Nature Photography: Spring
A photographer's monthlong search for warblers and wilderness.
May is one of the most glorious months for nature photography. At least it is where I live, near Chicago.
Almost eight years ago, I was surprised and thrilled to find that I had no obligations in May, so I decided to dedicate the entire month to nature photography. I set out with my camera every single day, rain or shine.
I enjoyed the experience so much that I’ve continued the tradition every year since. It’s become my retreat—my time to reconnect with nature and to witness the miracle of spring. I tell everyone, “I’m busy. Call me in June.” This is May. It’s my time to feel alive again.
The whole thing started because of warblers...they hold a special place in my heart because they’re so elusive and so beautiful this time of year.
So when I started that first year of photographing in May, my main goal was to find warblers. I’d never had much luck seeing or photographing these tiny wonders from the neotropics. After all, they pass through Chicago so quickly—here one day and gone the next—on the way to their breeding grounds up north.
But I started learning more about them: what their migration patterns are, which ones prefer treetops, which ones will fly lower. Doing my homework paid off, because I did find a few warblers that first year. But I learned and saw so much more along the way.
These days, I’m still learning and seeing new things. I’ll admit it can be hard to get outside every single day in May, especially early in the month. It’s easy to think up an excuse: It’s cold, it’s windy, it’s cloudy, I’m tired, I don’t have time. But then I always tell myself: Just 15 minutes. I can find 15 minutes to take some photos.
To make it easier, I often shoot in my own yard. I’ve put in native plants, and I get a surprising amount of wildlife on my suburban patio. Even when it’s cold, windy or rainy, I’m rewarded with natural wonders I could never have imagined: bejeweled, dewy spiderwebs; treetop-dwelling birds visiting me at eye level; flowers bowing under the drops of new rain.
By the time I hit mid-May, I really start looking forward to each day’s adventure. Then the month flies, and suddenly it’s over before I know it.
Along the way, I keep a journal to note the temperature, wind, cloud cover and every bird and flower I spot. Each year I notice new species and visit new locations, but I’m always amazed to see the beauty and diversity close to home.
Carol's tips for making the most of your time outside:
1. I find that warblers like water, so I’ll often sit by a stream or river and wait for the birds to work their way through. (They do seem to come in waves.)
2. Plan ahead by checking out nearby locations you’d like to visit. This will save you time.
3. Process your images each day, and update your log or journal if you keep one. It’s much easier and faster to do this every day.
4. Plan what you’ll do on those windy, rainy or cold days. Can you visit an arboretum or indoor nursery?
5. Don’t underestimate the fascinating things you can find in your own backyard. Raindrops and dewdrops make for magical photos!
6. Set up a bird feeder, a bird bath and a few native plants, and you’ll have countless things to photograph every day.
7. Be still. Wildlife often disperse at your approach, so find a seat in a likely area and wait for the birds to come to you.
8. Read up on the birds you’d like to see, and learn their patterns so you know where to look to photograph them.