Winter Wildlife Photography

Winter may not be what you would consider an ideal time to go out and photograph wildlife, but there are lots of subjects and opportunities you will not get in other seasons. The first unique opportunity that comes to mind here in the St. Louis area are the Bald Eagles up on Alton Lake, but that is just scratching the surface. Just going to our wonderful zoo in winter is a great time. You will see that birds and animals look and behave differently in winter with think coats and how they need to come out to forage

Winter is one of the best times to capture birds. Their plumage is full and colorful at this time of year. Besides the Eagles along the Mississippi there are Red Tale Hawks, Red Shoulder Hawks, woodpeckers and our beloved Cardinals, they are easy to spot and willing (if you are lucky) to pose for some great photos with the right treats. Do a little research online at the Audubon Society, our great World Bird Sanctuary, or American Birding Association to help you identify and find these birds.

Eagle by Ian Barnes

Eagle by Ian Barnes

Deer and other land animals can take a little more work unless you want to go out to Lone Elk park, which I highly recommend. Out at Lone Elk you will not only find deer and waterfowl, but there are elk, turkey and a small herd of bison. Shy animals such as red foxes, bobcats, and American black bears will take some time and tracking skills, but they are out there. The MO Department of Conservation has a lot of great resources on their website:

So how do you find your wildlife subjects? Find their food and you will find them. For smaller birds having a bird feeder out in your backyard is all you need. Keep it full and they will come. For the larger birds of prey and other animals like deer, foxes, and beavers that are less likely to come into the city, find some running water that will not freeze over: everything needs a drink of water so water holes are usually some great locations. The bald eagles are fishing birds and that is why they nest by the Mississippi River in the winter. The water rarely freezes over and there is a steady food supply for them.

Deer by Ian Barnes

Deer by Ian Barnes

Sunrise and sunsets are often the best times to photograph wildlife. The birds and animals are a little more active at these times and, as with landscape photography, the golden hours have some of the best light of the day. If you have snow, getting right out after it has finished is also prime shooting time. The snow is clean and if there are any animals out, it is easy to see their tracks when the snow is fresh. If you are unlucky and can’t find any wildlife, sunrise and sunset will offer some great colors for other photo opportunities like ice crystals.

Living on the South Side of St. Louis, my friends and myself have noticed more and more wildlife in the city and city parks over the last few years. I know of nesting pairs of Red Tail Hawks and Barn Owls living in Christy Park, and parks like Forest Park, Tower Grove Park, The Missouri Botanical Gardens are all known spots for birds of prey. Deer tracks have been seen in all of the above parks and just this fall I saw a Red Fox crossing the River Des Peres.

As with last month’s blog on Cold Weather Photography, there are some things you need to keep your camera working and yourself safe and healthy. For the camera, there are two key things. First, is batteries: have a spare and keep it warm. I keep mine in a pocket close to my body for heat. Moisture is the second concern. The weather can get bad quickly, so have a good camera bag or backpack that is water resistance and bring some zip lock bags. For yourself, dress in layers, always let someone know where you are and when you plan on getting back, then check in with them. It is best to go with a buddy, hopefully one who likes photography and wildlife as much as you do. See the Cold Weather Photography blog for more details on being safe and camera care.

Make sure you have the right camera gear when you go out. Shooting wildlife often means waiting and you do not want to have to hold your camera the whole time. So make sure you have a good tripod and I would recommend a tripod head that allows you to easily and quickly recompose your photo. A ball head or a gimbal head (this one if you have a long and heavy lens) works great! For wildlife, you want to get close-ups and that is not easy with shy animals and birds, so a good fast telephoto (200mm or longer) is ideal. If you are just starting out, call our rental department and try out a few before you lay down your hard earned cash. We want you to have the right equipment for your needs.

Enjoy the weather and the wildlife, be safe and have fun.

By Tim Farmer

Photos by Ian Barnes