Tuesday, October 20, 2009

photographing shorebirds

An enduring truism of wildlife photography it often helps to be on your subject’s level – now of course that is true in more ways than one, but when it comes to photographing shorebirds (waders), the easiest way to be on their level is to lie in the sand and the mud! This not only increases your chance of getting closer but also gives a dynamic view of the birds and their behaviour. You can see both my enjoyment of communion with the earth and my blatant disregard for fashion in this photo taken by my good friend Bear… can you also see the group of 8 Least Sandpipers in front of me? As these birds fed along the shoreline they eventually came to within a metre of my nose, closer than the minimum focusing distance of my lens!

And here are some of the shots I got as a result:

These first three shots show a Least Sandpiper walking towards me, apparently not too worried about the blob in the sand ahead! Then you can see them probe that bill in and feed, even turning sideways for better reach at a tasty morsel…

Part of the feeding success of shorebirds is that they can not only probe with their bills but they can also feel with their bills. Their bill tips are sensitive to touch and can detect food items beneath the surface. Shorebirds bills are softer and more flexible than many people realize – to demonstrate this point I have added a shot of 2 Pectoral Sandpipers. Of course, the bill of a Pectoral Sandpiper normally curves downward (as in the rear bird in a relaxed posture) but notice how flexible the upper mandible of the calling bird in the foreground is, curving up in this posture.

When they are probing deep in the sand they often close their eyes like this

or at least half close them as this bird is doing (notice also how in shadow the yellow legs look much darker – it pays to be aware of this possibility when using leg colour for ID)

This is because they sometimes probe very deep and may even stick their whole heads into soft mud (they also often close their eyes when probing rapidly) or even into water as illustrated by this Long-billed Dowitcher.

When the bird’s head came up – time to snap a few portraits like this

And here are a few more close ups taken on that day on that beach…

There was also a Semipalmated Plover hanging around, with some unusual stains on the breast feathers and possibly an injury

And a Sanderling offered the same type of opportunity – I got down low as they walked on the beach towards me…

Now, I also have to confess that I made a mistake on this occasion. Although I had tucked extra batteries and flash cards into my trusty, many-pocketted vest (pulled up high on my shoulders so those batteries wouldn’t get wet), I should also have put a smaller lens in one pocket! Why? Well normally, you need a big lens to get a bird as small as a Least Sandpiper (15cm long, the size of a White-breasted Nuthatch – people often don’t realize how small many shorebirds are) to be large enough in the frame; however, when you do get super close it really pays to try some shots of the bigger picture, i.e. putting on a small lens and maximizing depth of field to get a photo that shows the bird in their habitat. In this case the beautiful shoreline and the magnificent cottonwoods on the beach ridge on the other side of the mouth of the estuary would have told more than a thousand words – and, since the birds were only a metre away they still would have been large enough in the foreground of frame to dazzle the eye… I’ve seen many wildlife photographers get obsessed with getting big, i.e. getting closer and using more power (bigger lenses and converters), which absolutely helps to stand back and observe animals behave… but there is also a time to think small and I am a little annoyed with myself that I missed that chance here.

More shorebird photos at http://artusophotos.com/4_Pigeons_Gulls/index.htm


  1. Fabulous photographs - I'm definitely going to try the lying and wait strategy on my next trip to the beach (perhaps full rain gear would be in order?) since I'm currently limited by a 105mm lens. I love the perspective. Beautiful images!

    Dave Ingram


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