You probably know what I am going to say here. Nothing beats local knowledge and unless you are working in your local area, you have to find someone that is willing to be your local expert. It is true that through a long term project, you can develop a lot of excellent local expertise, but local help is always greatly appreciated. So how do you find your local expert?
I always start looking in three different groups: the scientific community, the birding community, and the photography community. Each group has very different things to offer and all three can be invaluable.
If I am after a specific species or subject, I will often contact someone that does a lot of work on that particular species. This can be hit or miss. Some researchers just want to research and not be bothered while others are interested in public outreach and will welcome your interest. Scientists can also help to facilitate access to sites as well.As a photographer with a background in biology and ecology, I usually can have a fairly high level conversation with a scientist about his work. Read some of the papers he or she has published and get a basic grasp of their research. This can help immensely when I am cold calling researchers.
If birds are a key aspect to the project, like they were for me in Australia, then simply finding the right species can be a huge difficulty. Local birding communities tend to be very open and friendly and willing to share and show people around. Knowing where the birds are is a huge step towards photographing them, and an email to a local birder or email list can make that happen. Just be aware, not all birding locations are great for photography!
Finally, other photographers can be great because they not only know the region and the subjects, but also are aware of light and what it takes to make a great photograph. This can save you some tremendous frustration. Also, sometimes there is a rather absurd place to photograph a particular species that you would never have found on your own. I’m thinking of places like obscure city ponds or sewage treatment plants. A local photographer with a similar approach can be invaluable in helping you get in the right place at the right time. Seek them out and make a friend.
Local expertise is essential. Make friends and become a part of the community. If you are going to be there for a couple months, it is essential. Not only will it help your photography, making new friends and contacts on your Trip will help your sanity even when you aren’t behind the camera.