I was fortunate to do a ten day trip to San Diego County in February 2017 - with 100% of my time dedicated to bird photography (maybe 95%). I was surprised at the relatively sparse information online regarding bird photography hotspots, so I wanted to put a few quick posts (based on my limited experiences) to hopefully aid others who visit SDC in the future. First up - Santee Lakes!
My understanding of this site is - Wood Ducks - and not only that, but tame Wood Ducks. I quickly learned that the woodies here are "introduced", which reduced my interest somewhat, but I inevitably found myself taking photos of them.
The most aboundant and cooperative duck species was Ring-necked Duck. My personal collection of Ring-necks is weak, so I was happy to dedicate some time to improving them.
I failed to capitalize on any American Wigeon, Northern Shoveller or Gadwall that were scattered about. These species were (generally) more wary during my visits, but I like to think that a local photographer would eventually capitalize on a golden opportunity. I sporadically found myself with a Ruddy Duck at close range, but never a breeding plumaged male...
Due to my eastern origins, there was one duck species here I chased around more than any other - Cinnamon Teal! I never quite connected with a great photo opportunity, but was thrilled to see some breeding plumaged males at close range. They were reasonably wary, so I found myself perpetually walking in loops around one or two lagoons (to "re-set" the birds back to shore, and to try a new technique to sneak up on them).
As with many photography hotspots, Santee Lakes benefits from huge numbers of people wandering around day after day - which results in birds that have become accustomed to foot traffic. I found myself with chances to shoot a variety of non-ducks, such as American White Pelican (one), Pied-billed Grebe, a Spotted Sandpiper, Snowy Egrets, Song Sparrows, Eurasian Collared Doves, Great-tailed Grackles, and more.
Which brings me to the final species - American Coot. The place is absolutely covered in tame coots, and I think there is real potential for a creative photographer to make some exciting or unique images. I had a few visions that weren't quite realized (the story of my photography career) but was happy to get a few fun images.
To summarize, I'll do my typical "good, bad & ugly" review style - strictly from a bird photography standpoint!
The Good: a host of tame birds, and opportunities to create exciting or unique images (natural interactions between birds, or unusual behaviours). If I were heading back, I would be sure to spend more time working on better "action" images (e.g. birds in flight, bathing, etc). The whole site is easily accessed and you can either sneak in off the street (one walk-in entrance, otherwise the place is fenced in) or you can drive in for a relatively cheap fee.
I was a bit unlucky in poor lighting conditions for my visits (two morning and one evening shoot) - but I suspect that morning light is best (calm and clear day!). Whereas I found it harder to shoot in the afternoon, but the diversity of duck species & overall activity seemed to be higher than the morning. This is definitely one of the best places I visited in the county for photos!
The Bad: Not much really (see: the ugly). When you have VERY tame birds, it's sometimes hard to get proper eye-contact in your images, or postures that relay anything greater than "no F's given".
The Ugly: Considering the reputation of the site, I was surprised at the "overall" conditions for photography (beyond the birds). No offense to Santee Lakes, but if I were to be 100% honest - the shorelines were ugly, the backgrounds were busy & distracting (e.g. the trees, buildings or hills in the distance, which reflect on your water when shooting), and even the water itself was unappealing for photos (a muddy or mirky green/brown).
This means I spent a LOT of time trying to find tiny windows to shoot that avoided these elements. I am very happy with the photos I was able to get here - but my parting message to any bird photographers visiting in the future is: Pay very close attention to your backgrounds/reflections!!!
More to come from San Diego!