Photographing waterfowl during the breeding season

Male Ruddy Duck in a courtship display - Photographing waterfowl during breeding season - BirdWatching Magazine

The breeding season for waterfowl offers wonderful opportunities for action shots of ducks, geese and swans, depending on where you live and the species that nest near you.

One of my most memorable experiences with breeding waterfowl was one year in mid-June at a local marsh pond. I noticed a stocky and colorful male Ruddy Duck. He approached the reeds that surrounded the pond and performed his courtship ritual. Its intensity caught me off guard as I set up my Canon camera with a 500mm lens on my tripod. I was standing on a road that bordered the reed pond, giving me a great view.

At first, all I could do was watch her intricate mating maneuvers before her explosive charge gathered force just meters in front of me. As he got closer I realized I needed a shorter lens and grabbed a second camera with my 100-400mm lens attached. It was much easier to hold my gear while following his volatile onslaught.

Foamy bubbles formed in the water as its blue beak patted the pristine pond. On closer inspection (with the help of Google), I learned that its beak is tapping against an air sac in its neck in which air is forced out of its neck feathers. A swirl of bubbles appeared at the base of his chest as his stiff tail feathers rose upward. With a low burp-like croak, he then alerted a hidden woman to his approach. She was waiting for her suitor in the marsh reeds. This was the first stage of their courtship behavior.

Soon after, explosive action ensued. In a perfect sequence, neck stretching up then down, the male Ruddy then charged forward in a splashing thrust, leaving a wake behind him. These behavioral cues were the cues I needed to start triggering my quick shutter.

With a flapping of wings and feet moving rapidly across the water, his body lengthened. All his attention was on the swamp reeds as he rushed towards the hidden woman while all my concentration was on his eye. But he got no response from the reeds, so he repeated his manly gait. I was grateful to have a second chance with my rapid fire. Resuming his position, he charged again. I fixed my attention on his eye and focused on his behavioral cues. I pressed the shutter button halfway with a delicate touch. With wings outstretched, the Ruddy thrust its body headlong and with great intensity, advancing on webbed feet that raced in a burst across the water. Again, the action of a gigantic splash boosted his performance.

See also  How to Capture a Forest Bird Eye View

Ruddy ducks are smaller than most ducks, and males are aggressive in their territory and protective of females. The male is enveloped in brown feathers with white cheeks and has a shiny blue beak in breeding season. Its head is topped with a black crown that rises into two feathered “horns” when excited.

Female Ruddy Duck runs on water - Photographing Waterfowl During Breeding Season - BirdWatching MagazineA female Ruddy runs across the water. For this photo, Polich used a Canon EF500mm f/4L IS II USM lens with a 1.4x teleconverter (settings f/6.3, 1/3200, spot metering, ISO 640).

Don’t think the dull female is less aggressive. She’ll take on the biggest of the feathered “enemies”, even those minding their own business, like the nearby coots that also inhabit the pond. If another suitor approaches and she thinks ill of him, she will give him an exasperated look and aggressive pursuit. She opens her beak wide and the upper part is slightly curled, ready to be pecked.

However, the dating scene can get rough when other men approach her. On high alert, two more males arrived and the first male gave chase to protect his mate. Feathers ruffled, bodies plunged under the turbulent water, and a fight broke out between four Ruddies, including the female. It was difficult to watch the battle. I cheered on what looked like a helpless woman in distress. After a few seconds of water, twisting bodies emerged and the female propelled herself out of the water with her beak wide open in self-defense. What seemed like an eternal war was over in 45 seconds. Being a natural diving duck, all survived, virtually unscathed, and the original male emerged as the main defender and winner. The new pair would soon build a nest and breed.

See also  Backyard and City Bird Photo Contest 2021 First Place: Blue Jays

The final result ? After 20 to 26 days of incubation, four robust chicks swam behind their mother! As for me? My end result was endless hours and days of photographing many of these entertaining ducks and learning firsthand about their fascinating mating behaviors.

Pro tips

  • Observing and understanding wild behavior is crucial for photographers to anticipate when to release the shutter; Thus, patience And persistence are necessary.
  • When photographing birds, fast shutter speeds are necessary for perfectly sharp eyes and heads. I suggest 1/1600 to 1/3200 or more.
  • A lighter lens, such as a 100-400mm, is ideal for hand-held, and it’s easier to track an active bird, especially if it’s close to the photographer.
  • For great photography, understand the technical side of your camera, especially how ISO, F-stop, and shutter speed relate to each other and how they perform in bright sunlight or overcast conditions.
  • Use one focal box on the bird’s eye and head rather than multiple boxes, so your focus doesn’t jump to surrounding subjects.
  • Shooting in tracking mode (AI Servo) can help as long as your focus box indicates that it has locked onto its subject. This is a skill in itself that photographers need to develop.

This article first appeared in the “Photographing Birds” section of the March/April 2022 issue of BirdWatching magazine.

The best camera settings for bird photography

The Best Mirrorless Cameras for Bird Photography

The best cameras for bird photography

How to Choose Camera Lenses for Bird Photography