My first exposure to wildlife photography came while I was still in college, in the form of a two-part workshop offered through the university’s Outdoor Pursuits office, and conducted by a fine gentleman by the name of Victor Lameroux, who was both a local photographer and a high school science teacher. The session was called something like “Introduction to Digital Landscape and Wildlife Photography,” and at the time I was much more interested in the landscape aspect. Landscape photography was all about grandiose light and subjects were everywhere; wildlife was just something that happened to wander through your scene.

Yellow-shafted Northern Flickers

Victor gave an excellent evening presentation, in preparation for a Saturday morning in the field. I’m sure that I’ve forgotten (or had to re-learn) much of what he told us, but one bit of advice managed to lodge in my brain, a point that Victor repeated several times to drive home: wildlife can, more often than not, be found in “waste areas.”

Waste areas, he went on to explain, are just what they sound like – areas that we’ve designated for waste products. Think landfills, quarries, access roads, fields, drainage canals – the list goes on. In short, places that you don’t see and automatically think, “Gee, I bet I’ll find some wildlife there!”

Here’s an example:

Yellowstone National Park – “Bet there’s some wildlife there!”

vs.

Vestal Hills Cemetery – “Ick, no thanks.”

Except that the photo above was taken in Vestal Hills Cemetery, right near the entrance gate at a small ornamental pond. It was late November, but the pond was heated, and this Great Blue was taking advantage of it. I was able to pull over and shoot out the window with a Sigma 70-300 and capture him. It was easily the closest I’d been to a heron.

Fast forward to the present, and I’ve made good use of Victor’s tip. I’ve stalked Merlins in another cemetery (unsuccessful), captured a hawk in low flight from the entrance to a visitor’s center, watched Northern Flickers perform a mating dance on an access road, and nailed the perfect Killdeer shot in a parking lot.

Killdeer in Abington Township, Pennsylvania, during sunrise

Which is why I’m still kicking myself for missing my shot of a Ruffed Grouse the other day. The fact is, I was rolling down the driveway towards the parking lot without paying any attention. I wasn’t in a daze – I was watching the road – but I wasn’t on the lookout for photographs. It was a driveway, after all, a place I’d been dozens of times.

Fail.

Yes, it was just a driveway – but one lined by brushy, wooded areas on both sides. The perfect place to see some critters in the early morning quiet. In fact, it’s not only waste areas that we should pay attention to, but especially to ones that we pass through frequently, where we’re less likely to notice something interesting even if it is standing on the roadside!

Sometimes we need failures like my Ruffed Grouse experience to remind us that we’ve forgotten one of the basics. I know I’ll continue to kick myself for missing the grouse – if only I’d paid more attention. But by the same token, it was a wake-up call to something that I shouldn’t have forgotten in the first place. So next time I’m out looking for a critter in an “unlikely” waste area and make the unlikely capture, it’ll be doubly satisfying.

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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