One afternoon early last week, I made a trip to Canoe Creek State Park, armed with binoculars and my camera, where I hoped to enjoy a beautiful spring afternoon and do some wildlife watching.
I probably visit Canoe Creek at least once a week for that purpose almost every month of the year, mostly because the park is so close to home for me and the remarkable diversity of habitat it comprises. You just never know what you might see there on any given day.
During March, the lake is a regular stopover for many species of ducks and other waterfowl migrating north to their summer breeding grounds. Shortly after the first open water appeared there a couple of weeks ago, so did a flock of hooded mergansers. Several times, I tried without success to get close enough to get a good shot of these handsome ducks, but the wary birds persisted at staying out of camera range. I had better luck with a group of more than three dozen redheads that put on quite a show one windy afternoon as those ducks feasted on submerged vegetation near the spillway area of the lake.
Last week, I had just turned onto the gravel road that leads to the spillway when I saw a ring-necked pheasant strut across the road not more than 20 yards in front of me. Following close behind that showy male bird was a hen pheasant. I scrambled to unzip my camera bag but figured the pheasants would be gone before I was able to mount a telephoto lens.
To my surprise, the pair lingered in some weeds and brush near the road, seemingly not all that alarmed by my presence. I slid out of the vehicle as quietly as possible and stalked my way toward the pheasants, knowing at best I would probably get a few clicks at them before the birds took off. Again, I was surprised how close they allowed me to approach.
The hen, with the aid of her natural camouflage, quickly melted away into some nearby cover, and I never saw her again. But the cock bird with its brilliant, multicolor plumage was a little easier to track, and I was able to click off a few shots before it squatted in some thick weeds, its presence betrayed only by bit of the stark white neckband and deep red facial wattles showing through a small opening in the grass.
Experience has taught me a few solid rules for photographing wildlife. One is to stay with a subject because you never know when it will do something special. Another is that in photography as in so many endeavors, sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. Both of those axioms came into play seconds later.
Figuring the ringneck wouldn't stay crouched in those weeds for long, I froze in position and kept the camera pointed at the hidden bird, hoping for at least one clear shot when it finally decided to make its escape. At some point, that rooster must have realized his lady friend had slipped away, so instead of merely slinking away too, it emerged from the weeds, stretched its neck straight up and crowed twice while beating its wings almost like a drumming grouse. I'm pretty sure he wasn't putting on such a show for my benefit.
The whole performance probably only lasted two or three seconds, but fortunately, I had the camera focused right on him at the time, so all I had to do was hold down the shutter button. Hearing the raucous "cawk, cawk" of a male ring-necked pheasant is one of my favorite sounds in the outdoors, so seeing part of its courtship ritual so close was a thrill in itself. But being able to capture the moment in a sequence of wonderful images will preserve that memory forever.
Wildlife viewing opportunities are everywhere this time of year, so if you enjoy nature, make it a point to get out and witness some of them yourself. You'll never see a better show, and the price of admission is free.