Photographing a wonderfully intelligent and graceful bird when you can find them is a real treat. Benjamin Franklin advocated for the Eastern Wild Turkey to be our National bird. Noting the turkey’s craftiness and intelligence he lamented the Bald Eagle’s penchant for scavenging. Turkeys are very entertaining birds to observe and photograph. Finding them has become easier over the last decade do to extensive reintroduction programs by various organizations and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife department.
Tom & several hens in late winter/early spring. Deep snow and at 8,200 feet of elevation. Southwestern, Colorado. Canon 5d4 & 70-200mm ii.
Turkeys can be found in a myriad of habitats but seem to favor a patchy habitat of open grass/forbes dotted with dense brush and eventually stands of nice trees. They use the grass/forbes for foraging plant material, seeds and insects. Shrubs can provide berries, nuts etc. but are also prized for their cover. Turkey hens use dense shrubs for nesting cover. Turkeys also use shrubs for escape cover, shade and resting. Turkeys enjoy taller trees for roosting and shade. So, their habitat is a mosaic of vegetational patches or levels. These vegetational zones are by or close to water. The prime habitat for turkeys is riparian habitat. Think of a creek or river bottom. Lots of riparian trees and shrubs interpersed with reeds, cattails, forbes and grasses.
State parks, wildlife refuges and National Parks are good places to find turkeys. They habituate well to human presence. Sometimes becoming too tame for their own good. This trait also make farms and ranches with adjoining public land good places to look for wild turkeys. Before going out look at distribution maps and speak with local park officials or look at birding club postings etc. Start with riparian habitat in early morning and late evening. In spring they are harder to find because the hens nest and are under cover most of the day. Males disperse during nesting season so the turkey population seems even more sparse. With late spring and early summer comes the new chicks and soon turkeys appear in large flocks. If you are in the right area you will see flocks of 6 to 12 and up to 40 individuals.
Photographing wild turkeys can run the entire gamut of equipment, including a blind. Or it can be as simple as pulling off the highway and getting beautiful turkey shots with mountains for a backdrop. Like most wildlife subjects you must do your species and habitat study and then time their movements with the seasons.
I bring my normal complement of wildlife lenses. 16-35mm, 70-200mm, 100-400mm and a 600mm. If I could only bring two lenses to a “turkey shoot” they would be the 70-200mm and the 600mm. If I could only bring one of my camera bodies it would be the 5d4 over the 7dii and 1dxii. Yes, the latter two are faster “wildlife” cameras but turkeys when in their natural elements and content are slow moving, methodical birds. There is no need for 10 fps and AI servo etc. When photographing turkeys I am in Portrait or turkey scape mode as opposed to wildlife action mode. The 5d4 in this case has more megapixels, dynamic range etc. than the 1dxii & 7d2. So I put the 70-200mm or 100-400mm on the 5D4 and the 600mm on the 7d2 or 1dx2.
A 16-35mm will work at times with a large flock and colorful surroundings. Turkeys are active year around so they will be found in flowers, fall foliage and snow. A turkey scape in fall foilage is a strong image in North America. With the strong association of Thanksgiving, turkeys, fall foliage and the changing seasons.
Turkeys need a sit and wait approach to photograph them. The less movement from you and your equipment the more content the turkeys. If they are familiar with humans a few steps in arcs may be tolerated. Truly wild turkeys require stealth or a blind.
When males are actively displaying (fall and spring) they become less timid. These are the best times to get closer shots of turkeys. When males are dispalying the entire flock tends to let their guard down. During these times you can pick and choose your spots to photograph.