Behavior IS the Subject, Photographed 25 February 2012
Brian M. Collins
Humans, collectively, have short memories. Historians remind us of this and conservationists fear this. Where it applies to conservation, the collective human short memory keeps the workload high and deep. Fortunately for all of us on Earth, there are charismatic species so full of charm, grace, power and beauty that people from all walks of life can be inspired by the wild. These points of prominence on the biological map remind people that the spirit of the wild energizes the human spirit. We can now be swayed to think, if only for a moment, about a lonely world without the company of so many other beings. If we love it, perhaps we will care for it.
We nearly lost the Trumpeter Swan. By the first decade of the early 1900s, Trumpeter Swans had been market-hunted to fancy restaurants and ousted from destroyed habitats, falling to a low of only 70 to 80 wild birds (many cite the number to be 72 birds). I was nineteen years old when I saw my first wild Trumpeters, a family group of two adults and three gray young in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Before then, I had only known the smaller Tundra Swans that stopped along the Mississippi River in passage between the high Arctic and Chesapeake Bay. Right around that same time in the late 1980s, substantial efforts began in the Great Lakes region to release breeding pairs of Trumpeter Swans. In only two decades, Minnesota and Wisconsin would repopulate the wild with its missing swans. For a few generations, the lines blurred between tame and wild, between captive and free. Today, Minnesota and Wisconsin enjoy the company of more than 2000 wild Trumpeter Swans, truly wild birds that migrate as they need to, battle for territories, and live independently of the hand of humankind.
Swans are big, iconic, powerful, and romantic. They are one of the largest flying birds in the world, they mate for life barring catastrophe, and they make graceful lines and sweeping movements that translate beautifully to film.
For much of the year, swans are statuesque, somewhat static, albeit majestic, subjects. In late February and early March, all of this changes. Swans become charged with passion and fury. They battle for dominance, for territory, and for the affections of their mates. Social flocks, remaining together as long as winter persists, are tinged with hints of aggression and apprehension. Often, as opportunities arise, aggressive swans cannonball through the flock, stirring up tensions in frenzied chases. Knowing the life cycle of an animal gives the wildlife photographer a significant advantage, and swan photography is truly at its best as February gives way to March. When the sun is warm but the nights are unbearably cold, I rise early to find my favorite swans. Often, the rising sun burns deep and orange through icy fog rising from open waters into intensely subzero air. Swans, obscured in the fog, ice crystals matted to their feathers, endure the morning and push onward into the warming day. It is the best of all worlds where great photographic light meets a wonderland of mysterious landscapes and action-charged wildlife.
Swan behavior is complicated. In some events, birds fight, chase, and sort out pecking order. Many adult swans are clearly paired. Often, pairs are segregated from one another, performing triumph calls and duets together. Lone, rogue swans and pairs alike seek to push swans away from favored ice roosts and feeding. When swans arrive from the sky, setting their big wings into a descending glide, the other swans get nervous. New arrivals seem to necessitate another tussle, another sorting of all pecking orders in the flock. Battles can be fierce, and swans often bite to hang on to an opponent while inflicting a beating with bony wing spurs. Most battles are short lived, but some persist long enough to inflict some injury.
These Trumpeter Swans were photographed on February 25, 2012. An early morning of dense cloud cover finally gave way to a cobalt blue sky and warm, late winter sunshine, leaving only an hour or two of promising light. For much of the late morning, torturously near to the end of good light, the tension broke into a frenzy of short battles and reaffirming duets between swans.. The fresh, clean snow acted as a giant reflector plate, scattering light upward into the swans, evening out the highlights and wiping out harsh shadows.
I chose to use my 300mm lens, freed of its 1.4x converter. Shutter speeds were ferociously quick, and resulting images razor sharp. I shot wide open using Aperture Priority and allowed evaluative metering to work the magic. In the course of two hours, I shot nearly 700 images.