Scouting Signs of Spring

Hello all springtime trail buddies.
I thought winter was just never going to leave us up here. When spring finally did arrive, everything was just a buzz with activity. It only took about a week for the buds on the trees to start popping and turning green. Much of April was spent scouting out old locations, and of course timing is everything right now. Trying to be in the right spot at the right time is a difficult thing to accomplish when there are so many places to look! While scouting along the Little Su (a river that flows out of the mountains), I suddenly came across a great find – a pair of common mergansers resting on some ice along the river.
I pulled the truck over and exited quickly, grabbing the “big lens” and took off on a fast walk to get whatever pictures I could. It has been my experience in the past with these ducks that the only time you get to see the male is strictly in the springtime. The male, as well as the female, are very skittish and don’t really like the company of the two legged variety, whether you want to just watch them through binoculars or take photographs of them. Many times they will fly off well before you even get remotely close enough to get a good shot. So one just has to use all their instincts and sneak up to get as close as you can before being detected. When I have been in my kayak I still encounter the same problem, trying to float in as quietly as possible before they fly off. Well, as you can see, I was successful this time and was extremely happy with the end results.

Another scouting adventure led me up into the mountains. Though there was still a lot of snow on the ground, I was hoping that a few of the beaver ponds would have some openings in the ice. Turns out, my timing was just about right! Approaching one of the beaver ponds by way of the bumpiest road that one could possibly find, I could see a pair of ducks. As I drove closer I was ecstatic to find they were Barrow’s Goldeneye ducks.

These ducks are bottom-feeders, diving underwater to capture prey on the bottom of lakes and ponds. A good practice to get in is to research the wildlife that you are going to photograph. This will let you know where to look for them, their behavior and other important things that you might like to know. Also knowing how to photograph the Barrow’s Goldeneye is a big advantage. I drove past the beaver pond and turned the truck around and headed back toward the pond so I could shoot from the truck window. Now, like I said, this type of duck is a bottom-feeder, so I took a few shots from the truck window for identification purposes then I would watch and wait until they would dive underwater and I would move quickly as possible from the truck to get in closer for a better shot. Once the Barrow’s Goldeneye returns to the surface, if you have planned and worked it just right, you should find yourself in a much better position. I find these ducks are much more acceptable to people than the common mergansers, but restricting your movement is still a good practice. This pair of ducks performed wonderfully for me as I continued to record their every movement. After some time well spent observing each other, the show was over and the ducks flew from the pond. I, too, left – grateful for the opportunity they had given me.

So back to the truck and on down the road I went, searching for more signs of spring. Moving into higher elevations, snow still covering most of the ground with some signs of brush poking through the snow, I once again came upon another great photo opportunity. When scouting, it always helps if you drive slowly and listen to the sounds of nature. As I rounded a bend in the road, there to my right was a pair of Willow Ptarmigan just off the road.

This is the time of year when the males are chirping for the females to try and find a mate. Both the male and female still had their winter plumage with signs of spring feathers coming through. The male was still mostly white, the neck had changed to brown and he had the red eye patches above the eyes. The female, was a little further off the road, but still within good shooting distance was still dressed in her white winter plumage with a few brown feathers coming out around the neck. Once again, I had the opportunity to record more signs of spring. Slowly moving from the truck and laying my lens across the hood to photograph this wonderful sight. I chose the male first, shooting off several frames. Then angling toward the female – which I actually found more interesting, took many shots of her. Then it was time to really work these birds; I went back for the tripod, mounted the lens and shot to my heart’s content. After about 20 minutes with these birds, the male pushed toward the female, moving her back, too far for me to get anymore good shots and eventually flying off in another direction. I always tell myself, “Count your blessings”! The fact that I even got to see the ptarmigans was amazing, as I didn’t see any all winter long.

Well, the sun is getting high in the sky and the light is getting too flat for me – time to head home. I slowly made my way down off the mountain, riding alongside the swollen Little Su (from the melting snow), searching for maybe another waterfowl opportunity or signs of any other birds. Bouncing down the rough weathered road that had been covered by many months of snow and ice, I reflected on what a wonderful morning I had just encountered on my scouting adventure. With the longer hours of light that comes with the spring, I always seem to get up early. As was the case on this day, I rose at 4am and was out of the cabin by 5am to go on my early morning scouting adventure. The early mornings are a great time to get out and listen and watch whatever wildlife I can find. I hope all of your springtime adventures are keepers like mine. In the end, the memories in the pictures you bring back to share are well worth the effort and knowing that those people who can’t get out and get into the wild will appreciate the work you have done (they may not be as dedicated to getting up at such crazy hours as I am!!)!
Hey, take care all, see you on down the trail somewhere…

Buford T. Porcupine


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