Bird enthusiasts and photographers can be found slowly cruising the raised, pot-holed road through the Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area this time of year. Massive zoom lenses attached to digital cameras hang out of car windows or poke through sun roofs, their owners waiting patiently to catch any exciting bird behavior that might unfold.
Winter is an exciting time of year for bird photographers in Utah because large, photogenic birds like eagles, hawks, and herons are all within shooting distance of the road at Farmington Bay. Using their cars as mobile wildlife blinds, photographers creep slowly towards their prize, and call on long-reaching lenses to capture intimate portraits of their avian targets.
If you'd like to try your hand at Farmington Bay, here's a few suggestions on how to go about it.
Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area is a great place to get relatively close to birds because a road system is built out into the wetland on dikes. The freshwater bay attracts a variety of birds with an assortment of reliable food sources. On the one hand, the shallow freshwater lake provides carp for Bald eagles and small fish for blue herons, while the tall-grass wetland offers up rodents and other prey for hawks and other seasonal raptors. The wetland also attracts waterfowl like ducks, geese, and gulls, who in tern act as prey for raptors and other predators.
Driving slowly along the road in your car is the best and easiest way to approach birds for photography. Birds generally don't feel threatened by people in their car the same way they do when a human is walking near them. This makes it easier to "sneak up" on birds using your vehicle as a blind, than approaching on foot. With the right equipment a vehicle can also function as a portable tri-pod or camera support - which is important when using a long telephoto lens. Window camera mounts offer excellent stability for small to mid-size lenses, but won't provide enough support for really big glass. In which case, you'll want to use a sturdy tri-pod or mono-pod within your vehicle. Turn off your vehicle to prevent engine vibration from making your photos soft.
When it comes to lenses for bird photography, the general rule is: the longer the better! Any lens less than 300mm in length won't get you as close to the birds as you'd like. Lenses as long as 600mm are available, but you'll need a second mortgage to pay for them. So, use the longest lens you can get your hands on, and bring lots of patience to compensate for any lack of range in your equipment. Remember, even with the best equipment in the world, you'll still need tons of patience to make great bird photos.
When you do find yourself close to a prize subject, get set up and wait for interesting behavior. There's a thousand photos of bald eagles sitting quietly on a perch, but it's the charismatic behavior that sets the best photos apart. Look for situations that could become interesting. In the image above, I waited patiently while this immature eagle sat idle on this post. After about 20 minutes, hunters drove down a nearby boat ramp to launch their watercraft. The eagle didn't like them getting close, and the good action came when it was startled! If I hadn't been ready and waiting, I would have never got the shot.