Patience pays off in wildlife photography

I’m not a patient person. Not by a long stretch. But I’m learning to be. Or at least I’m getting better at it (out of necessity). I’ve posted before on the virtues of patience when it comes to wildlife photography. I’ve had occasions where, difficult as it is for me, I’ve been patient, waited it out and been fortunate enough to get some good shots. More often than not, I wait and wait and wait and in the end, have to leave without a great shot in hand, or even any shot at all. I don’t like those days. But they are part of wildlife photography. I wish I had more time to be patient (read that as, more time to sit in a blind waiting for that Hooded Merganser to swim right in front of me), but until I get to do wildlife photography full time, other things often drag me away from the blind.

Recently I spent two days touring around the southern Yukon with a friend/photographer. One of the things we were lucky enough to see was a black colour morph of the Arctic Ground Squirrel. According to info from Yukon Environment, the territorial government department, the small stretch along the south Klondike Highway is the only place this black colour morph is found. And it sounds like they aren’t commonly sighted either. My friend and I were driving along the highway when we discovered someone stopped at the side of the road, pointing a camera at the other side of the road. We finally got up the gall to ask him what he was shooting, once it became clear that there was no moose, caribou, lynx, bear or Sasquatch clearly visible on the other side. He said it was the black Arctic Ground Squirrel. So that little piece of black plastic that was flapping in the breeze, wasn’t. It was in fact a ground squirrel poking his black head just above the opening of his burrow.

Our initial view of Sparky with just the top of his head poking out of his burrow.

Well, as you can imagine, two photographers with big lenses – they don’t pass up opportunities like this! So out came our tripods, lenses and we bundled up in layers to keep out the cold, damp wind. We set up our tripods across the highway from the squirrel in his burrow. The other photographer left and so we had Sparky to ourselves. After a few minutes, Sparky poked his head up above his burrow opening, but just barely. Not much of a photo there. We very slowly took a few quiet steps into the highway and set up our tripods again (lucky the roads are very ‘open’ and the visibility good so we weren’t too worried about vehicle traffic, although we did keep our ears open). We waited about 10 minutes. Finally Sparky reappeared. Still not much to see though. He was being ‘shy’ (read that as, hiding from predators).

Patience and stealth got us a few steps closer.

We took another few quiet steps in his direction, then paused for another 10 minutes. The squirrel didn’t seem to mind our approach. So after another 5 minutes or so, we took a few more steps toward him. By doing this repeatedly, we got closer and closer. It took us a while, but that’s where patience pays off. We did get some better shots, but Sparky still wasn’t coming out of the burrow. So, after nearly an hour and no great shots, we decided to pack it in. The wind was colder and damper. Time to leave. So we put all our gear in the car and were just about to drive away when I had one last look over my shoulder. Damn! Sparky was nearly out of his burrow! So, out of the car we got, out came our gear. Cameras on tripods. This time we set up on Sparky’s side of the road. So we were probably only 20 feet from his burrow. But at this point, he certainly didn’t seem to mind us being there. So we snapped some shots. Then waited. And waited. And waited some more. But in the end, we were rewarded. Sparky decided to exit his burrow and park himself just on the edge of it. And so, with taking a few steps closer and with my 600mm lens, I was able to get some full body shots of him.

This was definitely a case where patients and persistence paid off. After nearly 2 hours of shooting and close to 300 shots, we were happy with what we had and so we left Sparky to enjoy his day.

Here’s a sequence of shots showing what the initial images looked like and what we ended with, after an hour of persistence and stealth. 🙂

Initially, not much to see…

Getting closer…

As Sparky gets used to our presence, he comes out of his burrow a bit more.

Progress! He’s getting more relaxed and we’re slowly creeping closer.

Finally! He’s nearly out of his burrow.

My final shot! At this point I think I was nearly at my minimum focusing distance, which for my 600mm is about 17 feet or so.

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Filed under Mammals, nature photography, Wildlife Photography

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