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George

14 - Photographing Wildlife

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There is a bit more to photographing wildlife than most folks realise. It isn’t simply a case of winding down a car window and poking a camera at something. Yes, this does happen and opportunities do present themselves, but to be truly successful with wildlife there is a bit more to learn. Before you can successfully photograph wildlife, you have to first understand animals and birds, as well as the countryside, oceans and habitats they live in.

Each species of bird and animal has its own character, its own unique behaviour. When you spend time with a particular animal or bird you gradually get to know them. The more you learn about their behaviour and how they live life, the more you learn to enjoy who they are and the more you learn to love them. Spending time with birds and animals and developing a love for them is the key to good wildlife photography. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, let’s look at the lives of Mr and Mrs Guts, a pair of herring gulls who visit us every spring to build a nest.

A few years back, I forget how many, Mr Guts built a nest on our roof, behind the chimney. Actually, it’s next doors chimney, but he seemed to spend most of his time on our roof and mooching around in our garden. At first, he was a pain in the butt, and attempts were made to block off the space behind the chimney with wire to deter him. All to no avail – Mr Guts simply filled up the wire with twigs and grass and then built a cosy little nest on top of it. One neighbour even tried a hose to get rid of him. The years passed, and every spring Mr Guts would show up with his girl, build a nest, and rear two or three chicks.

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A few years back, they had a tough time of it. A storm blew their nest apart, and in the morning the chicks were found dead in the front garden. Pretty traumatic stuff for any family. And this is really where the story begins. You see, they didn’t give up. After a couple of days, they set about rebuilding their nest, laid another two eggs, and raised another two chicks. That affected me deeply, and I gave them a hand with food to feed the new family. From that time on we’ve become friends, and I gave him a name – Mr Guts. It wasn’t long until his wife became known as Mrs Guts.

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Was chatting to the neighbour with the hose about Guts a while back, and turns out he calls him Barney. Barney Guts it is then! He lives here now, just as we do. The other neighbour cleared the wire off the roof so they could have a cosy little nest tucked in behind the chimney. The chicks are noisy little brutes, but they’re welcome here. I don’t understand folks who choose to live in a Highland seaside village with a harbour' allow them to nest on their roofs and then complain about seagulls. I mean, really, what do they expect? Stop them nesting on your roofs and the problem will go away.

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Have you ever seen herring gull portraits like these before? Perhaps a seagull in the back garden doesn’t excite you as a photographic opportunity, but it excites me. It took me years to make friends with Mr Guts, and it has paid off with some amazing photos. He’s earned his keep. He’s quite a character and I enjoy his company.

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Perhaps photographing herring gulls isn’t what you had in mind. Perhaps you’d rather be photographing real wildlife. Don’t take this the wrong way, but if you can’t get it together with the birds in your back garden, you’re never going to make a wildlife photographer. The back garden is an excellent training ground. You have to spend time with wildlife so they become relaxed around you and your gear, and the back garden is a good place to practice. It’s also a good place to practice your technical skills.

While we’re here, let’s handle feeding birds. I’m a professional photographer so I need to get close to animals and birds as part of my job. Folks often complain about seagulls and blame people like me who feed birds in their back gardens for the bird shits on their cars. They even put up Do Not Feed the Seagullsigns. This only serves to highlight their ignorance of wildlife and the make believe world they live in. If everyone in Scotland stopped feeding birds in their back gardens, they would still have the problems only they would be much worse because the birds would be starving and desperate.

The reason folks have seagull problems isn’t because folks feed birds, it’s because they allow them to nest on their roofs. If folks allow seagulls to nest on their roofs, what do they expect? If folks didn’t allow them to nest on their roofs the problems would go away. That’s their responsibility, not mine. Anyway, I digress.

There is no need to climb mountains or swim oceans to get decent photos of birds, your back garden will do just fine. Even sparrows can look amazing in good light, and they’re excellent for practice, for getting to know birds and your gear and how to take decent photos.

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One of the benefits of having bird feeders in your back garden is that the birds get used to you and allow you to photograph them at close range. This can give you good practice, not just with technical skills, but with composition. Birds are so flighty for the most part, that often it’s a case of point and shoot and hope for the best. Spending time in the back garden therefore, gives you plenty of practice with birds so that when you do have to quickly point and shoot your chances of getting a good shot are greatly improved. It can also improve your eye. The more you practice, the more composition becomes second nature.

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The more time you spend with sparrows, the more you realise they have sophisticated social behaviours. They are a close knit community and make exceptionally good subjects on which to practice your photography skills. Spending time with them can be meaningful and rewarding, and not just with a camera but in being a part of their lives.

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Once you’re comfortable with birds and they are comfortable with you, and you know how to handle your gear, it’s time to become a little more adventurous. The same principles you learned in your back garden apply with wildlife such as seals. I know there are conflicts of interest between fishermen, boats, nets and seals, but hey, I love the little brutes. Perhaps if men only took home enough to feed themselves and keep food on the table and weren’t constantly trying to drain the oceans to get rich so they can have tons of stuff they don’t need there would be enough for everyone. Here’s a grey seal pup I befriended a few years back. She would come right up to my hand, and then play hide and seek under the rocks.

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You need to be alert around seals. This mother let me know that another step closer would not have been wise. I must have been 30ft from her, but they can cover ground quickly when they want so I backed off very gently with a smile. Whatever you do, don’t get between adult seals and the sea. The sea is their escape route and if you cut it off, they will feel threatened and may attack you.

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Learning to shoot animals takes years. You have to know your gear and you have to understand wildlife, you need to be on their level. There aren’t many who can do it. For example, in this next image the camera is behind my head, not pointing at the seal. Point something at any wild animals and they’re gone. You have to take your time, and earn their trust. You have to know when it’s safe and you have to know when to back off.

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I did eventually get a good photo of this grey seal pup when it was comfortable having me around.

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We need a cautionary note to close here. Unfortunately many folks don’t understand wildlife or the countryside, and in some cases there are protection laws in force, especially with nesting birds. To be safe, avoid disturbing nesting birds at all costs until you know more about them and understand the laws in place to protect them.

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Credits –  All photos copyright George Maciver, all rights reserved.

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