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Photo by Stan Tekiela

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

June 25, 2023

The spring migration is an exciting time in the natural world. Compared to the fall or autumn migration, the spring migration is faster, more agile, and it definitely seems to have an air of urgency. This is because the birds returning to the northland are in a hurry to claim the best territories and start the process of reproduction.

It also seems like the spring migration is more dependent upon the weather than the fall migration. Where I live in the northland, our lakes freeze over, and this year we had so much snow on top of the ice that sunlight couldn’t penetrate the snow and ice on the lake to allow the aquatic plants to survive. As a result, the oxygen levels started to drop in the lake and threaten to kill off the fish, so an electric aerator was deployed to keep a small section of the lake open and to restore the oxygen in the lake water.

A couple weeks ago, while snow still blanketed the ground, I was standing in my yard looking down the hill to the open water on the lake caused by the aerator. Hundreds and hundreds of ducks, geese, swans and mergansers filled the small open section of lake. I was thinking I wanted to make my way down to the edge of the lake to set up my portable blind and try to capture some images. However, I knew if I walked down to the lake all the waterfowl would fly away and I didn’t want to disturb the birds that much just to get a picture.

Just as I was mulling over the dilemma of not wanting to scare the birds a couple guys in an ATV (all-terrain vehicle) raced across the ice on the lake and stopped just 75 yards from the edge of the water. I estimate about 500 plus birds were instantly scared off the open water. I watched as the two guys jumped out of the ATV and started drilling holes in the ice to fish. Neither one of them even noticed the hundreds of ducks that they scared and were now flying right over their heads.

I took advantage of the situation and quickly grabbed my portable chair blind, camera and tripod. However, I definitely underestimated the depth of the snow. Carrying the extra weight of the blind, tripod and camera caused me to crash through the crusty snow instead of being able to walk on the surface. Each step I sunk into the snow up to my knees. Twenty-five minutes later, huffing and puffing, I reached the edge of the lake.

I picked out a spot where I could set up my chair blind and have a good view of much of the open water and not be too close to scare the birds when they return. Blind placement is very important part of being a successful wildlife photographer.

I was able to flatten down a section of snow and pop up my chair blind. I mounted my 800 mm lens on the tripod and pulled the fabric of the blind over my head completely concealing me within the blind. It was dark inside the blind and bright and sunny outside. I tried to get comfortable and made all the necessary adjustments to my camera settings to ensure that I wasn’t fiddling around with the camera when the birds came back. I wanted to be ready when the time was right.

Eventually the two guys packed up and left to fish in another part of the lake. In less than 30 minutes after they left a couple small flocks of ducks and mergansers started returning to the open water. Because there was very little open water available in the area, I was confident that most of the birds would return to the small patch of open water at some point.

It was exciting to hear the whistling wings of the ducks flying overhead then hear the splashing when the birds landed on the water. Now I just had to wait for some of the birds to swim near me. About 30 minutes after they first returned, I was surprised that a pair of Bufflehead ducks (Bucephala albeola) started to swim in my direction. I was thrilled because over all these years, this small duck species seemed to elude me from getting any decent images. These ducks are one of the smallest of waterfowl and can be difficult to approach close enough to get some quality images.

The male has a large bulbous head compared to its small body with a large white patch of feathers making them a beautiful duck. I spent the next 2 hours amazed that the Buffleheads swam past me many times allowing me to capture some very satisfying images. Until next time…

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the U.S. to study and capture images of wildlife. He can be followed on www.instagram.com, www.facebook.com. He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesmart.com.


The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.

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