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Feb 13, 2012
South Dakota’s state capitol grounds in Pierre include the five-acre Capitol Lake, which becomes a winter haven for thousands of Canada geese each year. For photographers visiting the Capitol, they are a welcome bonus.
Most often photographed from the southeast side of the lake, the geese sitting on the water make a nice foreground for morning pictures of the Capitol building. It’s also fairly easy to shoot them isolated without modern intrusions giving a natural “wild” look. A short walk around the lake and onto the peninsula in the middle will give you an idea which angles you like for shooting.
While geese and ducks may be found on Capitol Lake at any time of the day, they are most prevalent in the morning and evening. They sleep overnight on the lake and often head out of town during the day for feeding in nearby fields or on the Missouri River. They also gather on the front lawn of the Capitol and in Hilger’s Gulch to the north of the building.
These urban geese get very used to pedestrian and vehicle traffic and at times don’t really want to move for either. For photographers that means a chance for up-close images of the flock.
Standard to wide-angle lenses can be used to capture the spectacle of birds crowding the small lake. Telephoto lenses, fast shutter speeds and quick reflexes can capture flying action.
Watching for varying weather patterns can give clues to great photography on Capitol Lake. Very cold mornings usually mean the warm water in the lake will be shrouded in a thick fog. With sunrise streaming through it, the steam can look magical. On days when it’s snowing the birds sometimes hunker down and become coated with white.
I like to observe the flock and watch for behavior patterns that give me clues to when a group may fly or dip some water on their backs and then shake it off in a wing-spreading display.
If you like photographing birds you also won’t want to miss a trip through the Oahe Downstream Recreation Area below Oahe Dam where dozens of eagles tend to hang out, watching for an easy meal of goose or duck. Many species of birds can be found along the Missouri River and in the grasslands to the south and west of Fort Pierre.
As spring approaches, the geese will leave central South Dakota, but you can expect them back each fall, just as regular as lawmakers on the Capitol grounds.
Chad Coppess is the senior photographer at the South Dakota Department of Tourism. He lives in Pierre with his wife, Lisa. To view more of his work, visit www.dakotagraph.com.