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I usually associate nature photography with a zen-like connectedness with the environment. But the aggressive, rapid-fire action shots of Canada Geese at Fulton Creek Marsh this past spring was closer to combat photography and, as the pictures attest, the feathered combatants like warriors defending treasured territory.

Fulton Creek Marsh is located in the southeast corner of Edmonton at 17 street and the Whitemud Freeway. I’ve driven by it hundreds of times traveling back and forth between Sherwood Park and Edmonton. The marsh is actually a storm-water management pond. A feature of the pond is the island created in the middle to provide a naturalized and protected nesting area.

Driving by in early April this year, I could see migrant geese landing on the frozen marsh. Maybe there would be an opportunity for some action shots. In fact, for the next month there was so much action and aggressive behaviour from the Canada Geese nesting there, I came to think of the marsh as ‘Serengeti North’.

I soon learned just how aggressive Canada Geese are in protecting and defending their nesting territory as I watched them stake out the island in the middle of the marsh. Transient migrants who landed on the island or furtively approached from the water were repeatedly and furiously driven away by one or both of the pairs of geese that had claimed nesting rights. Even neighbouring geese on the island that took time out to go for a swim or feeding were aggressively chased and chastised if they happen to trespass on their way back to their own turf.

With a bit of Internet research and I was able to discover that the term for this very aggressive behaviour is ‘agonistic’, from the Greek, to ‘champion a cause’. Agonistic behaviour that I observed at the marsh ranged from foot chasing on land, to feather pulling air to air combat, to all out wing clubbing, bill striking battles reminiscent of ‘ultimate fighting championships’. In such pitched battles, spectator geese gather round the combatants to hoot, holler and honk on their encouragement in an absolute cacophony of sound.

The melting marsh also offered opportunities for comedic shots as geese crashed through the thinning ice as they chased each other ‘off the island’. In the words of my wife Debra, “it sounds like before they make love, they make a lot of war”. I shot thousands of images in the 6 weeks of spring at the marsh and got some of my ‘best – ever’ shots. By mid May the agonistic behaviour was subsiding. By early June layers of full body protective mosquito netting was the only way to venture into the marsh.

Lessons learned:

1. Rubber boots are a must, preferably with insoles for standing on the ice or in the water.

2. The action is really fast, so the more sun the better.

3. I got great shots with my 70 – 300 mm zoom, but sometimes when the pursuits came straight at me, the action was too close and too fast.

4. Be patient, find a good spot, stand still and wait for the action.

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