By William H. Mullins
About 25 years ago, I learned an invaluable wildlife photography lesson when I had the good fortune to partner with a couple of seasoned photographers preparing to work a ferruginous hawk nest in the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area in southwest Idaho.
James P. Blair, a National Geographic photographer, was on assignment working on the book “Our Threatened Inheritance: National Treasures of the United States” (1984, National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C.), and freelancer John Marshall was photographing a coffee-table book titled simply “Idaho” (1985, Graphic Arts Center Publishing Co., Portland, Ore.).
Blair came to this project with a wealth of experience and knowledge of some tricks of the trade. Before he visited the nest site, he constructed a simple blind using cheap, locally purchased materials: PVC sprinkler pipe for the frame and desert-colored camouflage fabric for the cover. (I’m sure all of you photographers have used some variant of this many times over the years). A few strategically located tie downs were added to facilitate anchoring the blind to nearby rocks and sagebrush with lengths of parachute cord for protection from the ubiquitous spring desert winds.
The first time we used the blind, the three of us along with a Bureau of Land Management biologist approached the nest on an unusually hot May afternoon. Being low man on the totem pole (hey, I didn’t have a book contract – yet), I got to be first in, while the light was flat and the blind was hot enough to slow-cook a duck. The four of us approached the nest, a platform of sticks perched on a rocky outcrop above the Snake River Canyon, and quickly assembled the blind about 60 or 70 yards away while the adult hawk circled above us, angrily screaming her protests while her four downy young, age 14-18 days old, huddled nervously in the nest.
At this time, our main concern was the intense heat, and we knew the adult would normally be on the nest shading her young during the hottest part of this very hot day. Once I was in the blind, the others quickly left. Within a few minutes I heard our truck fire up, and I glanced out the back of the blind to see the telltale trail of dust marking its departure. Within 10 minutes, the adult returned to the nest, oblivious to my presence in the new, strange-shaped obelisk nearby, and resumed her motherly duties, spreading her large wings while the chicks sought shelter from the sun underneath. Her mate arrived an hour later with a freshly killed ground squirrel – a bonus for the hungry chicks and a bonus for me, as I busily burned roll after roll of Kodachrome. The flat light hadn’t bothered me a bit – I came away with a wealth of nesting-behavior photos that I am marketing to this day.
This scene was repeated many times over the next couple of weeks, using different vantages for the blind, different times of day for the shooting, and different combinations of photographers and others approaching and leaving the blind. The important constant was that at least one person always left the blind as soon as the photographer de jour was inside. The obvious lesson, or trick, was that in spite of incredible eyesight and hunting skills, these birds simply cannot count, and as far as they were concerned, whenever our small group approached and then departed the blind, there were no photographers left behind! ◊
William H. Mullins, of Boise, Idaho, is a freelance photographer, retired wildlife biologist and a 20-year member of OWAA.
By William H. Mullins