The first step to photographing wildlife is finding wildlife. In the case of common wildlife, that’s easy. If you are looking for squirrels you may not need to look any farther than your own back yard. But if you want to photograph something a little more exotic, like Chachalacas or Green Jays, you need to know where to look for them (the southern tip of Texas).
One of the best ways to find wildlife is to look at wildlife location guides. Three of my favorite wildlife location guides are the Guide to the National Wildlife Refuges by Laura and William Riley, National Geographic’s Guide to Wildlife Watching by Glen Martin, and Nature Photography Hotspots by Tim Fitzharris. All three guides cover the whole United States. Rileys’ book is very detailed and covers a huge number of locations, but not the national parks. The books by Martin and Fitzharris are more selective and cover a shorter list of prime locations, including some of the best national parks to photograph wildlife.
For more detailed state by state information, a great set of books is the Watchable Wildlife series (look for the binoculars on the cover). Most of the books in the series were published by Falcon Press. Some of the books are getting hard to find, so grab the books you want while you can still get them. The Watchable Wildlife series was a nationwide project and involved a wide variety of U.S. and state government agencies. A lot of work went into the series and it shows in the quality of the information in the books. Each book provides information and maps for the best wildlife viewing sites in the state. That doesn’t mean the wildlife will line up by the side of the road and pose for your camera (as some reviewers of the books naively assume). You still need to know a bit of basic biology for the animals you want to see, and luck sometimes has a lot to do with it.
For example, Horseshoe Park in Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the better locations for spotting Bighorn Sheep in northern Colorado. Summer is the prime viewing time (don’t plan on seeing any Bighorns in the winter), but whether or not they show up on any given summer day is highly unpredictable. They can show up every day for a week, and then not be around at all for several days. I met a professional wildlife photographer who was at Horseshoe Park every day for 4 days and he didn’t see a single Bighorn. Then on his fifth and last day before he had to fly home, dozens of Bighorn sheep came down to feed in the meadow. Some stood up in the rocks right above the park road, presenting excellent photographic possibilities. Had he gone home a day earlier, he would have missed the whole thing.
Given the unpredictability of wildlife, it pays to increase your odds by using wildlife guide books to direct you to the best locations. You could wander Colorado’s mountains for weeks and never see any elk, or go to Rocky Mountain National Park in the fall and be almost guaranteed to see dozens if not hundred of elk.
You can find information and purchase links for all of my favorite wildlife location guides in this section of my photography store which is powered by Amazon.com.
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