Blindsiding Wildlife with a Camera

At a number of refuges and other locations across the country, permanent blinds provide photo enthusiasts with unobstructed opportunities to get close to wildlife; consider these six sites

12-01-2009 // Deborah Richie Oberbillig
photo blind 

AS THE RISING SUN fires up the sky above the Colorado plains, photographers sitting inside a trailer that was modified to serve as a camera blind focus on greater prairie-chickens dancing only a few feet away. Several hundred miles south on the Lower Rio Grande River in Texas, another group of camera buffs, concealed in a cabinlike blind with floor-to-ceiling windows covered with burlap curtains, snap pictures of a green jay drinking nearby from a woodland pool.

The two sites are part of a growing nationwide network of refuges, sanctuaries, parks, public forests and private lands where managers have built permanent structures that provide photographers and nature enthusiasts with unobstructed opportunities to get close to wildlife in natural habitats. Some of these locations require advance reservations. Others are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. At almost all of them, the blinds are oriented so that early morning or evening light falls on the wild creatures outside. Those built specifically for photography often have multiple windows that can be opened or closed quietly as the light shifts and animals move. In a few locations, managers have enhanced the settings by adding perch branches or artificial water sources.

Anyone interested in taking pictures of wild animals could spend the better part of a year traveling from one of these sites to the next. Consider, for example, the following six photography blind destinations, starting in January with the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex in northern California.

More than 500 bald eagles, including as many as 100 roosting together in one spot, pass the winter at Klamath—the largest annual gathering of our national symbol in the lower 48 states. The refuge boasts three blinds that were designed specifically for raptor viewing; each offers morning light and a nearby perch tree. Photographers using the facilities tend to arrive before sunrise and dress warmly for frigid temperatures.

As many as one million migratory waterfowl also share this complex of lakes and marshes in spring and fall, while in summer the wetlands brim with nesting birds. Four more photo blinds are designed for those seasons, including the Tule Lake waterbird blind that is positioned for breathtaking views of American white pelicans, snowy egrets, white-faced ibises and a variety of ducks. (To reserve a blind at the refuge, visit Klamath Basin's Wildlife Photography Blinds page.)

As the Klamath eagles fly north in spring, another wildlife drama unfolds near the town of Wray on the high plains of northeastern Colorado, where people can experience the Greater Prairie-Chicken Viewing Tours. Accommodating 24 people at a time, the tours are the result of a public-private partnership that adds dollars to the community and encourages habitat conservation on area ranchlands. The Colorado Division of Wildlife provides a guide and a camouflage-patterned trailer blind. The Wray Chamber of Commerce organizes the dawn trips to a local ranch on weekends from late March through the end of April.

Prairie-chicken males have grown so accustomed to the trailer parked on their traditional dancing ground (called a lek) that they often hop up on the blind itself and then down again to perform stutter steps, fan their tails, inflate orange throat sacs and emit low, booming sounds. (Register for 2010 trips at the Greater Prairie-Chicken Viewing Tours website.)

When spring courtship season winds down, people interested in photographing wading birds, shorebirds and several other species can visit two blinds located near the Massachusetts coast. At the Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary near the town of Marshfield, managers modeled their blinds after designs created by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in England, where such “hides” have a long history of use by bird-watchers. As many as 10 photographers at a time share a bench facing a line of windows above handy bird-identification signs. They can mount their cameras on built-in plates or use beanbags placed on the window ledge.

A professional photographer and the staff of MassAudubon team up to position perch logs, rocks and branches that entice not only birds but also freshwater turtles and muskrats. One blind faces east overlooking the pond for afternoon and evening light during the summer months; the other blind is situated on the opposite shore and orients west for morning light. No reservations are required. (For more information, see the Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary website.)

After sharpening their camera skills at Daniel Webster, adventurous photographers with advance bookings in July or August can head to the scenic community of Wrangell, Alaska. From there, Anan Wildlife Observatory is a short boat or floatplane ride away. The trip is well worth it. Fifteen feet above the cascades of Anan Creek (see photos, top of page), a covered photo blind screens five people at a time to photograph the black and brown bears and bald eagles that are attracted to the salmon-filled waters. A stairway cloaked in camouflage netting links the photo blind to an observation deck above, where as many as 40 people can watch the animals fishing in the creek. One of the largest salmon runs in Southeast Alaska, the site also draws in harbor seals and Steller sea lions that swim upstream from Anan Bay. The U.S. Forest Service restricts use of the site to 60 visitors per day during prime bear-viewing season. The deck observers can sign up for half-hour shifts in the photo blind. (To reserve, visit the Anan Wildlife Observatory website.)

As fall migration gets underway across North America, one of the finest places to watch waves of songbirds, raptors and even monarch butterflies is the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge. Tens of thousands of tree swallows funnel into this tip of Delmarva Peninsula every autumn. From inside the four-person blind sited among cedar trees, photographers watch the spectacle of swallows skimming, dipping and swirling above a freshwater pond. The refuge staff also urges photographers to step out of the blind to see the tens of thousands of monarch butterflies that flutter over the marshes and maritime forests. Nearby, more songbirds crowd tree branches, waiting for favorable winds to cross the Chesapeake Bay. No reservations are needed for the wheelchair-accessible blind. (For more, see the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge website.)

As winter sets in again, birders swarm the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas, where they can see species that rarely range far north of the U.S.-Mexico border. In all, as many as 400 bird and more than 300 butterfly species find a haven in Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge’s remnant subtropical forest. A short trail from the visitor center leads to the wooden photo blind nestled in the trees. To lure birds within six feet of the structure, refuge staffers spread birdseed and maintain a shallow pool of water. The blind is wheelchair accessible in most seasons and no reservations are necessary. (Visit the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge website.)

Montana writer Deborah Richie Oberbillig is the author of A Guide to Wildlife Viewing and Photography Blinds, a joint publication of the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries and the Colorado Division of Wildlife. The guide includes information about blinds in 21 states.

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