Hide, an animal comes!

Text and photos: Tõnu Ling, Loodusfotod 
Translation: Liis
 
 
It is rather comical that man – who considers himself the crown of nature – goes in hiding from his subjects, the wild animals and birds.
Actually man of today isn’t very good at socialising with birds and animals. He insists on pressing too close to them, instead of observing the life of our co-inhabitants on this planet from a decent distance. And this is probably why they “always only bolt away”, as a young nature photo enthusiast complained to me. You might stalk them as best you can, but they sneak away all the same. Obviously they have an inbred sense of caution since generations back that says that if you don’t want to end up in a cooking pot, then better keep away.
But it is also a fact that some animals do harm people, whether they be bears, wolves, lions or hippopotamuses. The hippopotamuses bring to mind a rather shocking video cut shown somewhere of a man who didn’t keep a safe distance when he was filming the doings of a hippopotamus, and so, tragically: “chomp!”. Finnish nature photographer Hannu Hautala has told about his friend, a Japanese nature photographer, who fell victim to bears in Kamchatka. Probably the sleeping tent gave off a smell of food and so ... But generally these predators keep away from people of their own will, and if they are photographed from special shelters, there is no danger.
There are animals and birds that are quite companionable with humans, but there are also those that are very shy, and even those that are dangerous, so much that to observe their doings and to photograph them, it is necessary to creep into a shelter and hide oneself. But how?
 
Camouflage clothing

The first step towards seeing more on nature trips is to use camouflage clothing, for oneself as well as for one’s photo equipment. This way, it is possible to creep very close to deer or wild boars for instance. Even badgers - that obviously don’t see very well at a distance - tolerate a camouflage dressed photographer quite well. Of course the wind direction must be observed around these, and other „nosy” creatures, so that the smell of the photographer doesn’t hit their noses. I have even experienced that the otherwise very shy deer approach to investigate someone with a hood drawn over his head. Even an elk stops sometimes to stare. Human smell, however. announces danger and the friend-making quickly comes to an end.

 
Wild animals sometimes observe a camouflage-dressed photographer with great interest, until they become aware of the human smell and make a hasty getaway.
 
Simple shelters

When you are wearing camouflage clothes, it is possible to hide even behind bushes or trees; the silage balls at edges of fields sometimes offer an excellent opportunity to photograph animals feeding in the field. A camouflage net can also be set up to hide behind. They can often be found in hunting or military shops. The net can be hung up on a branch or a pole quickly. And for photographing small birds for instance it works very well.

 
Even from behind a bush it is possible to observe the life of animals if the wind direction is right. Here a male badger gnashes fleas.
 
Tent hides

Even better is to use special nature photo tents. From tents I have for instance photographed waterfowl, capercaillies and white-tailed eagles. But in cold weather it is difficult to resist the “call of nature”, and the natural needs seem to become abnormally strong too. But if you step out of the tent when it is light, the watching session for that time is over. Of course special “vessels” are used to solve the problem, but for many it is rather uncomfortable. I know a German nature photographer who, because of this, will not eat or drink before going into a shelter. Ascetic? Well, yes, but a personal choice.

 
It is not particularly pleasant to photograph from a small tent hide at below-zero temperature. But to wake in the morning to the cooing of black grouse is a splendid experience.
 
Hard-wall shelters
More worthwhile, considering the results, and certainly much more comfortable, but also much more expensive, is to erect a hard wall shelter. Hard wall shelters sometimes are also made smell-proof. Birds don’t, as far as is known, bother much about the smell of humans, but they do become wary at any rustle from the hut. Because of this, proper shelter sheds are also sound proof. Insulated sheds also keep the warmth, and it is pleasant to sit in them from morning to evening and observe nature.
In larger observation huts it is even possible to stay for a night or two. They usually have kitchen equipment and a toilet. Building them is however quite expensive, and it is largely the playground of commercial enterprises that offer bird and animal photography services. Of course nature photo enthusiasts can organise a group and build an own shelter. But it is worthwhile to consider if there will also be time and energy and means to transport feeding to the site.
Professional nature photographers may spend tens of years in “solitary confinement” in photo shelters during their career. With a shelter in place and ready, wonderful photo opportunities open. In April, 2004, when my first shelter tent was ready and I had put it up at a shore in Muhu, near an open "eye” of water in the ice, I caught unforgettable images of sheldrakes and blackheaded gulls. This was something special. Now it was possible to get near otherwise shy birds without disturbing them in their everyday business.

Since then I have set up various photo hides, and I have had the luck to follow the doings of birds and animals at quite close quarters which would not have been possible otherwise. Once a young black grouse cock came within a few meters of the tent hide, to check the make of my objective lens. When he didn’t quite understand, he walked placidly on. So one can leave the birds and animals their freedom to reign in their territories, and that is good for all.

 
In cold weather it is quite comfortable to photograph from a heatable hard-wall shelter. Keeping feed available takes work but a photo of a white-tailed eagle is ample compensation.
 
Floating shelters
Floating shelters are excellent for waterfowl photographing. Their construction needs ingenuity, their use wise forethought. A floating shelter should never be used without a life vest or float suit in waters where your feet can’t reach bottom. Using floating shelters in large water bodies or at the sea coast needs special caution since the wind can carry the shelter, with the photographer, out on open waters. If your feet can’t reach bottom, there is no anchor, and you have no waterproof mobile, the risk is not worth taking.

When the period of floating shelters runs into the colder part of the season, it is good advice to see that the bottom parts of your body stay warm. This way you can work in water without risking that frequent use of the floating shelter might bring rheumatic or prostate problems that may not show until years later.

 
Great crested grebe family on morning swim. The little chick lets itself be ferried while smoothing its downy feathers. Floating shelter photo.
 
Certainly a car is also a possible shelter from where, with luck, living nature can be photographed. But the camera needs to be ready on your lap, or on the seat beside you.

This hiding game is great fun and adds spice to life with unforgettable memories. It pays to start off in the simplest way: camouflage clothing and paying attention to the wind direction. And if you can’t set up tents or build shelters, it can be worthwhile checking up commercial services that are offered. In Estonia many do so already. So hide yourself – the creatures may be on their way!

 
This sheldrake was the first "star" of my photos from a tent.
 
See also the page where the article was originally  published: http://blog.photopoint.ee/
 
Estonian Looduskalender article posted on Jan 13, 2010


 

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