From late winter into early spring, the mating ritual for most ducks is in full swing. (Some species will even start courting as early as November.) The wide variety of these courtship displays can make them challenging behaviors to photograph, but it's nothing that a little preparation can't overcome. To capture shots that stand out, you must study your subject, anticipate the action, and have your camera ready. The resulting images will tell the story, which is wildlife photography at its best.
Hooded Mergansers have a very large white-and-black head crest, which the drakes raise during breeding season (above). This stunning visual display makes for an excellent photographic opportunity. Get down low as the drake is swimming by, which allows for a more intimate image.
Common Goldeneye drakes can be seen stretching their neck forward to get a hen's attention. If this does not work, the drake will snap his head back and splash water behind him. Meter on the goldeneye before the action starts to preset your camera’s exposure. I shoot in manual mode and use my internal light meter to underexpose by about a half stop to a stop, depending on the light, in order to ensure I keep the highlight detail.
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Because competition between males is fierce, Buffleheads seem to spend most of their time chasing off rivals. Keep an eye on drakes that tend to be getting closer to a pair. When they make their move, they will look as if they are running across the water. Crank the ISO to around 500 or higher, raise your shutter speed to at least 1/1600 second, and open up all the way to capture the action. Sometimes I will choose a higher angle in order to get a nice reflection as the duck runs over the water.
Drakes and hens will often preen each other during the breeding season to maintain a strong connection. Early-morning light really brings out the color of preening Wood Ducks in particular. Be sure to shoot at a high frame rate to ensure you get eye contact with the drake and the hen.
Redhead drakes perform an amazing ritual: They will raise their crown, then bend their neck until the back of their head is resting on their back. Photographing this behavior at a slightly higher angle will allow you to get a clear view of the drake’s eye.
To attract a hen, Ruddy Duck drakes will beat their bill against their chest, and the escaping air causes bubbling in the water. Shoot at a lower angle to show the bubbles collecting around the drake's chest. I also maneuver myself just enough to get the sun hitting the eye, which allows it to stand out against the black feathers.
Dan Walters is a wildlife photographer based in Lakewood, Colorado. He has been photographing wildlife in the state, from the high mountain peaks to the prairie, for 20 years.