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Winter Duck Photography in Arizona

by Tina Hay | March 24, 2019

© Tina HayOne of the best places for quality duck photography in the United States is an unlikely location: the desert of south-central Arizona.

American wigeons, ring-necked ducks, northern pintails, lesser scaup, green-winged teal—more than a dozen species of migratory ducks and other waterfowl take up residence each winter on the ponds around Phoenix. They’re relatively easy to find and photograph, in part because their numbers are concentrated in the few available bodies of standing water, and in part because duck hunting is prohibited in the Phoenix vicinity, making the waterfowl less skittish around people.

Cinnamon teal, male © Tina Hay

Cinnamon teal, male © Tina Hay

In January 2019, I joined four other photographers as participants in E.J. Peiker’s DuckShop™, a duck-photography workshop offered by NatureScapes. A longtime nature photographer and a co-founder of NatureScapes, E.J. is the author of the e-book Ducks of North America: The Photographer’s Guide. He’s been leading the annual DuckShop since 2001.

E.J. opened the workshop on a Sunday evening with a PowerPoint covering topics like equipment, lens technique, exposure modes, composition, and flash gear and settings. (As it turned out, we ended up using flash on only morning, when skies were cloudy.) He also went through the species of waterfowl we might see: American wigeons, for example, would likely be plentiful, along with canvasbacks, northern shovelers and ring-necked ducks. Pied-billed grebes should come fairly close. Buffleheads would likely be around, but probably not close enough to be photographed. Hooded mergansers, not likely. Ring-necked ducks, “almost guaranteed.” And so on.

Mallard, female © Tina Hay

Mallard, female © Tina Hay

E.J. schedules the workshop in late January for a reason: The waterfowl arrive in the area in November, but they tend to be shy at that point; by January they’ve gotten to be more comfortable around people. They’re also more photogenic by then as they’re in breeding plumage.

On our first morning, we rolled up to a municipal park in Gilbert just before sunrise, and stood at the edge of a small lake of reclaimed water, assembling our camera gear while E.J. surveyed the lake with binoculars. “The gang’s all here,” he announced. E.J. had scouted an assortment of locations in the days leading up to the workshop and knew which species to expect at which sites.

Northern shoveler © Tina Hay

Northern shoveler © Tina Hay

We set up at the water’s edge, some of us lying on our stomachs to shoot (a test of your neck and back flexibility if ever there was one), others sitting on the grass. The lower you can get, the better the images as it allows you to shoot at eye level with the ducks, and the depth of field narrows to produce a pleasing foreground and background blur. Over the next three hours, American wigeons, ring-necked ducks, and northern shovelers all swam close enough to be photographed, while E.J. offered suggestions on camera settings, composition, and exposure. I learned, for example, that 1/500 of a second is generally enough shutter speed for a swimming duck, but if it’s preening and you want to catch the wing-flap that follows, you need about 1/1250. And you need to expose differently for different birds: American wigeons have a white patch on their heads that can blow out if you’re not careful; the same is true of the white breast of the northern shoveler. Because E.J. has shot extensively with a number of different camera brands, he was equally comfortable giving advice to shooters of Nikon, Canon, Sony, and other cameras.

Once the sun was high enough in the sky that the light became too harsh, we packed up and went to a nearby café for brunch, then drove back to the hotel for some downtime before heading out to a different site in the afternoon.

Ring-necked duck © Tina Hay

Ring-necked duck © Tina Hay

For three days our routine was the same, as E.J. took us each morning and each afternoon to sites he had selected for maximum duck activity and/or particular target species. We got lesser scaup at one site, canvasbacks at another. At another, we struck out on northern pintails (too far away), long-billed dowitchers (same), and green-winged teal (sleeping), but were rewarded with an unexpected—and gorgeous—male cinnamon teal. And, though the emphasis was on ducks, we saw and photographed other species as well: white pelicans, black-necked stilts, a Gila woodpecker and a green heron. We also saw, but didn’t stop to photograph, Gambel’s quail and Anna’s hummingbirds. At one site, we happened onto a flock of rosy-faced lovebirds, and you can bet that we dropped what we were doing and spent a good 45 minutes enthusiastically photographing those.

Over the lunch hour each day, we’d download our images or take a quick nap; E.J. also made himself available one midday at the hotel for image critiquing and Photoshop instruction. At night we’d go out to eat at one of the many restaurants near the hotel. That was a striking characteristic of the workshop: While some nature-photography trips involve remote locations and basic accommodations, this one was beyond civilized.

American wigeon, male © Tina Hay

American wigeon, male © Tina Hay

Then again, a downside to waterfowl photography in a suburban setting is that you see firsthand the sprawl that’s eating away at the birds’ habitat. E.J., who has lived in the Phoenix suburbs since 1994, has seen what he calls a “troubling” drop in bird numbers: fewer species, and fewer individuals of each species. Gadwalls were once common in the area in winter; now they’re almost never seen. Ditto redheads and blue-winged teal. It’s consistent with a worldwide trend: BirdLife International’s State of the World’s Birds 2018 reported that nearly 40 percent of the planet’s bird species are in decline.

Regardless, we all came away from the workshop with a nice collection of quality images, and a good bit of knowledge—about the birds and about photography—that will surely prove useful on future outings.

About the Author

Tina Hay is editor-at-large of the Penn Stater, the alumni magazine for the 174,000 members of the Penn State Alumni Association. She’s also an avid traveler and photographer; you can see some of her images at flickr.com/tinahay and visit her blog at sites.psu.edu/tinahay. Follow her on Twitter @tinahay.

3 thoughts on “Winter Duck Photography in Arizona

  1. Thanks for taking the time to write and share you experience with us. Now I have a really good idea of what Duck Shop is like!

    I especially like the Ring-necked Duck drake image that you included; the “alert” position with the upstretched neck is quite striking! Love it!

    There’s something that I’ve been wondering about for years; in E.J.’s Duck Shop tours, are there a lot of opportunities for photos of ducks in flight? Or is it primarily geared toward on-the-water photography?

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