Long-tailed Duck at Rehoboth Beach, DE. Photo by Mark Buckler.
Great Locations for Winter Waterfowl
By Mark Buckler
By this time of the year, many of our familiar birds have migrated farther south. However, for some species of waterfowl (ducks, geese and swans), the southeastern United States is a prime winter destination, attracting hundreds of thousands of birds. In January and February you can find remarkable photo opportunities within easy driving range of Georgia, where huge flocks spend the winter loafing and feeding in preparation for the spring migration to their far-north breeding grounds.
Of course, for many bird photographers, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in central New Mexico is the ultimate bucket-list destination for winter bird photography. But with Covid-19 cases surging and long-distance travel more problematic, now is a great time to explore close-to-home options that offer similar world-class photography experiences.
Here are some of my favorite winter locations for bird photography (especially waterfowl):
Northeastern North Carolina
I often describe winter in this area as “Bosque del Apache times ten.” You’ll encounter far more birds here than at Bosque, but they are spread out over a rather wide area. There are 11 National Wildlife Refuges nearby that are home to one of the most significant wintering waterfowl regions in all of North America. Your best photographic options are the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR (massive numbers of tundra swans and snow geese) and Lake Mattamuskeet NWR (ducks, swans and a smaller flock of snow geese). The Pungo Unit is home to approximately 30,000 tundra swans and upwards of 50,000 snow geese. Lake Mattamuskeet (the largest natural lake in North Carolina) often boasts 300,000+ ducks, geese and swans.
Eastern Shore of Maryland, Delaware & New Jersey
In downtown Cambridge, Maryland (at Oakley Street) on the Choptank River, you’ll find a well-known spot for some amazing duck photography. Due to decades of feeding, the birds here have become habituated to people, and you will have literally hundreds of ducks (scaup, canvasback, widgeon, mallard, bufflehead, redhead and more) at your feet. At nearby Blackwater NWR, you can find large flock of snow geese, tundra swans and ducks, along with many bald eagles. Visiting coastal Delaware and New Jersey will provide lots of opportunities for photographing sea ducks.
I absolutely love photographing at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Orlando Wetlands Park. Here you will find many species of birds in addition to a smattering of ducks. That wide variety is part of the appeal. Photographers will discover a smorgasbord of shorebirds, water birds and some waterfowl. You can also venture to other nearby areas, such as Viera Wetlands and Cape Canaveral National Seashore, which offer additional opportunities.
Hiawassee NWR in Tennessee
This is not a place to photograph waterfowl, but it does host perhaps the biggest congregation of sandhill cranes in the eastern third of the United States. This will provide you with the closest thing to a Bosque del Apache experience that you can find in the East.
Photographing waterfowl is a lot of fun, but presents some real challenges. Ducks are very fast flyers (reaching speeds of over 50 mph) and are incredibly hard to locate and track through a telephoto lens. If you hope to photograph them in flight, you had better practice on some slower-moving birds first. I also suggest that you use some type of gimbal head with your tripod that will allow you to track the birds much more easily. I am a huge fan of the FlexShooter line of products, which are essentially ballheads that also act as a true gimbal head.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Be sure to check out Mark Buckler’s GNPA article about how to photograph birds in flight by clicking here.
You will need at least a 400mm lens to photograph waterfowl, but I strongly suggest a 500-600mm lens to provide more reach. Set up your camera as you would for any fast-moving object, and position yourself according to the sun and the direction of the wind.
Ducks and geese are among my favorite photographic subjects. Consequently, I spend nearly every day in January and February at one of the locations I listed above. I hope to see you out there!