Close to Town and Almost Always A Good Shoot!
Located only a couple of miles west of the Maverik Convenience Store, the pond at the base of Boyle’s Hill usually has numerous Trumpeters hanging around. Whether you go there to capture a few photos or simply to watch them, the time and effort is almost always rewarding. On most days, the pond will have the resident breeders, a few wild visiting Trumpeters and a variety of Canada Geese, Mallard Ducks, and other waterfowl. Bald Eagles and Osprey are known to frequent the area, too. The pond is a managed by the Wyoming Wetlands Society.
“The Wyoming Wetlands Society (WWS), is a 501 – (C) (3) non-profit organization based in Jackson, Wyoming. The primary objectives of WWS are to aid in the restoration of the Rocky Mountain Population of Trumpeter Swans and to protect, preserve, restore and enhance the wetlands they depend on. All of this is accomplished through partnerships with private landowners, state and federal agencies, and other non-profit organizations.”
Large birds like Trumpeter Swans prefer to take off into the wind. That’s perfect for the pond at Boyle’s Hill! Most of them fly directly at onlookers and photographers and often pass overhead. In the Winter, an aerator keeps an area of the pond open. It is a great place to practice your “birds in flight” technique. Mornings and afternoons are usually best, but birds are there all day.
Good Weather / Bad Weather: I like to photograph the Trumpeters against the blue skies, but it can also be good shooting on what most people might consider as “bad days”. I find it “challenging” to photograph a white bird against a white sky, so even when the sky is white, I try to take the photos of them while they are lower—with trees and hillsides behind them.
Boyle’s Hill: In late afternoon, the hillside (Boyle’s Hill) can turn amber or gold. Other days, the sky to the East can turn “gun barrel gray” and be a perfect backdrop for the swans.
Turf Wars: It is not uncommon to witness squabbles like this at Boyle’s Hill.
At times, a group gets very animated. Late afternoon photography can be especially nice as the stands of cottonwoods cast shadows across the frozen pond.
Wintering Group of Trumpeter Swans: In most years, Trumpeter Swans come back to the Jackson Hole area in late November and early December. They winter here until late March and then go north to their breeding areas. There are times of the day when the birds fly into the pond, then leave at other times. The take-offs and landing are usually more common in the mornings and afternoons, but a group can be active at any time. A few Trumpeters hang around the valley during the Summer, but most go farther North.
The Maverik Convenience Store is a half mile south of KMart. Turn West at the stop light and continue a couple of miles. There are a couple of pull-outs and an informational kiosk. (Click the image to see it much larger).
Swans in Flight: If you are patient enough, flight shots are common at Boyle’s Hill. Watch for a pair or a group of a half dozen to start bobbing their heads in unison. They become even more vocal than normal. Often they will move to the far edge of the open water and spread out slightly. Be ready! They will almost always take off soon afterwards.
For most of my “birds in flight” shots like this, I am almost always in Aperture Priority mode, with a -2/3 Exposure Compensation (EV). If I have enough light I typically set my Aperture to F/8. That gives me a reasonable depth of field and I know my 200-400 mm lens is usually sharp in that range. ISO varies according to the time of day, but I like to end up with a shutter speed at around 1/1250th of a second. Faster is better, but I still like to keep my ISO to no more than ISO 1250. I typically shoot in Continuous Focus Mode at 10 frames per second on my Nikon D4. For the big birds like swans, I usually adjust the focus pattern to 21 points and try to put the center focus point on the lead bird. The initial take-off can be dramatic with splashing water and their feet trying to walk on water. I shoot half a dozen of the take-off, then pause. During the pause, I can define which bird is leading and on which side of the frame I’d need to put my focus point. I can do this with my right thumb by rocking the multi-selector on the back of the camera. If there is only one bird, I typically still move the focus point to one side to attempt to put it over the swan’s eyes or head. I like to let them get a little closer before holding down the shutter button as they pass by. With my zoom lens, I can usually adjust the range somewhat in between short bursts.
An Approaching Swan: Most of the higher end DSLR cameras have a feature they call “predictive focusing”. It’s built into the camera’s software and requires no additional adjustments. Essentially it is a method of anticipating the movement of an object based on its current path and speed in an effort to assist in proper focusing. An approaching swan puts this feature and equipment to the test. It also introduces a few additional issues for a photographer. While a bird is in flight, the distance from the tip of its beak to the tip of its tail is probably in the range of four feet. As they take off at 75 yards, depth of field is not too much of an issue. As they get closer depth of field will decrease considerably while using a telephoto lens.
Shooting Data: NIKON D4, 200.0-400.0 mm f/4.0 at 200 mm, 1/2000 at f/6.3, Aperture priority Mode, -1 EV, ISO 1000, ©2013 Mike R. Jackson, All Rights Reserved Notes: This image was underexposed originally at -1EV. Some people might have lightened the scene even more in post processing, but I liked the moody flavor of the late evening shot. If you evaluate the settings, you can see I had begun raising the ISO from my normal ISO levels and had opened the Aperture some from my normal F/8 settings. I was able to freeze the wings at 1/2000th second. But note, I had ISO and Aperture set, leaving the shutter speed as the variable. While the bird was below the bright hillside, my shutter speed might have only been 1/640th second.
Passing Swan: Maintaining focus as a bird passes by is usually fairly easy compared to approaching shots. I have my camera set to “long” on the tracking adjustment. If I can get a good focus at one point, the camera will usually stay locked on the bird even with objects behind them, as seen here. During the Winter, the open water is about 75 yards from the viewing area. A 600mm lens is great for swans on the edges. Unfortunately, I don’t own one! Instead, I use my 200-400mm zoom lens and am plenty happy. As the Swans take off, I like the options with my zoom lens in that range. I included the Shooting Data for the images above and below. You can see my zoom was at 200 mm above and 270mm below. In other words, you don’t need a jumbo lens for shots at Boyle’s Hill once the birds are in the air. In the summer, many will be plenty close as they swim around the pond. I occasionally take shots handheld, but that’s usually only when I pull up and they are taking off, or they take off after I put the tripod away. On most days, I use my tripod with a Wimberly Sidekick on a sturdy tripod and good ball head.
Shooting Data: NIKON D4, 200.0-400.0 mm f/4.0 at 270 mm, 1/1250 at f/8, Aperture priority Mode, -1/3 EV, ISO 400
Frames Per Second: There are photographers that pride themselves on being “selective shooters”. They claim they can pick the exact prime micro-second when the action is peak and press the shutter one time to get the great shot. They have portfolio shots that back up their claim. Okay, I’ll buy it, but based on my own experiences with multiple moving objects, I am also skeptical. As these three swans flew by, I probably took 25 shots in a continuous burst. One of the 25 was better than the rest and maybe a couple of others were plenty acceptable. I am quite willing to accept there are much better photographers around, but I also wonder how many great opportunities they miss by mistiming a shot like this by even the most tiny slice of a second. I discussed the issue of shooting a lot of images on this earlier feature post: The Secret to Becoming a Good Photographer:
Additional Resources: Above, I threw out most of the settings and concepts I’ve adopted for photographing Trumpeter Swans. I find the same settings work well for Great Gray Owls and Eagles. I’d probably have to rework everything if trying to photograph fast moving Puffins. There are hundreds or thousands of different approaches to capturing “birds in flight”. Do a Google search on the topic and I am positive you’ll find a plethora of information. I typically read other people’s methods, then attempt to decipher or distill the information and see if there is anything I can apply to my current approach. I hope that’s what you will do with the information here!
Other Times of the Year:
One pair is seen regularly on Flat Creek on the North Edge of the Town of Jackson, but none of the wild swans actually nest at Boyle’s Hill. Cygnets from area nests are brought to Boyle’s Hill to mature through the summer, then are rounded up and dispersed to new areas. Cygnets are gray for most of their first year. Many of the wild Swans have amber or golden toned heads. I always thought it was from feeding along the banks of the river, but I have been told the color is a result of their diet. Most of the resident birds lack the amber colored heads as a result of feeding on supplied corn and feed.
Swan Roundup in Progress: Bill Long is seen here rounding up the year’s Cygnets.
Cygnets and Resident Breeders Making a Break For It: Using the kayaks, Bill Long and his friends push the Swans into a pen. This happens sometime in June.
Many of the Trumpeters are being banded for studies as seen in this image. The group that Winters in Jackson Hole have an alpha-numeric code beginning with “H-xx”. If you happen to see or photograph one of the Jackson group in any area other than the Jackson Hole area, the biologists are interested in getting reliable sighting information. Check the link above for email and contact information!
Fall Reflections: A few of the resident birds stay at Boyle’s Hill all year. There are aspens and cottonwoods along the north side of the pond. If you catch it just right, it is possible to get bright gold and yellow reflections. It is not uncommon to see a local photographer or two at Boyle’s Hill on any particular day. When other things seem slow, many go there for a few shots. Still, it is seldom “crowded” and can be a relaxing way to end the day. If you go there, you’ll likely fill a CF card!
Loose Ends: There are two pullouts on Boyle’s Hill Road. I prefer to photograph the Swans from the East pullout now. A few shrubs are blocking the views at the West pullout. The group of Trumpeters seen above were taken from the East pullout. They were gathering in anticipation of being fed by one of the Wetlands Society members. Public access to the actual feeding area is not allowed unless invited and accompanied by one of the Wyoming Wetland Society feeders. Areas East, North, and West of the pond are on private property and not open to the public. People are also asked NOT TO FEED the birds at any time.
During the Government Shutdown last year, I created this page: Outside the Park: Alternative Places to Visit, Hike, Fish, and Photograph The Swan Pond at Boyle’s Hill was on the list of alternative places to go. You might want to check it out for something different and usually well off the beaten path.
A “sister post” to this one is called Wintering Trumpeter Swans Along Flat Creek: This spot offers different terrain and angles for photographing wild Trumpeter and Tundra Swans.
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Cheers! Mike R. Jackson