Tundra Swans have long been particularly elusive photo subjects for me. It’s been especially hard to ever get close enough, or be in the right position at the right time to photograph these impressive Arctic-nesting waterfowl. In retrospect, my photo files for Tundra Swans were mostly documentary with only a few publishable photos that I managed to take over the span of many years – until Friday. After seeing an influx of Tundra Swans in the area Thursday, including a flock of 42 just over a mile north of my office, I really wanted to try to get some new and exciting swan photos – but I needed a breakthrough!
There is something especially beautiful about swans, and perhaps their pure white plumage is a factor; but their while coloration also tends to make a camera’s light meter overexpose the white birds when they are swimming in deep blue water. The trick is probably to take a few photos so you can select an image that shows more detail in the plumage (photo info: 600mm zoom lens, f-10 aperture, 1/2000 shutter speed, ISO 800).
Actually, I needed a couple breakthroughs: To get photos of Tundra Swans on the water, and in the air. This year I’ve been seeing more swans during fall migration, but my photo luck was very low – until Friday. On my way to a duck- and goose-rich area on that sunny morning, I decided to drive 5 miles farther to check on Train Lake to see if it was ice-free, and if so, what waterfowl might be present. Ducks, geese, and swans were all possible – if the lake wasn’t covered with a sheet of ice. From a considerable distance I could see the lake was reflecting deep blue sky, a sure sign of open water, and on the east side I could see white spots – potentially swans.
As I topped the high hill on the southeast side of the lake I could see the big flock of Tundra Swans far to the north, swimming and loafing along a peninsula that extends from the east shore. I opened my window to listen to the swan music in the chill air, and began counting using my binoculars – there were 141 Tundra Swans – far more than I imagined! But they were nearly a half-mile away and virtually unapproachable. I couldn’t help but question: “Why are they sooo wary, so prone to frequenting distant hard to reach or impossible to reach locations?”
It was especially pleasing to photograph family groups that accepted my approach and presence as they continued with their normal behavior. It’s always important to keep the birds’ best interests in mind, stay a comfortable distance from the birds, and appreciate the birds that accept our arrival (550mm zoom lens, f-13 aperture, 1/1600 shutter speed, ISO 800).
I backed off the hilltop turnout, and continued down the hill, only to gasp loudly as I saw a small flock of Tundra Swans swimming on the edge of the lake, maybe 70 feet from the road! “What! Are you kidding me?” My heart was pumping faster and my hands might have been a bit shaky as I continued quite a distance past the swans, then reversed course and drove to a location where I could pull off the road and photograph from the southeast with the sun at my back. Would the swans permit such an approach? It was kind of surprising that I never worried about that even as I parked safely off the road and turned off my engine in one slow smooth move – and suddenly I was photographing Tundra Swans at close range! Wooo-weee!
The swans barely looked in my direction; intent on feeding in the shallow water, or loafing near the shore, some didn’t even look up. There were 8 impressive Tundra Swans before me, including a pair with 2 full-sized gray young of the year – what luck! At first the family group was resting, so I concentrated taking most photos of the other 4 swans that were actively feeding, working the water and probably the mud below with their huge webbed feet, then reaching into the depths of the shallow water to glean whatever food they were intent on. Close in the feeding mix were a few ducks – Redheads, Canvasbacks, Ring-necked Ducks, and American Wigeons. It seemed they prospered from the foot-paddling action of the swans as the ducks were actively diving around the much larger Tundra Swans – much larger.
The full wingspan of one of the largest North American birds is particularly impressive. Taking this photo required a bit of anticipation and the fast shutter stopped the motion of every feather (480mm zoom lens, f-14 aperture, 1/2500 shutter speed, ISO 800).
Eventually, the family group activated, led by the awakening of the 2 cygnets and their apparent interest in food. They entered the shallow water near the shore, swam closer yet to my mobile blind, and began dipping their head and long necks into the water as ducks joined them during the foraging session. It was especially fun to be so close to the swans and ducks, and hearing the soft sounds of communication between the swans.
In addition to the feeding actions of the Tundra Swans, I was able to take a series of photos almost every time an adult rose up to flap its wings, probably as simple exercise. Each time I marveled at the opportunity to photograph the action as well as to appreciate the size of the full wingspan of these impressive birds – one of the largest species in North America.
A simple portrait of a 4 month old cygnet, hatched in nest in the high Arctic tundra, documented the swan’s brief Dakota stopover (600mm zoom lens, f-13 aperture, 1/1000 shutter speed, ISO 800).
The light couldn’t have been better, and the previous week I made an adjustment for this late fall waterfowl period – switching to an ISO of 800 rather than my usual 400. I’ve been toying with the change over the past week, and decided for now, the faster shutter speed was better for flight photos and other action. Also, the ISO 800 allowed me to create a much wider area in focus by using an aperture of f-10 to f-14 to accommodate the entire family of swans, flocks of geese, and groups of ducks.
Clearly, the sunlight factor has changed dramatically in recent weeks, especially at this northern latitude where the sun’s position in the sky is much farther south during late October, the first week of November, and thereafter. Now it’s possible to photograph throughout the day from mid-morning to late afternoon with little concern for the effect of an overhead sun, such as we encounter during midday throughout the summer months. Using my Tamron 150-to-600 zoom lens on such large birds as Tundra Swans, at times I zoomed out and in as needed, especially when photographing more than one swan and family groups.
Flight Fotos Finally!
Even though I crossed a major hurdle when I found the group of swans feeding and resting where I could approach them without alarm, there was one more hurdle to overcome related to Tundra Swans – flight photos. Friday afternoon was a prime example of the folly I was having trying to photograph swans in flight. After the fact, I realized I had uncovered something of a flight path, with 8 small flocks flying in a southeast direction, 1 by 1, each separated by a few minutes.
Shadows on the wings were a consideration that was hard to judge while photographing Tundra Swans in flight. The key was to take a number of photos and select the best among them (600mm zoom lens, f-14 aperture, 1/1600 shutter speed, ISO 800).
I would see them at a distance, but believing I might be able to intercept them, I followed them in my car and tried to get close enough, all relative to the direction of the soon to be setting sun. But I always seemed to come up short, or long, misjudging or just missing a chance to photograph a V or line of swans in flight – “oh well, maybe tomorrow,” is all I could say. It’s happened too often this fall, but it’s almost become par for the course for swans over the years – flying geese are much easier to intercept.
Saturday morning I headed directly to check on the Tundra Swans in the little bay where I had such good luck photographing them before. No swans were anywhere near the road, but I stopped on the top of the high hill and counted the stopover flock; there were 99, at least. As I was leaving I just missed a flock of 14 that flew across the road, but vowed I would return to wait for swan flights at this lakeside after checking another location first. When I returned, there were 10 swans feeding in the same close bay, and 8 of them stayed after I pulled into position (2 swam off).
The extreme size of a Tundra Swan, including its broad wings, long neck, and hefty body dwarfs Snow Geese and other waterfowl. The fast shutter speed provided a sharp image of the underwing and entire body line as the bird propelled in graceful motion (600mm zoom lens, f-14 aperture, 1/2500 shutter speed, ISO 800).
The remaining swans included 2 adult pairs, each with 2 gray cygnets – along with what seemed like even more ducks than the previous day – mostly Redheads and a few Canvasbacks, plus an American Coot for a few minutes. Photographing the swans in morning light was every bit as enjoyable as the previous morn, and I was watching for one more thing – when and if swans would fly out from the main flock, or fly in to join the large flock. It didn’t take long, maybe 20 minutes, before a flock of 5 Tundra Swans flew above the length of the lake, then turned to the south. Leaving the feeding family groups to follow the flying swans, I was able to get into good position to photograph from a convenient turnout as they crossed the road – finally. And that’s when I saw a flock of 4 following a similar route – perfect.
For the next 20 minutes, I spent 5 minutes photographing the 2 family groups, then pulling away to intercept small flocks or pairs of swans that took similar flights so I could photograph them from the turnout a half-mile away. I checked the flight photos in my camera’s LCD screen on the back of my camera, and everything looked good, including the shutter speed, which was stopping the action for what looked to be nice flight photos – hooray! During my last photo session with the roadside swans, one family group swam away, and a few minutes later the other family flew to the other side of the lake; perhaps both groups had eaten their fill. Even the ducks swam to the shore and began preening after the swans were no longer assisting their foraging efforts.
With no other swans taking flight from the main flock, I took it as a sign to head on down the road, feeling that I managed to break through on 2 huge photo tasks. Spending time in close proximity to swans to get a variety of photographs of individuals and groups; plus getting some nice flight photos – all in beautiful sunlight with clear blue sky and dark blue water as backgrounds.
There was even a third breakthrough that I hadn’t counted on; having a chance to photograph a family group, actually 3 family groups of Tundra Swans. What wonderful birds, and what a special time I was able to share with them during consecutive late fall mornings. I hope you have some memorable breakthrough photo sessions this fall; seek them out, don’t give up, and Good Luck!
Article and photographs by Paul Konrad
Share your bird photos and birding experiences at firstname.lastname@example.org