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Photographing waterfowl during breeding season

Male Ruddy Duck in a courtship display - Photographing waterfowl during breeding season - BirdWatching Magazine
A male Ruddy Duck rushes across a pond in a courtship display. To freeze the duck’s movements and the splashing water, photographer Carol Polich used a Canon EOS 7D Mark II with an EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens (settings f/8.0, 1/2000, spot metering, ISO 400).

The breeding season for waterfowl provides wonderful opportunities for action shots of ducks, geese, and swans, depending on where you live and what species nest near you. 

One of my most memorable experiences with breeding waterfowl took place one year in mid-June at a local marsh pond. I noticed a squat and colorful male Ruddy Duck. He came close to reeds that surrounded the pond and proceeded with his courtship ritual. Its intensity took me off guard while I set up my Canon camera with 500mm lens on my tripod. I stood on a road that bordered the pond reeds, giving me a great view. 

At first, all I could do was watch his intricate mating maneuvers before his explosive charge took force a few meters in front of me. As he approached closer, I realized I needed a shorter lens and retrieved a second camera with my 100-400mm lens attached. It was much easier to hand-hold my equipment while following his volatile assault.

Foamy bubbles formed in the water as his blue bill tappety-tapped on the pristine pond. Upon closer inspection (with the help of Google), I learned that his bill taps against an air sac in his neck in which air is forced from his neck feathers. A swirl of bubbles appeared at the base of his chest while his stiff tail feathers cocked upward. With a low belch-like croak, he then alerted a hidden female of his approach. She was awaiting her suitor in the marsh reeds. This was the first step in their courtship behavior.

Shortly thereafter, exploding action ensued. In perfect sequence, with neck stretched upward and then down low, the male Ruddy then charged forward in a splashing spurt, leaving a wake behind him. These behavioral signs were cues that I needed to begin releasing my fast shutter. 

With a flap of his wings and feet moving swiftly across the water, his body went into an elongated stretch. His entire focus was on the marsh reeds as he lunged toward the hidden female while my whole focus was on his eye. But he got no response from the reeds, so he repeated his virile approach. I was thankful to get a second chance with my rapid shooting. Resuming his position, he charged again. I locked my focus on his eye and concentrated on his behavioral cues. I pressed the shutter halfway with a delicate touch. With outstretched wings, the Ruddy thrust his body headlong and with great intensity, advancing on webbed feet that raced in a flurry across the water. Again, the action of a gigantic splash reinforced his performance.

Ruddy Ducks are smaller than most ducks, and the males are aggressive within their territory and protective over females. The male is wrapped in chestnut feathers with white cheeks and has a brilliant blue bill in breeding season. His head is topped off by a black crown that rises into two feathered “horns” when he is aroused.

Female Ruddy Duck races across the water - Photographing waterfowl during breeding season - BirdWatching Magazine
A female Ruddy races across the water. For this photo, Polich used a Canon EF500mm f/4L IS II USM lens with a 1.4x teleconverter (settings f/6.3, 1/3200, spot metering, ISO 640).

Don’t think that the dull-colored female is any less aggressive. She will take on the largest of feathered “enemies,” even those minding their own business, such as nearby coots that also inhabit the pond. If another suitor approaches and she thinks ill of him, she will give him an aggravated look and an aggressive chase. She opens her bill wide, and the upper part is in a slight curl, ready for pecking. 

However, the dating scene can get rough when other males approach her. In high alert mode, two other males arrived, and the first male lunged in pursuit to protect his mate. With ruffled feathers, bodies plunged below the turbulent water, and a fight arose between four Ruddies, one of which was the female. It was difficult to watch the battle. I cheered for what looked like a helpless female in distress. After a few watery seconds, twisting bodies emerged, and the female propelled herself out of the water with bill wide open in self-defense. What seemed like everlasting warfare ended within 45 seconds. Being a natural, diving duck, all survived, virtually unscathed, and the original male came out as prime defender and victor. The new pair would soon build a nest and breed.

The end result? After 20 to 26 days of incubation, four robust chicks swam behind their mother! As for me? My end result was endless hours and days photographing several of these entertaining ducks and learning first-hand about their fascinating mating behaviors. 

Pro tips

  • Watching and understanding wild behaviors are crucial for photographers in anticipating when to release the shutter; thus, patience and persistence are needed.
  • When photographing birds, fast shutter speeds are needed for tack-sharp eyes and head. I suggest 1/1600 to 1/3200 or greater.
  • A lighter lens, such as a 100-400mm, is ideal for handholding and easier to follow an active bird, especially if it’s close to the photographer.
  • For excellent photography, understand the technical side of your camera, especially how the ISO, F stop, and shutter speed relate to each other and how they perform under sunlight or overcast skies.
  • Use one focal box on the bird’s eye and head rather than multiple boxes, so your focus doesn’t jump around to surrounding subjects.
  • Shooting in tracking mode (AI Servo) can help as long as your focus box indicates that it has locked on its subject. This is a skill within itself for photographers to develop.

This article was first published in the “Photographing Birds” column in the March/April 2022 issue of BirdWatching magazine.

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Carol Polich

Carol Polich (www.wildnaturetrails.com) is a professional nature and wildlife photographer based in Montana. Her photos and articles have been published in magazines, guidebooks, and calendars, and she has published two books of photography, about the Yellowstone ecosystem and southern African wildlife. Polich also teaches photography. 

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