Last week I filmed Greater Sage-Grouse for my job at Audubon. For this shoot, Audubon rented a 500mm telephoto, one of those giant lenses you see wildlife and sports photographers use. To my surprise and joy, the rental arrived four days early, which meant I had the whole weekend to practice with it! The tricky part was deciding which birds I wanted to film and photograph.
Often on my hikes I see montane birds and think about how hard it would be to carry a super telephoto lens there to photograph them, but how rewarding it would be to have photos of them. I figured this was my chance, so I headed to Mount Margaret Trail in Roosevelt National Forest to try my luck.
For some reason, Pygmy Nuthatches have always seemed like one of the more mysterious mountain birds to me. Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up with them, unlike the other nuthatch species. Or maybe it’s because they’re so tiny and fast that I’ve never had a good look at them. For whatever reason, photographing those blue-gray puffballs became my goal. In the winter, Pygmy Nuthatches spend their days foraging in mixed flocks of Mountain Chickadees, other nuthatch species, and Brown Creepers. This means that when you find one bird, you find a dozen, but also that you can go hours without hearing or seeing a single bird.
To my relief, as soon as I arrived at the trailhead I heard the squeaky calls of Pygmy Nuthatches. They were in a flock of about 10 nuthatches and five Mountain Chickadees foraging in the open ponderosa forest.
Luckily for me, they were spending most of their time foraging on the ground in the patches where snow had melted (instead of high in the trees like they often do). Both species are relatively unafraid of humans, so I was able to get moderately close to them.
I quickly realized that I had chosen the hardest species to practice using my telephoto on. These tiny birds almost never stop moving, so as soon as I had them in focus they would dart out of frame. Furthermore, they would only stay in one patch of bare ground for a couple minutes before flying to another.
The result was me lugging 12 pounds of gear to the next patch, frantically setting up the tripod, and firing off dozens of bad photos for several minutes. Eventually, I started to get used to the gear and turn out some nice shots.
Wildlife photographers often say that the key to getting good photos is to understand your subject well, and that advice certainly applied here. Once I realized the pattern in which the flock was foraging, I was able to anticipate their movements and set up my camera ahead of time. Here’s the pattern I found:
One nuthatch would arrive to the patch of bare ground and begin foraging. Since these birds are so social, more would inevitably follow. Instead of chasing the birds and only having a minute to photograph them, I was able to set up my camera in a good position and spend ten minutes in one place. In addition to photos, I was able to record some slow motion video (quarter speed):
Although I began photography with birds, I mostly stopped photographing them once I realized that I was much better equipped to photograph plants, insects, and landscapes. My afternoon with Pygmy Nuthatches and a super telephoto lens reminded me of the deeper connection with wildlife that photography can foster. Had I been birdwatching with binoculars, I would’ve spent about two minutes admiring the nuthatches. Through the pursuit of photographing them well, I spent two hours with them, learning how they foraged, what they ate, and how they interacted with each other. It’s extremely rare that we spend that much time following wild animals, but I think it’s important that we do.