Avian and wildlife photography in New Jersey: five years in review

Published: 08/04/2020

As I've now officially wrapped up my PhD, and ultimately, my five year stint in Princeton, New Jersey, it made sense to reflect on the other pursuit that has taken up the majority of my time (and life): avian and wildlife photography.

When I first moved to New Jersey in the summer of 2015, I had only just recently gotten my first camera: a D3300 with the 18-55mm and 55-200mm kit lenses. The quality of the images those combinations could produce blew me away at the time -- not in terms of sharpness but rather just pure quality. They were so different to cell phone images. I quickly gravitated to my newfound interest bird and wildlife photography in my newfound area -- photographing the geese, ducks, and frogs along the Delaware & Raritan Canal and the occasional fox in local parks. I quickly realized the "reach" problem of bird and wildlife photography and upgraded to a refurbished 70-300mm f/4.5-f/5.6 lens. Still a modest focal length, it made every animal 2.25x larger in the frame! I took this kit with me on our first year trip to Tiputini, Ecuador where I saw and photographed birds and animals I hadn't even known existed and some that I never expected to see, for example a jaguar. Getting back, those images were very cool, but something about them felt off. They weren't quite what I wanted, but I didn't know why. I spent A LOT of time after that researching everything I could -- What is the best gear and why? Why does that image work and this doesn't? What does a truly sharp image look like? How do I handle noise in images? Why was the image taken when I moved a couple inches over better than the first one? These questions led to me going out to parks again and again (and again and again and again...). I often sought (and sometimes found) repeat opportunities where I could try another tweak -- more shutter speed, better light, a different background, a different angle, different and / or better gear. I did travel to a ton of amazing places during my PhD, but these local parks in New Jersey are really where I studied (notably, not perfected!), for lack of a better term, the art of wildlife photography. 

The images that follow are essentially my "dissertation" (to keep the PhD analogy going :) ) from my five years in the state. These images represent just a subset of the full set taken in New Jersey, but also represent my personal favorites.   

Click each image to view larger.

Local and common birds gave me practice understanding in flight work, composition, and light angles.

Seasonal migrations of shorebirds were a focus of my time in both summer and winter.

These next four images were taken over the course of a couple of days while hanging with my Dad at the Jersey Shore during the summer -- how cool is that?

The state-endangered Piping Plover in particular drew my attention.

I often chased owls, but rarely ever had success. The few times I did however, were awesome. This Great-horned owl and it's mate were calling back and forth at sunset.

One of my more "creative" photos -- a Short-eared owl diving for prey *well* after sunset.

Despite owls generally being very challenging to image in this area, my first (and favorite) Snowy owl sighting was incredibly easy. After waking up at around 4am, I drive two hours down to the shore hoping to find a Snowy at sunrise. I picked a pull off point randomly and walked onto the beach only to immediately find this Snowy. Waiting for the sun to come up a bit more gave me a "lifer" in beautiful purple light.

I rarely chased the springtime migrants, but sometimes I couldn't resist trying (and often cursing) these little birds.

One of my favorite sightings was a pair of Blue-gray gnatcatcher carefully constructing a nest with lichen and spiderweb.

Not easy birds to get a good photograph of in this area, but scavengers and birds of prey were always a treat.

Backyard Ruby-throated hummingbirds one summer provided some photo opportunities when it was too hot and humid to hike around anywhere.

Most wildlife species in New Jersey are either very elusive or very common. However, both sets proved reasonably challenging to image.

One particularly nice sighting was a rabbit with three young. I captured these tender moments outside of my apartment building one raining afternoon.

Groundhogs are surprisingly skittish in this area, but this one cooperated nicely enough one (very hot) summer day.

A little odd, but one of my favorite non-bird encounters in NJ was actually this snapping turtle. They really are dinosaurs.

Each summer I made a point to visit nesting herons at the now famous Ocean City Rookery. When I first started photographing, this spot was almost always dead and I was the rare photographer. However, in recent years it's been packed -- some folks even lead bird photography tours here. Given the incredibly unique situation this rookery presents (i.e., eye-level views of nesting and flying herons), I can't blame them.

Wintering ducks visiting from the Arctic gave me a chance to photograph species folks travel great distances to see and image. The cold and windy trips to Barnegat Jetty were some of my favorite days between the ducks and shorebirds.

Ultimately however, it was the Northern Harriers that most captivated me in my time in the state. I could photograph these birds every day for the rest of my life and I would still keep find a new angle in which to approach the subject. Sexually dimorphic, females (and juveniles) are shades of brown and yellow while the adult males exhibit beautiful grey plumage. Both adult sexes have distinct yellow eyes, while juveniles have black eyes. I think the adult females are about as beautiful a bird as you could imagine.

And probably my two favorite images from my five years in NJ:

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Overall, New Jersey is one of the more interesting places to do avian and wildlife photography in my opinion. It's the densest state, meaning you'll rarely ever have a park or location "to yourself". New Jersey is also one of the few states that doesn't have a National Forest, meaning virtually every wildlife encounter has to be had on the trail. In other words, if something awesome is happening behind a row of trees off the trail, too bad! All of this is of course for good reason however. New Jersey is also a state with a rich conservation history and tradition, particularly small preserves. Many of these images were taken at local grasslands where controlled burns and yearly mowing help attract species like Northern Harrier. Without these efforts, and the corresponding restrictions in such a densely populated state, these birds would likely pass over these parks on their migrations. These factors all contribute to both a state where you have a range of species within an hour or two drive depending on the season. These factors also contribute to a state where wildlife photography can be a bit frustrating at times! Despite any frustrations (which come with the territory over give years!), I've been really fortunate to have such amazing encounters through the seasons. I think some spots in NJ, especially Mercer Meadows and Barnegat Jetty, are really the premiere spots to image Northern harrier and wintering ducks on the East coast in winter. Other spots locally are premiere spots to see warblers, and I have no doubt that one could concentrate their efforts on imaging the species with great success over the years. Moving forward, I'll certainly miss some of these spots and species.

However, with that said, I'm also looking forward to "tackling" a new area and finding new productive parks in Wyoming. Although I won't be *that* close to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, I will certainly have access to an array of different species, and very different habitats, not to mention access in National Forests and neighboring National Parks in WY, NE, and CO; all of this to say as bummed as I am about leaving some of these spots, I'm equally excited to explore a whole new set of species and settings. So heres to looking forward to the next "great adventure" while also looking back very fondly on the opportunities NJ species provided me.

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