For this assignment, Outdoor Photographer asked: What motivates you to get up early in the morning? Or to sit and wait patiently, sometimes for hours, for the right shot? For me, the answer to that question this winter has been “ice.”
In “Good-Bye, and Keep Cold,” Robert Frost wrote “…Dread fifty above more than fifty below…” Every day the red needle is pushed down means another day of solid water and snow-flanked mountains.
The challenge in shooting in the cold is the cold. Insulated boots, great socks (I live in my Darn Toughs), and good gloves or mittens are requisite. The most vulnerable-to-cold part of my body is my fingers – especially those on my right (shooting) hand. To combat this, I use a system of warm, nimble glove liners, HotHands hand warmers, and top-of-the-line mittens. A balaclava is indispensable, particularly on days when the wind is out of the north, as are snow pants. On the coldest days, I layer wool or Merino shirts and sweaters over tech blend long-sleeved t-shirts. A good watch cap and a hooded down jacket with deep pockets round out the gear.
Wintertime lighting is often gorgeous, as are mammals in their thick wintertime coats. Everyone’s trying to stay warm. Some birds will gain upwards of 50% more feathers in their cold-weather plumages. If you’re lucky enough to find an animal resting like the Red Fox in this photo, move slowly, (crawl), keep your distance and watch for signs of discomfort. Calories can be hard to come by for these animals. Better to miss the shot than to cause an animal to flee, leaving it’s safe place and unnecessarily burning energy.
Ice presents opportunities to see animals engaged in unique behavior such as this Red Fox attempting to ambush a Common Goldeneye resurfacing after a dive on a pothole in lake ice. Oftentimes, the best strategy is to simply sit as still as possible, watch, wait, and let the action come to you. This fox was well aware of my presence, but as I had been in the same place for over an hour, wasn’t moving and presented no threat he was able to go about his routine.
On any given day of the year, it’s common to see a harbor seal or two in Chignik Lake, a freshwater body a few miles from a saltwater bay. But nine hauled out and sunning like this is strictly a wintertime event – and a rare one at that. Ever vigilant for the wolves that sometimes patrol the area, these seals are quite wary.
I go out and shoot nearly every day – even when the barometer is dropping and the winds are howling across the Bering Sea and down the Chignik River valley. As these stoic Common Mergansers attest, “It isn’t that bad if you dress for it.”
Among the rewards of going out and shooting this time of year is that you never know what you’ll find. I’ve been fortunate enough this winter to get captures of a number of bird species that are rare for the Chignik Region as well as two other birds that, to the best of my knowledge, had never been recorded here before. In the above photo, the closest bird is a Tufted Duck, a fairly rare migrant from Asia. Moving clockwise are two female Greater Scaup and a male Greater Scaup, a species that was perhaps formerly rare or uncommon in the Chignik system but which appears to be becoming more abundant. Below the male scaup is a Ring-necked Duck, another species that is rare for this area.
Again, by picking the right place, sitting quietly and waiting, sometimes the wildlife will come to you. River Otters may only allow a fleeting glimpse of themselves, but their curiosity often compels them to check out anything unfamiliar in their environment.
Another day at the office – this time a macro-session capturing bubble formations, fish, caddis larvae and other things trapped in Chignik Lake’s ice. Although on this, the last day of February, temperatures are hovering around 20° F (-7° C) and gusting winds out of the North are pushing sheets of snow across the lake, it’ll be Spring soon and the ice and snow will be a memory. Get it while you can!