Are you a bird photographer and not yet into floating hides? Then you are missing out on all the fun, says waterfowl biologist and renowned photographer John Gerlach. As soon as the winter ice melts, you can find him in the Idaho lakes near Yellowstone Park. Getting more nature photographers into the water is a quest for Gerlach, who loves to share his knowledge and enthusiasm through his books, website and workshops.
A lifetime of studying birds
I have been in chest waders ever since I was 12. I always loved fishing, watching the birds and exploring the marshes, and studying waterfowl biology in college has only intensified my passion. My major professor advised me to take photography classes, because it helps biologists to explore and illustrate so much of what they are studying. I started out selling pictures of the butterflies and flowers of Central Michigan but quickly moved on to landscapes, macro and wildlife.
About 30 years ago, I made my own floating hide. It was like a small boat with a hole in the middle. It did not float me, but it floated my gear. But to step into the hole in the middle was not easy. I could only do this in shallow water.
The Mr Jan Gear Hide has made things so much easier for me. It’s 45 pounds lighter, so I can carry it a long distance. It takes less room, so you can pack it easily. And it’s much easier to get into. The first time I used it, I got into 3 feet of water. That just would not have worked with my own hide. Or this sequence of a lesser scaup duckling, diving. I shot it at 20 shots per second with a 1/4000 shutter speed. Making a sequence like this is only possible from a floating blind.
Into the bird universe
I’m out in the water 70 days a year. I usually visit a lake about 10 minutes from my home here in Idaho, close to Yellowstone. I leave before sunrise and stay until about 9h30, when the wind starts to pick up.
As the light comes up, I get in and start photographing. In a floating blind, you can find 400 birds in a stretch of open water and get to about 20 feet of them, and they remain oblivious that a human is close. It’s like you are invisible. When some birds do notice you, stay quiet and give them some time. They will adapt and go back to acting naturally. It’s so lovely to watch them wading, bathing, feeding and interacting with each other.
As soon as the ice begins to melt and the lake opens, I get into the blind. These are ideal conditions: a 100 yards long strip of open water, only 30 yards wide, now attracts a thousand birds, including ducks like red-breasted merganser that will migrate to the tundra but are still here for a short time.
When there is still ice, I wear neoprene chest waders in the open water. They are warm and while wearing special thermal pants that reflect body heat inwards, this allows me to stay in the ice water for a good 3 hours straight. I’ll wear these until the middle of July. Then, the waterlevel goes down, and birds like common snipes and baby rails appear along the shoreline. To photograph them, I must lie down in shallow waters, which in chest waders will obviously get you wet. That’s when I switch over to a dry suit.
Birds have always been my favourite subject. As a kid, I was looking forward to colouring and drawing birds. When I was 9, I could already identify about 200 species. Obviously, becoming a waterfowl biologist only made my passion grow.
Today, my interest in them is stronger than ever. They make life so much more fascinating and we have great ways to track them now. Some nights in the fall and spring, wetland birds move massively, migrating by the millions, often close to your home. They arrive overnight, and in the morning you find them on the mud flats, feeding. To be an invisible part of this scene in your hide is an amazing experience, beyond the pictures you get to make. It’s being out there that I love so much.
Some tips & tricks
Obviously, the water and climate must be calm. You can’t even keep the birds in the viewfinder when the water bounces the blind up and down. When observing, you should start shooting before the action, because once the action starts, you’re already too late. I use a 600, sometimes 800 mm lens because having more reach is always better – especially for shyer species.
My camera of choice is a mirrorless camera with Eye-AF and an electronic shutter. I currently use the Canon R5. Along with the new RF lenses, it’s the best photo gear I’ve ever used.
I would also advise to explore focus stacking! What started out as a technique I only used for landscapes, I now use for wildlife and birds alike. Blending several images together that are focussed on different spots allows you to create an unprecedented depth of field.
Perhaps the last tip can be to stay on top of your archive. One session will typically result in thousands of shots, so make your selection immediately afterwards. I go through 5 thumbnails across the screen at a time, picking the action shots first and deleting the rest. I then select the best poses and rate them 1 to 3 points, with a maximum of 120 ratings. Delete the unrated ones, and you are done.
Copyright: all images by John Gerlach.