blood-sucking mosquitos.

Whitewater’s main draw may be the sandhill cranes, but the desert oasis attracts a wide range of wildlife just waiting to have their pictures taken. 

If You Go

Be prepared.  Whitewater is literally surrounded by desert.  The closest gas station is about 11 miles north in Elfrida, Arizona.  So fill up with tank, bring lots of water and your own food.  Don’t forget the bug spray in the summer.

Go early or late in the day.   You’ll see the most wildlife during these times.  We preferred arriving before dawn.  We rarely saw people so early in the morning.  We did, however, see lots of wildlife.

Osprey in Full Flight | Beebower Productions

In the hour or two before sunset, there were more people and the wildlife was a little spooked at times.  However, you can get a nice sunset shot with the mountains in the background.

During the monsoon season the dirt roads leading to the refuge can become muddy messes.  Try to avoid going there right after a heavy rain unless you have 4-wheel drive.

Getting There

You can reach Whitewater from Sierra Vista, Bisbee, Tombstone, Douglas, Willcox or Tucson.  The best thing to do is use Google maps to create a customized route.  The directions, in our experience, were accurate.

In general, though, if you’re coming from Tucson take I-10 to Highway 191 and head south to Elfrida.  Turn right on Davis Road.  At Coffman Road, turn left and go about 2 miles.  You’ll see the sign for the refuge on the right.

Baby It’s Cold Outside

Canadian Mountain Wilderness | Beebower Productions

He couldn’t ignore a triple dog dare.  But you knew what was coming next.  One lick and Flick was stuck to that flagpole.  Stuuucck.  Stuck!  The whaling and crying was epic. 

That classic scene from “A Christmas Story” sums up the trouble with shooting in freezing weather.  Moisture.  While you probably won’t be stuck to your camera (unless you decide to lick a metal part), shooting in freezing temperatures can be tricky thanks to moisture. 

One of Dad’s most popular landscape photos “Canadian Mountain Wilderness” took him to the far frozen parts of Canada and Colorado.  To capture the images that would be merged into one photo required dangling above a partially frozen river and braving temperature around -15 degrees.  (You can read the full story here  .)   Moisture abounded in the forms of snow, splashing river water, ice and sleet. 

When Dad and I venture into such chilly, wet conditions, we always make sure our gear is protected from those obvious moisture sources by using a rain cover.  Aquatech and Lenscoat make rain covers for a variety of cameras and lenses. and B&H also carry a wide variety of jackets that keep your gear nice and dry.

Even if it’s not snowing or sleeting, another form of moisture can cause a headache for photographers.  Condensation forms on the outside of the camera when it’s brought from a very cold location to a warm location.  It can even form inside the camera if you changed lenses while outside.  Like Flick and the flagpole you know that’s a train wreck waiting to happen.

When we shoot in cold weather, we do a couple of things to keep the moisture away from our very valuable gear.  First, don’t change lenses outside.  Avoid getting invisible moisture trapped in the camera body by sticking to one lens while outside.  Condensation doesn’t have a chance to form inside the camera in warmer locations if you just shoot with one lens.

Second, we put our camera gear in Ziplocs or large, sealed garbage bags before moving from a cold to a warm location.   The condensation will form on the outside of the bags rather than on our gear.  For the same reason, we also use waterproof containers for our camera cards. 

Deep Snow Chase | Beebower Productions

Dad followed this practice when shooting “Deep Snow Chase”.  Temperatures dipped to -20 degrees at Sun Valley Ranch near Grand Junction, CO on the day of the photo shoot.    Dad shot for 30 minutes and then covered his gear with garbage bags as soon as he was done to prevent condensation from forming. Then he gradually warmed up the gear by putting the cameras in the unheated wood shed for about an hour before bringing them into the coldest part of the cabin.  The next morning he removed the bags and was ready to shoot again.

Those tips should take care of the moisture issues.  But that’s not all you have to worry about when it’s cold outside.  I mean really cold, like negative temperatures.  Your camera, full of nifty but delicate electronics, gets a bit testy when the temperatures dip below 32 degrees. 

You may notice sluggishness when snapping photos.  The LCD display may be slow or even gray out.  And the batteries may stop working all together even if you just charged them.  But that’s nothing compared to the days of film.  When the film froze, it became brittle and actually broke.  Be glad you don’t have to deal with that nightmare.

If you’re heading to the frozen tundra, pull out your owner’s manual for any gear you’ll be taking to check the temperature ratings.  That will help you trouble shoot any potential cold problems before you’re frozen like a popsicle without many options.  Knowing your gear’s limitations before you’re in the field helps ensure you get the photo you really want.

A Winter Pack Trip | Beebower Productions

Batteries will be your biggest worry.  They tend to shut down in extreme cold even if you just charged them.  We always take extra batteries that we put in Ziplocs and stuff in coat pockets to keep them warm.  Once the “drained” batteries warm up the charge returns, so it’s good to have multiple warm batteries you can rotate through the camera.  We also take multiple cameras if it’s going to be a long shoot.  You can rotate the cameras just like the batteries.

During Dad’s photo shoot of “A Winter Pack Trip” -10 degree temperatures and a huge snowfall the night before made shooting interesting.  But Dad was prepared.  He brought two cameras in case one of them protested the low temperatures.  The Novatron flashes on the building and in the fence light were triggered by slaves and powered by batteries that Dad kept warm.  All of these things ensured a successful photo shoot. 

Dad in Snow Bank | Beebower Productions

It goes without saying that you’re just as important as the camera gear.  Depending on the severity of the temperatures where you’ll be working, hats, facemasks, gloves, boots and a super duper coat are definitely in order.  Hypothermia and frostbite are always a danger if you’re unprepared.

One of Dad’s models came very close to hypothermia during a snowy photo shoot.  He wasn’t wearing enough layers for the 10,000’ elevation and a snowstorm dumped on the mountains.  Thankfully Dad and his assistant were able to not only get the guy down to the ranch house, but also warmed him up with a very long, hot shower and then layers of blankets.  So make sure you bundle up before heading out.

We do have one other piece of clothing we love, a special pair of gloves. These puppies are thin and have a textured surface that helps you grip dials and switches on your camera. Foxgloves Grips are a cheap price to pay for fully functioning (and not frozen) hands in the field.  You can buy them here.   

Dad says, “Your feet and your hands are the things that take you down.  Don’t let them get wet or frozen or you’re gone.  Felt-lined boots with rubber socks and warm gloves are a must.”

If you plan ahead you can have a successful cold adventure that doesn’t involve flagpoles or fire department rescues.  We’d love to hear about your cold-weather photography escapades.  Drop us a line and tell us all about it.

In Disguise Part 2

Osprey in Full Flight | Beebower Productions

I know you’re here just to see Dad in his snicker-inducing ghillie suit I told you about last week.  Yep.  He really does look like a cross between Sasquatch, the Swamp Thing and a fuzzy, wuzzy bear all rolled into one.  You’ll need to keep reading all about Dad’s other wildlife camouflage set-ups before you get to see that photo.   

The suit’s coming soon, but first Dad had to learn that just because you use camouflage doesn’t mean you’ll be successful.

Pop Up Tent | Beebower Productions

Dad took the lessons he learned with the camo kayak and floating duck blind from last week and decided to try his hand at shooting hawk photos.  He thought a pop-up camouflage tent would provide all the covering he needed to catch ospreys in flight.

Dad knew that like the wily great blue heron, all hawks have amazing eyesight and are very cagey about humans.  He needed a something to draw the ospreys into his shooting area.  So Dad used the hawk’s competitor to lure it to a brushy area near the lake.  He built and set up an owl decoy in the field.  (You can watch our  “how-to” video on the owl decoy here.  )

Dad thought the tent would completely cover him and most of his gear during the hawk shoot, thus foiling the bird.  He thought it would also allow him to sit comfortably on a stool in the tent and keep his extra gear close. However, something about the tent must have tipped the hawks off.  Nothing happened.  He sat there for hours shivering in the cold.  When it was clear nothing was going to happen, Dad went back to the drawing board, very disappointed and a bit frozen. 

After doing a bit more research he concluded the blind must have looked out of place in the brush-filled field.  In future shoots, Dad would use the pop-up tent with additional tree limbs and grasses piled on and around it to give the tent a more natural look.

“That Suit”

But while researching the tent technique, Dad had stumbled upon the snicker-inducing ghillie suit.  Hunters use ghillie suits all of the time to help them blend in with trees and grasses.  Dad was doing a different sort of hunting, but he thought the suit might just do the trick with the hawks.  He was eager to test it out.  So he ordered the suit and some lightweight camouflage gloves from

Ghillie Suit | Beebower Productions

Dad found the suit was perfect for this type of shooting.  It allowed him to quickly change locations, work with his camera gear and camouflaged him so well you could walk by and miss him completely.  In fact, Dad almost couldn’t find my husband, who was also dressed in a ghillie suit, while on this photo shoot.  The amazing part was Dad knew where my husband was supposed to be in the field and he still had trouble locating Jonathan.

The ghillie suit disguise when combined with his hidden pop-up tent worked very well.  Dad kept his extra gear that he might need during the shoot in the tent.   That left him free to move around outside in the ghillie suit.  Having extra gear on hand stopped Dad from having to leave his position to return to the van and possibly alerting the hawks he was in the area. 

Ghillie Suit Disguise | Beebower Productions

Despite loosing his camouflaged son-in-law, the suit/tent combo worked!  Dad soon had an osprey circling the owl decoy and it didn’t notice him at all.  He rapidly fired off shots.  And an amazing thing happened.  The osprey lost interest in the owl and came straight toward the clicking noise (i.e. Dad).  It actually heard the camera’s shutter advancing and accurately pinpointed the noise’s origin.  That’s when Dad shot “Osprey in Full Flight”, a major victory for him in stealthy bird photography.

The Rolling Blind

So far Dad had discovered three things that will tip off wildlife even if you’re wearing camouflage:  things (like a tent) that look out of place, sudden movement and unusual noises.

But his next adventure would prove that under the right circumstances animals could be conditioned to accept all three of these things.  Dad discovered at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge in Texas massive numbers of snow geese, ducks, herons and egrets are so used to seeing cars they no longer spook when one passes them.  Dad used a van as a rolling blind to get shots of these wild, winged characters.

Rolling Blind | Beebower Productions

It’s a simple concept really; someone drives you slowly along fields or the lakeshore where the birds are located.  The side door to the van remains open so you can shoot out the door.  As long as no one exits the vehicle the birds seem to remain calm.  Dad used this technique to shoot “Snow Geese Symphony”.

The key to the rolling blind is finding a driver who doesn’t mind creeping along at less than 5 miles an hour all day long while you shoot.  You might need bribe your driver with a free lunch or possibly a lot of gas money.  I’m not saying that actually happened, but it’s a good idea.

So there you have it, five types of camouflage that can help bring your wildlife shooting to the next level.  We promise not to laugh at your ghillie suit.  (Fine.  We might snicker a bit.)  We know, however, you’ll have the last laugh when you start getting stellar shots simply because the animals don’t know you’re there.

Snow Geese Symphony | Beebower Productions

Camouflage Tips

If you decide to try camouflage on your next trip, we have a few tips to make your adventure more successful.

  • Break up patterns:  Animals are less likely to notice you if you break up patterns.  For example, cover your hands with camouflage gloves so the wildlife doesn’t see a glaring patch of skin jumping out of the brush.  Use netting to break up the pattern of your face.  Cover your hair with a camouflage hat.
  • Take off all shiny objects:  Remove anything that could attract attention.  Belt buckles, earrings, watches, and necklaces can catch the light and alert your subjects to your presence.
  • Match colors:  Choose camouflage that blends with the terrain.  You wouldn’t want to choose a snow patterned tent if you’ll be shooting in a grassland in summer.  Remember those sharp-eyed hawks.  If anything looks out of place, they’ll skedaddle.
  • Know your subject and use camo appropriately.  Some animals like the birds at Hagerman are used to people and don’t require extensive camouflage.  Other animals like the great blue heron and osprey will test your commitment to getting the photo.  You must be invisible.  Know not only the animal you hope to photograph, but also the environment in which they are comfortable.
  • Arrive early and let the wildlife acclimate to the “new” thing.  If possible, put up your blind several days before your shoot.  The longer the animal has to get used to the new object without your presence, the more relaxed it’ll be when you are shooting.  If you can’t place your blind several days ahead of the shoot, try to get settled before sunrise and the animals arrive.
  • Limit your movements:  Movement is a dead give away.  Try to stay as still as possible when the animals are around.
  • Stay quiet:  It seems obvious, but silence those cell phones.  Don’t rustle around grabbing camera gear.  Certainly don’t talk to anyone. 

Best of luck on your own wildlife adventure!   We’d love to hear about your successful camouflage discoveries.  Drop us a line and tell us all about it.

In Disguise Part 1

Crane with Red-Wing Blackbirds | Beebower Productions

He kind of looked like a cross between the Sasquatch, the Swamp Thing and a fuzzy, wuzzy bear all rolled into one.  The first time I saw Dad wearing his ghillie suit, I burst out laughing.  Really.  It’s not something you want to put on until you’re alone in the woods. 

While it looks bizarre, camouflage like a ghillie suite really does work in wildlife photography.  And photographers don’t have to wait until Halloween to dress up in a costume.   Cleverly blending into the forest, grasslands or lake lets photographers get close enough to fill the frame with wildlife. 

If you’ve ever tried to get a good look at bird in a tree, you know that most birds will fly away as soon as you make eye contact, move slightly or make any noise.  While standing 25 feet from the tree might be fine for a birder, the photographer needs not only to be closer to the bird, but also “invisible” to the bird.  That’s where camouflage comes into play.

Dad’s first experience with camouflage happened about eight years ago when he was just getting into bird photography.  He’d found a great blue heron fishing spot in a swampy area of the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge in Texas.  Dad watched the heron for quite a while and studied its habits.  The heron would wait for a fish to swim into the channel, catch and eat the fish and then fly in an arc to the trees along the opposite shore.  Dad knew he could get a nice shot of the bird flying.

The problem was, he couldn’t get a clean shot from the shore due to brush and tree limbs.  Dad decided to use the kayak instead.  He knew after watching the heron that it was rather wily and very nervous around the boats carrying fishermen farther out on the lake. 

In order to keep the bird relaxed, Dad knew a specially disguised kayak would be needed.  So he got to work in the “elf shop” at home and created his own camo kayak.

Dad started with a basic one-seater, Native Ulitmate 12’ kayak he purchased for about $1,200 from Austin Canoe and Kayak in Texas.  This canoe’s super power is a special feature called a tunnel hull.  The unique hull combined with the wide bottom provides more stability than the average kayak.  You can even stand up in it without tipping over.

In addition to the stability, the seat sits lower in the kayak and creates a solid center of gravity.  A kayak with a low profile is less likely to roll.  That’s a plus in anyone’s book, especially if they have expensive camera gear that doesn’t respond well to a soaking in dirty lake water.

Dad loved the basic design of his new kayak, but he needed to modify it for wildlife photography.  He created a bucket-shaped contraption almost in the center of the kayak to hold two of the three legs of his tripod.  Once in place, you simply tighten the screws to hold the legs in place.  The bucket is attached to a plywood base that is in turn strapped to the bottom of the canoe. 

Camo Kayak | Beebower Productions

These modifications are important when you need to paddle.  Obviously you can’t hold a camera on a tripod and paddle at the same time.  With Dad’s device, your hands are free and your gear is safe.

As you can see, the third leg of the tripod isn’t ratcheted down.   You can shorten or lengthen the leg if you have animals on the move and you need a different camera angle.  You’ll also notice the Wimberly Gimble head combination on the tripod.  This combo gives you additional freedom to smoothly move the lens for tracking a moving target and helps create stability for the large, heavy 400mm lens.

Next Dad added camouflage netting he purchased at an Army Navy store.  He made sure the camera and tripod were covered as well.  Any flicker of light off the metal parts of the camera gear is like a giant flashing “Danger” sign to wildlife.

To avoid such disasters, LensCoat makes an entire line of camouflage covers for all of your camera gear, including tripods, flashes, lenses of all sizes and accessories.  You’ll find a variety of camo patterns from forest to snow.  It’s important to choose the right pattern for the area you’ll be shooting because a heron will see you if you’re using snow camo in a brown, reedy area on the water.

Dad in the Camo Kayak | Beebower Productions

Donning his own camouflage gear was the last step for Dad in outfitting the kayak.  For his inaugural trip, Dad chose a brown patterned, long sleeve shirt and hat he picked up at an Army Navy store.  He hung some brown netting from his hat to break up his facial features.  You could also throw some camo fabric over yourself and the camera gear for 100% coverage.  On this trip, however, he wanted to keep the flash free of fabric in case he needed fill light on the subject.

Dad was finally ready to test his newly outfitted kayak.  He had no problem getting the 55 pound vessel into the water by himself.  Dad hid in a reed-filled, swampy area while waiting for the heron to show up.

The whole thing worked really well.  The great blue heron showed up at the fishing spot about an hour later. The bird caught its fish, swallowed and took off for the trees.  It didn’t even know Dad was there. 

Great Blue Heron | Beebower Productions

It wasn’t until Dad began panning with his camera that the bird realized someone was watching it.  The panning movement, a smooth gliding motion of the lens as the photographer follows the bird, tipped off the heron that he wasn’t alone.  Although the heron didn’t return to the fishing hole Dad walked away with a nice shot, “Great Blue Heron”.

Floating Like a Duck

After the success with the kayak, it wasn’t long before Dad devised another way to photograph birds on the water.  The floating duck blind works perfectly in shallow water situations.  Dad constructed this blind from an old truck tire’s inner tube, a sheet of marine plywood and camouflage fabric.  He cut the plywood to fit on top of the inner tube and painted it all black with marine paint.  Then he used heavy-duty zip ties to attach the plywood to the inner tube. 

Floating Duck Blind | Beebower Productions

The platform holds his camera and other gear.  In the center of the platform Dad added an attachment for his Wimberly Gimbal head combo that holds his camera and long lens.  To complete the ensemble, Dad donned chest waders and threw a camouflage blanket over himself and the rig.

Before he jumped into the water with his new rig, Dad checked the depth of the pond.  It would be pretty awful to stumble across a deep hole, lose your footing and topple the blind, camera and all.  So Dad kayaked out and used a long pole to test the depth of the water.

Dad in the Floating Duck Blind | Beebower Productions

The rest was a piece of cake.  Dad simply walked the whole blind to a good location in the pond and waited for the wildlife.  Easy peazy.

While the set up is easy, we do have a few tips regarding the blind.  Arrive early in the morning.  Wild animals are very savvy about changes in their environment.  It’s what keeps them alive.

If you can place and anchor the blind in the pond a day or two before you shoot, it gives the animals time to get used to the new object.  You’ll have more success when you do actually shoot because the animals will be more relaxed. 

On the day of the shoot, you should arrive very early in the morning, before the animals show up.  Again, you don’t want to alert them to your presence.  Seeing the human crawl in the weird thing floating on the pond will turn them off to the whole area.

We also suggest you check with the locals to find out if water moccasins, alligators or other predators live in the water.  You’re better off safe, than sorry!   During his time at the Martin Refuge in South Texas, Dad’s ranch guide told him that shooting in the water was a bad idea.  They had water moccasins and alligators roaming the waterways.  (You can read all about Dad’s adventures at the ranch here.)

Using the camo kayak and floating duck blind methods of disguise will produce great results if you’re trying to photograph wildlife that hangs out in or near water.  You might get a few snide remarks about Sasquatch, the Swamp Thing and bears from your family members, but, hey, it’s Halloween.  Your fellow photographers will not only admire your amazing wildlife photos, they’ll be doubly impressed you had the guts to actually wear your camouflage in public.  That’s what really matters.

Join us next Wednesday when we take a look at three more camouflage options:  the super cool rolling blind, pop-up tents and the snicker-inducing ghillie suit (we saved the best for last!).


Madera Canyon Magic

Broad-billed Hummingbird at Cardinal Catchfly Bloom | Beebower Productions

Hunting Hummingbirds

If you want stunning hummingbird photos head to the magical Madera Canyon in Southeastern Arizona.  At any given time, 15 different types of feisty little hummingbirds pass through this mountain oasis.

These little birds have their own magic act.  Their speed makes them appear and disappear as fast as Harry Houdini.  They can fly forward, backward, side-to-side, straight up and even hover.  They are fascinating little creatures.

Our first trip to Madera sprang from Dad’s quest to perfect the art of hummingbird photography.  Dad didn’t just want a picture of a hummingbird, he wanted to see every colorful feather and stop the wing action.  But the birds’ amazing flight speed, agility and small size made them hard to photograph. 

In order to fine-tune his shooting, Dad needed lots of willing hummingbird models.  Madera had them by the hundreds.  Over the next couple of years we would repeatedly visit the canyon.


Santa Rita Lodge | Beebower Productions

The Santa Ritas

Madera Canyon and the Santa Ritas are part of a sky island chain, mountains that rise up out of the desert floor creating several habitats that support an astonishing array of plants and wildlife.

Madera Creek provides a seasonal supply of fresh water that draws bears, bobcats, mountain lions, coatimundi, deer and over 250 types of birds.  You won’t run out of stuff to photograph here assuming you can actually find all of these wild guys.

Our base of operation each time we visit this mountain sanctuary is the Santa Rita Lodge.  Not only do we have a cabin overlooking the creek, the owners have created a huge feeding area that attracts hummingbirds, woodpeckers, jays, nuthatches and a plethora of migrating birds.   Since the birds are used to stopping by the lodge, it’s a cinch to attract them to your cabin’s backyard.  Put out a few extra feeders and potted flowering plants and your yard is irresistible to hummingbirds.  Get a recipe for hummingbird juice here  .

The first time we visited Madera, it was a trial run of what Dad thought would work to photograph the hummingbirds. He’d run successful test shots with the birds in his own backyard and figured he was ready for Madera Canyon.  Nothing prepared him for the hordes of hummingbirds that began showing up at our cabin.  That sounds like a great thing, right?  Our plan was working with one little problem.

An Early Version of the Hummingbird Set | Beebower Productions

Testing and Trying

Dad said, “I thought, ‘Holy mackerel!  Look at all of the hummingbirds coming to our feeders.’  But I found out really quickly how frustrating photographing hummingbirds can be when they show up in mass numbers.  We had to revise the lighting and the feeder, move the stands and recalculate the distance of the camera from the background.  It was challenging.  But I finally found a combination that really worked.”

Bringing out the full array of iridescent feather colors requires light to hit from many directions.  To capture these glittering jewels of the garden, Dad experimented with many lighting and background options. 

In the end he devised a custom-made light ring that holds five Canon 580EX Speedlite flashes set at 1/64 power.  The light ring sits in front of the modified hummingbird feeder.  Two additional flashes illuminate the green-screen background located behind the feeder.  Dad uses one flash on the camera with a Better Beamer Flash Extender to light up the front area of the bird.  Phottix Strato II radio signal devices trigger all of the flashes.

Broad-billed Hummingbird at Yellowbell Bloom | Beebower Productions

Lessons Learned

The Canon EF 400mm/2.8L IS II USM lens with a Canon Extension Tube EF 25 II helps Dad fill the frame with these tiny powerhouses of the bird kingdom.   On average his camera settings were ISO 250, f/22 at 1/500 of a second.  This combo gave Dad his favorite Madera shot “Broad-billed Hummingbird at Yellow Bell”. 

Does all of this sound complicated?  It is!  In November we’ll be unveiling a downloadable hummingbird diagram with instructions in our store.  The diagram will include set-up pictures and information like the distances between the camera and light ring, flash instructions and hardware resources.  OK.  That’s the end of our shameless commercial. 

Over the next couple of trips to Madera, we learned some valuable lessons.  Always use sandbags on your light stands.  You never know when a nice gale-force wind might whip down through the canyon. 

Bring lots of umbrellas, scrims or flags.  There are plenty of trees shading the cabin backyards, but throughout the day you’ll have periods of choppy light hitting your photo set.  Blocking or softening the light creates better images.

If you run out of umbrellas or flags, you can race down the mountain to Wal-Mart in Green Valley and buy several patio umbrellas on clearance.  Just remember those gale-force winds might shred your recently purchased emergency umbrellas.  So keep an eye out for wind changes. 

Use radio signal devices on your flashes.  That annoying choppy light can really mess with infrared triggering systems.  Dad had to switch to the radio signals because the sun would set off half of the flashes before he fired a shot.  Premature flashes drain batteries quickly.

One other lesson, don’t forget to enjoy the rest of Madera Canyon.  The hummingbirds are amazing but we had other creatures like baby squirrels and acorn woodpeckers hanging out on set with the hummingbirds.  Taking a hike through the wildflower meadow while butterflies dance around you, following the soothing sounds of Madera Creek and eating an ice cream bar while enjoying your porch swing have their own magic.

Baby Squirrel | Beebower Productions

Bee on a Wildflower | Beebower Productions

If You Go

  • Stay at one of the three lodges or the campground in the canyon to save you valuable shooting time in the morning and evenings. Make reservations well in advance as everything in the canyon books up quickly.
  • Fill up the gas tank and buy food in Green Valley, AZ.  Bring lots of water.  There are no stores to buy supplies in the canyon.
  • The best time to see large numbers of hummingbirds is during the spring and fall migrations in March/April and September/October.  You also might get to see migrants like elegant trogons, lazuli buntings, grosbeaks, tanagers or a variety of warblers.
  • Make sure you pay the $5-a-day U.S. Forest Service use fee.  Rangers actively patrol and will ticket you.
  • Watch out for rattlesnakes, mountain lions, bobcats and bears.  The most common of these guys are rattlesnakes.
  • If you’re not used to a 5,000 foot and higher elevation, take it easy for a day or two and drink lots of water.  Some people aren’t bothered at all and others feel terrible.  Among other things, you can develop shortness of breath, headaches and sluggishness.
  • Cell phone service is spotty in the canyon.  Plan accordingly.

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