Sunrise, Sunset, Tides, Weather, Maps....
Sunrise, Sunset, Tides, Weather, Maps....
So you're going to visit a new place for the first time....
OK, so being prepared isn't always necessary, but it can certainly be helpful. A lot of information can be found about noted public places like come National Wildlife Refuges and popular birding spots and such. Birding sites are an excellent resource for information. The Internet in general is quite useful for researching locations. Learning how to Google is priceless in today's world.
But there can be problems with some research. Birders have scopes many times more powerful than our 400mm or even 600mm lenses. Being 100 yards from a bird is nothing to them - we need more like 10 yards. NWRs can encompass several square miles and the available info isn't exact enough to get us 10 or 20 yards from an animal.
If you go to a new place for the first time and you come up empty-handed will you be very willing to go back? I doubt it. My current hot-spot, Parker River NWR, was a place I hated for some time, and I wouldn't go back. Some more preparation, insight, and research showed me when and where to go. Now I love the place, and it's been producing excellent shots on a regular basis.
Sunrise and sunset are very important to all wildlife - they become active and feed just in the pre-dawn hours, and you want to know when to be there for the light. Weather is of course important, particularly coud cover, but also wind direction. Tides are crucial to shorebirds and such.
Sunrise & Sunset
For sunrise, sunset, and weather http://www.weatherunderground.com is my favorite. They list specifics for almost anywhere, and also list civil and nautical sunrise and sunset. Their daily weather can also be shown in detail the day before, showing predicted weather for every 3-hour block. OK, it's a guess, but it can help.
This site is my first check every day that I go out. I often check days in advance to get a weekend plan. I *always* check the night before - why get up at 4:00 AM if cloud cover is expected to be 100% at dawn??
As stated above, http://www.weatherunderground.com. But don't forget http://www.weather.com and http://www.intellicast.com. It can pay to check all three - who the heck knows what the weather's really going to be until you get there?? (Well, I live in New England, where the motto is: "Don't like the weather? Wait 5 minutes.")
Don't forget to check for wind direction. Animals can't smell you if you're downwind, and birds like to take off into the wind, north-west winds are days for migrating birds (in New England at least). It could be just another point in your favor.
For tides (as well as sunrise and sunset) http://www.tides.info/ is my favorite, though many tide charts exist. I've found that the best way to find tide charts is just to google for "high tide low tide <city_name>"
Sun position throughout the day
Want to know when and WHERE the sun will rise or set, or where it will be throughout the day? Get a little Windows program called Ephemeris - http://www.dl-c.com/ephemeris.zip. This little program will tell you exactly where the sun will rise, not just when. It can be a little complicated since you'll need longitude and latitude and magnetic declination for your specific location, but the help file is excellent and will walk you through this. But with this info you'll know the exact angle (from true north) of the sun's position - perfect for planning a good sunrise shot, or checking to make sure that the sun will be at your back for a particular location.
Maps are priceless for planning and scouting for new location, and they're pretty darned handy for getting sompleace, and for not getting lost. For planning on the PC I have a couple - Microsoft's Streets & Trips and DeLorme's Topo! USA. MS Streets & Trips is good (but I wouldn't mind getting a better one) and any program like this is excellent for printing route maps and even just scouting for new areas.
The DeLorme Topo program shows satellite pictures of the US, with information and street names and such printed on it. Since the satellite picture shows reality this can be excellent for finding a marshy area or the width of a river. It also has those altitude lines, and will build an altitude profile for a route you just draw on the map. It sucks to get to pack 30 pounds of photo gear, walk out and find a 400-foot-tall hill that Streets & Trips didn't show. (At least for me - you thin healthy young'uns might not mind!)
For the car I highly recommend a DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer for your state. It's priceless. Highly detailed maps taken from satellite photos, lists numerous points of interest, trails for state and national parks, etc, etc. You should not be without one of these. Period. Go out now and buy one.
Books: How do you think I learned all this stuff in 7 months? Books.
I own 11 books on photographing wildlife. I own 7 more on hunting, even though I have never hunted and most likely never will. I own 3 books on tracking. I've read about 10 more from the library.
Also, visit your local national and state wildlife office. I spent an extremely informative hour chatting with a guy at the local Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. They know the wildlife, they know the area. I talk with any wildlife officer around, and have gotten many tips. A chat will make your life easier, and could easily make your next shot.
The Art of Bird Photography - Arthur Morris
If you're into birds, just get it. Simply outstanding.
Photographing Animals in the Wild - Andy Rouse
Very good though light in information. Easy and enjoyable to read. Has a lot specific to UK animals, but almost everything is pertinent to any animal. A very good first book.
Wildlife Photography Workshops - Steve & Ann Toon
The tips and stuff to watch for makes this very nice. Light on fieldcraft, heavier on photographic techniques. A pleasure to read, and beautiful photographs. Good, but not a first book.
Tracking and the Art of Seeing - Paul Rezendes
All about tracking and finding animals, from trails to habitats to dens and even scat. Highly recommended, even though it has nothing (?) to do with photography. It has everything to do with animals. (His book "The Wild Within" is kind of an autobiography and a very enjoyable read. Also recommended though it has nothing to do with photography.)
Moose Peterson's Guide to Wildlife Photography - Moose Peterson
Even though he's a Nikon user this is an excellent book. Covers a multitude of things like fieldcraft, technique, equipment, etc. He's a character so it's fun to read. An excellent, broad first book, and definitely recommended.
The Master Guide to Wildlife Photographers - Bill Silliker
Though light and quick to read, this book packs a lot of punch. Though it touches on a broad range of subjects this book really gives you a whole new way to think about wildlife photography. Make this book your 3rd or 4th wildlife book and I'm pretty sure you'll say "Wow" like I did.
Capturing Drama in Nature Photography - Jim Zuckerman
This was a very interesting book. It kind of teaches you to slow down and watch and wait. It's a mind set on how to get a better photograph, and does it well. Highly recommended when you get tired of taking "portrait" shots of an animal just sitting there.
Photographing Wild Birds - Chris Gommersall
Very good, and one of the few books I've found that is dedicated to bird photography. Good coverage of many subjects - getting close, other fieldcraft, hides, etc. It's very interesting because it's interspersed with photos from different photographers along with some text by them explaining the shot. Also has a number of case studies going into great detail of getting a shot. For birders, get this after Morris's book, but get it.
Your local library should not be forgotten. Books on tracking & hunting are extremely useful. And it's free. Try it.
OK, all of the above can be a lot to do and think about. But anything done is a point in your favor, and you'll be another step closer to getting the shot.