The Savvy Winter Bird Photographer, Part 1

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When winter rolls around, many bird photographers choose to hibernate like a bear or fly south like a bunting. However, with a few precautions and considerations, winter can be an excellent time of year to photograph birds, even in the northern climates. Over the years, I have made dozens of trips to photograph birds in some pretty extreme locations, such as the high arctic, northern Michigan and northern Minnesota. In Part 1 of this two-part series, I will share my strategies to prepare yourself and your gear in the best ways for dealing with extreme weather. I will also discuss some field techniques that will help you overcome some winter-specific obstacles. In Part 2, I will share how to create your own backyard bird studio and also suggest a few winter bird photography destinations.

Dressing appropriately allowed me to stay out for the last rays of the day despite the blowing wind and plummeting temperature.

Bird photography is supposed to be fun, but being cold is never a good time. Pursuing northern birds at high latitudes in winter presents many challenges, but the potential rewards far outweigh my desire to snuggle under a blanket by the fire. To stay warm, it is of utmost importance to protect your head, hands, and feet from the elements. When protecting your head, be sure not to neglect your neck, ears, and face. I use a combination of balaclavas, fleece neck gaiters and multiple stocking caps. I hate breathing moist air through a full face mask, so in extreme cold I need to pull one of the neck gaiters up over my nose from time to time. A scarf can come in handy, as well.

It is difficult to concentrate and maintain focus (pun intended) when being buffeted by strong winds and spray from a slushy Lake Superior.

In extreme cold, protecting your hands might be the biggest challenge. Bulky gloves are warm but they make it difficult to operate small buttons and dials. The Heat 3 Smart Gloves are hard to beat and are probably overkill in all but the most extreme conditions. I have also found waterproof ski gloves to work quite well. Look for contoured or fitted gloves designed for gripping ski poles because this style allows for greater dexterity. Whatever primary glove you decide on, I strongly recommend a second or even third pair of gloves. Tuck a spare pair into your clothing close to your body. Slipping on a pair of dry, pre-warmed gloves can extend your outing in the event your primary pair gets damp. In addition, many gloves come with a pocket on the back of the hand that works well for holding an activated hand warmer.

Hunkering down in a snow drift blind for a long period of time is a sure-fire way to chill yourself to the core.

For my feet, I have used and recommended New England Over Shoes (NEOS) for many years. The NEOS Navigator 5 has been my go-to cold-weather boot for years. They have a built-in gaiter for deep snow and slip on and off over tennis shoes in a minute. The optional extra insulating insoles are a huge plus because they further insulate your feet from the frozen ground.

For my core and legs, I will wear up to 5 layers at times. Avoid cotton and, instead, choose synthetic fleece or wool layers, which will keep you warm even if damp. I use thin and snug long underwear (sometimes two layers) next to my body with a heavier but loose polar fleece layer over that. On top, I always use a hooded sweatshirt as the last layer under my parka because the hood provides additional head and neck protection. For bottoms, I pull on a pair of hiking pants over long underwear layers with waterproof rain or ski pant as the final outer layer.

The savvy winter bird photographer can employ a couple of additional tricks. Your hands will thank you if you add insulated or padded tripod leg wraps. If you use a gimbal-style head, a piece of self-adhesive felt affixed to the upright arm can help protect your hands from the cold metal. In addition, you don’t want to forget to protect your expensive gear. Using a Lens Coat Rain Cover will protect your lens when wet snow is falling. And it is a good idea to seal your cold gear in a large trash bag when coming in from the cold. Condensation will form on the outside of the bag, instead of on your lens. Fully dry all of your gear after any cold and snowy outing.

It took a lengthy hike through deep snow to reach this Long-Eared Owl. Take care to avoid overheating during strenuous activity. Once you sweat, it will be difficult to stay warm when activity levels decrease.

Additional cold-weather gear concerns are also valid, but we have come a long way from when cameras had to have the lubrication replaced when it would become too thick in extreme cold. Today, my greatest concern is battery depletion. The lithium-ion batteries in our modern cameras are much better than what was available just 10 years ago, but it is still good practice to charge batteries each night and carry a backup battery, preferably in a pocket close to your body to keep it warm. Additionally, frozen sensors can fail to record images properly, especially the pixels closest to the frame edge.

Many choose to avoid the cold by taking images from their warm vehicle. It is, of course, important to remember to shut off the vehicle when taking images, to eliminate engine-induced vibrations that will ruin your photographs. Another consideration is that the warmth of the engine and the interior of the vehicle will cause a great amount of heat shimmer that will degrade your images noticeably. It is best to leave the heat off and keep the inside of your vehicle cold. The warm engine is especially problematic when pointing your lens forward over the side-view mirror. I am also of the belief that distortions inside the lens can play a factor when first heading outside. Image quality appears to improve after the lens has cooled to the ambient outside temperature.

Using a Lens Coat cover protected my lens and camera during this insane photo shoot. Snow was falling so hard I was forced to use manual focus to avoid locking on the large flakes.

A number of technical challenges can catch the unsuspecting photographer off guard. When photographing in heavy snow, the flakes can fool your camera’s autofocus system. The continuous focus mode will repeatedly attempt to lock onto falling snow and never land on your subject. Switching to single shot autofocus will definitely work better, but it might be necessary to go old-school and switch to manual focus. Manually focusing in the cold and wind will be exceedingly difficult through watering eyes. Watch for the focus indicator light to illuminate in the viewfinder before pressing the shutter.

The above tips have helped me to stay out for hours at a time in temperatures as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit (-35 Celsius). Of course, in any potentially dangerous conditions, it is best to tell someone where you are going and when you plan to return. Carry a survival blanket, shovel, and extra food and water in your vehicle, and top off your fuel tank often. Most importantly, keep your wits about you when you head out to photograph in a winter wonderland!

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