Wildlife Photography | Fall Waterfowl Migration at Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge (Part 1)

click images to enlarge for best viewing

click images to enlarge for best viewing

Late this fall we went out to Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge  to do some waterfowl photography. The refuge is located in the northern part of the finger lakes region and is a little over 7,000 acres of migratory bird habitat.

We didn’t just go to Montezuma for the birds (well we did, but there was another, nerdy-er motive).

Photographers are a funny bunch. We always want to know what’s in each other’s kit bag and we all have a dream kit bag. As a wildlife photographer, I’ve always drooled over the professional wildlife super zoom lenses. The idea of not having to get too close to the subject and spooking it, but still having the photographic reach…ahhhh. But this girl can’t afford the price tag on a lens set up like that (the 500mm is an $8,000 lens). Hence, it has always been in my dream kit bag.

Great Blue Heron at dusk | click to enlarge

Great Blue Heron at dusk | click to enlarge

Well Josh decided to rent one for a weekend so we could indulge in some photographer-nerd fantasy, even just for a couple days.

Renting lenses is awesome, I really suggest it to anyone who is contemplating purchasing some of the more expensive lenses. You get to test it out in the field, in practice, before taking the price-tag plunge.

Josh rented the Nikon 500mm f/4G AF-S VR  and a Nikon 1.4x teleconverter  from LensRentals.com. LensRentals has really good service, we always get everything on time, everything is always packaged very well, the gear that arrives is always in good condition. Love it.

So for a weekend I got to feel like a rock star lugging that thing with me around the refuge. And I know what you’re thinking…those are some badass Carhartt  bibs, Kelley

You’re right, they are…I live in them from fall until spring. As far as my must-have-gear list goes…I couldn’t go into the field without them.

Kelley nerding-out with the Nikon 500mm len | click image to enlarge

Kelley nerding-out with the Nikon 500mm len | click image to enlarge

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron | click to enlarge

The first day was real interesting getting used to the 500mm. I am used to being light and nimble with my gear, backpacking into locations, being able to photograph animals that are quickly on the move, changing out lenses quickly during a fast-paced wedding…you get it.

The 500mm is a beast. There’s no doing anything quickly. It’s not the kind of lens you can comfortably backpack in to a location. It’s not the kind of lens you can effortlessly swing across the viewing pane to photograph birds on the wing. And you (well, me) certainly can’t hand-hold it. For some reason, my pre-conceived notion has always been that “of course I’d be able to hand-hold that! tripod-shmipod!”


My romantic notions of the super telephoto lens quickly dissipated. This beast should just automatically come permanently attached to a tripod. It has it’s application, for sure, but I think it’s best use (in the realm of the wildlife photographer) is in an area where you know your subject is predictably going to show up and not going to be rapidly moving from the area. In other words, the wildlife refuge was perfect because I knew I wouldn’t have to pack in to the location and because I knew birds would be coming to the different pools and marshes.

Glossy Ibis

Glossy Ibis | click to enlarge

Another one of my romantic notions that I soon learned to not be accurate is the photographic reach of the lens. I thought the lens and teleconverter would give me awesome reach without having to get close to the subjects (giving me an edge in not spooking them and allowing for natural behavior to occur).

Not really.

Yes, you definitely have more reach than say with 80-200mm that’s in my kit bag, but the clarity isn’t magical at great distances. If I was going to spend $8,000 on a lens, I guess I would hope for it to have some magic.

I think what I learned is that this lens is great for the hero shot. The hero shot is a close up portrait of a subject. The kind of shot that lets you see the light illuminating the leopard’s whiskers, the water drops falling from a bird’s mouth, the gorilla’s face that fills the full frame. It’s a full screen portrait that connects you to the subject’s soul.

Sandhill Cranes | click to enlarge

Sandhill Cranes | click to enlarge

Now that I’ve had the experience with one of my dream kit lenses, I think I might reconsider what’s at the top of the list. I tend to be the kind of photographer who like’s the environment wrapped into the pictures of the wildlife she photographs. It’s the naturalist in me, the environment is just as much a part of the animal as the animal is the environment. If you wanted the hero shot every time, you could more easily head to the zoo and get a close, tight-in crop of an animal. And hey, and it’ll cost you less then the lens.

What makes them wild is the intimate relationship they share with their habitat. For that reason, I like the habitat the wildlife are in to be just as much the hero in the photos I shoot.

Kelley Photographing migratory birds with a Nikon 500mm lens

Kelley photographing migratory birds with a Nikon 500mm lens.

So as far as gear is concerned, I think it might be better to sneak in closer in camouflage and shoot with a lens that can easily be backpacked in and give you more flexibility.

Of course, it was still a riot to play with a lens that had been at the top of my dream kit list for so long.

DSC_0165edit FB

DSC_0071edit FB


Lets be honest though, I soooo  would not be complaining if someone wanted to gift me that beautiful beast of a lens.




If you are interested in purchasing any of the images from this post as fine art, send me an email and we’ll discuss details. 

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