Photograph by Jeff Nadler
Q & A with photographer Jeff Nadler
What do you think makes an emotionally engaging portrait?
For birds, I feel that an emotional connection to the viewer is all about the eyes—sharply in focus, looking toward the camera, and at our own eye level. Bird photos taken with your camera pointed up or down at the subject rarely work.
How do you find your subjects? What Adirondack habitats are the richest for a birding photographer?
The Adirondacks has diverse habitats—northern hardwood forests, mixed woods, lowland and upper-elevation coniferous forests, wetlands, lakes, ponds and rivers, the Champlain Valley’s open spaces and shrubby fields. Over the years I have learned exactly where each species prefers to breed, raise young and feed.
Northern hardwoods and mixed forests may have the greatest diversity of species and quantity of birds. But the Adirondacks holds a special attraction in lowland and upper-elevation conifer forests and wetlands: boreal bird species. Although bird diversity is more limited in these habitats, the species that do live here—gray jay, boreal chickadee, spruce grouse, olive-sided flycatcher, rarer woodland warblers and Lincoln’s sparrow—are exciting to find.
Early on, Long Lake birding expert Joan Collins encouraged me to learn and identify species by songs and calls, since many are heard rather than seen. Many songbirds in the warbler and vireo families live high up in the trees, so birders and bird photographers sometimes use techniques to coax them out into the open. I’ve had the most success with playback calls from smartphone bird song apps. But this approach is not without debate. Birding author David Sibley recommends limiting the playback to a short duration, keeping the volume low, and not using the apps in more populated locations.
What’s the best time of the day or year to capture Adirondack birds?
Songbirds are most active in the morning hours and the lighting is better than at midday, when the sun is too harsh to capture subtle feather colors and details. Overcast days allow for all-day shooting, but birds quiet down by late morning and many may be resting or sleeping.
I enjoy each season for different birds to photograph. From early May through early July, I may visit forests and waters for a huge variety of birdlife. September through November offers a progressive migration of shorebirds, songbirds, hawks, and then ducks. December through March brings the excitement of winter visitors from the far north.
What’s your favorite species to capture, and what’s the most elusive bird you’ve snapped?
I would have to rank my favorite as the common loon, since it is the bird that started my photography passion—thanks to frequent wilderness lake camping trips. If a favorite was measured by time spent in the field, the wood warbler family, with more than two dozen breeding species, would be at the top of the list. But if I had to select a favorite species on just a feeling of pure magic, it would be an occasional winter visitor—the snowy owl.
The limited population of Adirondack spruce grouse makes it one the most elusive. Quite a few years ago, I was fortunate to be invited on a research outing near Spring Pond Bog. We found one bird—and to this day it remains the only photographic opportunity of this rare grouse that I have had in the state.
What are your go-to camera and lens?
I started out and continue to use a Canon, due to its image stabilization technology. My main birding lens is the Canon 500mm F4 IS, often paired with a 1.4x extender. Mostly used with a tripod, this larger and heavier lens is still practical for handholding in flight shots or on a beanbag support from a lowered car window. For portability, I am also in love with Canon’s new incredibly sharp 100–400 F5.6 IS Version II lens, which is far improved over the original version that many amateur and pro bird photographers started out with. I use the Canon 7D Mk 2 SLR body with its 1.6x sensor versus the preferred full frame bodies of landscape photographers. This offers an increase in magnification for small subjects based on the sensor size.
What other pieces of equipment are indispensable on your outings?
My pack canoe and touring kayak. Paddling remote waterways transports you to woodlands and wetlands not easily accessible by trail. There is also a benefit that birds and wildlife seem less anxious around a quietly paddled boat versus a person walking. Paddling photography does require good ethics, however, such as not getting too close to active nests or chicks. I have ended numerous paddling trips without any photographs simply because individual birds were not tolerant of boats approaching and fled or called out.
Do you ever use a blind or some other form of camouflage?
My favorite blind is my parked vehicle along sparsely traveled roads, such as Northpoint Road south of Long Lake or Tahawus Road approaching the High Peaks trailhead. Less frequently, I set up my “pop-up” camo tent blind along shorelines to photograph ducks and wading birds. I even own a wearable camo blind with an opening for the lens. It worked well with wild turkeys!
How much—or how little—digital processing do you employ?
Digital sensors, like film, cannot necessarily capture a subject as perfectly as the eyes can see. I use Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop to adjust the basics—color, saturation, exposure, contrast and sharpening—to as close to what I saw as possible. For bird photos for publication and identification, it is very important to not enhance the image to make it prettier. I use no background manipulation. For simple backdrops, I move around to capture an uncluttered sky, distant vegetation or water, using a wider lens aperture to throw it out of focus.
You’ve photographed in some of the most gorgeous areas in the country. What makes the Adirondacks special as a backdrop?
The rich mix of mountain and water habitats in the Adirondacks makes it unique. I have paddled with loons on a wilderness lake in the morning and then captured upper-elevation birds on a peak in the afternoon. You can’t do that in Florida or even much of the Rockies.
Do you have a favorite region within the park?
For an incredible variety of bird species on or near water and in forests, my favorite location is the Route 30 corridor from Speculator north through Indian Lake, Blue Mountain Lake, Long Lake to Tupper Lake. This route highlights just about every Adirondack habitat. A hike up Blue Mountain offers upper-elevation birds, while the roadside Sabattis Bog harbors boreal species.
A second favorite is the seasonally accessible Moose River Plains Wild Forest from either Indian Lake or Inlet. This is an ideal area to use the car as a blind, although numerous hiking trails do bring you to remote lakes and ponds.
In winter, with birdlife limited, the open country of the Champlain Valley offers the excitement of looking for visitors from the arctic or sub-arctic.
What are some easily accessible spots for amateur bird photographers?
I would suggest the trails and viewable waters at both Adirondack Interpretive Centers in Newcomb (www.esf.edu/aic) and Paul Smiths (www.adirondackvic.org). Mid-May through July are best for breeding songbirds, but a snowshoe outing could offer evening grosbeaks, boreal chickadees or common redpoll at the feeders. The seasonal toll-road up Whiteface Mountain offers an easy way to look for upper-elevation birds. In fall and winter, before Lake Champlain bays have frozen, birding enthusiasts can scan the water for a variety of waterfowl, bald eagles and snow geese.
Jeff Nadler has been photographing birds—for editorial, educational and conservational use—for more than 25 years. See more of his work at www.jnphoto.net.